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About the Story
You appear to have been swallowed by a whale. Expect to find wonders and horrors, mythical and real, inside the cavernous belly of the greatest mammal on Earth. Fortunately, you're a cetologist.
This story is delivered via Plotopolis - at this point, a proof-of-concept interactive fiction journal that publishes to chat platforms - which was written in concert with this story.
Content warning: Some threads contain (accidental) violence, others talk about suicide.
33rd Place - 29th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2023)
Number of Reviews: 6
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Time spent: 30-45 mins
You find yourself in a whale. Survive.
It is not a personal slight to the writers that I was not moved.
The text declares a lot of terror and nightmarish qualities, but fails to describe it, or illustrate any existential threat or urgency to the player character. Even the NPC interactions seem mostly benign. I found little to anchor myself and have an emotional stake in the PC; even less to understand if there was a threat to them at all.
The writing is blatantly transparent about the story’s scope - at every major choice, the player is reminded of the key stat, sanity, and number of passages explored. However, the Sanity stat seems to act as a binary switch rather than, e.g. a way of colouring the PC’s perceptions. (Spoiler - click to show)It was hard to tell which choices reduced it, and there was little to no sense of threat when it reduced to zero. One of the scenes when the PC reaches zero sanity becomes a “get out” clause, which felt reductive - I thought I would have to work through the consequences of my actions.
There were lots of potentially juicy themes that went unexplored. The loss of control, being at the mercy of something impossibly beyond an individual scope, the fragility of companionship… Instead I felt almost detached. The scope presented by the choices at each decision-making point is quite narrow, where one is presented as moving the story forward, as a yes/no decision rather than one between two interesting potential paths.
This game is built on a platform called Plotopolis, where you progress by typing keywords. It behaves like a choice-based game, despite the appearance of a parser, and does not accept what should be synonyms.
I recall similar chat-like software used in choice-based stories in previous years. I presume this is meant to make IF more accessible to people used to chat interfaces. I do wonder how much the IF-naive person interacts with a chat interface expecting prose and narrative, though, compared to how they approach games (a framework and premise; expectations on how the player interacts with the game; a reward for a skill performed correctly or interaction in the “correct” way).
The Whale’s Keeper had potential, but I fear it failed to hit the right notes for me.
Somehow I missed playing this game in IFComp which I'm surprised about as the game's premise immediately caught my attention when I saw it on the IFDB list.
It's interesting and the writing is overall good although it feels like it could have leaned a bit more into describing the atmosphere like the disorientation or horror of being trapped in the belly of a whale with all sorts of weird stuff going on. The constant sanity meter is ok, but sometimes feels like it's trying to do the lifting that perhaps the text should be doing more of to make you feel as the author seems to want conveyed.
I actually do like the concept of a game that requires text entry giving you the possible commands, essentially turning it more into a "choice based" game, and it can be friendly to new players who may be unsure what commands to use, although the platform doesn't feel like it is parser either. There are perhaps a few too many one option choices in there where there could have been more even just to reflect how the player is feeling about doing something I feel, perhaps adding some flavour text with two options instead of one might help with this?
Unfortunately I don't think the chat style really suits the type of game it is though and feels like it may have worked better in something like twine or ink. The chat bubbles just feel a bit jarring for me against the concept of being trapped in a whale, and I personally dislike delayed text as it causes unnecessary delays in progressing through the game. As I often do with games that have long delays in displaying text, I find myself getting distracted and leaving the page to let it do it's thing, then coming back when its finished loading as I would get frustrated waiting which affects the atmosphere of the gameplay and makes it feel unnecessarily dragged out and I lost connection with the story. I couldn't find any way to click through the waits. These sorts of chat style games I feel seem to work best when it is a believable premise like people using their phones or computers to communicate through the game (and even then, the delays can be an annoyance if they cannot be bypassed.)
I believe this is a debut game from this author though, which makes it a really good first effort and worth playing.
The Whale's Keeper is a proof-of-concept piece for the Plotopolis engine, a system where you can play IF through a chat engine like Telegraph or Slack. It takes on the story of Jonah and the whale, as a metaphor for life's struggles and the need to escape those negative aspects. The game includes a sanity meter. I found one ending (a fairly good one?).
I struggled connecting with the story for this one, as the game went from quite vague about who you are supposed to be to a detailed bleak recollection of your life (which felt a bit of a whiplash honestly*), only to end with a milkwarm connection with the mammal, somehow. I think there must be a specific path where things fall into the right place and the passages flow better into one another.
*also not sure why the loss was treated with such nonchalance... it's a bigger deal than just a passing mention. It's a never-closing wound...
Part of my struggle I think stood with the engine itself and the interface of the game. Meant for communication/texting apps, the input works like a parser game (without the fun agency interactions), but the game is built like a choice-based games (with different passages to go through) - it made me wish the options to be clickable links like in a Twine or have more interaction with the environment like with a parser.
There was also quite a bit of friction with the display of the texts and images. The latter were so large, you'd see just half at most when on the screen. It would have been nice if the size could respond to the height of the screen, to be able to enjoy them fully.
As for the former, a lot revolved on how the text is displayed and the timing between the messages. Though there is a setting to increase/decrease the reading speed, it was finicky to set up, and I didn't feel like it helped quite a bit. The new messages would also push up the previous one, sending you back to the bottom when a new one appeared, so reading large block of text* required scrolling up and restart reading the message.
*some of these blocks were quite long, I wonder whether they were maybe too long for a phone...
**the font helped with the whole old school book/typewriter vibe, but not the easiest to read..
On the positive side, I really liked the illustrations, especially the analogue ones in ink(?). Some of the descriptions of the whale's interior were quite vivid, and I thought the interactions with Jonah were interesting.