The Whale's Keeper

by Ben Parzybok

Literary, speculative

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Number of Reviews: 6
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Tell me I'm scared, October 4, 2023
by verityvirtue (London)
Related reviews: phlegmatic, IFComp 2023

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.

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