The Last Night of Alexisgrad

by Milo van Mesdag


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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Can be played by yourself, but we need more 2-player games like this, December 3, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

Okay, so the cat was out of the bag pretty early that this was intended as a two-player game, and in retrospect, it was signposted pretty clearly by the author's comments, the introduction and, yes, the title, that this wasn't a strategy game, but I ignored these signposts. And I'm pretty glad I did, so there was that surprise. I've had enough neat surprises spoiled. But even if I'd paid full attention, I think I would have enjoyed the experience.

Because I expected an apocalyptic war, something far more fantastic, maybe two ancient kingdoms both pointing to a prophecy that said, well, on this night in Alexisgrad all will be decided, and each is sure the prophecy upholds THEM as the winner. And I'd certainly play something like that by this author. But the actual scenario is far less fantastical: there is the General of the Kingdom's Army and the Dictator of the Republic. You may play as either. If you think "Dictator" is a bit odd, you're right. But also, the king's army outnumbers and has more firepower than the army of a sovereign democracy of sorts, one that broke away from the Kingdom. With feuding factions (Republican and Socialist) that dissolved their government years ago. A look into the mind of the Dictator reveal someone who is power-seeking in her own way. The story certainly looks at certain paradoxes. Did the Dictator really become a dictator to save democracy? It also leaves things largely unsaid, like how Ivanov, the Dictator's rival, may have had better political instincts and thus committed suicide, knowing things were hopeless. And how, with some choices, the Dictator is revealed as selfish, as people who chase power can be, in a monarchy or democracy. Yet the Dictator seems as aware things have gone wrong internally as the General, who notes the inequality despite the republican/socialist aims. She gives the old "we have to try it" line, one I've certainly believed about liberal democracy. But it rings hollow when she says it.

On replay the opening feels like the strongest bit, and in fact that's where the main decisions are made, where maybe even Alexisgrad can be saved. I'm not spoiling this, but I didn't see this and just assumed inevitability and how and why the loss of Alexisgrad was bound to happen. (Note: even if the Republic pushes the kingdom back, they're still obviously always under the gun, long-term.) I feel silly not trying as much as I should've, but I'm grateful for the author mentioning different endings than most reviewers found, and I enjoyed reading the branches in the source to say: oh, yes, that's how this worked, or that worked, and I thought I tried it, but I didn't. Oh, and of course (choice redacted) was, indeed, very silly for one of the characters. There's one negotiation scene that's particularly interesting, where the General suspects or even knows their victory was hollow, because it should've been bigger, or the Dictator's followers are grateful that they only surrendered THAT much. Of course, the Dictator can negotiate badly, too, if she even manages to get where she can negotiate!

At first I found the General and Dictator, for all their power, seem pretty much fixed to behave a certain way, outside of what seem to be a few irrational choices. So I thought LNoA worked well as a "your choices are futile" game (The Dictator can escape with her life or semi-betray the people she serves/rules,) which I've seen before, but obviously there were more choices, which raised it in my estimatin. Even so, it usually starts with big plans which devolve into the General and Dictator facing each other, and you expect 15 years from now, the General and Dictator would be seen in the same light regardless what paths they chose and whether the Dictator was shot on the spot or sent to the King's mercies. And on replay, it seems the Colonel is more formidable than the General, and the Secretary of War/Defense is similarly tougher than the Dictator she advises. Seeing more of them would've been interesting, but the Dictator and General definitely have more interesting dilemmas, and LNoA already gave us a lot.

This sort of thing could get people playing more interactive fiction, because I think it's what interactive fiction can and should be. I say this as someone who prefers the label "text adventure" for most of my stuff. LNoA isn't too stuffy or preachy or high-minded. It takes a cool concept an executes it well. I played by myself but can picture people are interacting as they make choices, both with the story itself, to find the passages through, and with each other. There's a bit of strategizing, and some potential prisoner's-dilemma type strategy (you don't know how aggressively your opponent will bargain,) working together to see if you missed anything. It took me several plays to beat this story into the ground by myself, and I in fact missed a few things. Like the old Zork games before the internet, I could see people playing this poking at their friend to say hey, come on, you can figure out what to do so the Dictator comes out okay.

It's interesting to see who's in charge of things (one side is, more than the other,) and I really liked having to fit the story together in a non-conventional way. Looking back, I got close the first time to a stalemate of sorts. There's an overwhelming feeling of the powerful not only staying powerful but also being able to make it look like they worked hard to earn and keep their power (You are sort of ruthless, if that counts.) But that's a bit simplistic. LNoA seems to have avoided commenting on any important Political Issues of the Day, and I was glad of that, because too often they leave me grumpy whether or not I agree with them. It really does stand out more as something that breaks new ground rather than any sort of political statement, and I'd be glad to play knockoffs if they appeared in 2022.

Final note: A basic (frameset cols="*,*") with two (frame src="main.htm") tags worked very nicely for me to keep track of things on my own. But obviously the experience is better if you don't see everything right away.

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