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A multiplayer experiment that doesn't live up to its promise, January 7, 2022
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
Alexisgrad has a grabby premise and a killer gimmick I don’t think I’ve seen before in the Comp. Start with the premise: we’re in a fantasy world, albeit a grounded one whose politics and social organization seem quite resonant with our own circa the late 18th/early 19th century. The title city wrested its independence from an authoritarian monarchy some time ago, but has recently been weakened by a bout of Paris Commune-style internecine violence, and now the monarchy’s armies are coming to reclaim what they lost so long ago. And as the blurb makes clear, they will succeed: the game is about how Alexisgrad falls, not whether it will.
I love this setup – the time period and politics being invoked are ones that personally appeal to me, and knowing the outcome makes it fatalistic, sure, but that gives the player more freedom to try to create an interesting story, rather than focusing on optimizing their outcomes. Or I should say “players”, since that’s the gimmick: this is a two-player game, with one person making choices for the city’s dictator and the other taking on the role of the kingdom’s general. Here again the foreordained result is a good design decision, setting up this multiplayer experience as one of collaborative storytelling rather than an opportunity for cutthroat PvP.
Unfortunately, I found the actual implementation of the story didn’t live up to my (perhaps too-high) expectations. I played through twice, once on each side, and while the dictator’s side of the story was more engaging, both times the experience fell a bit flat, and petered out rather than reaching a satisfying climax. Partly this is down to the writing feeling like it could use an editing pass to tighten up – there’s a lot of description of the city’s architecture and history in the early going, as well as ruminations on the current situation, and while the substance is good it sometimes feels repetitive, with the same idea or fact being restated two or three times without offering any new information. Relatedly, the game features long passages between choices, which is a solid decision that minimizes the amount of back-and-forth required between the players, but can exacerbate the sometimes tension-deflating flabbiness of the prose.
The bigger issue, though, is that the choices generally didn’t feel especially interesting or consequential, with no real surprises or aces up their sleeve on either side. The early decisions primarily focus on the defense of the city, but the kingdom’s forces are so overwhelming that the stakes didn't feel high – not only is the outcome never in doubt, I never felt like the dictator had much ability to exact any pain along the way or play for extra time. Then in the second half, there’s an extended negotiation between the two characters over the terms of surrender, but again the dictator doesn’t have any real leverage and it’s not clear whether the general has the autonomy to create significantly different post-war settlements. The most interesting options in this section involve digging into the recent history of the city, and the attitudes of the two characters towards the revolution are satisfying to explore, but this feels like idle conversation, with no substantial impact on future events.
It’s a shame because I can imagine some fun dilemmas spinning out of this setup, where the two-player gameplay would add a note of uncertainty. If the dictator had some card to play in negotiations, it could set up interesting tradeoffs: they could be forced to decide which of the city’s freedoms to protect, for example, or the general could decide whether they want to prop up one of the city’s factions against the others in the occupation. So while I don’t think this incarnation of Last Night of Alexisgrad quite succeeds, it’s definitely a promising proof-of-concept for an IF two-hander and I hope there’s more to come from this author in the future!
Highlight: The dictator’s opening text is very compelling, dramatizing the impact of the invasion by describing the dictator’s recent political work, and how it suddenly no matters in the slightest.
Lowlight: In my second play-through, where I was making decisions for the dictator, I tried to make the conquest as painful as possible, and be more confrontational in the conversation with the general. None of my efforts seem to slow them down in the slightest, and then the general had me summarily shot.
How I failed the author: I couldn’t schedule a time to sit down and play through the game in a single sitting with a partner, so I had to play asynchronously, with gaps between DMs with my partner. It still worked OK, I thought, even though that wasn't the intended experience.
3 people found the following review helpful:
Can be played by yourself, but we need more 2-player games like this, December 3, 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.
2 people found the following review helpful:
It still works in single-player, November 22, 2021
I didn't play this game correctly. I played this as a single-player game, playing both sides of the story. Maybe much of the experience would be very different if I had played it correctly.
The setting is really good, and the backstory feels like the real story here. Alexisgrad is a republican city-state bordering a larger Kingdom, which has been through a recent (attempted) revolution that devolved into civil war and was ended by a compromise with the old government, but not before everything has broken down. Seizing this opportunity, the Kingdom decides to invade and conquer the city in its moment of weakness. It all feels incredibly bleak, and incredibly real, which is a credit to the excellent writing as well as the amount of thought put into the worldbuilding.
I thought that the General’s side was not as interesting as the Dictator’s side. The choices for the General in the first half of the game feel like really nitty-gritty tactical decisions: do you lead the attack yourself or send a subordinate to do it, do you use infantry or cavalry, stuff like that. I don’t know if those choices really matter, if they have some obscured or delayed hidden effects. On the other hand, the choices for the Dictator feel a bit more weighty throughout. The personal stakes for the General are much lower; it’s never his life that’s on the line. Personally, I would feel more interested if the General’s decisions were more strategic or morally involved or expressive in some other way.
In my playthrough I picked all the “nice” options when they were available, and ended with the (Spoiler - click to show)Dictator being able to escape with her life (there are many endings, which I haven't tried to explore). Which was in accordance with how I usually play RPGs. I have no idea how the experience would have changed if I was playing with someone else. I can imagine it being an awkward experience if the players have different goals or levels of investment. I feel like there’s something missing with the player-player interactions. The method of interaction feels like silently passing notes, but the notes can only contain a single word. It doesn't feel... kinetic? Dynamic? The communication method feels like it's at a remove from the story, when the story itself is often about communication in a very direct way, in the negotiations between the two main characters. Then again, I didn't play it with another person, so maybe your experience is entirely different and I'm totally off-base here. Maybe the players are supposed to interact out of the game?
Anyway, this was quite interesting to read/play through, even playing as one person. I enjoyed the experience, and I really appreciate that the game is trying something new, something that maybe hasn't been seen in IFComp before?
4 people found the following review helpful:
Play-by-mail co-op twine game with the death of the revolution, October 3, 2021
This is a 2-player Twine game. Every time you make a decision, you are given a code, and asked for the code of your partner. This means you could play side by side or (as I did) messaging back and forth with people. I played once as each faction and am playing again with another person.
1-4 of 4 | Return to game's main page
I never play IF with others, except at the Seattle IF Meetup, but I was able to find some great people on intfiction to message back and forth. It took a while to nail down transmitting codes but then proceeded pretty well. There are only about 10 or so choices so the game is pretty fast, although there is a lot of text per each early choice.
Story wise, it reminded me of the faux-historical games from Choice of Games (like The Eagle's Heir). You play either as the first (and last) newly-made dictator of an idealistic socialist republic or as the king's general who is coming to crush the rebellious city.
Choices definitely matter here, with different branches by one character giving different branches for another. They tend to share many features in common (so it's not a Time Cave wildly branching structure) but it includes different locations, choices for death and violence or peace, etc.
I found it fun and effective, and I didn't expect that to happen. There was one or two typos, but overall it's fairly polished.
I rate games on the following scale, which can give a high score even to relatively short games like this one:
+Emotional Impact (I didn't get completely drawn in, but I did roleplay as my character and was able to be drawn into how they would react)
+Would I play again? I already have several times