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Immature in more ways than the most obvious, September 18, 2011
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)

It surprises me a little that Adam Cadre's first game won the 1997 XYZZY Award for Best Game. While I-0 certainly isn't bad, and may have broken some new ground, it is a bit too immature to be counted among the greats.

The immaturity is clearest, of course, in the game's depiction of sex and sexuality. I-0 is famous for the fact that its protagonist, who is just one day shy of being 18 years old, can undress everywhere and can attempt to perform sexual acts with every NPC (not always successfully). Cadre doesn't take sexuality seriously enough to say something substantial about it; but he doesn't take it lightly enough to turn it into matter-of-course actions either, as Adam Thornton would do in Mentula Macanus. Nor does Cadre go for straight pornography or erotic romance. Rather, it feels as if the narrator (I will not judge the writer) is fascinated by sex while being too ashamed by this fascination to truly admit it. He flirts with being transgressive, but generally pulls back at the last moment.

An obvious example of this can be found in the final scene, where (Spoiler - click to show)the command "rub clit" leads to the following response:

You don’t get very far before Trevor pounds on the wall. “Hey, keep it down!” he shouts. “Some of us are trying to sleep! Can’t you at least go use the tub faucet like usual?”
That is the narrator being 'knowledgeable' about female masturbation and therefore 'cool', without having the guts to try to describe the experience. Hence, he turns it into a joke at the crucial moment.

However, it should be stressed that I-0 is not just about sex; indeed, one can perfectly well play through the entire game without engaging in it. In fact, the game's main interest is probably the plot structure, which is widely branching. There are several ways to get home, and they sometimes involve completely different locations and NPCs; and there are even more ways to die, get arrested, or end up in the hospital.

In this respect I-0 is also an immature game; though not in the sense of "adolescent", but in the sense that the form of puzzle-light games with branching narratives was still in its infancy. With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that some of the design decisions in I-0 are not particularly successful. For instance, the use of completely disjunct and unrelated narrative strands only means that we can play two more or less separate games if we have the patience to search for them; here is no meaningful connection between these playthroughs. Playing one of the strands does not throw new light on the other. This means that the branching narrative is little more than a gimmick.

Another defect of the design is that most of the branches are hidden quite well. It is entirely possible to play through the game, finding the way forward only with some difficulty, and never getting an inkling that there were other possibilities as well. This lack of the obviousness of choice undermines the power of having a branching narrative. (Not all choice needs to be obvious, but by making some choices obvious a game can indicate that it has branching plot lines and will reward further exploration.)

Be that as it may, I-0 is still an easy game to like. For an IF game, the setting, plot and characters that Cadre give us are fresh; the writing is often good; and fooling around with Tracy is fun. On top of that, it was an innovative game in its time, and deserves some historical recognition. One of the essential IF pieces? Perhaps not, but it is not too far removed from that category.

(Prospective players may wish to know that on some playthroughs, the game contains sexual abuse, though this is not described in any detail.)

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Adam Cadre, September 20, 2011 - Reply
Howdy. The thing I would point out in response to this review is that I-0 is a genre piece. As I mentioned in various interviews around the time it came out (almost 15 years ago now), when I first became aware of the IF community I played a few games and nearly all of them seemed to have been written by reserved British professors, so I decided that for my learning-Inform exercise I would go the other way and do something deliberately trashy, the IF equivalent of a late-night softcore Cinemax movie. To the extent that "the game's depiction of sex and sexuality" is where "the immaturity is clearest," and that "the narrator [...] is fascinated by sex while being too ashamed by this fascination to truly admit it," that was, as Zarf says, deliberate - it was, in fact, a genre requirement. A lot of the jokes are not meant to register on the "ha ha, that was funny" level so much as the "ha ha, that is what that genre is like all right" level.

Now, you can jump back a level and say that it was immature of me to think that it would be funny to write an IF piece in the softcore Cinemax genre, and I wouldn't necessarily disagree with you. To the extent that the fact that I-0 was intended as a genre piece isn't clearly signaled, that is probably an artifact of my (very wrong) guess that most players would play it as a straightforward puzzle game, and my desire to allow them a complete playthrough in that style if that is what they chose.
Victor Gijsbers, September 24, 2011 - Reply
Thanks for your response, Adam. Culturally, I'm probably closer to a reserved British professor than to you-fifteen-years-ago, and the result of this is that I never even realised that there was a genre in which I-0 would fit and which it might be satirising. (I have never heard of "Cinemax", for instance.) That is a dimension of the work I missed.

So while I did pick up on the immaturity of the narrator, I wasn't sure whether to link it to an immaturity of the writer or to something else. The answer seems to be: mostly the latter.

The failure to understand the cultural context of the piece is, of course, my failure as a reviewer, not your failure as a writer. A game doesn't have to clearly signal that it is a genre piece. What is more problematic, and immature in the sense that it shows a form of IF that was still in an early stage of development, is the weird interplay of free choice, puzzles, and more-or-less random ways to move the game forward. But I don't have to explain that to the author of Photopia.

I would like to see someone taking this genre and writing a (humorous but) serious piece in it. Mentula Macanus in Arizona, with a female protagonist -- sounds like a winner.
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