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About the Story
THE SPIRIT WITHIN US is a psychological thriller & exploration game with four different endings based on the choices made during the game, leaving the player to decide the best course of action. THE SPIRIT WITHIN US follows natural rules. The player has only one life, and if the energy level reaches zero the player dies and the game ends.
60th place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
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Number of Reviews: 4
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I'll be frank and say that I don't enjoy playing games about pedophilia in any way; I don't find them fun, and I have yet to play one I find enlightening. I think that games can and should treat difficult and heavy topics, but for me playing game about pedophilia is like reading a coffee-table book full of high-quality illustrations of feces. My apologies to authors who have attempted to treat this topic in a sincere and thoughtful way.
Anyway, this is a custom parser game where you explore a house and try to recover your memories. You wake up weak and bleeding, with a health counter that slowly decreases until you die.
The storyline centers around pedophilia, with texts by de Sade and inappropriate photos (described in vague text terms only) to be found. There are also several weapons to find.
The game isn't too big. I wandered around for a while before trying the walkthrough, and found that I had seen about 50% of the game already. The walkthrough itself contains many unnecessary but interesting commands, such as looking at every wall in every room and trying to go in wrong directions in most rooms. These commands are in the walkthrough because the author has implemented custom text for much of them.
The parser is pretty good, but I miss being able to use pronouns, since you must take an object before looking at it and it would be easier to type "take paper; x it" instead of "take paper; x paper". Some synonyms would be appreciated, like 'turn on car' instead of 'turn on engine'.
Overall, this game is solidly in the simulated realism camp of parser implementation, with a wound/hunger timer, lots of red herrings and random scenery, randomized combat, etc. There are multiple endings, of which I found 3 (although 1 of them just ended the game immediately, so I don't think it was a real ending. This was (Spoiler - click to show)driving away before discovering the truth.).
My overall rating:
-Polish: more synonyms would work well, I think. There are very few typos, but some of them are noticeable.
+Descriptiveness: The game is very vividly described.
-Interactivity: Finding the objects of importance often meant looking at things that are not described, such as walls or floor.
+Emotional impact: The impact was negative, but it did provoke strong emotion.
-Would I play again? I tried a couple of endings, but I don't plan on looking again.
I would have given 3/5 if the subject had been different.
The Spirit Within Us, by Alessandro Ielo
TSWU, with a relatively simple custom parser, is an interesting effort, for all the required fiddling to get through it. I've read nightmares about homebrew parsers from earlier versions of the comp, but I haven't seen any disasters this year. It's probably a good combination of the soft rules of “have this tested,” better technology, and also better guidelines out there for testing in general. Maybe people are just better connected in order to swap testing as well. Whatever the case, TSWU clearly passes the technical threshold, though there are some shortcuts I wish it had implemented. The ABOUT text says it's based on a tutorial, from which the programmer got a lot of mileage. That a game this solid placed so lowly in IFComp suggests judging standards, and the general quality of an average IFComp game, have risen over the years.
And while the text may be a bit bland for what should be a psychological thriller, and the title seems more like an uplifting rags-to-riches lets-pull-together story than it is ("us" seems to imply there will be friendly NPCs–there aren't,) there are certainly clues as to what is going on, and how it might be disturbing. I think certainly it is best kept as a text adventure, without graphics.
You wake up seeming to have amnesia. You learn you haven't had a drink in a while, but you face something worse than alcoholism. Unsigned notes suggest to you that someone is trying to help you but has had just about enough. Enough of what? That's the story, and the handwritten notes and books left behind provide clues. I found it wasn't too bad to hack my way through to find stuff, although I required the slightly unusual commands X NORTH (or another direction) to turn up some important items.
And it's all quite serviceable. There's a trail of bread-crumb clues to follow. They make sense. There is a final confrontation where the time and health you saved matters, because you have a status meter that drops throughout the game, and it seems you'll have more than enough to win. Well, until that final fight. Also, searching around will reward you–the more food you find, the higher your health will be, though in my notes I see cases where different sorts of berries might take stamina away, and certainly when I saw mushrooms, which are on average deadlier than berries, I saved before eating. The writing also does the job. English is not the writer's main language, so I don't want to jump on them for it, because I wouldn't have the guts to write in a second language OR make my own custom parser, and besides, too much description would probably be a bad thing. Though the descriptions are a bit flat. I think the biggest offender is here:
"You see a lot of boxes and some winter clothes, a torch lays on a shelf.
an empty shelf."
I wouldn't be surprised if the technical hurdles the author had to clear meant they had less time to punch up the game text. It may also have cost them time with design choices. Inventory-fiddling was sadly enough of the game to be a legitimate distraction. You can't just READ PAPER. You have to take it, and you may need to drop something else to get it, and then you need to remember to take that something else again. I (and other viewers) had quite a struggle trying to eat some expired vitamins, but at least they regained me 3 health for my efforts. Some things are too heavy, and it's not clear why e.g. autumn jackets which might be important given the weather. The default rejects seem a bit distracting, so maybe some custom messages would help a post-release. I'd also like to use “it” for the last noun you used, but again, post-comp. And the blue text should be made light-blue so it is easier to see. I checked if other reviewers noticed this and felt it worthy to comment on, and they did.
And I think more detail or flashbacks, or less generic flashbacks, would've highlighted the moral choices more carefully. I wound up pretty much saying "okay, forest maze" and wondering just why the third piece of paper WAS located in the maze and wondering why a branch would be worth taking, since the game's good about not letting you take useless stuff.
For all that, though, there is a buildup to the final fight. Whether or not winning the final fight is the right thing to do is the moral dilemma the author hoped to push. One can't particularly blame the protagonist for going through with it, but apparently you can back out.
This is verifiable. However, the save-game feature was harsh, and that, combined with UNDO saying "you can't change the past" is also slightly annoying. The save files are presented as a list of text commands, which the parser than runs through before. That looks like a problem because some random events happen, e.g. the fight at the end or where and when the fox and dog appear. So you need the forethought to 1) be able to copy a backup save file and 2) set it to read-only to make sure you don't write it over. And this is the only serious technical pitfall of the homebrew parser. It's a tough one to tease out as a programmer or tester, but it illustrates how things can go wrong.
This is all a lot of kvetching, but I think overall the author did well to create such a relatively stable parser to write a coherent, logical game in what was not their language, especially when that executable clocks in at a mere 160KB. So as a technical project it's a success, even if some design choices seemed odd, and it doesn't hit the mark aesthetically. My guess is the author focused on the technical bit to make sure it worked, which was the right first choice, but with more months of preparation and a few more testers, they could have ironed out the other bits. So I hope my criticisms add up to "these are the technical pitfalls to know ahead of time and avoid, and once you do, I think the experience will be satisfying enough."
(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)
I can’t say I fully understand the impulse behind making a custom parser – beyond the abstract desire to test one’s programming chops – but one thing I’ve noticed about custom-parser games in recent IF Comps is that they tend to share an old-school sensibility that’s hard to recapture with the modern languages. The Spirit Within Us at first blush seems a case in point, from its white-on-black text, its amnesiac protagonist, the stripped-down prose, and the my-first-apartment setting of the first half of the game. There’s also a hunger timer of sorts: you wake up wounded, in the aftermath of a fight, and you bleed over time, reducing your “energy” stat, which only increases after eating (there’s a combat system you get into later on, which is also based on energy). Rather than being a lighthearted puzzle-fest, though, the game’s story-focused and hits on some heavy themes, but I unfortunately found the mismatch didn't serve to add a frisson of novelty but rather made the game feel incoherent.
Let’s start with the gameplay. For the first section, this largely consists of exploring the strange house where you've woken up, trying to piece together the backstory from a few scattered clues. And per the above, since you’re bleeding and aren’t able to bandage yourself (I wasted a lot of turns trying to rip up the sheets in the opening location to staunch the wound), instead you keep death at bay by eating the various foodstuffs you find, so as you’re learning details about the horrid events that got you here, you’re also hoovering up raw eggs and vitamin pills. The second section, meanwhile, opens up as you leave the house and start blundering around the woods exploring the physical geography and trying to figure out what you’re meant to be doing next.
The good news is that it doesn’t take long to basically figure out what’s going on; the bad news is that it’s also quickly clear that the game is going to be dealing with the fallout of the sexual abuse of children. There are no details depicted, thank God – you’re only told that you’re finding photos depicting awful events, and come across vague excerpts from the self-justifying writings of the predator whose actions have set this story in motion. Still, this is a heavy, heavy topic, and it sits awkwardly with the Hungry Hungry Hippos vibe of the first part of the game.
It’s also one that I don’t think is handled especially sensitively. Some spoilers here: (Spoiler - click to show)there’s an indication that the protagonist, who’s one of the victims of the villain’s abuse, has wound up with violent tendencies that almost rise to the level of a split personality as a result of their trauma. And speaking of the antagonist, turns out he’s the school janitor, which fits in a not-great tradition of inaccurately portraying the most common perpetrators of sexual violence as low-economic-class strangers. Beyond these specifics, another challenge is that the writing is pretty minimal, as befits its presentation – most locations get only a sentence or two, and even the throes of combat aren’t described especially fulsomely. Doing justice to the emotional heft of the subject matter would require something a little more robust than what the game delivers, especially after it reaches a violent catharsis.
The parser is generally solid enough, though I did spend some time wrestling with it. Disambiguation was often very tricky, and examining objects requires you to be holding them, which is made harder by the low inventory-limit. Still, overall the custom-parser is a good-enough example of coding acumen – I think it’s just married to a game that it doesn’t fit.
Highlight: I usually detest hunger timers, but here it’s implemented pretty generously, so I found it added a prod to move efficiently through the world but didn’t add too much stress.
Lowlight: Trying to get a bunch of pills out of a vitamin packet required something like two dozen trial-and-error commands before I understood how to refer to them.
How I failed the author: I played this late at night, while pretty bleary-eyed, which meant that I really couldn’t read the blue on black text the game uses to update you on your energy levels, so I was flying blind most of the game.
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