The Spirit Within Us

by Alessandro Ielo


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Light gameplay and minimal writing don't do justice to heavy themes, December 22, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(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 canít say I fully understand the impulse behind making a custom parser Ė beyond the abstract desire to test oneís programming chops Ė but one thing Iíve noticed about custom-parser games in recent IF Comps is that they tend to share an old-school sensibility thatís 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. Thereís also a hunger timer of sorts: you wake up wounded, in the aftermath of a fight, and you bleed over time, reducing your ďenergyĒ stat, which only increases after eating (thereís a combat system you get into later on, which is also based on energy). Rather than being a lighthearted puzzle-fest, though, the gameís 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.

Letís 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 youíre bleeding and arenít 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 youíre learning details about the horrid events that got you here, youíre 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 youíre meant to be doing next.

The good news is that it doesnít take long to basically figure out whatís going on; the bad news is that itís 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 Ė youíre only told that youíre 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.

Itís also one that I donít think is handled especially sensitively. Some spoilers here: (Spoiler - click to show)thereís an indication that the protagonist, whoís one of the victims of the villainís 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 heís 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 Ė most locations get only a sentence or two, and even the throes of combat arenít 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 Ė I think itís just married to a game that it doesnít fit.

Highlight: I usually detest hunger timers, but here itís implemented pretty generously, so I found it added a prod to move efficiently through the world but didnít 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 couldnít 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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