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Interesting story with confusing mechanics, March 23, 2015
This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012.
The Living Will is a hyper-link based CYOA story, which reminded me, at first, of last year’s The Play. Unfortunately, I found it a much less satisfying experience.
(Spoiler - click to show)The Living Will starts out promisingly, with a very novel concept. You are playing a character reading a will, and the choices you make in reading it affects how much you are bequeathed, the legal expenses, and so on. These are shown in a box to the right, similar to how The Play tracked the shifting moods of the actors. The game tracks no less than six different statistics, including medical fees, taxes and shares in the telecom company founded by the writer. This seemed daunting at first, but I assumed that there would be some kind of strategy involved in manipulating these numbers.
At first it seems like the choices you make might simply represent the reader deciding which sections of the will to focus on, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the case. The character of the writer has actually implemented an interactive will, which is being read by the player character.
The game begins with a few introductory paragraphs, describing the background story. The maker of the will has created a telecom company in the Congo, and it’s strongly implied that he has committed many unsavoury deeds along the way. Each paragraph usually has several in-lined options to choose between. Which ones you choose not only affects how the story unfolds, but also causes one or more of the numbers being tracked by the game to rise or fall.
Unfortunately, I never did figure out how I was to supposed to know how my choices would affect the numbers. It seems like you are supposed to work out a strategy to optimize your gains, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to tell in advance what effect your choice will have. In “The Play”, you could at least figure out that letting an actor have his way would make him happy, while putting pressure on him would make him sulky.
After a brief introduction, you get to choose between four different potential player characters, each with their own background story. As you read through these stories, selecting options along the way, numbers continue to rise and fall in the box to the right. I pretty much stopped paying attention to them after a while, as there seemed to be nothing I could do to control them.
After getting the background story for your character, you arrive at the Allotments chapter, where you are told how much will be bequeathed to each character. The bequests all seem to consist of a randomized list of junk, followed by a certain amount of shares in aforementioned telecom company. They seem to be at least partially randomized. They may or may not also depend on the choices made before then, but I was unable to replicate any particular combination, even when following exactly the same path through the story.
Here the game introduces another novel concept, as the current player character can seize the bequests of the other characters. This increases your own total inheritance, but also adds to the legal costs, and you will get a note later saying the character in question now hates you.
However, there still doesn’t seem to be any way to tell whether seizing a bequest will be a net benefit. Sometimes the legal costs exceeds the extra inheritance you get, and sometimes they don’t. If I am missing something here, I would love to know.
In about two-thirds of my playthroughs, I ended up with legal and medical costs exceeding my actual inheritance, which seems rather strange for a will. Worse, when you end the game with a negative net inheritance, the writer will chastise you for your lack of “resourcefulness.” I would love to know what kind of resources I am supposed to bring to bear to determine the optimal ways through the game.
When you do manage to end the game with a positive net inheritance, you are given the chance to save the life of the writer, who is dying from an unspecified disease. Saving his life will slightly increase the medical costs, and give you a different ending, but I didn’t feel very emotionally involved in the choice.
I played through the game several times, but I did so to see the story, and never because I had a coherent idea for a new approach. To be fair, I did find the story to be reasonably entertaining and well written. I enjoyed gradually uncovering the background history from several different perspectives, and learning more about the writer of the will. However, I enjoyed the game much more after I decided to ignore the numbers, and just read through the different stories, seizing a few random bequests at the end.
As an interactive story, I liked “The Living Will”, and found the presentation to be novel and engaging. As a game, I found it severely wanting. If you include numerical scores in a game, you have to provide some hint as to how the various choices will affect these scores. There is a good reason why most story based IF no longer tracks a point score, much less six different ones.