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(based on 13 ratings)
About the Story
Explore an all new, "critical edition" of a 1996 Inform 5 game about mental illness, magic, and the second law of thermodynamics.
Language: English (en)
First Publication Date: April 5, 2023
Current Version: 3
Development System: Inform 7
Forgiveness Rating: Polite
Best in Show, Main Festival - Spring Thing 2023
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Number of Reviews: 5
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Of the unstably mediated manuscript genre, let’s select The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago as our analogue: an initial idea is intervened upon by a cascading negative that creates a complex call and response between the text and the lived experience of its creation. Similarly, here we have a notional IF game from 1996, represented as a 2003 edited transcript, that encounters a cascading negative response, represented as a series of commentaries which assume a scholarly authority from which to belittle, delimit, and assail, which causes a revised IF game with renewed endings. Crucially, like Saramago’s novel, there aren’t delineated layers, which is why we should steer away from the decomposing mediator before the intractable artwork Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov, but rather the vivacity thrives in the interplay, with a seething of paratexts and a dizzying chronology destabilizing the only complete layer, the parser game, into a melange of multideterminate frays.
Which compounds the complexity of our already heady with subversion traversal of the acupunctured text. The game is structured around identifying failstates before progressing to the required action. In each phase of the game, you get points for discovering alternative endings, with different final endings depending on how many points you’ve collected along the way, with the normative ending, as represented in the 2003 transcript, is itself a failstate that you need to subvert, sloshing us nauseously back where we began: “You open your eyes and stare at the pocked expanse of sheet rock before you. “Not this shit again,” you say, referring expansively to the totality of matter, movement, and time. You keep turning up for these days, again and again, and the best that you can say is that things haven’t gone downhill. Well, unless you die, 1996 is going to be better than 1995. You know what? It will be better even if you do die.” The goal, then, is to break the cycle, find some way to invest the disparate energies around you with enough rebellious reinvention to eschew the repeated ending, the increasing certainty of closure against which we must rebel in defiant expressions of agency, writhing of the wounded animal opposed to the depressive selfloop to decay, banging desperately at the edges of possibility to rearc your terminal momentum.
Charging us to defy this progression is the notional maxim the author supplies us to refuse their construction: “Refusing the tyranny of the author” unites the metafictional edge around the narrator’s ability to confront himself, resulting in the deconstructive moment that unarms the patterns that have crowded out the blank page’s freedom. You can escape the laws of ever increasing entropy to suture a sense of moreness you have been bleeding all the while, resurging lost energy to achieve some equilibrium sustainable against the worldcrashing loss of your mother, a newfound capacity to believe in alternatives to recapitulation that sustains the endings we freshly envision against those preprogrammed: “The author of my troubles stands before me. How many times have I entered that hospital room? As many times as I have entered, I have never once left. Not really. Not like this. I have never been here, talking to him. I have been in the dark, but I have never been in this dark. It belongs to him, not me. I never had the courage to escape this day. I only ever tried to run past it as if it were a cemetery at night. I wanted to end what I ought to have overcome instead. This day, repeated endlessly, is a thing he has done to himself: a trap he has laid for himself. Everything, all of it, has always been about him. “I want to apologize,” he says. “I haven’t been kind to you. My own father was educated. He had a doctorate in American Studies. I grew up surrounded by books, reading them and talking about them. I took that from you. I never let you have that. My own father went around cleaning up after my mother his entire adult life. With his help, she was able to live a long time. Have a career, even. Almost everyone that she knew considered her a success.” / I stare at him, this dimension-hopping non-uncle of mine. “Why did you do it? How could you do it? You made me and my mother so sick. How could you force someone to be that way? What’s wrong with you?’ As soon as I say it, I know that there’s no answer. He’s even more messed up than I am. He is driven to relive his shitty childhood in a loop, again and again… he can’t help but repeat the ending. / “My boy,” he says, “my son. That’s why I am here. I am setting you free. You’ve found the edge of this simulation, of this narrative. You’ve broken through. You’re free to push beyond it now, to do what you will. To live.” He turns, and begins walking away, into the void.” The healing moebius twist occurs through a beginning, a path that leads beyond where all else ends. The repetitions are revised in a new reflection, no longer collapsing upon itself, but capable of believing external to its textual recursions. Crawling through the metafictional layers from 1980 to 2019, we supersede the prayer for cessation “If you had the whole thing to do over again, you wouldn’t” with a redemptive second chance: “I am deeply grateful to all who have given Repeat the Ending a second chance; perhaps this phenomenon is better called a kind of grace.” The torment from the original ending can be overcome, we can become someone new.
This therapeutic selfdialogue isn’t quite so easy, of course, repeatedly battered as it is by a relentless hurricane of voices, endotextually through the demoness and paratextually through various reviewers and scholars, infusing various strains of disdain into the process. For a game that generated enough interest to warrant a critical edition, basically everyone seems to hate it. Layers of (self)loathing compress basically every feature: we invest order into a pile of clothes, and the resulting cleanliness shimmers a brief reprieve: “For the first time in a month or more, we feel a profound sense of peace disrupt the unending yammer of hateful self-talk that runs through our brain.” Except essayist A.H. Montague bursts in to characterize the scene as miserabilist and classist, and before this metafictional harangue dissolves both scene and critique into a new direction, Montague launches a critique against this very metafictional direction, spinning everything into allencompassing rage: “Many objects in the trailer can be invested with the SEETHING ORDER, and each case leads to a different, fatal outcome. The narrator, who seems to be the “body” of the protagonist, blames his thinking, agentic counterpart for his suffering. This second half of an agonistic dyad is more than likely meant to represent the player. It is reasonable to interpret Cook’s narrative structure as an accusation directed at audiences, who are not merely passive observers but partners in accountability. Naturally, this tactic conveniently shifts blame away from Cook’s own self-loathing ableism.” No reprieve obtains, negativity reenforces the collapse, everything back into chaos, psychic bleed of the game’s own selfawareness. This cocooning negation oozes numerous paratextual layers, becoming rather baroque in its intricate selfdisstory, including even a surprise passage featuring Mike Russo as antagonist reviewer.
While these inflows of selfloathing form a core emotive thread in the work which helps establish the breathlessness of the struggle, the recurring impulse in the work to bury itself results in you always being held at arms’ length from any genuine textual engagement. Whenever you encounter an idea, the metafiction jumps two steps ahead of you to desecrate each step before you get there. For instance, the opening scene has us play as the demoness, and we siphon a psychic bleed from the mother, which leads into the core gameplay conceit that you can invest people and objects with intangible energies. Readers will encounter this idea, and go, okay, the game is saying something about how trauma effects trauma, and maybe that plays into whatever is going on with the endings and progress, except then a footnote immediately slaps it out of your hand and goes yeah obviously, what a level one insight, don’t you realize how much more is going on? “Given Cook’s interest in themes pertaining to mental illness, it is tempting to see the cycle of loss and inheritance dramatized here as metaphoric, but his own comments have been characteristically cagey.” In your traversal of the dense layers of metafictional reference, you are constantly playing catchup, which prevents you from bathing in any of the streams you cross. To untie the knots into narrative, you start mining your way down through the metafictional chronology, which keeps talking about instead of you inhabiting, but then by the time you get to the bottom and start working your way up through the metafictional narrative, you’re climbing back up all that talking about instead of you inhabiting. This happens with the point system, the hint system, the magic system, any moment which on its own could be an interesting artistic turn in itself is immediately turned on itself through layers of ironic distance and precipitative dismissal, a haughty cleverness that harangues the reader with how it has already read itself reading itself and so you reading it has nothing to offer. Combined with the relentless layers of selfloathing, it can often feel like you’re being mocked for trying to work your way through the complexities: “Though your decision was foolish, I cannot fault you for pressing against the edges of this oppressive narrative. / This outcome has earned a rating of Rage Against the Machine/10.” Okay, but it has to start somewhere, it has to start sometime, so what better place than here, what better time than now?
Which of course is the point, right, this is a game that hates its own construction, which consistently assumes the position of the other to harangue its features, so insofar as we are located within the text, we’re grappling with all the doubt and dismay pouring in from everywhere, sure; metafictional inclusion, where every experience of the experience is incorporated into it as intent; but that comes with a cost, which is that the hyperpermeability of the plasmatic layer loosens its richness into the voids above and below, freezing over. Given how much is going on at any given textual layer, sometimes I think the full extent of its genuine originality can be blunted. For instance, the concept of manipulating entropy to navigate an introspective journey against recursive tendencies to decay is particularly poignant and is rendered deeply engaging through high concept nodes like the demoness and the psychic wounds. I want to dive into these, explore their emotive and intellectual depths! Features compelling in themselves without the layers and layers of also and/or despite. I even enjoyed its simple pleasures like “an adolescent primeoid gazes into a brightly glowing scrybox” translating a child at a computer. Even at the metafictional layer, the parallel of Drew Cook the narrator and Drew Cook the ingame author with Drew Cook the metafictional author of the 1996 game and Drew Cook the metafictional author of the 2019 revision is redolent with echoes and could have been the propulsion of an entirely new approach to the paratextual whole. So many of the ideas here don’t require repeated selfreferential undermining in order to spark into meaning.
So I’m going to rebel against the tyranny of the author and talk about something once said by Drew Cook, whose work we have not yet mentioned: “it seems clear that the defining, necessary trait of interactive fiction is its capacity for simulating subjectivity and the experiences of the Other.” The player, entangled into the triangle of self, narrator, and agent, accepts the trajectory of the Other as experiential unfolding, subjected into their worldline, but what happens when the subjectivity includes itself as rupture? In the Nelsonian nineties, reveling in the undead possibilities of Infocom’s reanimated Z Machine, how can our experience of agency effect our expectations of forward, accumulative motion? “Zork has countless choices, but only two endings: death and victory (the many deaths are treated the same way). What is the relationship between agency and empathy in interactive fiction?” Zork allows us forward only as we assume the characteristics of its adventurer persona, until the dungeon yields itself to us as master, treasures accumulating your points to your ended according to its rule. The alternation of death and continued subjection, in either endings accepted into simulational oblivion or recursion into victoriously wrought into recursion, a brittle point tapering experience to which we return and return, unable to break through, what if this isn’t triumph, what if we regret the path, what if we want to go backwards? What if our forward motion is bleeding us into acceptance of an other we increasingly (do (not)) recognize? What if the cascading negative is not the destruction of something, but compulsion towards what elsewise we would write? What if our stories unfold even past the point where the intensifying pressure folds the narrative in on itself? What if there is a tomorrow not reached from all these yesterdays? “It is easy for a game to have an incomplete story if the player considers a fail state the ending.” Is there a game whose completeness elevates beyond the dimness at which it is finished? Amidst this phantom gallery, where do the colors bleed when they fall from the frame? “If meaning-making is a shared effort between artist and audience, then influence is not a family tree. Instead, it is something web-like or even, less determinately, something in the air: an ambiance or a far-away sound.” Desire to reach out, to hear, to finally be here with everyone around you; the agency, the paraempathy, to get there.
---> Our learned co-contributor to Intfiction and writer of the comprehensive IF and Infocom-related blog Gold Machine has unearthed an interesting work from the early modern ages of Interactive Fiction in the form of one of his own old games. In a considerable labour of IF-related textual archaeology, he has published a Critical Edition of the seriously flawed 1996 Inform 5 game Repeat the Ending. It consists of an edited version of the original source text (i.e. the game itself), supplemented and supported with in-game annotations and a separate Reader's Companion (referred to together as the paratext.)
This Critical Edition collects a series of contemporary and new essays on a wide range of topics such as the genesis of the original and the edited game, exploration of the themes in the work, the (supposed) development of authorial intent, the evolution of language-use, and the shift to a more player-friendly version of the high Zarfian Cruely level of the original. The articles found in the Reader's Companion were contributed by P. Searcy, D. S. Collins, C. A. Smythe, A. H. Montague, and Drew Cook himself. Each imparts their own emphasis on topics viewed from their personal field of interest.
Along with these scholarly texts are included a number of reviews, both contemporary and of later dates. These give a nice insight not only into the reception of the game, but also into the IF-ecosystem at the time of their writing. An interview with the author is also attached, although the vagueness of the answers to pertinent questions means that it hardly contributes more than some amiable atmosphere to the discussion.
Reading the entire Reader's Companion requires a fair amount of time and focused attention. It's worth it though, since its contents give the player a life-line to guide their interpretation of the sometimes obscure storyline and design-choices in the game proper.
More easily accessible are the annotations scattered throughout the game-text. They clarify, raise questions about, or merely point out notable or confusing responses and features the player may encounter, and may then choose to delve into further in the Companion. The footnotes double as much-needed tutorial information for new and experienced IF-players alike where such guidance for tackling the game is absent from the source text.
In the combined paratext, much attention is directed toward the differences between the 1996 original work and this 2023 edition. The authors views on a number of topics seem to have, if not radivally changed, then certainly noticeably shifted in the two-and-a-half decades since first writing Repeat the Ending in 1996. Interestingly, on many occasions, both in his own words and when paraphrased by the other contributors, the author vehemently denies any such shift has indeed taken place. He claims that this new version is the one he always intended to create, putting aside any real differences as artefacts of his inadequate proficiency in Inform 5 coding at the time. This is hard to believe, to say the least. When studying the essays, and comparing the new edition's text with a transcript of the original game that was circulated in 2003, it becomes clear that the 2023 "definitive" version is close to a complete remake.
An important caveat, and an in my view critical flaw of this Critical Edition is that the original source material, i.e. the 1996 version is not included in the package, neither as playable game, nor as source-code. All comparisons between the original and the new versions therefore rely on second-hand references, the word of the author, and the text of the 2003 transcript. The veracity of this last bit of data is problematic to say the least, as all acounts regarding it characterise it as implausible, misleadingly edited at the very least, perhaps even dishonestly doctored in full. The results, statements, and deductions found in the so-called "Critical" Edition's essays are all built on loose sand because of this omission of the original source text.
--->Apart from analysis and clarification, the paratext serves an important, if secondary, role when viewing the work as a whole, i.e. the totality of game, essays and footnotes. Careful, measured perusal of the analytical asides while playing leads to greater involvement and deeper engagement with the game as the player is experiencing it. The paratext delivers a conceptual framework for attempting to understand the game's meaning, it opens an intellectual pathway to the strong emotional impact of the game's story.
Conversely, and at the same time, the scholarly approach provides protective distance from the distressing themes and actions. This certainly applies to the player who can withdraw into a more reflective state of participation when direct experience becomes overwhelming. It is hard not to speculate if the author chose this scholarly approach for the same reason, not to be confronted too directly with the hard themes of the game, but to have a roundabout way of writing about them when immediate handling of them became too painful...
When the paratext messages are disabled in the final chapter of the game, this protective effect becomes very clear. Here, the player has no choice but to experience the unfolding of the story directly, without the option of circumventing, avoiding, or delaying the emotional intensity of the story.
--->And here, now, dear patient reader, I must abandon all pretense of engaging in distanced scholarly debate. For I have to speak of the source itself, the heart of the work, the game Repeat the Ending.
I am dead serious about the defensive qualities of the scholarly diversions in the paratext. This game hits hard, and is brutally vulnerable at the same time. The protection offered by the distanced paratext seems to work in the other direction too. An intellectual wall shields the sensitive heart of the work. It's cradled in an analytical nest to keep whatever harm at bay.
The elaborate room descriptions in Repeat the Ending are interspersed with personal comments from the point of view of the protagonist. Interacting with the contents of the locations through the habitual IF-commands quickly runs into a frustrating wall.
Unproductive, unimportant, unsuccessful commands (of which there are many!) are met with plaintive, self-pitying, or even hostile responses.
The author subverts the traditional expectations of who the parser/narrator is speaking to or about, and uses them to blur the lines between the player and the protagonist on different perceived levels of reality.
The dramatic, mentally unstable state of mind of the main character, his lack of control over his life-direction is directed outward, ascribed to unrelenting external forces such as abuse in his childhood or poverty in his current situation. Or it is attributed to uncontrollable internal influences, the driving urges and voices in his mind. The latter is very effectively conveyed through the dissociation in the mental monologue of the character between the narrator and the actor. The ambiguous use of pronouns (we, I, you) points to the in-game confusion and powerless state of the protagonist. However, once the player realises she is controlling the character's actions through her input of commands, this ambiguousness extends outward to encompass the player at the keyboard. It pulls her into a complicit, even guilty role since she is the one responsible for the protagonist's decisions.
Throughout the game, there are two seemingly straightforward objectives. The main character must pick up his medications from the pharmacy, and visit his mother in the hospital. However, it soon becomes clear that none of the successful steps in the direction of these objectives raises the player's score. Indeed, it is only when the method of increasing the score becomes apparent that the true underlying goal of this piece reveals itself. While there is a straight pathway through the story that succeeds in both superficial objectives, real "progress" depends on rebelling against the railroad. Taking actions that go against the narrow definition of success, that take the protagonist outside of his automatic routine often lead to failure and death. However, these actions do signify desperate attempts of the main character to fight back, to regain some measure of control, some small grasp on life.
A telling insight into the dismal state of mind of the protagonist is offered by the confusing, disjointed images. They seem to come straight from a dream or some other, more terrifying subconscious process. Despite their surreal quality, the rough-scribbled outlines, splashes of colour, skewed perspective, and, most touchingly, their choice of details depicted lend an impact surpassing that of any realistic depiction of the scenes.
Repeat the Ending features an innovative magic system that exemplifies some deeper point of the game. Instead of the usual fixation on object-manipulation, this game is about recognising processes, changing states of the surrounding world (and of the mind). The deeper meaning of the work is reflected in this focus of the magic system: pushing against and redirecting the laws of reality to change the circumstances. Finding a way over or through the predetermination of the protagonist's life.
The multiple endings that can be reached are in line with both the struggle to break free of the railroad, and the depressed and dissociative mental state of the main character. They are a measure not of success, but of steadfastly reaching outside the limits of perceived set-in-stone possibilities while failing.
No matter which way the heartbreaking final scene plays out, the story will end on at best a bittersweet note. The best both player and protagonist can (and should!) hope for is a small sense of regained control, of personal responsability, of self-knowledge.
This is a large, ponderous game with many attachments. The image I had when starting was of a gigantic hamburger, one that you'd get at an artisanal place that is far too large to fit in your mouth. You pick it up; it looks good. You eye it, go to bite, hesitate, turn it. A piece of lettuce drops out. You grab it, but an onion is slipping out the other side. So you just start eating, bits dropping here and there, no longer able or willing to manage it all, just enjoying the burger.
The concept of this game is that there was a (fictional) game released in 1996 that was like Photopia ahead of its time, less focus on puzzles and more on story. But it's intentionally made to be like other games of that period, so I guess less like Photopia and more like In The End, which is referenced several times.
Seven years later, someone releases a transcript of the game, which becomes well-known, so a new round of criticism is generated.
This game, in the fictional history, was buggy and received poor reviews. Then, in 2021, the author was approached by some critics/fans who want to do a critical version of it, which he agrees to while they update it (kind of like the Anchorhead update and the Cragne Manor tribute, I suppose).
This game consists of the 'revised version', with an accompanying booklet with the transcript and some art. The revised version has art as well. An in-game guide consisting of critical materials is available in-game, slowly increasing in scope as you proceed.
The art is one of the highlights; the style is unique and well-executed, and the game may be worth playing for the art alone.
The game concept is that you have the ability to remove entropy from some sources and imbue it into others, having been gifted that power by an orange-eyed demon woman in your youth.
It serves as a metaphor for involuntary inaction, similar to ADHD or depression, where you can only use some external impulse to compel yourself to complete some task.
Your mother is dying in the hospital, and you need to go see her. There are several obstacles in the way, though.
Besides the main goal of the ending, there are many mini-deaths along the way. The more you get before the end, the better ending you get!
Except...even if you only get a few, you can see what the ending would have been for the other options. I only got 6 points, but I wasn't super motivated to see the other 27.
And let's talk about why.
This game is very polished. It had numerous testers, and it feels like it. There were only a few times I felt like there were 'bugs', like trying to (Spoiler - click to show)OPEN DOOR while on the roof and having it say that that's not something you can open. Overall, though, I'd say it has a high level of polish for a game in general, especially one of its size.
Where I found some difficulty was in knowing what to do a lot of times. I felt like the game swung between no details and overfull details for clues sometimes. Like finding deaths; I really couldn't figure out the mechanics behind finding deaths at all. There were no exposed electrical lines or broken glass that could obviously hurt me. And things that were dangerous (like a heavy tree branch) didn't respond to what I thought were death-inducing things (like pushing them). The hint menu has dozens of hints, but none of them at all are for the deaths except for an explicit listing of the exact actions you need. In the main storyline, too, I often found that the things I got most stuck on weren't in the hints at all. I suppose I was just on a different brainwave.
It might have helped to highlight relevant features in some way. For instance, the (Spoiler - click to show)AC unit is mentioned early on in the first line of the paragraph, in the middle of a list of a bunch of non-useful material. Given its significance in the story, it might have merited more prominent place, nearer the end of the paragraph.
Fortunately, the game is implemented well enough that even while struggling there are generally good responses to obtain while looking for something to interact with.
The three layers of Drew Cook (the real one, the author one, the PC one) all blend in interesting ways, positive ones, I feel.
It's hard to evaluate the quality of the in-game writing. I think I would like it, had I found it in the wild; however, all of the in-universe reviews, mostly written by the (real-world) author, praise the quality of the writing. They'll say (paraphrase) 'the writing was excellent, but the bugs were terrible'; it came up more than 4 or 5 times. It's kind of like trying to judge the natural light of the moon when someone has set up a dozen spotlights aiming up at it in an attempt to brighten it. Does this artificial praise really affect my perception of the prose? It's hard to say, and it would have been interesting to see how I felt about the writing quality without simultaneously reading a great deal of manufactured praise for it. However, I do see the reasoning for it, for otherwise why would this game have been preserved?
Overall, I think of lot of people when looking for parser games to play are looking for something that's not super buggy, that responds to most inputs in a helpful manner, and that has a nice outer shell of story, setting and/or (in this case) art. So I think most people will be pleased with this. It made me think quite a bit, and I could see myself revisiting it.
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