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Quarter-century look-back at a flawed game., May 8, 2023
---> 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.