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The ultimate unforgiving environment, August 9, 2020
Antique Panzitoum is a work of interactive fiction that needs to be understood within a certain context. It was an entrant, and second place winner, of the first event of the Second Quadrennial Ryan Veeder Exposition for Good Interactive Fiction. This contest was judged on the beauty of the game's source code, and not, necessarily, the playable experience.
Not that the game isn't playable. It is. But the player character is not going to get very far, cut off from almost the entire story. That's why I am writing this review without a rating. It seemed to be the only natural way for me to present it.
The author, Caleb Wilson, excels at creating alien worlds that are challenging to understand, explore, and navigate via tradition IF methods. Granted, most interesting stories are about discovering common human truths within unfamiliar, foreign, or even alien, environments and cultures, but Wilson tends to push more on these ideas, creating much of his dramatic tension through an almost xenophobic uneasiness; a sense that, even after we finish the story, we still might not fully understand everything that happened to us during the journey.
Often in his stories, it not characters that push against the player's goal, but objects and environment. This is frequently encountered in IF, a medium where NPC interactions are difficult to implement, but Antique Panzitoum is an extreme example of this idea. Here we find the environment as an infallible antagonist, an endless desert containing a single courtyard, stone wall, and locked door. To discover the full story, the player must become a different type of explorer.
Here is the second conflict. It is a conflict between the player experience and author experience, the dynamic game versus the static source code, the innards flayed and pinned like an alien autopsy, within which one can explore the whole story. This is still an interactive experience but in a completely different way. Yes, Inform 7 is, in theory, a readable computer language, but the reality is, without some baseline authoring experience and knowledge, some of the story may still not be fully understood.
I am reminded of the game The Beginner's Guide, where the antagonist of the story is a brilliant and emotionally isolated game programmer, a friend of the game author. He creates elaborate works of art that are to be viewed by no one but himself. One level consists of an immense and intricate world completely inaccessible to the player. This world can only be experienced after applying a few authoring hacking tricks to the system. But is this the way the story was intended to be viewed? Should the audience encroach upon aspects of the artist that are not immediately visible? Is art without an audience really art? I don't know if there are answers to these complex questions, but a work like Antique Panzitoum is a good place to start the discussion.