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An early, flawed choice-based game, December 20, 2021
(This is a repost of a review I wrote on the IF newsgroups right after the 2005 Comp. What a difference 16 years makes!)
While I'm generally quite partial to knock-down drag-out argumentation on abstract matters, for some reason the question of what makes something IF has never really struck me as worth getting worked up about. Space Horror I is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style game, and that may or may not disqualify it from being considered IF under some (quite reasonable) definitions of the form, but its cardinal sin isn't that its structure is unconventional—rather, it's that the author hasn't made good use of that structure once chosen.
CYOA has a bad name because of how the eponymous series of books was put together—lots of "pick door No. 1, die horribly, pick door No. 2, the story continues," in my recollection. But this isn't anything inherent in the CYOA framework; it's just a matter of implementation. And CYOA does have its virtues: the author has a great deal of power to tell a compelling story; since only a limited set of player actions are available, it's possible to take every choice into account and weave a deft tale that's responsive to everything the player does. That is, the raw possibility-space may be highly constrained, as compared to typical IF—instead of deciding where to go, what to examine, and what to take, you can only choose from a pre-ordained menu—but the flip side of that those fewer choices can be more meaningful, more dramatic, have more of an impact on the story. Many IF authors choose to go with menu-driven conversations rather than the more free-wheeling keyword system for precisely these reasons, after all.
Space Horror, however, doesn't take advantage of the strengths of the CYOA model; instead, it's modeled (explicitly, according to the end-notes) on one of those books from the bad old days. The player is left making choices in the dark, with no real information about the likely consequences, and with death very often the wages of an incorrect choice. Progress in the game often resembles navigating a labyrinth more than creating a story; instead of picking what actions would make for the most compelling narrative, the player winds up backing up from dead-ends and going left instead of right, so to speak. Picking a small, quick car over a big, slower one will result in player death, but there's no a priori reason to know that. Going back to the player character's dorm rather than exploring around is likewise a one-way ticket to the restart menu. The game doesn't present interesting choices—it just presents frustrations. The only real exception is the series of choices at the beginning that determine which branch of the plot gets played, but again, there's no context informing the choice, so it has weight only in retrospect (and really, the way the options are presented isn't exactly the stuff of high drama - "oh, if only Oedipus hadn't gone into the bedroom before going to the kitchen, it might have all turned out differently!" And so on). Further reducing one's chances of doing well on these shot-in-the-dark quizzes, the author repeatedly uses the player character's thoughts as a head-fake; several times, the text indicated that the protagonist wanted to pick a certain path, which when followed led to certain death. I'm unsure whether this was intentional or not, but it felt unnecessarily punitive and served to emphasize how the other characters were much smarter than me. This is called "deprotagonizing," and it's not particularly fun.
From the title alone, it would be unfair to expect Space Horror's story to be anything other than B movie fare, but given the choice of CYOA format, the narrative has to do even more heavy lifting than it would were the game a more conventional work of IF. Unfortunately, even judged by the standards of the aliens-invade genre, the tropes deployed still manage to be tooth-grating. Everyone from the player to the supporting characters immediately twigs to the fact that it's aliens behind everything, despite the ravaging monsters looking a lot like werewolves, and the mass disappearance looking a lot like the Rapture. This uncertainty could have been exploited to create some nice tension - of course the girl who runs the UFO web site thinks it's aliens, but then she's not all there, is she?—but sadly we're left with the dull (and somewhat silly) consensus that it's carnivorous wolf-aliens who've traveled untold light-years and deployed hugely advanced technology in order to eat us. And the Tina character is too transparently the Romantic Interest—immediately after seeing an 8-year-old girl horribly eviscerated by an alien monstrosity, her first words are a thank-you to the player for being thoughtful enough to hold her hair while she vomited from the horror. The other characters are generally more bearable, though are just as cardboard—the Defenseless Moppet, the Cop In Over His Head, the Kooky Survivalist. The overall amateurish writing doesn't particularly help matters.
The puzzles are nothing to write home about either, being decidedly abstract and poorly integrated into the story proper. The use of Morse code as a puzzle element is especially ill-advised; there isn't an in-game shortcut for deciphering the message, which means that the puzzle reduces to simple drudgery once the player realizes that Morse code is involved (I confess to immediately scurrying to the hints because I was too lazy to perform the transcription, which presumably isn't the desired behavior). There is an opportunity for a clever puzzle—discovering why the player character and the other survivors weren't taken—but the author immediately sabotages it by having the answer written in block-caps across the top of the screen. Simply presenting the facts and allowing the player to deduce the pattern would have been much more satisfying.
Space Horror just doesn't have enough room for player agency, both because of the CYOA format and the less-than-inspired puzzles. If all this railroading was in the service of a novel story, it would be forgivable, but the plot is an unpretentious genre exercise which barely registers the moment after it's over; more, because of the way the story branches, it's likely that what small narrative punch it packs will be diffuse the first time through, since many of the characters won't make it to the end or won't have had any screen time.
I can't close out the review without offering one unalloyed word of praise, however: "Is it the end of the world? :(" is perhaps the most hilarious parody of Internet-discourse I've ever read. The idea that someone, someday will greet the apocalypse with an emoticon still leaves me giggling.