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About the Story
You and your friend Pari have been digging out an escape tunnel. Yesterday she told you that it was ready and that she would come get you right after dinner. Unfortunately, it's already night and she's half an hour late, which is worrying you very much. Even worse, Nikhil probably isn't planning to leave for at least a few hours, and by then you doubt you'll have any chance.
Number of Reviews: 3
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The Forgotten Girls is about child sex slavery in the developing world. This is difficult material, and the author seems to be a novice at both writing and IF design. You play a child prostitute who attempts to rescue another and escape slavery.
Narratives about atrocity have a particularly strong relationship to authenticity. First-hand accounts by victims or witnesses are highly potent, even if the narrator is unskilled; second-hand accounts, by people who have spoken with actual witnesses, still have the impact of immediacy, but require somewhat more technical skill. Third-hand accounts, fictionalised, seriously reduce the impact, and a great deal of skill is required to impart the appropriate feeling to the audience. And interactive narratives are generally harder to get right. So I can't really blame the author for too much, here, other than underestimating the difficulty of the task.
Verisimilitude is the biggest weakness of The Forgotten Girls. It's set in a specific culture (India, with Hindu and Sikh surnames) with which the author does not seem to be particularly familiar. That said, the NPCs are not convincing as humans of any culture; their dialogue is stilted and unnatural, and they're conspicuously pawns of a puzzle structure. This makes it difficult to take them seriously as monstrous abusers. While the intention here seems good -- showing abuse victims working actively to empower themselves, rather than passively awaiting rescue -- the effect kind of diminishes the seriousness of the issue. If you can easily manipulate your abusers with adventure-game tricks, the power dynamic is all wrong. (I'm reminded, again, of the slapstick ghetto scene in The Great Dictator, in which Jews outwit beer-gutted, oafish Nazi police with skillets and flower-pots.) Depicting abused women as active agents in their own rescue has its virtues, but depicting victims as more resourceful than abusers makes the entire scenario nonsensical.
The problem's compounded because this world-illogic-for-the-sake-of-puzzles isn't just about NPC behaviour; the physical world works like this as well. A wooden cupboard can be set alight with matches. An ordinary car can smash through a brick wall from a dead start. A girl is able to walk (let alone flee) immediately after a vicious and prolonged beating with an iron rod. This could have been glossed over if the characters were less mechanical, and fixing it wouldn't compensate for the mechanical characters; but it does make the problem worse. Along similar lines, room descriptions are often laid out as ungainly inventory listings, and synonyms and close-but-wrong attempts are rarely implemented; you're never allowed to forget the artifice of your environment. (And from a gameplay perspective, read-author's-mind is a huge problem. There is, at least, a pretty good hints menu.)
It's worth comparing this to another game about real-world atrocity, Gigantomania. While suffering from similar problems (counternarrative gameplay elements; a general feeling of sophomore inauthenticity), Gigantomania made a creditable attempt to represent life under Stalin through modes of interaction, to explain experience through doing, to bring home a point by exploring how a system works. The Forgotten Girls doesn't really do anything like this; it's really just the statement "sex slavery in the developing world exists." That's not a pointless statement, for all that it makes for a less interesting work. But I think there's little point in fictionalising that statement if the fiction has less force than the bare facts.
My guess — and this is just a guess — is that this was written for a project for school under a time constraint and had no testing. I'm basing that entirely on the link to Vanderbilt and the fact that no testers are credited in the About/Credits text. If those two things are indeed true, this isn't too bad a release, and I do welcome more interactive fiction that tackles serious subject matter. However, I think the subject matter here would be better-served by a more solid game: immersion in this world is key to making the player really feel the visceral punch that the author is going for, and it's hard to become immersed in the game due to terse conversation and linear (and not-necessarily-intuitive) puzzle design.
We played this for ClubFloyd in March 2013, and there was a bit of interesting discussion afterward about whether this game needed to go entirely puzzleless or really embrace puzzles in order to make a bigger impact. Hard to say, but this middle-of-the-road approach didn't serve the story well.
All that having been said, and taking into account the valid points made by other reviewers, I nevertheless did feel this piece was successful in evoking emotions, and that was most likely a key goal for the author.
The Forgotten Girls drops the player into the bare feet of an Indian girl sexually enslaved in a brothel. Considering the potentially confronting, bleak and dour qualities of the subject material – and it is the game's stated aim to raise awareness of the problem – The Forgotten Girls surprised me by turning out to be thoroughly action packed. As the heroine strives to rescue her friend and effect an escape, we see a range of the brothel's residents' behaviours through her eyes, ranging from the workaday to the cruel. The game's practical and non-exploitative approach keeps it from being didactic. For players who are concerned about encountering any explicit sexual abuse in the game, there is none on camera: it is only implied and out of game time. There are violent scenes, though.
The game's puzzles actually turn out to be fairly classic adventure game stuff: escapes, dealing with locked things, avoiding enemies. A central scene involving one character who is being tortured achieves the strange and novel feat of also managing to be a bit cute at the same time, as your character(Spoiler - click to show) takes this opportunity to create a series of amusing distractions to get rid of the guards. I found this scene to be particularly well executed because it extrapolates some interesting outcomes from simple commands. Had the same scene demanded the player spell out every element of his or her intentions in microscopic detail, it would likely have been a nightmare of worst-of-Infocom pedantry.
The game does have a few weaknesses in basic areas. You have to specify with which key you want to open what door, it's pretty strict on synonyms in general, and its effect is at times undermined by Inform's default delivery style, which remains unadorned here. EG 'You can see a can of beans (in which are some brown beans), a table (on which are Pari, some ropes, an iron rod, and a purse (closed))'. Considering the cleanliness and cleverness of the action overall, these aren't big problems. The game also has good built in hints in the typical style and offers helpful advice during its opening turns in a fashion inviting to newcomers.
The Forgotten Girls finds an engaging way into harsh subject matter. It's practically minded, uncomplicated and clear-eyed. It certainly bends reality a little to adventure game conceits, but does so in a way that's good for playability.