Babel by Ian Finley [Comp97]

IFDB page: Babel
Final placement: 2nd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Babel is not only one of the best competition games I’ve ever played, it’s one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I’ve ever seen, period. The game starts from a well-worn IF trope: you awaken alone, with no memory of your identity. Then, Babel unfolds into a breathtaking, emotional story. The work of exposition and plot development is performed through the protagonist’s enhanced powers of tellurgy, which the game defines as “the ability to experience past events by touching objects present when the event occurred.” The clarity of these visions varies according to the emotional intensity of the event being witnessed. This device, reminiscent of that in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, is the central convention of the game, and it allows a degree of character development very rare in interactive fiction. Certainly other games (most notably Zork: Nemesis) have used this device in the past, but none have brought it about so convincingly and so effectively as does Babel. The tellurgic episodes gradually bring an awareness of the character’s identity, and how he came to be in his amnesiac state, as well as tell a chilling story of scientific arrogance and attendant disasters.

Another interesting aspect of Babel is the moral ambiguity of its main character. Typical IF heroes (or heroines) have few ethical shades: they are either unambiguously on the side of good, working to save the universe or some version thereof, or basically self-interested seekers of wealth or fame. The hero of Babel falls into neither of these convenient categories. Instead, he appears first as a victim, then eludes that simple assignation as well, becoming a character of depth and complexity very rarely realized in IF. The experience of playing such a character was a powerful one, especially as the story gradually revealed just how willing a participant he was in his own undoing.

Finally, I think it’s worth noting that after playing only three games from the ’97 competition, I’ve already seen two that deal with a metallic research station where the player discovers the frightening results of unbridled scientific inquiry run amok. The meaning of this thematic fascination in a community devoted to the supposedly “archaic” text form is a speculation for another essay, but I feel safe enough asserting this: Babel is an outstanding treatment of the theme, the best I have ever seen in IF, and one of the best I’ve ever seen in any medium anywhere.

Prose: Babel‘s prose was nothing short of outstanding. It unerringly conveyed the experience of being stranded in a deserted Arctic outpost, addressing all the senses and the emotions as well. Powerful turns of phrase abounded, and extreme experiences (such as being out in the Arctic winter wearing only a hospital gown) were vividly rendered. The characterization and dialogue in the cut-scenes of the tellurgic visions was sharp and effective, outlining strongly defined and complex characters. Small touches like tiptoeing across the cold floor in bare feet, or the equation of the cold-hearted scientist’s eyes with the Arctic ice (notice the pun), combined with broader strokes for an astonishingly realistic and well-written whole.

Plot: The game’s plot unfolds masterfully, revealed in dribs and drabs by the tellurgic episodes. The author provides a chronology for all these events with the (rather forced) device of giving the character a calendar on which he “instinctively” jots down the date of each occurrence. As the story develops, the tension becomes greater and greater: the unfolding mystery of the character’s origin serves to heighten the power of the story’s eventual climax. Some of the Biblical imagery is just a tiny bit heavy-handed, but the whole is strong enough to overpower any objection of didacticism or triteness.

Puzzles: The puzzles almost effortlessly achieved the ideal of blending seamlessly into the narrative. There were no arbitrary puzzles, and the artfully gradual revelation of the plot was served elegantly by simple but logical obstacles. There were no puzzles that were particularly ingenious or unique, but that wasn’t the point of this game. The puzzles were there to provide some control over the narrative flow, and in this they served their purpose just right.

Technical (writing): The prose mechanics were excellent. I only noticed a couple of proofing errors in this very word-heavy game.

Technical (coding): Coding was equally strong. I found a couple of very minor bugs, but there were many, many touches that made it clear that a great deal of thought, foresight, and effort went into the coding of this game.


0 thoughts on “Babel by Ian Finley [Comp97]”

  1. I played Babel in 2010 and gave it 3 stars out of 5; you can find the review at the IFDB:

    I ended that review saying: “Which leaves me somewhat baffled. This game is more than adequate, but it is definitely not great. It’s very standard interactive fiction with a relative standard story pasted onto it in a totally non-interactive way. So why do Andrew Plotkin and Paul O’Brian give it a 10 and a 9.8 respectively? Why do half the reviewers on this site give it 5 stars?”

    I’m wondering whether you would in any way agree with the criticisms I voice in the review; and whether our very different grades might have something to do with changing ideas about IF between 1997 and 2010?

  2. Hey Victor. Well, it’s been 23 years since I played the game, and I don’t really have the bandwidth to go back and revisit it, and I’ve been out of the IF loop for quite a while so I’m not sure I’m qualified to speak on ideas about the form in 2010. That said, I read your criticisms as boiling down to “this isn’t interactive enough.” Which is valid, but also strikes as more a matter of taste more than of “we know better now than we did back then.” The argument did make me smile though, as Ian’s later “game” Life On Beal Street limited its interactivity to (essentially) a prompt along the lines of “Turn the page now? (Y/N)”. Possibly he drew the wrong lesson from the praise heaped on Babel? 🙂

    Your critique of Babel reminded me of complaints that have been aimed at Photopia over the years, so I skimmed through your SPAG Specifics review of that this morning too. You (justly IMO) praise Photopia as having planted one of the seeds for a more literary flavor of IF, with a reduced dependence on “combination codes for safes and fiddling with intricate machinery.” I think Babel was a step along that journey as well — sure it may have relied too much on backstory for your taste, and may have revealed it too mechanically, but at the moment it came out, the notion that an IF character could even *have* a rich backstory was still novel. Providing that, especially to the level of quality this game does, justified the “wake up with amnesia” trope better than most games that lean on it.

    1. Fair enough! Still, seeing that Anchorhead came out in 1998, I wonder whether that wasn’t a game that showed how to do something like horror (and storytelling in general) in a much more you’re-there register than Babel did. I do suspect that Anchorhead, and games inspired by it, may have made the community more aware of techniques beyond slowly-revealing-backstory. But to prove that theory, I would probably have to dive into the archives of and see how these topics were discussed at the time. 🙂

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