in Comp97

Down by Kent Tessman [Comp97]

IFDB page: Down
Final placement: 20th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Because it’s hard to discuss Down without discussing its premise, this entire review should be considered spoilery.

Well, Down is the first Hugo game I’ve ever played, so I know that many of my initial reactions to it were actually reactions to the Hugo engine and interface itself. These first reactions were mainly positive. I used the DOS version of the Hugo engine, and found that its presentation was clean and asethetic. There were some nice effects available from using colored text, and an attractive menu system. Room descriptions looked good, with bold titles and slight indentations at the start of their descriptor sentences. Having sized up this interface and found it good, I was ready to enjoy Down, a game written (as I understand it) by the same person who created Hugo itself.

Unfortunately, I ran into difficulty right away. The game presents a puzzle within the first few moves, announcing that the player character’s leg is broken, making walking impossible. OK, so what’s the logical solution? How about crawling somewhere? Regrettably, “crawl n” brought the response “You’re not going to get anywhere on just hands and knees–you’ll have to try and figure out some way to walk.” OK, shoot. So I can’t crawl anywhere either. I spent the next 20 minutes trying to figure out how to leave the initial location. Finally, frustrated to the breaking point, I turned to the walkthrough, only to find out that what I needed to do was “crawl west.” Hey, wait a second! I thought I wasn’t going to get anywhere on my hands and knees! I guess I can after all. The game has several instances of this kind of problematic prose, making it difficult to progress without a walkthrough.

However, the story is worth experiencing, walkthrough or not. The author presents a very realistic and highly compelling puzzle-solving situation: you are the survivor of a plane crash. You must help your fellow passengers and somehow prevent the plane from killing you all when it explodes, as it inevitably will. This situation is a natural one for interactive fiction: you must traverse a limited area, under pressure from a time limit, solving very real puzzles with dozens of lives in the balance. Even though there are some problems with the prose and puzzles, it’s still a memorable feeling to crawl through the wreckage, a situation made even more evocative by the fact that it really could happen to most anyone.

Prose: The prose often does a nice job, especially with broad, sweeping tones such as setting up the feeling of urgency associated with the plane and with rendering the human tragedy caused by the crash. It’s in smaller moments that it fails, and the failure is not so much one of tone or voice as it is one of diction. The words chosen are simply not the correct ones to convey what turns out to be the case. For example, a seat is described as “almost against the wall,” but when you look behind it you see a small boy. Well, to me when something is almost against the wall, the distance in between is a matter of inches, certainly not something a child could fit into. Down would have benefited from words more carefully chosen.

Plot: The plane crash is definitely a very strong foundation upon which to build a plot, and Down exploits many things about that situation quite well. Interestingly, however, there are some narrative hooks on which resolution is never delivered. For example, I fully expected to be able to radio for help from the cockpit, so that my fellow survivors and I could get the medical attention that we need. Instead, there wasn’t even a radio mentioned. Also, you meet two passengers (husband and wife), one of whom is injured and bleeding badly. I thought perhaps this was a puzzle, and that I needed to help stop the bleeding. Not the case — apparently they were just there for scenery. The man never gets help from his wound, even at the end. I found this ending unsatisfying, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It makes sense that even after serious heroics, survivors of a plane crash would still find themselves in a very difficult situation, but it’s not the kind of resolution I’m used to.

Puzzles: The puzzles in general didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I liked the splinting puzzle, since it was logical and fit well into the story’s flow. However, other puzzles like that of the tree lodged in the plane didn’t ring true to me. Would you really set a huge fire inside something that you thought might explode? Wouldn’t you spend your time helping other passengers take shelter in the woods instead?

Technical (writing): I found no errors with the writing.

Technical (coding): The game’s implementation was solid as well.


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