I had to take a long break and read some regular English before I could start to write this review. If I hadn’t, no doubt my sentences would have sounded something like this: “The game approaches jigsaw, laying out words and concepts end to end, but skew. It moves whirling, lifting gazes into a rarefied and unknown sphere.” Even now, my language feels highly self-conscious, like a drunk trying to walk a straight line. I’m in this discomfiting circumstance because For A Change put my head into a very weird space through its use of words. The entire game uses an English that, while it makes sense, is just a few degrees off-center. For example, one location is described thus:
In the Shade
The land increases towards your head to the south, and decreases away
from your feet to the north. Mobiles lead accordingly in both
directions. The High Wall may also be approached to the east. A long
walk to the west is a tower, dwarfing your form, and dwarfed in turn by
Out of context, it seems almost incomprehensible, but once you’ve been playing the game for a while, you realize that all it means is that you’re standing on sloping ground which rises to the south, alongside a north-south road. At first, I found this linguistic displacement affected and annoying, but as it became more transparent to me, it acquired an intoxicatingly immersive effect. It was like watching a foreign film with subtitles — by about halfway through, the mechanical nature of the device was submerged and I felt fully involved in the milieu.
For me though, there was a downside to this approach. After I had finished the game, I marveled at the cleverness of its linguistic contrivance, and the consistency with which it was implemented, but the pleasure was solely on a cerebral level. Even though the experience of playing the game was interesting, I never cared very much about the story, I think because I found it too difficult to make an emotional commitment to a setting and character that were so completely alien. Consequently, I ended up observing myself a lot, which is a very distanced, passive way to go through something like interactive fiction. Then again, I’m not a person who gets passionate about abstract painting or experimental fiction like that of William Burroughs, so my lack of reaction to the game may be due more to my own idiosyncrasies than any particular flaw in the work.
The other thing I found interesting about For A Change is that it is the product of Dan Schmidt, who, though he doesn’t tend to shout about it, was a member of the team that produced Ultima Underworld I and II. To the best of my knowledge, this marks the first time that a competition entry has been authored by someone from the professional computer game designing community. Well, actually I suppose that’s not quite true — I know Andrew Plotkin contributed to at least one professional game for the Mac. Still, I found it fascinating, and very encouraging, that a writer of such high-profile games entered the competition, and that he did it with a game that is so thoroughly uncommercial. What’s more, the things that make For A Change special are only possible because it is a text game; even if by some bizarre circumstance a software company wanted to put out a graphical version of the game, that version simply could not capture the very specific flavor that For A Change achieved with its distinctive use of words. How fascinating it might be, then, to see the IF competition become a place where game-writing pros came to fulfill their most unrestrained artistic ambitions, creating pieces of text which would never see the light of their day jobs.