Seems like just a few reviews ago I was positing that the trend of the 1999 competition is non-interactive games, those games which give you only one choice of how to proceed, whether subtly or overtly. And now, as if only to vindicate my trendspotting ability, here comes Only After Dark. This game moves along like a teenager learning to drive a stick shift — lurching forward, then halting, then lurching forward again. The lurches are at points where the game shoves you into the plot without giving you much choice in the matter, and the halts are when it waits for you to find the one and only way out of the situation it just forced you into. Now, to be fair, I should say that the game is a little more interactive than, say, Life on Beal Street or A Moment of Hope. It does have a parser. There are no moments (at least, not as far as I could tell, anyway) when it just flat-out ignores what you type. However, there are several scenes where the game absolutely will not let you do anything but what the rigidly linear plot calls for.
Actually, this description fits almost every moment in the game — the advancement of the plot is enforced by meeting any deviation with either an abrupt ending to the game (usually via the death of the PC) or with some variant of “You can’t do that.” For example, there is one scene where the PC is in jail. The plot calls for him to go to sleep. Therefore, there is absolutely nothing you can do but go to sleep. Every other attempt at action is blocked, and the game gives intermittent hints along the lines of “There’s nothing else to do but go to sleep.” Mess around long enough, and the game puts the PC to sleep by force. Now, my question is this: if all I was going to be allowed to do is sleep, why even give me a prompt at all? Why not just say “You’re hustled into a jail cell, and although you attempt to escape, your attempts are thwarted. Deciding there’s nothing to do but sleep, you settle down into the uncomfortable bed, awakening the next day to a very strange scene…” Sometimes there’s a perfectly reasonable answer to this question, something along the lines of wanting the player to identify with the PC’s sense of imprisonment. But when every scene plays like this, and the game forces the player into really stupid decisions because it has made no provision for alternatives, the whole story starts to feel like a prison.
The other way in which the game enforces its plot is to present the player with situations in which there is one correct move, and any other action leads to death. Again, this sort of thing has its place as a technique, and can often be effective when used wisely. However, its vulnerability is that it tempts the designer toward guess-the-verb situations and save-and-restore puzzles — sometimes even both at once. Just as vexing is the fact that dying over and over again fails to be entertaining rather quickly. Only After Dark, sadly, neither resists the temptation nor finds a way around the boredom. Take the initial puzzle, for example. I won’t give away the situation or the solution, but the structure is this: the PC’s life is in danger. There’s only one thing he can do to save himself. If he doesn’t do that one thing he will die. You have one move to make the correct choice. The action is vaguely clued before the choice must be made, but I still ended up with a dozen death messages before I hit on the solution, simply because there is so little time to solve the puzzle. Reading the same death message ten times is pretty dull. Later on, there’s a puzzle in which a certain verb must be used, and the only way I could determine to figure out what that verb ought to be was to closely scrutinize the death message that comes from using the wrong verb. This is the worst of both worlds in IF puzzles.
All this bitching probably does very little to explain why I gave Only After Dark a higher rating than some of the other non-interactive entries in this year’s comp, so let me try to clear that up. First of all, the writing and coding were error-free, which I am really appreciating recently. Yes, the game may railroad you through the plot, but at least it does so correctly. Also, the subject of the game is lycanthropy, which is a fascination of mine. I really enjoyed the malleable aspect of the PC, and while this isn’t the ideal werewolf game, it’s a much better werewolf game than, say, Strangers In The Night was a vampire game. I thought the milieu was interesting, if a little confusing, and there were some nice little touches, like the game’s occasional use of color. Perhaps the only reason it was so linear was to fit the short format of the competition. If that’s so, I dearly hope that an expanded version is forthcoming. I would really like to play a game set in the Only After Dark universe, written and coded as well as the competition entry but offering the player an actual choice once in a while.