IFDB page: Chaos
Final placement: 19th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition
Most interactive fiction games use the second person voice, and make it clear from the outset that this is their mode. Think of “You are standing in an open field west of a white house,” or “You are Primo Varicella.” Chaos appears to follow in this tradition, describing a character named Captain Chaos but using the second person form of address several times in asides like “You know what I mean” or “you guessed it.” Admittedly, the “I” in the first phrase throws a bit of a spanner into the works, and a player might well have cause to wonder who the “I” is that’s apparently speaking. The parser? The author? Some sort of in-game narrator? For me, though, it went by so fast that I allowed myself to suspend that question. From the introduction, I presumed I was Captain Chaos’ sidekick, there to help him with a sudden power failure on his jerry-built hovercraft. But then I typed in my first command, and this is how it went:
Chaos has a Evil Overlord list.
What? But what’s in my inventory? After a few commands, I slowly began to understand that the game was responding to my commands as if they were guiding Captain Chaos himself, then describing the results referring to the Captain in the third person — “Chaos walks south”, “He picks up the screwdriver,” etc. What’s more, from time to time the Captain Chaos character will offer some commentary on the command chosen, relating tangential or backstory facts about the parts of the environment he encounters while being guided by the player’s commands. The more of this that goes on, the more prominent one question becomes: Who is the PC of this game? Apparently the introduction was addressing me — me the player, not some avatar within the story with whom I am expected to identify. And who is Captain Chaos addressing with his asides? Again, it’s the player. In a real sense, the player is the PC in Chaos. You, the player, control Captain Chaos with your commands, but he is aware of your presence, at least enough to make the occasional remark to you. And if all that’s not complicated enough, wait until he finds (or you find, or something) the technology that allows him to control another entity remotely.
This is all rather haphazardly done in this particular game, as evidenced by my confusion at the first few prompts. I found myself bumping into unexpected forms of address, and having to puzzle out exactly what was supposed to be happening, or at least what it seemed like was supposed to be happening. Moreover, many of the questions raised by these narrative choices, such as those I mentioned about the use of “I” in the introduction, are just never answered. In fact, there is no announcement of any kind — subtle, blatant, or otherwise — that Chaos will overturn a fundamental IF convention, and the result is a rather jarring feeling of displacement. The creation of this feeling doesn’t really seem to serve the story, at least not in any specific way I could determine.
Nonetheless, I found it quite interesting. I was reminded of other competition games which have fiddled with the narrative voice, such as Christopher Huang’s Muse and Graham Nelson’s Tempest. Both of these games took a slightly different approach, having the parser itself take on a character, speaking to the player in the first person and executing the player’s commands as if they were that character’s own actions. Tempest even complicated matters further by explaining that its player’s role is as “the magical will” of Shakespeare’s Prospero, guiding Ariel (the parser’s character) through the various scenes of the play. These tactics have a bit of a distancing effect on the player, setting identification at one remove and shifting the action from the player character to the parser character. Chaos, though it explains nothing of its strategy, actually creates one further remove by allowing neither a player character nor a parser character but another character altogether to be the focus of the action. Yet when this third character (third person, you might even say) speaks outward in the second person voice, it addresses the player (in a “Dear reader” sort of way) and brings the game and player closer together than almost any other IF I’ve seen.
Orchestrated strategically and used creatively, these techniques could make for a masterful, groundbreaking work of IF. Chaos isn’t that work, but its experimentation does open up some very interesting, and mostly unexplored, territory. Beside this, the plot of the game seems quite inconsequential. There’s a ship to be repaired, and various puzzles to solve, some required and some optional. These puzzles are decent, and the writing is passable, and although there are a number of coding problems, the game is at least finishable. It’s a bit of a throwaway, though, a mediocre competition entry except for the unique approach it takes, almost offhandedly, to forms of address in IF. I enjoyed thinking about Chaos more than I enjoyed playing it, but if the author’s next game explores the techniques employed here in a consistent, systematic, and clear way, the result will be well worth a few false starts.