Kaged is totalitarian IF. I mean that in two ways. First, the game’s setting is a paranoid, Kafkaesque dystopia, where a totalitarian government is clearly in control. The game tips us off quite early to the fact that it’s placing us in a very dark world indeed. The introductory text is full of capitalized phrases, phrases like High Inquisitor and Citadel of Justice. These give us a clue that the powers in charge surround themselves with an overwhelming air of authority, and the intro’s gory imagery makes it obvious that all is not well in this Stalinist wonderland.
When we reach the first room, a number of standard props are waiting for us: heavy, immovable desks symbolizing the drudgery of work; a seal and inkpad hinting at numbing bureaucracy; a solid iron typewriter, a technological relic to tell us that we’re in a place where innovation is squashed, where the status quo is upheld and even enforced for its own sake; and of course, a standard uniform, reminding us unsubtly that the PC is just one of a million pieces in the authoritarian machine. Then, finally, when we reach the first important scene of the game, we enter the chamber of the High Inquisitor himself. The Inquisitor’s job in this society is described thus: ” All decisions and power lay solely in the Inquisitor’s hands, the legal hocus-pocus of the past swept away. True Justice at last.” The irony is as thick as anything you’ll find in A Mind Forever Voyaging, and if you don’t get the point by now you never will. I found it all about as pleasant and effective as a hammer blow to the face. That is to say, Kaged is unremittingly, relentlessly dark in plot, setting, and characterization, and it certainly worked on me, spooking me into some of the sharpest paranoia I’ve ever experienced in IF.
Remember, though, I mentioned that there are two ways in which Kaged is totalitarian IF. Not only does it depict a totalitarian regime, it enacts one as well. With the exception of one branching point, both directions of which are functionally equivalent, and both of which put you at the same spot, your path through Kaged is very much predestined. Deviations from it are not tolerated. Commands that don’t advance the story tend to be met with terse dismissal: “That’s ridiculous.” Others are rejected with the rationale that the risk they involve is too dangerous, not that the game minds your taking the risks it intends. A few choices simply aren’t implemented at all.
A great deal of this is quite appropriate and logical, given the game’s setting. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, as are guards, and it’s a sensible design choice to disallow obviously suicidal commands with a “You don’t want to do that” type of message. In addition, this design dovetails neatly with the game’s plot. However, there are times when Kaged oversteps even these bounds, laying a controlling hand on the player to enforce the plot very rigidly indeed. For example, I figured out much of the foreshadowing in the game rather early on, and tried some rather reasonable actions to test my conclusions. Despite the fact that these actions would not have placed the PC in danger, certainly no more than most of the actions that the game requires to advance the plot, they were forbidden under the simple rubric of “You don’t want to do that.”
This bothered me — if I’ve figured something out, why can’t I act on that knowledge? Because it isn’t time yet, the game tells me, and besides it wouldn’t be in character. But when a game slips hints to you and then forbids you from acting on those hints, it has moved beyond simply shaping the character. In the case of Kaged, I felt very much that the game itself became an example of the kind of dictatorial control that it ostensibly was working to decry.
That being said, I’m in a dilemma about how to rate it. On the one hand, I have to admit that it does an outstanding job at achieving what appear to be its goals. By the end of the game I was twitchy, angry, and thoroughly awash in the reality-questioning quasi-madness brought on by works like Brazil and 1984. Like those works, Kaged is a kick in the head all the way through, and a very powerful kick at that. In a way, I love this — I find it a brilliant indictment of authority run rampant, and perhaps even a radical thesis on the problems of non-interactive IF. All that makes me want to rate Kaged quite highly indeed.
On the other hand, if I give it what it wants, doesn’t that make me complicit? If I truly believe in resisting totalitarianism (and I truly do), then shouldn’t I resist Kaged and its demands by giving it the lowest rating possible? Shouldn’t I raise my voice as strongly as possible to insist that IF like this is unacceptable? Maybe I should. But then again, what about that old rationale of irony? Sure, Kaged shows us totalitarianism, and controls us with an iron hand, but isn’t it just making a point by doing so? Sure. Of course it is. It’s all ironic, you see? That’s what it is. And it certainly would be overly paranoid of me to think of that as just a rationalization.