IFDB page: Enlisted
Final placement: 23rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition
Enlisted, a military adventure with a Star Trek streak, imagines a Space Force that functions a bit like the French Foreign Legion reputedly did — as a last resort for people in desperate circumstances who need to escape their lives. The PC, fresh from an intertwined bankruptcy and divorce, certainly fits this category, and from the outset Enlisted gives its space Navy a distinctly authentic feel. There are still forms, though they’re now in electronic format. There are still humiliating medical exams, though now those exams are automated and high-tech. And there are still unpleasant surprises, like finding out that the length of your tour of duty is defined by how long it feels to you — the time you sleep away in cryogenic fugue doesn’t count. From the captain’s mission briefing speech to the endless, identical corridors of your ship, Enlisted creates a very convincing world.
Granted, there are a number of flaws that hinder the feeling of immersion — the writing often feels awkward, and is sometimes burdened with errors. In addition, there are still some bugs left in the game, as well as some basic errors like listing incorrect information about exits from a location; overall, Enlisted feels like it still needs one more attentive round of proofreading and debugging. Nonetheless, though I can’t claim a lot of personal authority on the subject, having never served in the military, the whole thing still just feels right. It captures the sense of being processed by a giant, bureaucratic system, as well as the excitement of setting out on a mission, encountering unexpected dangers and crises, and solving those problems. It’s not mimesis, exactly — a number of things are abstracted away in the name of high-tech — but the objects, settings, and situations felt genuine.
The problem is that genuineness isn’t always a virtue. Certainly, I was delighted when I encountered the other enlistees (“They look uncomfortable in their stiff and shiny uniforms and are mumbling amongst themselves.”) and the bevy of governmental-sounding acronyms at every possible location, but I was very disappointed by some of the things that the game chooses to display realistically. In particular, I’m thinking of a puzzle that requires you to travel outside the space station in an EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity — told you there were acronyms everywhere) suit. Using commands like “turnr” (turn right), “roll” (forward roll), and “lthrust” (low thrust), you must painstakingly maneuver the suit to a variety of locations based on x, y, and z coordinates.
I went through stages with this puzzle. At first, it baffled me completely — I ended up dozens of units away from anything, and totally unable to stop myself or correct my momentum. Then, after a restore, I started to get the hang of it, and thought it was amazingly cool. Once I had a mental picture of how the PC was traveling on x, y, and z axes, how turning and rolling could alter its orientation with regard to these axes, and how I could start and stop by turning and thrusting, it was fun and exciting to get myself maneuvered to the first place I needed to go. Then, when I realized that I’d need to go through this laborious process something like five more times, I started to get really annoyed. What started out as fun very rapidly devolved into tedium, and not only that, messing about with the EVA took the lion’s share of my 2-hour playing time, so much so that I didn’t even come close to finishing the game, despite typing straight from the walkthrough for the last half hour.
The more games I review, the more importance I place on one particular rule from Graham Nelson‘s legendary “Players’ Bill Of Rights”: “Not to have to do boring things for the sake of it.” The EVA suit stuff from Enlisted felt quite realistic — probably, traveling in a space suit via a backpack thruster and positioning system would be just as fiddly and drudging as the game makes it seem. However, reproducing this process does not make for enjoyable interactive fiction. As with regular fiction, we don’t expect to have to sit through the boring parts of an adventure, even though realistically there would probably be many of those. This puzzle would have been excellent if, for example, the player needed to use the manual turn/thrust method to reach the first target, and that target had contained an autopilot module which allowed the rest of the EVA stuff to be done automagically via a Starcross-ish command like “SET X TO 2. SET Y TO -2. SET Z TO 0. START AUTOPILOT” Instead, we have a few minutes of excitement and then long stretches of painful and tricky mucking about. If I wanted that, I’d have joined the real Army.