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Rameses by Stephen Bond [Comp00]

IFDB page: Rameses
Final placement: 13th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

I was all set to slag off this game as another totally non-interactive self-pity festival with an insecure, pathetic PC, as kind of an Irish version of A Moment of Hope. But I finished it sort of quickly, so I decided to play it again, just to see if there were more choices than I found on my first time through. There aren’t, but in the process, something strange started happening to me. My first instinct about the game was being stretched, reshaped by things like the long, involved speech that one of the characters makes about free will.

I already knew that Rameses was well-written, so I had just assumed that its non-interactivity was an instance of an game that wanted too much control and wasn’t willing to create an experience where the player could take the lead. But if this was the case, what are the chances that it would make a point of having one of its characters pontificate on free will, a lecture whose irony is unmistakably manifest in this very constrained game? The more closely I looked, the more strongly I suspected that there is more to Rameses than meets the eye. As my second play-through went on, I again encountered the main character’s anguished words at the climax:

It’s just that… I can’t… do anything! I can’t do anything!” I scream at last. “It’s like I’m trapped inside and can’t get out and can’t be myself and… I’m stuck….

The first time I read these words, I just blew by them. I was too annoyed with the game’s steel restraints and its horribly wretched PC. The second time, though. The second timeā€¦

The second time I finally twigged to what the game is up to. Rameses uses non-interactivity for the purpose of deepening character rather than, as with most other non-interactive games, for the purpose of furthering the plot. Alex Moran, the PC, is an insecure, depressed college student who can’t ever seem to stand up to the bullies in his life, or to comfort their victims. Consequently, his only “friends” are smug, self-important blowhards who only want him along because they know that he’ll be a receptive (if resentful) audience for their grandiosities. He spends most of his time nostalgically dreaming about a childhood friend named Daniel, fantasizing about his reunion with that friend, despite the fact that he has totally cut Daniel out of his life due to his own inability to communicate.

Playing this character is an exercise in frustration. Every command you enter that might stand up to a bully, or leave a bad situation, or just let the PC take charge of his life in any way is wistfully brushed aside with a message like “Yeah, that’d be great, wouldn’t it? But I’ll never do it.” Annoying, yes, but it’s also the very soul of the character, and the very point of the game. In a sense, Rameses turns you into Alex’s real self, struggling to get out and be heard, struggling to make a difference, only to be smacked down by fear, insecurity, and sometimes outright paranoia. In his climactic speech, the PC voices the exact torment that the player feels at every prompt — it’s an agonizing experience, and that’s the point.

(I’m about to talk about the game’s ending — I don’t think I really spoil too much, but be advised that I’ll be analyzing how I think the last paragraph worked.) It’s pretty depressing stuff, and it’s made even more depressing by the fact that I don’t think the PC ever gets out of it. Rameses‘ ending left me a little uncertain, but the more I think about it, the more sure I am that the ending paragraph is a fantasy scenario. For one thing, it comes so abruptly after the PC has fled the scene of what might have been his redemption — without any transition, it feels more like a wistful reimagining than an actual event. Add to this the fact that the game begins with a fantasy scenario, one which ends with the very same words that end the closing paragraph. No, that final scene doesn’t happen — it’s just a way to open the next chapter of Alex’s life, another dream to focus on even as he lets it slip away. And as well-done as Rameses was, I hope that next chapter never becomes IF. Once around that track was more than enough for me.

Rating: 8.9

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