Romance has always been a rather underrepresented genre in IF. Lots of people praise Plundered Hearts, but few authors have stepped forward to create more IF romances. One of those few, though, is Kathleen Fischer, whose IF Art piece The Cove was ostensibly just an interactive landscape, but whose viewpoint character was straight out of a historical romance novel. Now that character returns in a work that further embraces (pardon the pun) the conventions of melodramatic genre romance — the woman in distress who passionately fights against the men who oppress her, the moustache-twirling villain who threatens to destroy the woman’s livelihood unless she marries him, and the mysterious stranger who takes an unforeseen interest in the situation.
If setting is the star of science fiction, and plot is the star of mysteries, then surely character is the feature attraction in a romance. Character, however, is not the strongest point of IF, and the game makes a number of clever choices that help smooth what could be a very difficult blending. For one thing, the conversation system is neither ask/tell nor menu based; if you want the PC to talk, just type “talk” (or “talk to ” if there is more than one in the room) — the game will fill in your words for you. In this way, Masquerade can construct the heated dialogues necessary to demonstrate its characters’ interactions without having to cobble together meaningful exchanges from conversation commands that are necessarily quite simplistic. Another smart choice is to reduce the number of takeable objects, which takes the focus off of trying to figure out what MacGyverish feat to perform on inanimate obstacles and places it on trying to figure out how best to deal with the other characters. Finally, like The Cove, this game implements nouns to an impressive degree of depth, creating the illusion of a fully fleshed-out world in which the characters move. Not only that, the descriptions of various characters (and yourself) change as their relationships to one another shift, a technique which breathes a great deal of life into them.
These choices, especially the first two, step away from the conventions pioneered by games like Zork and Adventure, and the gains that they provide in character and plot are taken out of interaction. In some cases, the tradeoff is handled with so much skill that I didn’t even realize how little interaction was really available until my second play-through. In others, the seams showed rather more.
The game provides the player with a number of yes/no decision points, but few of them seem to make much difference. In addition, there appear to be some places in which the right thing to do is far from obvious — I was never able to get to one of the game’s successful endings because my ability to interact with the characters was so limited, and manipulation of the environment so curtailed, that I was unable to guess the proper action, and therefore never found happiness for the PC. It didn’t help that the game’s meager hint system almost always came up with the response “You ponder your situation, but nothing comes to mind.”. This is one case in which a bundled walkthrough would have helped me a lot — it may have just demonstrated that I wasn’t reading the author’s mind properly, but on the other hand it may have demonstrated that I was being incredibly dense and overlooking an obvious clue.
Instead, I was exhorted to email the author for help. I did so, and eight hours later I haven’t heard back, so I’m going ahead with this review. Authors, allow me to suggest that not providing hints or a walkthrough with a comp entry is detrimental to your chances of doing well in that competition. I’ve only got a few days left, and several more games to get through — I don’t have time to wait around for a reply, and I think many judges are in the same boat. In a non-comp game, omitting the walkthrough can prompt players to post hint requests, or to email you, and this is a good thing. In a competition game, though, when the players are under time pressure and are committed to playing as many of the games as possible anyway, this strategy only ensures that they will be delayed and annoyed if they get stuck. Not the recipe for a high rating.
Even if I had been able to win the game, I still would have had to contend with the numerous bugs that appear in it. At various points, the game referred to an object that wasn’t there, or allowed me to take objects that should have been unavailable, or absconded with one of my possessions after I dropped it, or permitted travel in a direction that should have been forbidden (putting me in a room with the description “.”) Each one of these instances threw me out of the immersive world that the other aspects of the game work so hard to sustain. According to the credits, the game has been tested, but I was left wondering if that testing process was perhaps more rushed than it should have been due to the competition deadline.
Between the bugs and my inability to get anywhere with the puzzles (or even find them), I didn’t enjoy Masquerade nearly as much as I wanted to. If you haven’t played it yet, wait for the next release — the author has always shown a strong commitment to fixing problems, so I’ve no doubt there will be one. Once the bugs have been fixed and better hints are available, Masquerade will have a great deal to offer fans of genre romance. In this incarnation, though, I’m afraid it was a bit of a disappointment.