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Triune by Papillon [Comp01]

IFDB page: Triune
Final placement: 9th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

The more years I write reviews for comp games, the more convinced I feel that my reaction to a game is strongly influenced by where it happens to fall in the random lineup chosen for me by CompXX.z5. I still remember how it felt in 1998 when I opened up Little Blue Men right after finishing Human Resources Stories — I suddenly had this horrible vision of legions of IF authors sitting in dark, cramped basements, writing little opuses that allowed them to spew hatred at their day jobs. Similarly, as soon as I was a little ways into Triune, I thought to myself, “Oh dear, another dream game.” This most likely wouldn’t have happened had I not just finished The Cave of Morpheus, whose hallucinatory qualities covered over a multitude of design and implementation sins.

The dreamlike sequences in Triune are much more powerful than those in TCOM, because Triune borrows liberally from fairy tale elements, squeezing all the Jungian, archetypal, collective-unconscious juice from them that it possibly can. On the one hand, the inclusion of these elements makes for potent storytelling, but on the other, it calls for a degree of control that the game doesn’t always display — sometimes the power of the symbols isn’t harnessed as well as it could be, and they end up working at cross purposes. The effect, at the end of the game, is of an experience that offers some very strong moments, but doesn’t quite all hang together.

The narrative frame of Triune gives us a teenage girl in an unbelievably abusive household, who escapes (perhaps literally — the game leaves it unclear) into a fairy-tale world; that is, fairy-tale in the bloody, brutal Brothers Grimm sense, not the bowdlerized sweetness of a Disney flick. I’m not using that word “unbelievably” as a casual intensifier; the father comes across as such a caricature of an abusive alcoholic that it’s difficult to believe in him as a real person. (The fact that some people no doubt act exactly as this father does, while a sad reality, does nothing to make him a stronger character, since stories are more about what feels real than what actually is real.) In fact, the whole thing feels a bit over-the-top: in the flashbacks and non-dream bits, there tends to be some adult who is being either amazingly wonderful or amazingly awful.

The fairy-tale bits can tend towards the ham-handed: there’s a serpent, a Tree of Knowledge, a character named Lilith, etc. Now, arguably, I’ve been guilty of this sort of excess myself, so I can understand how it gets into a game, but I still found it a little grating. It’s true, though, that the circumstances of the narrative frame — the fact that it’s seen through a teenager’s eyes, the fact that the archetypal forest invites archetypal dwellers, and the general sense of unreality about the whole thing — mitigate these problems to a significant degree.

From an IF standpoint, Triune is a mixed bag. There’s some fairly rich plot-branching — the fact that I played through a session with the game that differed wildly from the walkthrough but still felt satisfying indicates how much the story space has to offer. On the other hand, while the implementation is generous in some places, it’s quite sparse in others. It’s fine that the game more or less only implements what it’s interested in, but there needs to be some minimum degree of coding polish to avoid exchanges like this:

The door is locked.

I don't see any door here.

In addition, there were some definite lexical problems, such as the books who displayed their contents when EXAMINEd, but were stubbornly unavailable to READ. The jpeg image feelies provided with the game are excellent, again dipping into the well of ancient patterns, along with evocations of childhood, to set a dramatic scene. As an examination of femininity and how it works in culture, Triune is partially successful, offering some moments that are quite moving indeed, and bringing mythical elements into some interesting collisions, though not always as coherently as might be hoped. As a game, it’s got some serious flaws, but is still worth exploring.

Rating: 7.7

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