IFDB page: The Case Of Samuel Gregor
Final placement: 27th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition
I think I can see what this game tries and fails to do. Of course, I may be totally mistaken about this, but I think what’s happening here is that TCOSG is trying to show us something like an insane PC, an unreliable narrator whose version of reality shifts as the game progresses. Unfortunately, what it ends up with is an incomprehensible PC whose descriptions, reactions, and actions make less and less sense as the game progresses. The unreliable narrator is an extremely tricky gimmick, and would be hard for anybody to pull off successfully; for a host of reasons, this game is not up to the task.
For one thing, the writing is frequently unclear. For instance, take a look at the following:
Samuel Gregor's Kitchen
Apparently Mr. Gregor does not prepare food at home very often, for
the kitchen is in immaculate condition. That is, if the appliances
weren't showing signs of being thirty years old. And it's no wonder,
since the room is only eight feet across, and there are no windows.
You can understand why he is not presently at home.
Okay, first sentence, so far so good. Second sentence: all right, I’m thinking this means that the kitchen would look more immaculate if the appliances didn’t look old. I’m still understanding. Then the third sentence comes along and everything goes haywire. What’s no wonder? That the appliances look old? The appliances look old because the room is small and has no windows? Surely not. Reaching further back, perhaps it’s no wonder the kitchen is immaculate, because it’s small. Because… small kitchens stay cleaner? They take less time to clean?
Maybe it’s no wonder Mr. Gregor doesn’t use the kitchen, because it’s small. This makes the most sense of all, though it’s a big stretch from the actual words. So okay, let’s provisionally go with that, and on to the fourth sentence. I can understand why he is not presently at home. Um, I can? Is my understanding that he’s not home because he has a small, clean kitchen with old appliances? If so, I don’t really understand my understanding. Do people avoid their own homes because they wish the kitchen were bigger? Not anybody I know.
There’s a lot of this sort of unclear writing throughout the game. At one point, it told me, “You are becoming increasingly aware that the whole of this story is being foisted upon you.” I thought, “well, yes, and not very well at that. But what does this mean to the PC?” Apparently it means a great deal, because there was a huge, otherwise unannounced shift in the game at that point, which pretty much left me behind, never to catch up, even after throwing up my hands and going straight from the walkthrough.
Once I did go to the walkthrough, I discovered that not only is this game plagued by unclear writing, its puzzles are hopelessly obscure as well. There’s one puzzle that involves getting through a locked door, which of course is nothing strange. What makes it unique, though, is that the actions required to get through the door have absolutely nothing to do with the door itself, and there’s no reasonable way to expect that those actions would have any effect on the door at all. The only reason to do them is because they’re implemented, not because they make any kind of story sense. Apparently, there was an alternate solution that involves giving food to someone who’s carrying massive amounts of food already and shows no sign of being hungry, but I could never get this to work. It’s just as well, because the working solution had all the illogic I could stomach at that moment anyway.
TCOSG calls itself “An Existential Adventure” and throws in a Kafka quote at the end, but I have to say I didn’t see the existentialism in it. I’ve read Kafka, Camus, Dostoyevsky, and Sartre, and enjoyed them all — this game doesn’t have much in common with them. It certainly brings forth a certain meaninglessness, but not in a good way. It does seem to attempt to take us into the subjective world of one individual, but the execution is so muddled and confusing that instead of inhabiting a point-of-view, I ended up on the outside of both the fiction and the interactivity, poking the game as if it were an anthill.
In the general sparseness of its implementation and the linearity of its plot, TCOSG leaves virtually no room for freedom of choice, and so another existentialist tenet goes out the window. In fact, between its writing, its coding, and its puzzles, the experience of playing this game is less existential than it is absurd. Absurdist IF can be great if it’s done intentionally. That’s not what happened here.