in Comp03

The Recruit by Mike Sousa [Comp03]

IFDB page: The Recruit
Final placement: 7th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Some games just feel like they come from deep inside the IF community. Take The Recruit, for instance: how many comp games not only include words of mine, but also go out of their way to compliment my work? Not many, I can tell you from sad experience, but not only does Recruit include pretty much the entire transcript from the 2002 XYZZY Awards ceremony, but when Another Earth, Another Sky is mentioned, this NPC message appears:

“I love that game,” says Fred. “I can’t wait for the third installment!”

Thanks, Mike! Er… Fred! I’m working on it! Anyway, I suppose that to avoid the illusion that sucking up to the judge gets you a good review and score, I should say here that I thought Recruit stank, but I just can’t do that. It was a fun game, if slight, whose puzzles are the star attraction. In fact, more than anything, it feels like a love letter to IF.

The premise, such as it is, is that you’ve been recruited (with the offer of a $50 reward) as a tester for “Real Life Interactive Gaming Simulacra” — in other words, IF puzzles constructed and brought to life. That puts Recruit in the unique position of being an IF game pretending to be reality pretending to be an IF game. In any case, the whole thing is more or less a hook on which to hang a series of puzzles, each of which has its theme: light source, NPC, attention to detail, and so forth.

The game is much more imaginative than this thumbnail description makes it sound. Each of the puzzles felt fresh to me, and the fact that they were explicitly molded around familiar IF concepts made their uniqueness stand out all the more. They also felt pitched at just the right level of difficulty — enough to make me think creatively, but not so hard as to send me running in circles and finally running to the hints, at least not for long. More importantly, each of the puzzles has fun with the concept it embodies, which makes the game a particular pleasure for those of us who have endured many far drearier versions of the same things. I’m not sure how well the game would work for somebody who was new to IF — it might make a fine learning tool, but I have a feeling it would feel more frustrating than educational to somebody who didn’t share its frame of reference — but for me it was a kick.

A great deal of the fun comes from the game’s writing, and I noted with admiration as I played through the game just how much Sousa’s writing has improved since his debut game Above And Beyond. [I’m about to spoil something, though I have no idea why it’s a secret to begin with.] Then I found out in the afterword that in fact, much of the writing wasn’t his, but was in fact done by collaborators like Robb Sherwin, Jon Ingold, and J.D. Berry. Why Sousa doesn’t simply acknowledge these co-authors upfront is a bit of a mystery to me — maybe he just doesn’t want players distracted by going through the game trying to figure out who wrote what.

Anyway, like every Sousa game, Recruit is coded very well, though not as exquisitely deeply as some of his past works have been. It was certainly bug-free, in any case, and quite responsive to most of the things I wanted to try. It also provides a fun list of AMUSING things to try after you’ve finished the game, which is a touch I always appreciate. After finishing The Recruit, I found myself just smiling, and thinking, “Cool!” Like several of the other games in this comp, it was IF about IF, but this time about just how much fun IF can be. It doesn’t provide much in the way of atmosphere or emotion, but it does pack the pleasures of good writing and interesting, interconnected puzzles, and that’s enough for me.

Rating: 9.3

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