IFDB page: shadows on the mirror
Final placement: 6th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition
Every story is a slice of a larger story. That is to say: to some degree, beginnings and endings are just the arbitrary points that the storyteller has decided feel right as the story’s boundaries — stuff has happened before the beginning, and more stuff will happen after the ending. The idea, I think, is to provide a large enough slice that the story doesn’t crumble from its thinness, but not so large that it bores or overwhelms the reader (especially in a comp game, where the reader is working under a time limit.)
For me, Shadows On The Mirror sliced things a little too thin. I could sense that the game was the product of some thought. I glimpsed quite a bit of backstory through oblique references and offhand comments, and certainly the main event of the plot, such as it was, implied that a great deal had already happened offstage. There were also hints of some stuff that seemed pretty interesting and that I wanted to see more of — occult overtones, mysterious forces, an oddly powerful object or two, and some apparent PC superpowers. I didn’t get to see more of it, though. All I got were a few references, and after just a little bit of action, the game ended. Even after having seen a few endings, I felt frustrated, finished before I’d really begun.
As for what the game does provide, I think it’s pretty good overall. Shadows (sorry, for a Stevie Nicks fan like me, SOTM always means “Sisters Of The Moon”) is more or less a one-room game, but unlike most one-room games, the focus here is on character and conversation. The game uses an abridged version of a conversation approach pioneered by Emily Short: ASK and TELL abbreviated to “a” and “t”, with a special “topics” command that can provide a nudge to players who’ve run out of things to talk about. However, it makes what I consider to be a tactical error, in that it keeps many topics locked until a leading topic has been broached, or perhaps until a particular item has been examined.
There are a few problems I can think of with this strategy. First, when I attempt a topic and get one of the game’s default “no answer” messages, I take that response as a signal that the topic has not been implemented. I don’t expect it to be successful later on, so I probably won’t try it. Second, closing off some topics is particularly misguided in an extremely small game like this one. When I’m restarting often, I’m not really keeping track of which session has revealed which tidbits, and more than once I was flummoxed by getting a default response to a topic I knew I’d seen implemented. Finally, even if this were a larger game and even if I were able to constantly keep in mind that failure didn’t necessarily mean non-implementation, the “explicit branching” model used in Shadows forecloses the player’s ability to make intuitive connections.
To use an analogous example not from the game, say the NPC has a picture of apples on his wall, I ask him about apples, and he says, “Apples remind me of home.” My next thought might be to ask him about an orchard, but in this game’s model, he would just look away, not answer, or shrug. That doesn’t mean he can’t talk about orchards, but rather that the game wants me first to ask him about home, to which he’ll reply, “I spent lots of happy times climbing the trees in my Dad’s orchard,” and then it’ll let me ask about orchards. That’s wrong — give me the chance to make the leap myself.
I see I just said the game was pretty good, then went on a long discourse about one of its flaws, so let me turn now and praise Shadows for a moment. The game’s writing really worked for me — it described the scene vividly and with judicious use of metaphors. The NPC’s diction felt appropriately mysterious and foreboding, and I thought that many of the details were well-chosen to paint a picture of a PC whose life combines the ordinary and the extraordinary in a plausible way.
The implementation was reasonably deep, though it could have been deeper for such a small environment. The same goes for the NPC; he seemed to have some very basic emotional modeling, but the game didn’t provide verbs like THANK or APOLOGIZE to let me interact enough with that emotional state. Still, he was able to answer a generous set of topics, and I felt intrigued and tantalized by the answers he gave. At the end, though, I felt like I still hadn’t really gotten the point, which I suppose is another way of reiterating that the game just didn’t provide enough to feel satisfying. I guess the fact that I wanted a lot more of Shadows proves that what was there was a very good start.