IFDB page: Bellclap
Final placement: 17th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition
When I wrote LASH, I was interested in the concept of separating the player from the PC. Thus, instead of the traditional IF second-person voice, it used first person, and made “me” refer to the player while “you” referred to the PC. Now, Bellclap goes one more step by separating the player, the PC, and the parser. In this game, you (the player) are apparently some sort of god, and you’re answering the prayers of a supplicant (the title character and PC.) However, the two of you are working through an intermediary — it’s never made quite clear what or who this is, but there’s definitely some kind of third party relaying your commands to the PC and reporting the resulting actions back to you. It’s the parser personified, basically, as some kind of angel or holy spirit, though its diction is more that of a bureaucratic functionary.
The game speaks mostly in the third person, because it’s mostly relaying information about the PC, but the parser speaks in first person when referring to itself, and in the second person when referring to the godlike being at the controls. For example:
He can't see you, sir. You're in light inaccessible, hid from his eyes.
Unless that instruction was intended for me, in which case you're looking radiant, sir, radiant.
He is dressed in a tunic, sheepskin coat and sandals, and he has a bag in which he carries food and tools for the maintenance of walls, fences and thatch.
He can't see me, sir. I'm more a sort of guiding voice.
I thought this was a really fun experiment, and Bellclap carried it off quite well. It seems clear that a fair amount of work and thought went into overhauling the standard Inform libraries to reflect this unique split consciousness, and the result felt seamless to me. Sadly, the game was quite short — just a few puzzles strung together, really — and therefore it didn’t explore the gimmick nearly as much as it could have. Also, I’m not sure that making the player an omnipotent being was the best course, as the most obvious solution to pretty much all the problems would have been to just exercise some divine power over them. The game declares these sorts of actions verboten for no apparent reason other than that they’re not implemented.
Consequently, I was left feeling not very godly, even though some of the PC’s actions result in supernatural events. Actually, the scenario put me in mind of the M*A*S*H episode where Father Mulcahy is stuck in a remote location with a wounded man and must perform a tracheotomy, while Radar relays Hawkeye’s radioed instructions on how to do so. That scenario had a tension that Bellclap lacks, not just because of the urgency and life-or-death nature of the operation, but because the knowledgeable party was powerless to exercise that knowledge directly, and the person who was capable of action was crippled by inexperience, while both had to deal with the comically squeamish middleman.
In Bellclap, there’s no clear reason why the knowledgeable party should be powerless — just the opposite, in fact, since the game clearly establishes him as all-powerful. For people exploring this structure for IF in the future, I think a stronger design would exploit rather than undermine the difficulty inherent in the separation of commander, relayer, and actor.
As for the rest of the game, it’s pretty good, though as I said, there’s really not too much to it. The prose strikes a strange pseudo-Victorian tone that works despite itself, and occasionally gets off some excellent jokes, such as when I tried to make Bellclap go up from a roof:
But gravity, sir. Gravity. They're your physical laws, not mine.
I also really enjoyed the response to JUMP: “Bellclap wants to know how high.” The writing was blessedly error-free, but the coding was just a little weaker. Most of the game was quite solid, but I encountered a couple of situations that the game mishandles. The worst offender is a puzzle that requires a container to be filled with liquid, but doesn’t properly recognize the word FILL. Instead, the game wants a command syntax along the lines of PUT LIQUID IN CONTAINER, which is both anti-intuitive and anti-mimetic.
Speaking of puzzles, I thought these were pretty good too — most of the solutions were quite unexpected, but they made sense in retrospect. Bellclap gave me the strange sensation of solving puzzles even though I had no idea why the solution would work, which I suppose is as close as I’ll ever get to omniscience. I was sorry when the game ended so soon, and I’m certainly looking forward to future works by this author.