in Comp04

Identity by Dave Bernazzani [Comp04]

IFDB page: Identity
Final placement: 15th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Man, what did I say about the doomed starships with the cryogenic pods? Just two reviews ago I was talking about how they’re the hot new comp game setting, and now here comes another one. Crazy zeitgeist. No doubt each of these authors is bummed to have somehow locked into the concept that’s freakishly dominating the comp this year, because the games are inevitably going to be compared to each other, and when there’s a comparison, somebody suffers. In this case, the game doing the most suffering will certainly be Getting Back To Sleep, but between the two remaining contenders, Identity and Splashdown, the contest is much closer.

They’re both implemented solidly enough to be quite playable, but then again they’re both plagued with numerous typos, formatting errors, and minor bugs. Neither one manages to do anything particularly original with the “crash survivor” plot, though both provide a series of relatively enjoyable (if rote) puzzles. In the end, though, I’m afraid I have to give the nod to Splashdown, because that game just seems to be a little more interested in telling a coherent story than Identity is. Splashdown‘s comparative richness of story and setting arises from fillips like its PDF feelie, but also from the choice of story elements like a more interesting origin for its craft’s demise.

One of the weakest points of Identity is actually one of its main points: the PC’s amnesia. Even setting aside the fact that the amnesiac IF PC is an exhausted cliché, there is no reason that I can see for this PC to be thus stricken. From the first 30 seconds of the game, we can piece together that the PC is a guy who was on a starship in cryogenic sleep, and that the starship has now crashed. After playing through the whole thing and encountering several scenes where the game tries to fill in more memories, what we know about the PC by the end is… that he’s a guy whose starship crashed.

In contrast to a game like Square Circle, where the revelation of the PC’s identity puts something at stake due to the memories and knowledge about him possessed by various characters in the game’s milieu, Identity‘s PC wanders around on a planet full of strangers who seem actively and unnaturally disinterested in who he is. His true name matters to no one, even himself, and thus concealment of it buys the story nothing. The game would have worked exactly the same way if the PC’s memories had been complete and intact at the beginning of the story, and I’m not sure why the game gives him amnesia at all, except to conform to some misguided notion that all good PC’s don’t know who they are.

Either that, or perhaps the original plan for the game included some subplot in which the character’s identity mattered, a subplot that may have been cut to meet the comp deadline. In this latter case, though, the amnesia should have been excised. It wouldn’t have been too hard — just the removal of a few extra bits of prose and a retitling.

I’m more inclined to suspect that the amnesia was introduced in order to conform to a sort of 80’s old-school blueprint, because the game itself feels like a direct descendant of some of the sub-Infocom work from that decade. Everything feels very mechanical, including the people and animals. For instance, there’s a yak in the game, but the writing does very little to evoke anything yak-like about it, and instead it behaves somewhat like a horse, somewhat like a cat, but mostly like a yak-shaped car whose ignition key must be obtained (naturally) by solving a puzzle.

This puzzle, like many of the puzzles in the game, involves observing what few things are implemented and figuring out how they might interact with each other in game-logic. Not natural logic, of course, or else the solution to the yak puzzle would have worked equally well in another puzzle with a virtually identical objective. This approach isn’t my favorite — I prefer the realism that’s come in with the best IF of the last decade. Still, it’s enjoyable enough for what it is, and one area in which this game deserves praise is in its handling of unexpected verbs.

For instance, as an antidote to amnesia I tried REMEMBER, and was quite pleased to see that the game handles it (albeit with a default response.) Elsewhere, I found myself in a chair with some safety straps I could fasten, and smiled when SECURE STRAPS worked as expected. This game has clearly been tested, and that counts for a lot with me. Unfortunately, the testing didn’t quite weed out all the bugs, both in coding and in prose mechanics, so another round is required. Identity isn’t an unpleasant way to spend an hour or so, but for me it felt mostly like a missed opportunity.

Rating: 7.8

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