Mix Tape by Brett Witty [Comp05]

IFDB page: Mix Tape
Final placement: 18th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

The blurb for this game brought a big smile to my face:

For those with a love of music, creating a mixtape can be a genuine form of poetry. When someone cannot create the right words to express their love, rejection, loss or hope, they may find them in their favourite artists. This is my Mix Tape.

“Yeah,” I thought, “I’m part of the target audience.” As an 80’s kid, mix tapes were right in my wheelhouse. Nick Hornby is less so, but the game still endeared itself to me by starting off with two Hornby homages in rapid sequence — a quote from High Fidelity (albeit the movie, not the book), and a shout-out to Ben Folds Five’s “Smoke”, a Hornby favorite highlighted in Songbook, from an artist with whom Hornby would later have a Taupin/John style collaboration. The game’s writing is good, not just free of errors but evoking a strong mood and involving the senses. “Oh yeah,” I think, “I’m going to love this.”

Cut to 30 minutes later, and I cannot wait to break up with this game. Basically, the honeymoon ended the moment I tried to do anything outside the exact path the game was expecting. Twentysomething drama spins up almost immediately around the mix tape concept, which is fine — I have experienced my fair share of mix tapes, twentysomething drama, and mix tapes about twentysomething drama — but it turns out the drama is very fragile. My overwrought boyfriend has brought me up to a mountaintop so we can ceremoniously tear out and burn pages from our relationship scrapbook (ugh), but because I didn’t follow the path dictated by the walkthrough, the game and I are at an impasse. Behold:

>talk to peter
“Um, Peter?” you ask.

He quietly turns to face you, and nods, letting you speak further.

(You could ask him why you are here.)

>peter, why am I here
The story doesn’t understand that command.

>ask peter about why I am here
Peter interrupts you. “Valentine, we have to concentrate on this. On our
relationship. Do you understand what we need to do?”

Peter does not respond.

>peter, no
Peter does not respond.

Turns out the game was waiting for the bizarre command “ask him why you are here”, which feels very confused — who’s the “you” in that scenario, when the game itself addresses the player/character as you? Surely that’s not how the player/character would refer to herself? But it got worse. He asked if I was ready to burn the book, and I said no. From there, it appears I entered an unwinnable state, though the game’s obtuseness disguised that for a while.

You haven’t finished what you’ve come to do yet.

>x fire
A timid campfire whips its small fingers of flame about, sheltering as much as
it can from the wind.

>put out fire

>x fire
A timid campfire whips its small fingers of flame about, sheltering as much as
it can from the wind.

>ask peter about me
You mumble about me, but Peter doesn’t hear you. Or chooses not to respond.

>give scrapbook to peter
Peter does not appear interested.

>put scrapbook in fire
Peter stops you. “No wait... We should do this, you know, ceremoniously.
Tear out a page at a time.”

>tear page
You don’t want to damage the book just yet.

>get page
You can’t have that; it’s part of your scrapbook.

>burn scrapbook
What do you want to light it with?

(first trying to light the campfire)
What do you want to light it with?

>tear out a page at a time
The story doesn’t understand that command.

>tear out a page
(the page)
You don’t want to damage the book just yet.

Not only did I absolutely want to damage the book, I wanted to damage the game. Instead, in an ironic twist, it was burning me instead, one move at a time.

Mix Tape is structured as a series of scenes, each of which is associated with a song. It’s a great structure for the concept, but it becomes maddening when you get trapped in a scene, because there’s nowhere else to go. On this count, the second scene was no better than the first. I’m going to go ahead and spoil the magic command that’s needed, which is “serve dinner”. Showing the dinner to Peter doesn’t work. Telling Peter about the dinner doesn’t work. And so on. Plus, Peter is a total jerk about the whole thing anyway, and Valentine is rock-stupid, like “can’t unlock a door from the inside” stupid.

The last several scenes go by much more smoothly, because they are mostly non-interactive — the kind of thing that propels itself forward no matter what you do. Normally I find that kind of thing irritating, but this time it really felt like a relief. Once I wasn’t stuck in guess-the-command hell, I was able to enjoy the writing, characterization, and scene-setting a little more. By this point, I didn’t find either of the characters sympathetic, but I could at least appreciate how lovingly the game portrays their dysfunction.

Moments like that make me sad about saying this, but Mix Tape, it’s just not going to work out between us. And it’s not me, it’s you.

Rating: 5.2

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