IFDB page: Internal Vigilance
Final placement: 10th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition
So first, let’s acknowledge that when it comes to libertarian-flavored political stories, there’s quite a large contextual difference between 2005, midway through the Bush-43 presidency with its wars and its USA-PATRIOT Act, and 2021, the year of an attempted coup against the American government and a devastating pandemic that continues to kill tens of thousands despite the wide availability of highly effective vaccines, because a significant portion of the population refuses to get vaccinated. I will also acknowledge my own bias, which is that while I have some sympathy with the sentiment behind libertarianism, I find its real-world application tends toward the simplistic and absolutist, an indignant sputtering about freedom and rights, with very little attention to necessity and responsibilities. Certainly in the case of the insurrection, the people screaming about freedom under “thin blue line” flags were the same ones beating up cops in the name of a would-be authoritarian. Consequently, I was the wrong audience at the wrong time for this game. Nevertheless, I am who I am and it is when it is, and since I’m the one writing this review I’m here to report that I found Internal Vigilance thudding and exasperating rather than the thought-provoking exercise I’m sure it was intended to be.
You play a generic government agent (seriously, your email domain is “agency.gov”) in an apparently repressive regime which nevertheless seems to take very few prisoners — your charge in the game is to interrogate “prisoner no. 6”. Perhaps the agency is very new? Or maybe they number prisoners out of order. In any case, this guy’s crime was to write a libertarian-leaning book, whose argument you sum up as follows:
Freedom is more important than safety. It is not hard to understand why he is
supected of having terrorist connections.
Uh-huh. Apparently the old “.gov” hates freedom now and equates it with terrorism, and so do you. (Or at least, you “supect” such a connection.) I had to look again to make sure this game isn’t titled YOU Are a STRAW MAN!, but nope. Internal Vigilance is both the name of the game and this guy’s book. So after examining all the stuff in the PC’s office, I steered him down to interrogate the guy. The game uses an enhanced version of the ask/tell conversation system, where you can abbreviate ASK to “A” and TELL to “T” if there’s only one interlocutor in the room, and can add extraneous text which the parser will sift for keywords. The game’s example is “ASK JONES ABOUT HIS VIEWS CONCERNING THE RIGHTS OF THE INDIVIDUAL”, because of course it is.
Using this system, I questioned the prisoner, and that’s when I started to discover that not only is the game too lazily imagined, it’s too lazily implemented as well. The dialogue is riddled with errors, including the baffling repetition of a lower-case “i” for the first-person singular nominative pronoun — quite ironic for a game about individualism. My conversation hit so many dead ends that I eventually looked up the hints and found that while “ASK ABOUT FAMILY” was a fruitless line of questioning, “ASK ABOUT MOTHER” hits the jackpot! Okay. Once I break through and get the intel I need, the prisoner glares at me and I’m told, “If looks could kill, you would be death by now.” I would be death?
Anyway, that scene ends and then a new chapter starts, in which the PC is flying. Flying! The glorious freedom of flight! He’s got “a pair of large majestic wings with white feathers, held together by wax”, which are also somehow a part of his body that would have to be removed surgically, we find out. DANGER, METAPHOR AHEAD. In this chapter, you can fly too close to the sun and have your wax melt, or you can fly too close to the ground and get shot down. In all cases, you end up in a cell with somebody telling you your wings will need to be removed “for your own good.” DO YOU GET THE METAPHOR YET? If not, the game will throw you a C.S. Lewis quote about how “of all tyrannies a tyranny exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive.” Of course, the original quote had more words and a comma, but this game is free of repressive rules about accurate quotation!
So the wings scene turns out to be (surprise!) a dream, and then you get to investigate the case, basically figuring out whether the prisoner is connected with domestic terrorists. There are a number of ways this can go. The way mine went found me chatting with the prisoner’s sister, or someone purporting to be her. She served me some tea. I drank it and found that it had “a interesting spicy taste”, from which I immediately concluded I’d been drugged. (And that the author is blissfully free from the fascist rules about indefinite articles.) Here’s what happened next:
You feel sleepy.
In the middle of the conversation? That would be pretty rude.
Your gun feels much to heavy to lift...
>throw tea at allyson
(first taking the cup of tea)
You carefully pick up the teacup, making sure not to spill the hot contents.
You struggle to keep your eyes open.
You don't believe that question will get you anywhere at the moment.
In other words, the game wants to let me know the PC has been drugged, but is not prepared for me to actually try to do anything about it. As with the lower-case “i”, I had to take a moment and soak in the fact of how this libertarian game keeps taking away my freedom to act. In fact, in the very next scene it pretty much ties the PC to a chair to shout the plot at him.
My game ended shortly after this, as the terrorists shot the PC in the head. I decided to give it another try, this time following the hints, and what I found was a puzzle having to do with a book code and a passphrase, which could allegedly get me into the terrorists’ hideout without being drugged. Following the hints exactly, I looked up the code and tried the phrase. (The phrase is, sigh, “Freedom from protection.”) The game did not accept this phrase. I tried again, making sure I had all the numbers and words right. The game did not accept it. Apparently the hints had steered me into a game-breaking bug.
At this point, I decided to quit the game and never come back. The word I would use to describe this decision is: liberating.