Say you’ve got an idea for a story. It’ll be thrilling, fast-paced, and ingenious. Say, just for illustrative purposes, it’s a story about the survivor of a crashed spaceship, who has to help injured crew members, signal for a rescue, and figure out why the ship crashed in the first place, all while being hunted by a hostile creature on the unexplored planet. You know what all the beats are, and how your protagonist gets from beginning to end by making clever use of nearby resources and surviving tightly timed encounters like chases and medical emergencies. You know there’s going to be a twist at the end, how you’ll foreshadow it, and how it will finally manifest.
Now, you could just go write that story! Who knows if it’d get published anywhere — it’s pretty cliché-heavy — but if you wrote it you’d be able to shape it exactly to how you imagined it. But what if you wanted to make that story into a game? It would seem to fit an IF milieu pretty well, with the protagonist being alone in an unfamiliar landscape, and having to piece together information and objects to get to the best ending. How do you take your story, which is specific and clear in your head, and turn it into an interactive experience that is — and this part is important — fun and enjoyable for players?
Well, this is where things get dangerous. When you make a story interactive, you are now obligated to create sufficient margin around the ideal plotline that players can experience the game’s world and its events without feeling like they’re inside some kind of narrative lab experiment where electric shocks are applied anytime they step off the prescribed path. At one extreme of this continuum, any command that doesn’t adhere to the ideal walkthrough results in a losing ending. At the other end, the player could depart from the story entirely and still be supported by the game to eventually reach a satisfying conclusion.
Guess which end of this continuum is easier to code? Lots of authors fall into the trap of forcing their players to adhere too closely to a specific string of commands, either by failing to implement anything outside of it or by lowering the boom immediately on any deviations. Very few authors create a world so rich that new and different stories can emerge from it autonomously, because doing so is unbelievably difficult. Finding a satisfying middle ground between these extremes is the essence of the IF designer’s craft. That’s why it’s often said that the best IF doesn’t offer unlimited interactivity but rather a very convincing illusion of unlimited interactivity.
So back to our crash survivor story, which, yeah, is the plot of Distress. You might implement this by creating lots of ways for the protagonist to survive, and in some ways, Distress attempts this. However, its flexibility tends to be around more trivial tasks such as what verbs can be used for one step of a first aid process. It has zero flexibility on more important things, like how many turns you have to complete that first aid process, and heads up — if you don’t complete it correctly, you are locked out of a winning ending without knowing it.
Some games might handle a situation like this by providing a generous time limit, and ending the game upon failure to complete the task, which would cue players that this is a puzzle whose outcome is crucial to success. Other games might give you clearer and clearer nudges towards the right solution, and then end the game on a failure, or even outright force a success. Distress, on the other hand, makes it seem like the failure is a valid outcome, and maybe even inevitable, only to silently prevent success even after many more steps are completed.
The author makes a telling comment in the text file accompanying the game: “To some degree, I think we as IF players have grown soft.” This comment suggests a view of interactive fiction in which the players battle the authors for dominance over the experience, and longs for the good old days in which authors would sharpen their knives and players would hope not to bleed too much. That’s one view of this medium. It’s not mine. I play IF because I want to experience a world and a story, and while I enjoy a challenge, I do not enjoy repeated electric shocks.
So it was with Distress, whose name seemed more and more apt the longer I played it. The writing is good, the coding is strong, and the premise is solid, and I found it fun and compelling at first, but it quickly became apparent that there was many an electric shock to be had. I lost over and over and over again. Finally I turned to the hints, and despite following their cues, even the one that “solved the puzzle”, I still lost. Then I turned to the walkthrough, and lost. Then I started over, adhered closely to the walkthrough, and finally got past the point that had been battering me. Was I having fun? Reader, I was not.
Distress set out to punish me for my deviations from its ideal route, and it certainly succeeded, but repeated punishment is not my idea of a good time. Even valid ideas for how to solve a puzzle, even ideas that actually are the solution to that puzzle, aren’t allowed unless you carefully shepherd the PC’s mindset through them. So, for example, there might be a battery to be found right next to you, but you’re not allowed to find it until you demonstrate to the PC that a battery is needed. To make matters worse, the many tightly timed sequences pretty much guarantee you’ll be replaying parts of the game many times, so while you learned about the battery problem 10 playthroughs ago, you still have to pretend it’s your first time.
Distress may well appeal to a certain kind of player, one who agrees that we’ve all gotten too soft. It wasn’t for me.