Vicious Cycles by Simon Mark [Comp01]

IFDB page: Vicious Cycles
Final placement: 6th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

[Note: Because Vicious Cycles gives so little away upfront about its content, this review could be considered a wee bit spoilery. If you’re terribly averse to that sort of thing, go play it first. It’s worth playing.]

Timing can really be a bitch sometimes. Vicious Cycles takes terrorism as one of its subjects, and isn’t entirely unsympathetic to the terrorist in question. This choice was almost certainly made before 9/11, and before that date I think I might have been much better able to make the emotional leap that the game encourages. Today, though… having been inundated with news of the real people whose real lives have been affected by terrorism, and felt the consequent wrenching emotions, I found it difficult not to project those emotions onto the game’s fictional scenario, and that made me a lot less receptive to the story than I probably should have been. That story was a good one (though perhaps just a trifle hackneyed in its presentation of a dystopic future where corporations rule the world and advertising is all-pervasive), but I just wasn’t the best audience for it today. Still, even taking those reactions into account, there is a lot to appreciate about Vicious Cycles.

The game’s best feature is its central concept, which is a great riff on the nature of IF. You play a character hooked into a “time-shunt” and trying to prevent a disaster from occurring. The way the device works is that it sends your consciousness back in time, to inhabit the body of a bystander, whose actions you may then control in your attempt to prevent the disaster. If you don’t manage to stop the catastrophe, you’re shunted back to the beginning of the scenario, to try again with a different sequence of actions. In Groundhog Day, a similar concept was played for laughs, but here the iterations are deadly serious, a race against time with horrible consequences.

I thought this sequence was very well-designed indeed, going against the typical IF grain to fine effect. Here, not only do you learn from each death, but you actually must learn from your deaths in order to make progress on the problem. Having just finished (and loved) Planescape: Torment, where the main character is immortal and death is sometimes a necessary puzzle-solving component, I appreciated this twist very much. The overall puzzle is intricate and satisfying to solve, and the game does an excellent job of slowly doling out information as the PC gets closer and closer to completing the scenario.

Unfortunately, bad timing isn’t the only thing that drags the game down. The author credits testers, and I’ve no doubt that the game has received at least some testing — the main sequence hangs together well enough. However, either the author ran out of time to fix all the problems, or further testing is necessary, because little glitches abound. These bugs range from things like typos and misspellings to responses printed on the wrong turn, and in one case even a death that didn’t restart the time-shunt cycle. Troubles like this happened frequently enough that I was often jolted out of an otherwise absorbing story by their presence. I sincerely hope the author puts out a post-competition version of the game, with the final polish complete; when and if that happens, Vicious Cycles will be a sparkling IF experience, at least for an audience not overly sensitized to the terrors of terrorism.

Rating: 8.6

About my 2001 IF Competition Reviews

In 2001, I entered the IF Competition for the first time since 1996. My entry, Earth And Sky, was inspired by the Marvel comics I’ve loved since age six, and was entered under the Marvelicious pseudonym “Lee Kirby”. The previous year, I’d written a long and very heavy non-competition game called LASH: Local Asynchronous Satellite Hookup, which was partly about the antebellum South of the U.S., and had me reading many a slave narrative for research. After that, I wanted to write something lighter and more fun, and I’d never yet played superhero IF that I found really satisfying, so I wanted to make some.

Earth And Sky was also intended as the first episode in a series of games, and I would end up entering the other two episodes into the Comp as well, but that’s a topic for a later time. The game took 8th place — oddly, the same exact ranking as my 1996 entry, Wearing The Claw. Of course, while I was writing these reviews, I didn’t know that, so as I had in 1996, I played the games partly with an eye toward checking out my competition as well as the competition.

Weirdly, this was also the first and only Comp where I didn’t review the winner, because I’d been a beta tester for it. Jon Ingold‘s excellent All Roads took the top prize that year, and I was happy to have contributed a little to it. It’s strange collecting the reviews now though, and knowing that this site won’t contain a review of the 2001 winner. (Well, not anytime soon anyway. Who knows, maybe I’ll come back around to reviewing it?) The other game I skipped was called Begegnung am Fluss, which I couldn’t play due to my total inability to read German.

I do have the ability to read English, much to the disadvantage of many 2001 games. My patience for terrible writing decreased steadily throughout the competition, and I didn’t really start with that much. At one point, I started fantasizing about getting points every time I spotted an error, which I imagined would award me a score of “524,000 points out of a possible 200, earning me the rank of Gibbering Grammarian.” The Gibbering Grammarian found himself giving lessons on things like the use of definite vs. indefinite articles, and creating a special label for what I called “NASTY FOUL IT’S/ITS ERRORS”. I was inspired by the Vile Zero Error From Hell, a particularly nasty way of crashing the Z-machine, since NFIEs tended to have the same effect on my brain and mood.

Similarly, I really turned into Mr. Cranky around implementation issues, and in particular non-standard development systems. Just as bad were the games that applied outmoded ideas to modern systems, as I’d really had it with mazes, inventory limits, and so forth. But despite my grumpiness and anxiety about my own game, I still found much to delight me in this year’s competition, and just as much to intrigue me and push my thoughts forward about the medium itself. As in 1996, I hardly minded losing to such stellar work.

One more thing: in the fall of 2001, the shadow of 9/11 loomed large. It was a bizarre time to be an American. One unfortunate game ran afoul of this circumstance by presenting a sympathetic portrayal of terrorists. Another year, I might have had a different reaction, but in October of 2001, it just didn’t work for me.

I posted my reviews for the 2001 IF Competition games on November 16, 2001.