Rameses by Stephen Bond [Comp00]

IFDB page: Rameses
Final placement: 13th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

I was all set to slag off this game as another totally non-interactive self-pity festival with an insecure, pathetic PC, as kind of an Irish version of A Moment of Hope. But I finished it sort of quickly, so I decided to play it again, just to see if there were more choices than I found on my first time through. There aren’t, but in the process, something strange started happening to me. My first instinct about the game was being stretched, reshaped by things like the long, involved speech that one of the characters makes about free will.

I already knew that Rameses was well-written, so I had just assumed that its non-interactivity was an instance of an game that wanted too much control and wasn’t willing to create an experience where the player could take the lead. But if this was the case, what are the chances that it would make a point of having one of its characters pontificate on free will, a lecture whose irony is unmistakably manifest in this very constrained game? The more closely I looked, the more strongly I suspected that there is more to Rameses than meets the eye. As my second play-through went on, I again encountered the main character’s anguished words at the climax:

It’s just that… I can’t… do anything! I can’t do anything!” I scream at last. “It’s like I’m trapped inside and can’t get out and can’t be myself and… I’m stuck….

The first time I read these words, I just blew by them. I was too annoyed with the game’s steel restraints and its horribly wretched PC. The second time, though. The second timeā€¦

The second time I finally twigged to what the game is up to. Rameses uses non-interactivity for the purpose of deepening character rather than, as with most other non-interactive games, for the purpose of furthering the plot. Alex Moran, the PC, is an insecure, depressed college student who can’t ever seem to stand up to the bullies in his life, or to comfort their victims. Consequently, his only “friends” are smug, self-important blowhards who only want him along because they know that he’ll be a receptive (if resentful) audience for their grandiosities. He spends most of his time nostalgically dreaming about a childhood friend named Daniel, fantasizing about his reunion with that friend, despite the fact that he has totally cut Daniel out of his life due to his own inability to communicate.

Playing this character is an exercise in frustration. Every command you enter that might stand up to a bully, or leave a bad situation, or just let the PC take charge of his life in any way is wistfully brushed aside with a message like “Yeah, that’d be great, wouldn’t it? But I’ll never do it.” Annoying, yes, but it’s also the very soul of the character, and the very point of the game. In a sense, Rameses turns you into Alex’s real self, struggling to get out and be heard, struggling to make a difference, only to be smacked down by fear, insecurity, and sometimes outright paranoia. In his climactic speech, the PC voices the exact torment that the player feels at every prompt — it’s an agonizing experience, and that’s the point.

(I’m about to talk about the game’s ending — I don’t think I really spoil too much, but be advised that I’ll be analyzing how I think the last paragraph worked.) It’s pretty depressing stuff, and it’s made even more depressing by the fact that I don’t think the PC ever gets out of it. Rameses‘ ending left me a little uncertain, but the more I think about it, the more sure I am that the ending paragraph is a fantasy scenario. For one thing, it comes so abruptly after the PC has fled the scene of what might have been his redemption — without any transition, it feels more like a wistful reimagining than an actual event. Add to this the fact that the game begins with a fantasy scenario, one which ends with the very same words that end the closing paragraph. No, that final scene doesn’t happen — it’s just a way to open the next chapter of Alex’s life, another dream to focus on even as he lets it slip away. And as well-done as Rameses was, I hope that next chapter never becomes IF. Once around that track was more than enough for me.

Rating: 8.9

Only After Dark by Gunther Schmidl as Anonymous [Comp99]

IFDB page: Only After Dark
Final placement: 17th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Seems like just a few reviews ago I was positing that the trend of the 1999 competition is non-interactive games, those games which give you only one choice of how to proceed, whether subtly or overtly. And now, as if only to vindicate my trendspotting ability, here comes Only After Dark. This game moves along like a teenager learning to drive a stick shift — lurching forward, then halting, then lurching forward again. The lurches are at points where the game shoves you into the plot without giving you much choice in the matter, and the halts are when it waits for you to find the one and only way out of the situation it just forced you into. Now, to be fair, I should say that the game is a little more interactive than, say, Life on Beal Street or A Moment of Hope. It does have a parser. There are no moments (at least, not as far as I could tell, anyway) when it just flat-out ignores what you type. However, there are several scenes where the game absolutely will not let you do anything but what the rigidly linear plot calls for.

Actually, this description fits almost every moment in the game — the advancement of the plot is enforced by meeting any deviation with either an abrupt ending to the game (usually via the death of the PC) or with some variant of “You can’t do that.” For example, there is one scene where the PC is in jail. The plot calls for him to go to sleep. Therefore, there is absolutely nothing you can do but go to sleep. Every other attempt at action is blocked, and the game gives intermittent hints along the lines of “There’s nothing else to do but go to sleep.” Mess around long enough, and the game puts the PC to sleep by force. Now, my question is this: if all I was going to be allowed to do is sleep, why even give me a prompt at all? Why not just say “You’re hustled into a jail cell, and although you attempt to escape, your attempts are thwarted. Deciding there’s nothing to do but sleep, you settle down into the uncomfortable bed, awakening the next day to a very strange scene…” Sometimes there’s a perfectly reasonable answer to this question, something along the lines of wanting the player to identify with the PC’s sense of imprisonment. But when every scene plays like this, and the game forces the player into really stupid decisions because it has made no provision for alternatives, the whole story starts to feel like a prison.

The other way in which the game enforces its plot is to present the player with situations in which there is one correct move, and any other action leads to death. Again, this sort of thing has its place as a technique, and can often be effective when used wisely. However, its vulnerability is that it tempts the designer toward guess-the-verb situations and save-and-restore puzzles — sometimes even both at once. Just as vexing is the fact that dying over and over again fails to be entertaining rather quickly. Only After Dark, sadly, neither resists the temptation nor finds a way around the boredom. Take the initial puzzle, for example. I won’t give away the situation or the solution, but the structure is this: the PC’s life is in danger. There’s only one thing he can do to save himself. If he doesn’t do that one thing he will die. You have one move to make the correct choice. The action is vaguely clued before the choice must be made, but I still ended up with a dozen death messages before I hit on the solution, simply because there is so little time to solve the puzzle. Reading the same death message ten times is pretty dull. Later on, there’s a puzzle in which a certain verb must be used, and the only way I could determine to figure out what that verb ought to be was to closely scrutinize the death message that comes from using the wrong verb. This is the worst of both worlds in IF puzzles.

All this bitching probably does very little to explain why I gave Only After Dark a higher rating than some of the other non-interactive entries in this year’s comp, so let me try to clear that up. First of all, the writing and coding were error-free, which I am really appreciating recently. Yes, the game may railroad you through the plot, but at least it does so correctly. Also, the subject of the game is lycanthropy, which is a fascination of mine. I really enjoyed the malleable aspect of the PC, and while this isn’t the ideal werewolf game, it’s a much better werewolf game than, say, Strangers In The Night was a vampire game. I thought the milieu was interesting, if a little confusing, and there were some nice little touches, like the game’s occasional use of color. Perhaps the only reason it was so linear was to fit the short format of the competition. If that’s so, I dearly hope that an expanded version is forthcoming. I would really like to play a game set in the Only After Dark universe, written and coded as well as the competition entry but offering the player an actual choice once in a while.

Rating: 6.3

A Moment of Hope by Simmon Keith [Comp99]

IFDB page: A Moment Of Hope
Final placement: 18th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Remember how one-room puzzlefests were the big trend of the 1998 competition? Well, I think I’m getting a handle on what it is for ’99: non-interactive fiction. It’s the legacy of Photopia, I suppose. But how little we knew, when we played that one short, brilliant Red Planet section of Photopia where every chosen direction advances the plot, that in a year we’d be playing entire games that operate like that. So far I’ve seen Halothane, which enforces its plot fairly rigidly; Remembrance, which limits the player’s options severely by restricting them to a very short menu; and Life on Beal Street, which is no more interactive than a book. Perhaps the worst offender yet, though, is A Moment of Hope. At least Beal and Remembrance didn’t pretend to be anything but linear roads with no detours available. At least Halothane allowed some freedom of action. Because A Moment of Hope is a TADS game with the appearance of an unrestricted parser, it gives a very believable facade of interactivity, when in fact it’s anything but. Here’s a sample from towards the end of the game:

>SLEEP
You flip your pillow upside down, and hope you can go to sleep.

>GET UP
Turning to your other side, you give it another try.

>GO GET A SANDWICH
You kick at the tangled blanket, convinced it's what is preventing your
slumber.

>IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT I TYPE, DOES IT?
In a valiant attempt to block out the sun, you vainly cover your head
with your pillow and try to relax. ...It doesn't work.

>BITE ME
You finally decide to give in. It's time to get up.

This is the most drastically non-interactive section of the game, but every section of it crowds that side of the continuum. There is only one exit from each location — even if others are described, the game forbids travel in all but one direction. When the game wants you to, for example, read an email, any other command is met with something along the lines of “Not right now, you’re busy.” Adding to the aggravation, sometimes commands have to be repeated multiple times in order to get the parser to accept them. At one point you have to repeat a command eight times in order for it to actually work.

Let’s take a moment to think about this. It seems clear that what the game wants to do is to tell me a specific story. It seems equally clear that the game isn’t much interested in what I want to do. Why, then, was this written as interactive fiction and entered into the IF competition? To really delve into the reasons would be an essay in itself, but one that comes to mind is, as I said earlier, Photopia. After all, the big winner from last year was a game that heavily emphasized the “fiction” side of the IF equation, so that must be the way to win competitions, right? Well, not necessarily. Even setting aside the fact that the three previous competitions were won by games with prominent and interesting puzzles (Edifice, Meteor, Weather/Zebulon), there’s also the fact that Photopia restricted interactivity strategically rather than just doing it indiscriminately. To take one small example, think about the Red Planet section of Photopia compared to the section of A Moment of Hope I’ve quoted above. [PHOTOPIA SPOILERS AHEAD] The Red Planet section of Photopia is part of a story being told to a small child. Even though the player may not know it at the time, the responses of the parser are really Alley’s responses, and the player’s input really Wendy’s participation in the story. This fact constitutes a sensible, cogent reason why every direction taken advances that section’s plot: Alley is telling a story to a small child, and using a clever technique to move the story along so that Wendy won’t find herself pointlessly wandering around the landscape. No such fictional level is present in A Moment of Hope. The game’s responses and player’s input are no more or less than they seem, and as such, when the game uses Alley’s trick on the player it seems rather condescending. After all, we’re not small children with five-minute attention spans. A range of choices and a landscape to traverse won’t lose us.

The game doesn’t take that risk, though, perhaps because its main character is so unsympathetic that it can’t afford to allow any player input that might make him less pathetic. The basic plot here is that an incredibly insecure guy has gotten an email from a matchmaking website. The site has matched him up with somebody he really likes, but how serious is she about him? The game is unrelenting with the constant reminders of just how strung out this guy is. Especially in the first section, almost every single turn yields multiple messages about the PC’s deep, deep depression. No wonder, then, that the game wants to restrict player action. What if a player came along who wanted to make the choice to just forget about this girl and call a friend instead? What if a player wanted to just turn off the computer (the computer in the game, I mean) and read a good book? Hell, what if a player wanted to at least make the damn bed? Nope, wouldn’t fit the story. Wouldn’t fit the character. So it’s not allowed. But a player can’t help wondering: what am I doing in this short story? It’s written well, with no mechanical errors (or coding errors), but if A Moment of Hope were straight fiction, I wouldn’t much want to read it. But I did read this game. Come to think of it, because it was a competition entry, the whole group of judges was a bit of a captive audience, wasn’t it? Hmmm, maybe the choice to write the story as IF rather than straight fiction isn’t so mysterious after all…

Rating: 3.8