The End Means Escape by Steve Kodat as D.O. [Comp00]

IFDB page: The End Means Escape
Final placement: 21st place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

There have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve felt that inanimate objects are out to get me. Wait, I guess that sounds a little paranoid. Let me rephrase: oftentimes, when I trip over an object lying on the floor, or hit my head on something, or bump into a piece of furniture in a dark room, I curse that object, as if it willfully placed itself in the worst possible spot just to spite me. On some bizarre level of my brain (possibly my out-of-control ego), I feel that the pain I’m in at that moment is the object’s fault, not mine.

In my reality, I’m wrong. In the reality which begins The End Means Escape, I might very well be right. The game appears at first to be an “escape the one room” adventure, with a twist: all the objects are NPCs. I don’t mean that you’re floating in a void with a bunch of other people. I mean that in this room, everything reacts to you, often quite vocally. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the table, the lamp, the door, the various objects strewn around — they can all be addressed and conversed with. It was rather disconcerting to be thrown into this environment without even a halfhearted explanation about what was happening, but once I adjusted, I found it quite absorbing. There’s a startling level of depth to the implementation — I kept being surprised by how many of the things I tried were accounted for in the game. I even had a fragile sense of making progress, though the whole thing was so unusual that I couldn’t rely on my typical IF cues for narrative progression.

Then, something else happened. I escaped the one room, fully expecting to have won the game, but instead moved into a realm that was even more bizarre than the one I had left, by several orders of magnitude in fact. I thought, because the “talking object” room was so well-done, that it was the whole of the game. Not so. To discuss further specifics about what proceeds from that first scene would, I think, be to move into the realm of spoilers, so I’ll just say this: the game turns out to be a string of scenarios, none of which conform to IF conventions of plot, setting, or character. Of these, the first scene is probably the most successful, but each has interesting merits. Certainly the first scene’s thoroughness of implementation is not lost on the others. Consider, for example, this startling disambiguation question:

Which young do you mean, the young man, the marking, the young man's
head, the young man's hands, the young man's skin, the young man's
feet, the young man's head of hair, the young man's forehead, the
young man's eyebrows, the young man's eyes, the young man's
eyelashes, the young man's ears, the young man's nose, the young
man's mouth, the young man's chin, the young man's neck, the young
man's fingers, the young man's thumbs, the young man's torso, the
young man's arms, the young man's legs, or the young man's hips?

The game displays an almost overwhelming capacity for describing scenery objects and making them available to various verbs. Strangely, though, where this strategy would normally heighten immersion quite a bit, it somehow fails to do so here, at least for me. I think this is because most all the game’s scenes are quite abstract and surreal, and thus I had a difficult time relating to them. Part of this is just my personal taste — I’m not overfond of highly stylized IF, and even last year’s outstanding For A Change left me feeling rather cold and distanced. The other part of it, I would contend, is that the kind of disconcerting scenes presented in TEME actively work against immersion rather than for it.

There are other things working against the game as well, such as the number of bugs in the implementation. To choose a small example, there is one point when you need to use one object to pry another object, but using the verb “pry” doesn’t work. Using the verb “cut” does, even though the response indicates that you’re prying. To choose a large example, about midway through, the whole game crashed so hard that it brought down my entire system. Now granted, I’m running Windows, so crashing the system is not all that impressive a feat. Still, I don’t expect an IF game to do it. I’ll certainly grant the possibility that the crash had to do with the combination of apps I was running at that time, but the whole experience left me feeling rather wary of TEME.

In other sections, the solution to the puzzle seemed pretty much entirely arbitrary. Of course, because the game operates on such a rarefied level, it’s quite possible that the solution made perfect sense but just went way over my head. Either way, it’s not a lot of fun trying to solve a puzzle whose eventual solution (when you extract it from help messages on Deja) just makes you say, “I was supposed to come up with that?” So yes, the game is flawed, and it’s also rather inaccessible, but it’s still a stimulating experiment in avant-garde IF. It was nothing like any piece of IF I’d ever seen, and that’s what I liked about it.

Rating: 7.5

A New Day by Jonathan Fry [Comp97]

IFDB page: A New Day
Final placement: 10th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

A New Day is an ambitious piece of work which attempts to examine IF metalevels in a fairly original way. Its author bills it as his first real work of interactive fiction (he dismisses Stargazer, his entry in last year’s competition, as a kind of instructional prelude to his actual IF writing career); in Fry’s words, A New Day is the first thing that is “for better or worse, truly a Jonathan Fry game.” More often than not, it’s better. Although the game certainly packs some frustration and confusion (the unwelcome kind, not the pleasurable kind), it also provides some fresh surprises and a thought-provoking premise.

I found the plot a little difficult to follow, but from what I could piece together, the game opens shortly after its author has died (apparently electrocuted by his laptop), leaving his IF work in progress an incomplete shambles and ruining his plans to enter the competition. In addition, something else has emerged on which the author hasn’t planned: an entity who calls himself Winston. Winston claims to have been created as a part of the game, but gained sentience all on his own, along with some measure of control over the game’s virtual setting. He further contends that he himself has entered the game in the competition so that you (the player) could help him investigate the author’s death. Thus in the first few moves of the game we already have the real author (who appears in the acknowledgments section), a fictional representation of the real author, the game, the game’s characteristic representation of itself (or an aspect of itself), the player, the player’s murky fictional avatar within the game (just what is the interface simulating?), etc. Things get even more complicated from there.

Clearly, A New Day wants to position itself in the avant-garde of IF and explore fictional levels in the manner of experimental modern fiction. This is certainly a worthwhile project (and one that has been touched upon by many games including A Mind Forever Voyaging, Piece of Mind, and Bureaucracy), and A New Day manages to break some intriguing ground along the way. However, the game is by no means an unqualified success. The author overuses one off-the-wall prose technique in one section of the game, a little of which would have gone a long way. Also, I found the puzzles often to be counterintuitive and confusing. Finally, the game gives the impression of having bitten off a bit more than it can chew. I found myself wondering if the author had carefully thought through all the semantics and implications of the levels he imagines — by the end it all seems a bit of a muddle. Still, A New Day has some shining moments, and the author is right to think that it’s a significant step up from Stargazer. I look forward to the continued maturation of Jonathan Fry’s artistic voice.

Prose: The prose is smooth in some areas, faltering in others. On occasion the author still suffers from the awkward phrasing which plagued him in Stargazer, but it’s clear that a significant improvement has been made. The Athens section does a nice job of communicating the feel of the city (or so it seemed to me, but then I’ve never been to Athens), and other parts of the game neatly sidestep the necessity for strong prose by deliberately excluding description. [SPOILERS AHEAD] In addition, the author pulls a wild prose stunt about 2/3 of the way through the game, breaking down the most basic conventions of words and sentences in order to simulate a software crash. This works wonderfully at first; Fry uses an well-judged combination of sense and nonsense to convey the barest notion of setting. However, it becomes pretty tiresome after a while (and the nature of the puzzles dictated that I would be seeing a lot of that area). Fry finds the right balance of gibberish with text for his experiment, but misses the mark in measuring how much is too much in the larger context of the game. [SPOILERS END]

Plot: I’ve recounted much of the plot above, so I’ll just say here that I found it to be one of the most complicated, but also one of the most predictable, of the competition games I’ve played so far. The levels of representation certainly do get entangled (perhaps moreso than the author bargained for), [SPOILERS AHEAD] but some elements, such as the “revelation” that Winston was the murderer and the final, climactic scene inside the guts of the computer, were strictly pro forma. The combination makes the game feel rather more gimmicky than it should, as if the stylistic devices haven’t been considered beyond their immediate surprise value. [SPOILERS END]

Puzzles: I found A New Day‘s puzzles to be rather difficult and counterintuitive on the whole. The last puzzle was especially tough, but more because I wasn’t clear on exactly how the setup of wires and sockets and etc. was arranged. I’m inclined to think that this is more a fault of the prose than necessarily a shortcoming in the puzzle itself –however, in its present form the unclear prose made a difficult puzzle quite impenetrable for me. I also found many of the puzzles to be rather gratuitous, working against rather than with the flow of the story. Examples that come to mind are the tourist’s handbag and the password in the garbled section.

Technical (writing): The writing was fine on a technical level.

Technical (coding): The game included some nice coding touches, including an exits list on the status line which was context-sensitive depending on what section the game found itself in. Also, Winston was quite thoroughly programmed, which helped to flesh out his character and deepen his effectiveness. Overall, Fry’s coding job was admirable.