IFDB page: A New Life
Final placement: 2nd place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition
It’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the world of A New Life. In the standard manner of high fantasy, the text is littered with names of lands, kingdoms, rulers, saints, legendary figures, and so forth, none of which seem to have any reference outside the fictional milieu. Examining a coin can give you a paragraph-long infodump about how the local economy has been affected by the waxing and waning power of a particular merchant league over the last three hundred years.
Not only that, it becomes obvious early on that the people of this world can change genders, or rather biological sex — not quite at will, but gradually over time in ways that exist on a spectrum of voluntary to involuntary. We see the implications of this trait appear everywhere from the children’s stories we encounter to the answer to “X ME”:
In your month of travel you have allowed yourself to slip into the neutral gender as a practical matter; as a result of the changes in the shape of your body, your clothes fit you poorly.
For the most part, I found this fictional realm pretty impressive — I particularly enjoyed the user’s manual for a Bag of Holding, which explains how important it is to tend to the item’s emotions. And yeah, there’s a Bag of Holding (though not exactly with that name). There are goblins. There’s a dragon. There’s a magic staff, and a charm that senses danger, and a fancy sword, and in general a whole adventurer’s-packful of Dungeons and Dragons tropes, albeit frequently with some changes rung on them, like the bag’s sensitive ego, or the goblins who turn out to be adorable and wise rather than disposable low-level mooks.
Still, for as thorough as the worldbuilding generally is, those D&D-isms sometimes get in the way of logical sense. For instance, we learn that the PC is a refugee, on the run from battles and press-gangs, about which you can learn plenty by use of the REMEMBER verb. Yet, when this refugee comes across an “Adventurers Wanted” sign, the game’s story demands that we show interest. As I was playing the character, they were not an adventurer, and getting involved in some dangerous lark is the last thing they’d want to do. The goal was just to get to a new city and establish, as the game’s title suggests, a new life.
Yet when I tried to do so, here’s the message I got: “Soon, you will follow the road and go on to start a new life in Isult. But your curiosity is not yet satisfied.” Really… curiosity? I’m on the run from a war, having tragically lost my brother (whose decision not to change genders may have led to his death), bartering my possessions along the way in a long and difficult journey, but I’m not allowed to continue that journey until I satisfy my curiosity about the mysterious and vaguely hostile peddler-woman I met along the way?
Yep. That’s the story, and it’s an example of how very convincing worldbuilding can actually work against quest-plot design. With a less defined character, I’d feel far less resistance to just getting on with exploring the spooky caves. Once I started to explore those caves, that’s when the next design flaw kicked in.
I found myself drawn into a beguiling story, with excellent NPCs, an intriguing background, and a clear goal. The problem was, as I realized about 80 minutes into the game, I was in a dead branch. I’d gotten to where I was by going through a dark place with a guide. I needed to get back through that dark place, but my guide was gone, and no light was available. Even more frustrating, although there were plenty of plausible ways I could have acquired such a light, the game hadn’t implemented any of them, and the main information-giving NPC had nothing to say about it. The hints were no help, the walkthrough was no help, and so I was forced to restart, but with considerably less engagement than I’d had the first time.
So I finished the story, but with far less emotional impact than I think was intended, due both to its insistent disconnection from the PC’s own characterization and the way the game had locked me out of a valid narrative the first time. Even at the end, when I seemed to have checked all the boxes, the game didn’t seem to respond. I ended up checking the walkthrough, only to find out that all I needed to do was travel in the direction that my “curiosity” had cut off the last time. Without a cue that I was ready to go, I had no reason to believe that command would work again. But work it did, and the game ended with an epilogue that didn’t land for me, because as detailed as the world and the story were, the game’s style of interactivity had let them down.