Not Much Time by Tyson Ibele [Comp02]

IFDB page: Not Much Time
Final placement: 22nd place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Not Much Time falls into a familiar chasm, the chasm between what a game tells us we are and what it asks us to be. Ostensibly, you’re a dutiful niece or nephew who receives a distressing phone call from your aunt, implying that she is hurt or in some sort of danger. Filled with concern, you rush out to her farm to search for her, and it is there that the game begins. In the course of the search, you’ll come across many items with an air of privacy, including her mail, her journal, and her diary. (It’s unclear just what the difference is between these last two items.)

The personal items are generally hidden, though not always, and even their descriptions tend to be admonishments about privacy:

>x journal
This is your Auntie's journal. But you probably shouldn't read it
because it's rude to read other people's things.

Heeding this advice, I went through the game trying to respect those boundaries as much as I could. Of course, it was impossible to be too respectful, since she isn’t to be found in any terribly obvious place, but I didn’t feel too bad about things like borrowing a flashlight to explore a dark place or grabbing possibly-useful items like a spade or a pocketknife. The game’s landscape is fairly large, and by the time I figured out I was stuck, I had forgotten about my decision not to invade Auntie’s privacy, turned to the hints, and discovered that invading her privacy was exactly what I needed to do. What’s worse, there’s nothing in the game that particularly indicates which inappropriate action is the crucial one to advance the game state.

This is fiction and interactivity at each other’s throats. As a player, I tend to be drawn more to story than puzzles, and consequently I was trying to cooperate with the demands of the story, but the interactivity roadblocked me from proceeding through the story until I had broken character rather thoroughly. Of course, it could be argued that in my desperation to find my aunt, I could reasonably be driven to tearing open her belongings, but really, I think I’d just call the police first. If only her house had a phone — so few IF houses do.

That fundamental disconnect between story and game is only one of Not Much Time‘s problems. There’s another disconnect, too. It’s less important, and it’s understandably common in IF, but I’d like to see it become less so, which is why I bring it up; besides, this game has such a classic example of it:

>x grandfather clock
This clock is a masterpiece. It suffered top quality craftmanship and
it is a beautiful piece of work. The wood is stained the perfect
color and its giant mechanism is a wonder to look at. You can't
reason why the clock is in the kitchen and not the living room. There
is a door on the front of the clock which is closed.

>open clock
I don't know how to open the grandfather clock.

>open door
It's locked.

>unlock clock
I don't know how to unlock the grandfather clock.

Here’s the thing: in language, there’s a metonymic connection between something like a grandfather clock and its door. When we say “open the clock”, what we mean on a more literal level is “open the door in the clock.” This sort of connection isn’t hard to implement in IF, it’s just hard to remember to implement. When it doesn’t work, though, the game’s momentum screeches to a stop as we figure out how to get the parser to understand what we mean. Another big speed bump is bizarre diction like “suffered top quality craftmanship.” Suffered? Also: craftsmanship.

I’ve spilled a lot of (metaphorical) ink on this game already, not because it’s a lot of fun, but because its flaws can illuminate some larger trends in IF overall. In point of fact, the game isn’t much fun, though it certainly isn’t as offputting as the author’s other entry, Concrete Paradise. There are numerous prose errors, some threadbare implementation, and many, many bucketsful of red herrings. The puzzles, while mostly logical, feel rather arbitrary, and (as discussed above) sometimes clash rather harshly with the story.

In addition, part of the game’s solution involves killing an animal — not in a good, Trinity-like, making-a-larger-point way, but in a rather pointless, unpleasant way. This game illustrates some of what not to do in IF, and while it has its good points, it was the negatives that stayed with me.

Rating: 5.6

Concrete Paradise by Tyson Ibele [Comp02]

IFDB page: Concrete Paradise
Final placement: 30th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I read stuff in the IF Comp that I just don’t read anywhere else, and this game is a perfect example. You start out, apparently, as a junk-food obsessed child, whose mission in life is to find and eat candy. Then suddenly, a horde of screaming authority figures pops up. After a short, dreamlike sequence, you end up in an island prison, where everything is dark, rusted, and filthy. A stranger wanders in, offers an implement of violence, and wanders out again. Your escape process includes expedients ranging from the obvious (a message in a bottle) to the rather surprising (self-mutilation and brutal murder). Then some puzzly stuff, more dreamlike unreality, more screaming authority figures, more obvious escape techniques, more grime, an enormous phallus, an overwhelming ocean, and eventual success tinged with isolation. In short, it’s quite a bit like wandering around inside the id of a mentally and emotionally stunted paranoid psychopath.

If this effect served some artistic purpose, or indeed if it even seemed intentional, there might be a lot to admire about it. Alas, this is not the case with Concrete Paradise. Instead, the game feels like a stream-of-consciousness exercise, in which the PC is placed in one stock situation after another, whose solutions range from the extremely obvious to the head-scratchingly odd. There are a lot of telegraphed puzzles, by which I mean that the game tells you early on how to escape a particular situation, and then when you are in that situation, you escape it with the recommended method. Other puzzles involve waiting around doing nothing in particular until the game solves the puzzle for you. The storyline veers wildly from innocent childhood hijinks to some very dark stuff indeed, but never seems to have any overarching plan or direction in mind.

Most of the time, games with this sort of schizophrenic, unconscious tone tend to be riddled with errors, and this game is no exception. The “about” text makes an emphatic point about how the game has been tested on a variety of TADS interpreters, but one wonders whether that time might have been better spent ferreting out the numerous spelling and grammar errors, not to mention the programming bugs. Guess-the-verb problems abound, along with actions that prompt no response, actions that can be done repeatedly without cumulative effect, and other classics. Even if none of these technical problems were present, though, this still wouldn’t be a good game. A good candidate for psychoanalysis, maybe, but not a good game.

Rating: 3.6