Constraints by Martin Bays [Comp02]

IFDB page: Constraints
Final placement: 19th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’m far from the first person to make this claim, but I think every piece of art is, to some greater or lesser degree, about the art form itself. Every novel is at least a little bit about the novel, every film is at least a little bit about the cinema. And every text game is at least a little bit about IF itself. Then there are those that are very much about the form. Constraints is one of these. It disarmed me by admitting upfront, in fact brandishing, the fact that it was going to consist of constrained interactions. It then sets out to explore not only the idea of constraint, and the ways that interaction in a text game can be constrained, but how to make those constrained interactions effective, and even fun.

Of course, it’s not the first game to tread this ground — Photopia and Rameses have famously drawn from the same well — but it’s the first one I’ve seen that devotes itself so purely to the concept, free of any particular narrative or character. However, because of the way it’s structured, it’s rather difficult to talk about without giving too much away. What I can say, though, is that although at one point it enumerates the types of constraints it claims to employ, there is one that it doesn’t include in its list but which features prominently throughout the game.

I’m referring to the fact that although you have the opportunity to play several characters in Constraints (all of whom are in some restricted situation, natch), they all share a common trait: the desire not to be constrained. In each scenario, I struggled for a bit against the circumstances, but then tried doing things that would indicate a certain peace with the situation. Each time, I was rebuffed, instructed that the character’s desire outweighed whatever notions I might have about graceful acceptance. I’m not complaining about this. It’s quite legitimate to instruct a player about how to behave in character when a character is specified, and in a game this skillfully done, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the additional level of constraint was quite intentional.

The idea intrigues me, though. How much of what we call constraints in our lives are simply produced by our own desires, more or less independent of our circumstances? When we feel held down, held back, would the feeling disappear if we decided that we no longer wanted whatever lay on the other side of the barrier? For that matter, can a constraint even exist without a corresponding desire to define it as such? In this game, the question is moot — there’s no way of changing the characters’ desires — but I really like it that the experience of playing made me think about such a philosophical issue in my own life.

It helps a lot that Constraints is quite exquisitely implemented. It’s clear that this game has been tested thoroughly — not only did I find no bugs, but several times throughout the game, I had the exciting experience of trying a fairly unusual action, and seeing that the game anticipated it and handled it expertly. The game uses the z-machine’s color capabilities quite nicely (thereby giving me another reason to be thankful to David Kinder for the new WinFrotz 2002 interpreter), and in another section commits an impressive (though not quite unprecedented) z-machine abuse.

For the most part, the writing hews to the same high standard, though there are several instances of rather strange word choices. I’m not sure whether these were simply typos, or whether they indicate that perhaps English isn’t the author’s first language. If the latter is true, then Constraints is to be commended all the more for the level of mastery it does attain. Despite all this, I can’t quite bring myself to rate the game a 10. Even though it was thought-provoking and nicely crafted, in the end I didn’t find it terribly enjoyable; I don’t really like being constrained. Nevertheless, this is an excellent work of IF, and a fascinating metatreatise on “puzzleless” IF in general.

Rating: 9.3

About my 2002 IF Competition Reviews

2002 was the eighth year of the IF competition, and everything was pretty firmly in place. That includes the games and authors, who occupied the usual range from ugh to wow, and in fact pushed the top of that range back up above where I found it in 2001. It also includes me.

By 2002 I’d been reviewing comp games for many years, and I was very comfortable in the critic role. Without being too egotistical about it, felt like I could write reviews that would not only explain the my reaction to game and give useful feedback to the author, but at least sometimes do so in a way that would be useful for lots of aspiring authors, not just the one who wrote the game in question.

Writing all those other reviews had also made me deeply conversant with the history of the comp, which became increasingly helpful, as more and more comp games seemed to be in conversation with their predecessors. This certainly happened on the stylistic level — for example the “pure puzzle game” flavor I’d identified in previous years’ games like Colours and Ad Verbum continued in 2002 with games like Color And Number and (to a lesser extent) TOOKiE’S SONG. Koan was a tiny puzzle game in the spirit of In The Spotlight or Schroedinger’s Cat. Janitor was a cleanup game like Enlightenment and Zero Sum Game.

Dialogue with previous IF also happened at the thematic level — A Party To Murder called straight back to Suspect, Coffee Quest II to Little Blue Men, and so forth. Finally, at the most abstract level, games like Constraints clearly functioned as meta-commentary on the medium itself.

Knowing the domain as I did helped me to feel like I could be a good teacher for newer authors. But even better, closely examining my reaction to a game and explaining it to myself by writing about it, especially informed by a long history of doing so, was the very best way of being a student. The great thing about the IF comp is that it provides such a wide variety of approaches, so in getting analytical about my own responses, I can understand what works and what doesn’t work across a whole range of styles. Particularly helpful were games like The Temple, whose approach inspired my own future work.

2002 was my third time as a competition entrant, and much to my amazement, my first time as a winner. I was genuinely shocked to win the competition — I really did not think my game was the best one. (But who am I to argue with the judges? 🙂 ) My own favorite game of the 2002 comp, by a pretty wide margin, was Till Death Makes A Monk-Fish Out Of Me!. In my meta entry about the 2001 comp, I stupidly asserted that my not reviewing All Roads because I’d tested it was “the first and only Comp where I didn’t review the winner”, but of course this is not true! I didn’t do so in 2002 or 2004 either, because my games were the winners.

Besides Another Earth, Another Sky, the only games I did not review were Buried! and Castle Maze, because they were withdrawn and/or disqualified.

I posted my reviews of the 2002 IF Competition games on November 15, 2002.