Identity Thief by Rob Shaw-Fuller [Comp02]

IFDB page: Identity Thief
Final placement: 13th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

A couple of years ago, there was a comp game called VOID:CORPORATION, which proclaimed itself to be cyberpunk. Unfortunately, as I said in my review, what it did instead was “just slap a cyberpunk sheen on standard fantasy tropes”, and was consequently pretty weak. Only a few days ago, I heard from the author of that game, who had just found my review and thanked me for writing it, so V:C was on my mind when I saw Identity Thief describe itself in Comp02 as “a cyberpunk interaction.”

Happily, this game exceeds its predecessor by a long stretch. Rather than being thinly disguised versions of Tolkien or Zork, Identity Thief‘s characters, settings, objects, and plot arise organically from a much more science-fictional premise, a premise nicely limned in the game’s optional introductory material. The prose maintains a very fine level throughout, sometimes even hitting rather sublime and poetic metaphors. The gadgets, such as implanted hands with “memory plastic” that can store palmprints of anyone whose hand you clasp, are delightful and have a great “wow factor.” What’s more, the story starts out with an arresting setup, moves quickly into a high pitch of urgency, and then keeps going into stranger and stranger territory.

I was particularly taken with what I suppose you might call the game’s second half. [I’ll try to be pretty vague here, but some of what follows could be construed as mild spoilage.] The first half involves completing a particular task, and indeed the first pleasant surprise is that there’s still more game to go when that task is completed — I fully expected the story to end, but instead I was asked to do the next logical thing, given what had happened up to that point. As that second scenario progressed, I felt more and more uneasy, suspecting that some big whammy was coming my way, but I didn’t try to get away. I didn’t even want to try to get away, because I knew that wasn’t what the character would do, even though the character himself was probably sharing my apprehensions.

Through its excellent writing and careful plotting, the game had cemented such a solid emotional connection between the PC and myself that I never flipped into the more “gamelike” state of mind that would attempt to obtain the most favorable outcome no matter how its methods might jar against the character or the story. This sort of split consciousness is essential to dramatic irony, and is exceedingly difficult to achieve in IF. Identity Thief achieved it, at least for me, and deserves a great deal of praise for that.

Where the game falls apart, though, is in its depth of implementation. The first part of the game has the PC hunting for a particular object, but a great many reasonable commands related to such a hunt were met with the response “You have better things to do.” This is unsatisfying not just because it thwarts my attempts to solve the puzzle, but because it’s patently false — the PC’s highest priority ought to be to carry out just such actions.

Another area where the implementation seems particularly threadbare is in its major NPC. This NPC, when questioned with the right word, rarely fails to offer large quantities of information, much of it critical to the plot. However, those words can be difficult to determine, and to pretty much every other topic, the NPC responds, “I do not understand your question.” And while that statement may be perfectly true, it is not sufficient.

As a result of these problems of shallowness, Identity Thief feels like it’s one or two drafts away from being finished — bugs and prose errors are rather rare (though not entirely absent), but the game could still benefit greatly from a beta-testing session that addressed not only things the tester finds that don’t work properly, but also things the tester tries that don’t prompt a unique response. Identity Thief is already a good game, but as yet it lacks the polish to be anything more.

Rating: 8.8

VOID: CORPORATION by Jonathan Lim [Comp00]

IFDB page: Void: Corporation
Final placement: 41st place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

I like cyberpunk, though I prefer it in small doses. I’d never go on a cyberpunk reading jag, but I thoroughly enjoy the occasional William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, or Pat Cadigan novel. I also think that IF in the cyberpunk vein could be really cool — after all, if cyberpunk has one defining characteristic, it’s a certain atmosphere, and atmosphere is something that IF does very well. There is a danger, however: with IF conventions having been shaped out of a stock fantasy/D&D tradition in games like Adventure and Zork, the temptation might exist to just slap a cyberpunk sheen on standard fantasy tropes and call it good, when good is something it very probably wouldn’t be.

It’s exactly this trap into which VOID: CORPORATION falls. Instead of a shiny silver key to open a locked door, we find a “silver slab” imprinted with microcircuitry. A pistol instead of a sword, a cube with liquid metal software instead of a spell scroll, et cetera. And instead of wandering kobolds and bugbears and such, we get wandering FMI (Federal Military Intelligence) agents and “cyberpunks.” (It works much better as a label for a genre rather than for a group of people, by the way.)

Let’s talk a little bit more about those wandering monsters. Ask any Quake or Half-Life player this question: “How would it be if every time you fragged something, you dropped your weapon, and had to explicitly pick it up again before you could frag something else?” I think we both know that their answer would certainly be some variation on “It would SUCK! A lot!” Yet this is exactly how things work in V:C. At the beginning of the game, we are told this about the PC: “more people have died at his hands than braincells at a ‘Silver’ party.” Unfortunately, the guy seems to be more butterfingers than trigger-finger. Even worse, the game doesn’t even tell you that you’ve dropped your weapon — it was quite a surprise the first time I tried to shoot somebody and was told, “You don’t see any gun here.” Strange enough that the game seems to want to emulate the random-stream-of-bad-guys dynamic of action games, despite the fact that typing “kill cyberpunk” carries absolutely none of the visceral thrill of an FPS frag. But for god’s sake, why why why would this trained professional killer drop his weapon after every single kill? (Nevermind the fact that these kills happen on crowded streets and shops where nobody seems to bat an eye at gunplay.)

Adding to the irritation is the fact that certain monsters can only be killed by certain specific weapons, even though both weapons are basically guns. For example, if you try to kill a “mean-looking cyberpunk” with your shotgun, you are told “You strike at the cyberpunk with the shotgun, but your weapon bounces off it harmlessly”, almost as if you tried to clobber the guy with the stock rather than the far-less-strenuous effort of pulling the trigger. Yet a pistol takes him out without fuss? What could the difference possibly be? This bizarre behavior, coupled with the fact that every dead bad guy disappears in “a cloud of red smoke” made me feel sure that at some point the game would have the PC “discover” that he’s in a VR scenario. But no, that never happened, and the only explanation I’m left with is that some serious slippage into fantasy has occurred in these portions of the game.

Some of this behavior may be due to the fact that the game is written in AGT. I haven’t played many AGT games, since most of them seem to have came out between the fall of Infocom and the release of Lost Treasures, which is a period during which I had given IF up for dead. However, I have vague recollections of people asserting that the wandering monster stuff is default behavior in AGT, and that it has to be explicitly removed for a game not to have it. Or maybe I’m thinking of GAGS or something — they all sort of blend together for me.

In any case, there are problems in this game that definitely cannot be blamed on AGT. For example, one of the critical puzzles in the game depends on the PC going in a direction that is not indicated as available in the room description. This, mind you, when every single possible exit is listed in every other room description. Hasn’t the UN passed a resolution or something against games behaving like this? In fairness to the game, it’s true that a hint toward this action is given at one point, but in fairness to me, the descriptions do little to indicate in what location the hint is applicable, and in any case that’s still no excuse for leaving an exit unlisted when all others are. This is definitely the worst offender among the puzzles, but every aspect of Void, from the design to the writing to the plot to the coding, is tarnished with flaws. Some of these aspects have a genuine spark of excitement, or at least the possibility of such, but in the end, VOID: CORPORATION is a game that promises far more than it delivers.

Rating: 4.4