Playing Desert Heat made me realize something. In the first five years of the IF Competition, I don’t think a single “true” Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style branching narrative has been entered. Sure, we had Human Resources Stories, but despite its title, that game had no story — it was just a weird quiz. We also had Life On Beal Street, but that game didn’t really offer any choices, unless you count “quit” and “don’t quit” as legitimate story branches, which I don’t. So along comes Desert Heat, a true CYOA story, forcing me to decide what I think about such a format for a comp game.
Here’s what I ended up with: I have nothing against CYOA; in fact I like it, and nurture fond childhood memories of CYOA books by the likes of Edward Packard, R.A. Montgomery, and the amusingly pen-named D. Terman [Which turns out not to be a pen name at all. Guy was actually named Douglas Terman. — 2020 Paul]. However, in an interactive fiction competition where its competitors boast full-blown parsers, maps, and the like, it just doesn’t feel very interactive. Desert Heat does an excellent job of presenting its milieu, but I kept wishing for many more choices than the story offers.
Perhaps part of the problem is that the game’s narrative doesn’t actually offer that many real options. Most of the branches aren’t branches at all. Instead, they generally do one of three things: one, they reveal themselves to be dead ends, forcing you back to a previous node; two, they only offer the illusion of choice, because every option leads to the same node; or three, they result in an abrupt ending. Endings are plentiful in Desert Heat, but branches aren’t, and that probably accentuated the feeling of restriction I was already experiencing as a result of dropping from the wide-open ambiance of a text adventure into the more streamlined mode of CYOA. Consequently, I found that I was having less fun with Desert Heat than I had with the good parser games I’ve played so far, though to be fair I did find it more fun than the bad parser games, so format isn’t the only thing at work here.
The other unique thing about DH is its genre. It calls itself “A Romance Of Sorts”, and because I’m not a reader of romances, I couldn’t say how closely it hews to the conventions of that genre. I can say that it was written well, proofread well, and programmed well (though the programming chores are obviously more minimal when it comes to CYOA, and the author apparently had help from Mark Musante’s CYOA library for TADS). The Arabic, desert milieu is one I haven’t seen very often at all in IF (the only other one I can bring to mind is a section of TimeQuest), and it feels fresh and interesting. The characters are believable, the intrigue plausible, and there are even some quite subtle moments of humor. (Read the descriptions closely if you ask one of the characters to dance.)
As the author’s warning suggests, there are some sexual scenes available, and in fact the options to include or exclude these scenes represent some of the most significant choices available in the game. Again, I’m not sure what the conventions of the genre are when it comes to this kind of scene — some of them made me a little queasy, but I only encountered these when I was systematically going through the game looking for text I had missed (the inclusion of “undo” was much appreciated.) They didn’t appear in my first few plays through the game, which probably says something about how I tend to play a character.
In the end, while I appreciated Desert Heat for its experimentation with an untried format for comp games, and while I enjoyed its presentation of an unusual setting, I just couldn’t get very into the story. This is no doubt partly just because romances like this aren’t really my cup of tea — I’d never seek one out for pleasure reading. Also, there are some continuity slips in the game, highlighting the fact that although CYOA takes the burden out of coding, it places much more stringent demands on plotting — characters shouldn’t seem surprised to discover something that was already revealed in a previous node, or by contrast claim knowledge of something that hasn’t been revealed yet in this particular narrative trajectory, and those things sometimes happen in Desert Heat.
In the final analysis, it was probably a combination of factors that made me say, “Nice try, but it didn’t really work for me.” I still think a CYOA could work in the comp, but the lesson of Desert Heat is that such a game would not only have to be well-written and very well-plotted, but also wide enough and with enough available choices to provide a feeling of freedom at least somewhat comparable with parser games.