Episode in the Life of an Artist by Peter Eastman [Comp03]

IFDB page: Episode in the Life of an Artist
Final placement: 11th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

My wife used to teach a college course called “Shakespeare For Non-Majors,” which was usually full of business and engineering students, there either to fulfill their dreaded “Literature and the Arts” core curriculum requirement, or else to, as she sometimes put it, “get their Cultural Literacy cards stamped.” Students generally came into this class with one of two attitudes towards Shakespeare. Some of them hated him — they called him “boring”, and groused of having him thrown at them all their lives as some sort of ultimate authority. Usually, a major part of these students’ problem was that they actually just didn’t understand the meaning of the words when they looked at a Shakespeare text.

The other category of students loved Shakespeare, and actually embraced and revered him as an ultimate authority. They would claim stridently that he was the Greatest Author Of All Time, that he had a perfect understanding of Human Nature, that his works are Timeless, and that every scrap of his texts embodied Deep Truth. Interestingly, these students usually also didn’t understand the meaning of the words when they looked at a Shakespeare text, but they knew enough to recognize that much of our culture sees Shakespeare as a dispenser of wisdom, and believes that if you can quote strings of words from his sonnets or plays, that ability indicates that you’re an intelligent person with great insights about life.

The PC of Episode is one of this latter type. His life could hardly be more mundane — he gets up, gets dressed, eats breakfast, and goes to work at a factory, where he spends all day in front of a conveyor belt putting green widgets on red wodgets. Yet he thinks of himself as smart and wise — an artist, in fact, and hence the title. “No one could put those widgets together like I could,” he says of himself. A large part of his faith in his mind and soul comes from the fact that he carries around a book of quotations, of which he has memorized great swaths, and he can pull out a quote for even the dullest occasions. Yet, as the text makes plain, knowing a quote isn’t the same thing as understanding it. For instance, when an unexpectedly blue widget suddenly appears on the conveyor belt:

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and he knew what he was talking about. He knew that sometimes the widgets would be green, and sometimes they’d be blue. So I’ve been doing this job for eight years, and every widget I’ve ever seen has been green. That doesn’t mean the next one won’t be blue. You’ve got to just take what comes and go on with your job. Emerson understood that, and that’s why he was such a great genius.

Of course Emerson wasn’t thinking of blue and green widgets when he wrote the “foolish consistency” line, and of course that line comes from a much larger explanatory context, but those things don’t bother the PC a bit — in his mind, he has access to Emerson’s “great genius”, to what literary critic John Guillory (swiping a term from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) called his “cultural capital”, and that genius is helping the PC deal with a difficult situation. In fact, all he’s really doing is taking his own thoughts and slapping the label “Emerson” on them so that he can call them wise and not have to question them any further. This trait permeates the character, and makes him one of the most intriguing PCs I’ve seen in an IF game for a long time.

The design of Episode nicely reinforces the PC’s character. At first, I was annoyed with it for making me go through such extremely quotidian tasks as showering, picking out clothes for the day, and so on. Once I grokked the PC a little better, though, I loved the game for doing that. By forcing me to step through those tasks, and to experience the PC’s unwavering interest in and enjoyment of them (as well as hearing his ceaseless grab-bag of quotes applied to them), the game let me become closely acquainted with the PC’s mindset in a way that still felt interactive and advanced the plot. Because it’s preceded by such an exceedingly ordinary morning routine, that blue widget and the PC’s shock at it carries much more of an impact than if it had been the beginning scene of the game.

Speaking of shock, I was rather jarred by the fact that the game apparently takes place in the Zork universe. The PC carries a five-zorkmid bill in his wallet, finds a Dimwit Flathead lunchbox, and so on. Now, granted, one of the game’s major plot points rests on its Zorkian setting, but it feels a little strange to see references to people like Emerson and Shakespeare, or to see crates labeled “USDA GRADE A”, as if those things had some part in the Zork universe. There’s also the fact that nowhere does the game acknowledge that permission for use of these things was sought or received from Activision. It’s almost as if the game itself takes some part of the PC’s simple-mindedness.

That’s what’s so puzzling, and vexing, about this game. For all that it seems to be very cleverly written and designed, it also suffers from these logic gaps, as well as from sloppy coding and some serious bugs, one so bad that it can derail the game completely and force the player to a RESTORE or multiple UNDO. With a game like Rameses, part of the clue to look beyond the surface of things is the fact that the game is obviously coded with intelligence and care. I didn’t find that to be the case with Episode — aside from the aforementioned bug, I suffered synonym problems, guess-the-verb, and basic weirdnesses like the fact that the score stayed 0 out of 100 for the entire game.

I found no mechanics problems with the prose, which made the lackluster coding feel all the more odd. I still can’t decide whether this game is the product of great writing skill paired with novice coding abilities, or whether it’s just a not-very-good game that ended up unintentionally profound. If it’s the former, Episode would benefit greatly from a once-over by someone like Mike Sousa, who enjoys collaboration and whose TADS skills are impeccable. If it’s the latter, well, I guess I’m about to give my highest score ever for a bad comp game.

Rating: 8.4

About my 2003 IF Competition Reviews

For me as an author, 2003 was a frustrating year. I had entered part 1 of a trilogy into the 2001 competition, and (amazingly) won the 2002 competition with part 2. I had every intention of completing the set with a 2003 entry, and in fact even publicly announced that I would do so. By June, though, it was very clear that I wouldn’t make it. There were a few different reasons for this, from accelerated real-life demands to a ballooning project scope caused by more ambitious design goals, but nevertheless it was a very disappointing outcome to me. I had really wanted that unbroken run.

For me as a critic, 2003 had different frustrations. The IF Competition had become a massive center of gravity in the community, which meant that it sucked up all the energy and feedback, certainly for the few months it took place, and pretty much overall for the year as well. The perfect emblem of this dysfunction, to my mind, is the 2003 comp entry Risorgimento Represso, by Michael Coyne.

RR is a fantastic game — sumptuously implemented, brilliantly designed, beautifully written. It is also a full-length game. There’s no way anybody finishes it in 2 hours, at least not outside of just charging through the walkthrough. So I played it, and loved what I saw of it, but did so in the context of six weeks where I’m trying to play and review 29 games, and cut each one off after two hours. As it became clear that RR was much bigger, I turned to hints so that I could see more of the game. I would have enjoyed it more without doing so, but it was a choice between more enjoyment or more exposure, and I wanted to be able to review the game with as broad a perspective as possible. So I sacrificed enjoying a work that its author had surely labored over creating.

I hate being placed in this position, so in my review I let the game have it with both barrels, estimating that I’d seen a third of it, so only giving it a third of the score it deserved. As it turned out, RR placed second, and in my capacity as SPAG editor I routinely interviewed the top three placing authors from the comp. I was a little abashed at doing so with Michael, having lambasted his game for its length, so I went straight at the topic in my interview:

SPAG: Okay, let’s get it out of the way. Though Risorgimento Represso got excellent reviews, one frequent complaint was that it is too long a game for the competition. Since I was probably one of the loudest complainers on that point, it’s only fair you should get to air your side here. How do you respond to the criticism that your game was too large for the comp?

MC: By placing 2nd. : )

Well, really, it boils down to a question of timing and exposure (no,
I’m not talking about photography, bear with me).

My game was largely completed in June, and went through beta-testing up
to the end of August. At that point, I had a fairly polished,
large-scale game. I could have released it publicly, where it would have
been largely ignored, for a number of reasons. First-time author, Comp03
looming, and so on. The competition and the subsequent fall-out really
chews up the last 4 months of the IF Calendar, and releasing a game
outside the competition during that period just didn’t seem reasonable.

So there you have it. The competition pulls in games that don’t belong in it, because if you release those games outside the competition, even a month or two beforehand, you may as well not release them at all. I found this a deeply discouraging place to be. I tried to do my part in counteracting it — encouraging SPAG reviews of non-comp games, and even releasing a full-length non-comp game myself — but the immensity of the comp had gathered a momentum all its own. My banging against it affected me more than it affected the situation, I suspect.

However, while the downside of the comp’s centrality was that it gathered everything to it, the upside was that it gathered so many good things to it. The 2003 games had some fantastic experiences among them, even besides Risorgimento Represso. The winning game, Slouching Towards Bedlam, was stupendous, and made me a little bit relieved I hadn’t managed to finish part 3 of Earth and Sky for that year’s comp. Other highlights included The Recruit, Scavenger, and Episode In The Life of an Artist.

I also benefited from my history with the comp, as I got to enjoy the return of many a previous entrant. Mikko Vuorinen was back with another goofily incongruous exercise in icon-subversion, Mike Sousa brought a bunch of veteran authors into a group-writing exercise, and Stefan Blixt and John Evans returned with more half-baked entries in the line of their previous ones. Well, those last two weren’t so much fun, but best of all was the reappearance of Daniel Ravipinto, whose last game was in 1996 and who excelled once again. He brought with him a wonderful co-author named Star Foster, whose horribly untimely death in 2006 is one of the saddest stories in amateur IF.

I posted my reviews of the 2003 IF Competition games on November 16, 2003.