Eric’s Gift by Joao Mendes [Comp02]

IFDB page: Eric’s Gift
Final placement: 16th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

In the “about” text for Eric’s Gift, the author mentions that much of the inspiration for the story came from a dream. Somehow, this seems appropriate, because the experience of playing the game was quite reminiscent of a recurring dream of mine: the one where I find myself in a play, but I don’t know my character or any of my lines. The other actors look at me expectantly, waiting for me to say the words that will advance the plot, and all I can do is madly improvise in a futile attempt to hit on the right topic.

Eric’s Gift is one of those games that runs on triggers — examining a particular thing, or asking about a particular subject, or performing some other action triggers a non-interactive cutscene, which changes the PC’s location and moves the plot along. When games like this work, they give the feeling of a story advancing smoothly, right in sync with the player’s actions. When one breaks down, though, it’s hell — players flounder about looking for the right action as the plot’s momentum evaporates, along with the fun of the game. Rather than guess-the-verb or guess-the-noun, the whole thing becomes a game of guess-the-trigger, which is worse than either one, since it encompasses both verbs and nouns, but you can never be sure which you’re trying to guess at any given moment.

That’s just what happened to me in Eric’s Gift. I was in a conversation scene where, unbeknownst to me, I needed to examine a sub-object of an object (that is to say, a second-level noun) in order to trigger the next scene. Thinking I’d examined everything, and having tried to leave, or do various other more or less appropriate actions, I kept fishing for new things to ask about, feeling like one of those characters in Sartre’s No Exit, doomed to spend all eternity trapped with the same annoying person.

In a situation like this, it really helps a lot if the game is thoroughly implemented, and in part, Eric’s Gift accomplishes this. All available scenery objects are described, and a few off-the-beaten-path conversation topics are implemented, too. However, as time wore on and I kept not guessing the trigger, the NPC began to feel more and more threadbare, always failing to respond to my increasingly desperate topic choices.

Perhaps part of my problem was that I was a bit distracted by the game’s insistent use of the same metaphor over and over and OVER again. Saying that a woman has a “light in her eyes” is already a bit of a cliché, but quite tolerable if said once, maybe even twice. This game hits it so often that it becomes comical. My breaking point was when I encountered this description: “Her eyes shine with a light of their own, with an intensity that almost blinds you.” Mind you, there had already been many repetitions of the “light in the eyes” theme, but this one was way, way over the top. How could the light in someone’s eyes, which I take to mean an animated, vivacious expression, almost blind me? I couldn’t help but picture the NPC with high-beam headlights for eyes, the PC shielding his face from the glare. The lesson here is that any given metaphor is best used sparingly — the more often we see it, the less effective it becomes.

My other issue with Eric’s Gift is that it is pointlessly science-fictional. What I mean by that is that although the story is set in the future, it gains virtually nothing thereby. A few details are changed here and there — people drink “synthcaf” instead of coffee, the TV is called a “tri-di”, and so forth — but otherwise the story might just as well be set in 2002. Not one significant point of plot or character derives from the futuristic setting, and consequently that setting is little more than a distraction.

Adding a science-fictional sheen to an otherwise mundane story doesn’t somehow make that story cooler. Quite the contrary, in fact — it drains the story of mainstream appeal while gaining nothing in sf credibility. Oh, and one more thing: there are serious logical holes in the plot, especially in the defining element of the plot. Although its writing and coding was competent, the logical flaws, awkward emotion, and frustrating design make Eric’s Gift one that I won’t be keeping.

Rating: 5.4