The Granite Book by James Mitchelhill [Comp02]

IFDB page: The Granite Book
Final placement: 16th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Sometimes, rarely, I’ll read something, or see something, or hear something that is so foreign to me, so alien, that it’s hard to say whether I like it or not. It’s almost as if the question doesn’t pertain; the piece seems to come from another dimension altogether, and I’m hard-pressed to apply human rules of quality to it. However, if I have to form an opinion, that opinion will be a negative one — when I can’t relate to something in the slightest, that thing fails to appeal to me.

Case in point: The Granite Book. At no time during this game did I have any clear conception of what was supposed to be going on. At various points, I thought that the PC might be a king, a transient, a guy on a date, a psychopath, a spirit, or a troll. Perhaps he’s the itinerant ghost of an insane troll king, looking for love. I really have no idea.

Some of this confusion and dislocation comes from the game’s choice of voice: the entire thing is written in the first person plural, like so:

We weren’t sure, but jagged rocks emerging, staring into our face,
alone as we were in that obscure and emptied world, looked familiar,
greeted us again with laughter and the scrape of gravel inside

I’ve only seen this verb tense used successfully in one place: the “royal we”, where kings and queens speak of themselves in the plural, because they are the living embodiments of their countries — hence my guess that perhaps the PC of this game is a king. It was the royal we that was used (although not in any simple way) in last year’s game The Isolato Incident, and in my review of that game I mentioned how I found it similar to Comp99’s For A Change, because both took ordinary descriptions and substituted out words, requiring the player to filter through strange language in order to make sense of the action.

The Granite Book, though, takes things one step further: not only are strange words in place of ordinary ones, but even the concepts those words represent seem to have no analogue in the real world, or even any fantasy world I’ve ever encountered. It’s not the royal we that’s at work in this game, but rather something much stranger.

For me, this was one remove too far. If nothing ever makes any sense, than I really don’t care about any of it — it just seems like a bunch of gibberish to me. As is probably apparent from the passage I quote above, verb tense is only the beginning of what makes this game opaque. From its tangled sentence structure to its nonsensical landscape and its thoroughly baffling end, the game’s perfect impenetrability never seems to crack. This sort of thing is bad enough in other kinds of art, but in IF the frustration it triggers is even more intense, because we’re supposed to take these frictionless descriptions and actually grasp them, put them to use.

I found I could make a little progress by examining second and third level nouns, but even then it was just a parroting trick, spitting back the words used by the game whenever they seemed important, not because I understood what they meant. I can imagine solving the game without the hints, if I was lucky enough to guess at the right interpretation of its descriptions, but I can’t imagine understanding it. I can’t exactly say that’s a defect in the game — who knows, maybe I’m just not bright enough to get it? But I can authoritatively say that I didn’t enjoy it.

Rating: 4.8

The Isolato Incident by Anya Johanna DeNiro as Alan DeNiro [Comp01]

IFDB page: The Isolato Incident
Final placement: 22nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, first: When I say “Alan” in this review, I’m referring to the programming language, not the author. Second: it’s always bugged me that Alan provides no scripting capability, but it’s never annoyed me more than it did for this game. That’s because this is the first Alan game I’ve encountered that’s been more about language than interactivity, and I desperately wanted to keep a copy of my interaction with the game so that I could refer back to its language when I wrote this review. I finally ended up hacking together a solution by periodically opening the scrollback buffer (thank you Joe Mason for porting Arun to Glk!) and copy-and-pasting the contents into a text file. Now that I’ve got that text file to peruse, I’m becoming even more aware of the strangenesses in the game’s use of words.

The main gimmick is obvious from the start: the entire game is written in the first person plural voice — as in, “Wait, we must stop.” Sometimes an approach just makes me sit back and say “wow, never seen that in IF before” and this was one of those times. The game is apparently from the point-of-view of a monarch, and therefore it’s fairly easy to assume that all this plurality is due to the use of that kingly favorite, the “royal we.” However, there are hints here and there that the “we” doesn’t just refer to the monarch and his subjects, but to some sort of actual multitude. For example, the narrator offhandedly mentions that “We like to coif our hair into shape, exactly like each other.” Each other? Granted, this could refer to the hairs themselves, but that’s not the only reference to multiplicity. For instance, in the first room description, we (that would be the “reviewer’s we”, dontcha know) see this:

Cozy Throne Room.
This is where we rest, tarry, and make our fears vanish. There is
enough room for all of us here.

Is this monarch of such tremendous girth that most rooms fail to hold him? Well, probably not, given the reference to “razorthin hips” in the response to “X US” (the game cleverly replies to “X ME” with “‘me’? We’re not aware of that word.”, thereby deftly employing a parser default response to further delineate the main character.)

All this would be quite enough to take in, but the game has other plans up its sleeve, too. To confusion of voice, The Isolato Incident adds a pile of words whose meaning has simply been displaced. Take this sentence: “We watch our bees, smear their history on our arms and legs.” That’s not some sort of metaphor about honey; instead, it’s a recontextualizing of the idea of bees and the idea of history into an entirely new grid. All this, and we haven’t even left the first location yet! After spending some time with the game, I started to figure out why my response felt familiar: it resembled my reaction to Dan Schmidt‘s 1999 entry For A Change. I’d look at a passage like this:

The Crux Of Our Landscape.
Still, there is much to be admired here. The green slopes are
flatter; thus, the cleft of the wind is much stronger. There are also
choices etched in the road. South leads to the nearly endless royal
road, and to the east of us is the bonegrass field and (further east)
the treasury. We can also pitter-patter back to our hut to the north.

and run it through my hastily-constructed mental filter. “Okay, ‘cleft of the wind’ probably just means a breeze. ‘Choices etched in the road’ is probably indicating that this is a crossroads.” This filter felt more natural as the game progressed, but I never stopped feeling at a distance from the PC, and therefore unable to invest any particular emotional commitment into his struggles.

The game’s not-terribly-surprising twist ending might have removed this barrier, but as it happens, I still felt just as distanced from the game even after it revealed another layer of itself to me. I think this occurred because even after the twist, the game didn’t do much to connect with any particular reality to which I could relate. In the interest of not giving away the surprise, I’ll refrain from going into detail, except to say that the ending happened suddenly enough, left enough context unexplained, and raised enough further questions that it didn’t give me much of that feeling of satisfaction that we tend to expect from the ends of stories. For me, a narrative layer a little more grounded in reality would have done wonders for my emotional connection to the game. As it was, I could admire the prettiness of the words, but only from a remove.

Rating: 7.5

[Postscript from 2020: In the context of 2001, The Isolato Incident wasn’t submitted pseudonymously. However, as of 2020, the author has transitioned to using the name Anya Johanna DeNiro. I wrote Anya, asking whether I should credit her as Alan or Anya. At her request, I’m crediting the game to her as Anya, but noting that she wrote as Alan at the time.]