an apple from nowhere by Brendan Barnwell as Steven Carbone [Comp01]

IFDB page: an apple from nowhere
Final placement: 37th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Last year’s comp gave us Stupid Kittens, which I called dadaist IF. an apple from nowhere (caps intentionally omitted, as they are in the game) is perhaps a cousin to that game. It’s avant-garde, certainly, but where Stupid Kittens‘ stream of non sequiturs was snide and aggressive, this game’s barrage of scenes feels more distinctly dreamlike, less a pointed attack than just the random firing of synapses, aggregating elements from life to stretch them and collide them.

The game skirts some taboo areas, drug use and pedophilia among them, but it seems to do so more out of an attempt to directly channel the subconscious than out of an explicit desire to shock. Perhaps I’m giving it too much credit — there is an awful lot of in-your-face subject matter here — but the dreamlike atmosphere felt genuine, if overly charged. Perhaps it’s the dream world of a somewhat mentally ill person.

The question it brings up for me is this: what happens to IF when logic is removed? There are plenty of bad games that lack logic unintentionally, and some of these can be as surreal as anything in apple, but they are unsatisfactory, because we can sense that their incongruencies are a bug rather than a feature. When the illogic is intentional, the IF prompt carries a different sort of subtext. Normally, the presence of interactivity tells us that the game wants to shape itself around our commands, and challenges us to enter into a dance with the text whereby we both lead and are led. When a game makes it clear that its responses to our commands may only be tangentially related to what we type, and may not be related at all, it has taken the lead in that dance and turned it into more of an amusement park ride. Now, amusement park rides can be a wonderful thing, and I’d even suggest that there is some room for exploring the ways in which participation can enhance surreality — Shade is an excellent example of this sort of thing done right.

apple, however, has a different agenda than Shade. At the core of Shade, there was still a story being told; all its unreal occurrences were very clearly included with a purpose in mind. In this game, such a purpose is harder to discern. It’s awfully brief, for one thing, so we don’t get much of a chance to make the connections that might lead to a story. For another, it jumps, Fusillade-style, through a variety of characters, settings, and even writing formats (a few scenes are written as a sort of interactive screenplay.) It was well-written enough, and certainly well implemented. There was very little interactivity, but that’s hardly the point in a piece like this.

Ultimately, I think it was apple‘s lack of cohesion that failed me. When I reached the end of this game, I blinked, and then I shrugged. Some people can look at a Pollock and see emotion made visible. Other people just see chaos. This game may be similar, and while I enjoy surreality and even randomness, I don’t think there’s much here that will be sticking with me.

Rating: 7.1

Fusillade by Mike Duncan [Comp01]

IFDB page: Fusillade
Final placement: 18th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

In my review of Prized Possession, I mentioned that the game felt like a long series of opening sequences. Fusillade does it one better, stringing together an even longer series of vignettes, each of which only lasts a couple of dozen moves at most before it shifts radically, changing not only time period, but character, plot, and milieu as well. Fusillade is certainly an appropriate name for such a work — there’s never any time to settle into a particular character or story, and the effect is rather like being bombarded with prologues: eyeblink IF.

The problem here is that, like many prologues, none of these sequences offers much interactivity at all. Each sequence is quite straitjacketed, and although it might allow other input (or it might not), its responses will be minimal until it gets the magic word it’s looking for. At times, this is rather transparent, as the situation is enough to compel most players into typing the right thing without much prompting. At other times, it can get a little frustrating:

>go to house
A fine idea. You can crawl, walk, or run.

For once you're tired of struggling on your elbows. You want to walk.

Walk? Why walk? These fields are endless and the world is yours. Run!

In a sudden frenzy of insanity, you hold onto your dress and run like
the wind toward the house. [... and another paragraph after that]

This exchange occurred after I had already gotten long responses from “crawl”, and then from “walk” (very necessarily in that order.) But the game still tells me I can “crawl, walk, or run”, when in fact it’s only prepared to offer me one of those choices at a time, at which point it ceases to make much sense to even talk about them as choices.

This problem reaches its zenith a few scenes in, and I’m going to give a direct spoiler now, because in my opinion it’s a scene that potential players should be warned about. I certainly didn’t appreciate having it sprung on me without warning. But if you’re adamantly anti-spoiler, you might want to skip ahead to the next paragraph. Warning over.

The scene I’m talking about is a rape scene. You’re thrust into the POV of the victim (not that it’d be any better if it were from the rapist’s POV), and there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect the scene in any way. I tried leaving. I tried dropping what I was carrying, which the narrative voice told me I was supposed to give to the rapist. I tried biting. Hitting. Killing. I tried pouring water on him, given that I was supposedly carrying a jug of water, and the game appeared not even to have implemented the water. So Fusillade threw mocking prompts at me, even though it didn’t matter what I did at those prompts — the rape is inevitable.

Once this became clear, I got angry, and emotionally disengaged from the game. I don’t mind short scenes. I don’t mind brief stretches of non-interactivity, or even long stretches if there’s some point being made, as in Rameses. I don’t even particularly mind violence, as long as it’s also in the service of some sort of useful storytelling, though I prefer that violence of this level be flagged with some sort of warning upfront. But when you put me through a rape scene, for no apparent reason except that it’s “just another scene”, and offer no real interactivity, despite the appearance of choices, I find that unacceptable. From that point forward, I was going through the motions, not about to engage with another character, in case the game had any other nasty surprises up its sleeve.

The other thing that becomes apparent after a while is that these scenes just keep coming. The idea might have worked over the space of 5 or 10 scenes, but this game just keeps bringing them on and on. Between the non-interactive nature of each scene and the emotional disengagement I was already experiencing, this endless procession of vignettes started to feel grindingly tedious after a while. When the end came (and the first real option in the game, though it only makes a few paragraph’s worth of difference), I was relieved.

I’m not sure if this is the response the game intended, but I doubt it. The whole thing ended up feeling more like a way for the author to show off his (admittedly impressive) MIDI composing skills than any kind of attempt at actual interactive fiction. So despite the fact that the game is pretty well-written and well-implemented (though there are a few glitches here and there), I ended up not enjoying it too much. It’s fine for a while, but one scene had a devastating effect on my emotional engagement, and there was way too much to get through after that. Perhaps one of these scenes really will become the prologue to a full game of actual interactive fiction (rather than just prompted fiction) — I think I’d enjoy that, as long as it isn’t that one horrible scene.

Rating: 5.8