Internal Vigilance by Simon Christiansen [Comp05]

IFDB page: Internal Vigilance
Final placement: 10th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

So first, let’s acknowledge that when it comes to libertarian-flavored political stories, there’s quite a large contextual difference between 2005, midway through the Bush-43 presidency with its wars and its USA-PATRIOT Act, and 2021, the year of an attempted coup against the American government and a devastating pandemic that continues to kill tens of thousands despite the wide availability of highly effective vaccines, because a significant portion of the population refuses to get vaccinated. I will also acknowledge my own bias, which is that while I have some sympathy with the sentiment behind libertarianism, I find its real-world application tends toward the simplistic and absolutist, an indignant sputtering about freedom and rights, with very little attention to necessity and responsibilities. Certainly in the case of the insurrection, the people screaming about freedom under “thin blue line” flags were the same ones beating up cops in the name of a would-be authoritarian. Consequently, I was the wrong audience at the wrong time for this game. Nevertheless, I am who I am and it is when it is, and since I’m the one writing this review I’m here to report that I found Internal Vigilance thudding and exasperating rather than the thought-provoking exercise I’m sure it was intended to be.

You play a generic government agent (seriously, your email domain is “”) in an apparently repressive regime which nevertheless seems to take very few prisoners — your charge in the game is to interrogate “prisoner no. 6”. Perhaps the agency is very new? Or maybe they number prisoners out of order. In any case, this guy’s crime was to write a libertarian-leaning book, whose argument you sum up as follows:

Freedom is more important than safety. It is not hard to understand why he is supected of having terrorist connections.

Uh-huh. Apparently the old “.gov” hates freedom now and equates it with terrorism, and so do you. (Or at least, you “supect” such a connection.) I had to look again to make sure this game isn’t titled YOU Are a STRAW MAN!, but nope. Internal Vigilance is both the name of the game and this guy’s book. So after examining all the stuff in the PC’s office, I steered him down to interrogate the guy. The game uses an enhanced version of the ask/tell conversation system, where you can abbreviate ASK to “A” and TELL to “T” if there’s only one interlocutor in the room, and can add extraneous text which the parser will sift for keywords. The game’s example is “ASK JONES ABOUT HIS VIEWS CONCERNING THE RIGHTS OF THE INDIVIDUAL”, because of course it is.

Using this system, I questioned the prisoner, and that’s when I started to discover that not only is the game too lazily imagined, it’s too lazily implemented as well. The dialogue is riddled with errors, including the baffling repetition of a lower-case “i” for the first-person singular nominative pronoun — quite ironic for a game about individualism. My conversation hit so many dead ends that I eventually looked up the hints and found that while “ASK ABOUT FAMILY” was a fruitless line of questioning, “ASK ABOUT MOTHER” hits the jackpot! Okay. Once I break through and get the intel I need, the prisoner glares at me and I’m told, “If looks could kill, you would be death by now.” I would be death?

Anyway, that scene ends and then a new chapter starts, in which the PC is flying. Flying! The glorious freedom of flight! He’s got “a pair of large majestic wings with white feathers, held together by wax”, which are also somehow a part of his body that would have to be removed surgically, we find out. DANGER, METAPHOR AHEAD. In this chapter, you can fly too close to the sun and have your wax melt, or you can fly too close to the ground and get shot down. In all cases, you end up in a cell with somebody telling you your wings will need to be removed “for your own good.” DO YOU GET THE METAPHOR YET? If not, the game will throw you a C.S. Lewis quote about how “of all tyrannies a tyranny exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive.” Of course, the original quote had more words and a comma, but this game is free of repressive rules about accurate quotation!

So the wings scene turns out to be (surprise!) a dream, and then you get to investigate the case, basically figuring out whether the prisoner is connected with domestic terrorists. There are a number of ways this can go. The way mine went found me chatting with the prisoner’s sister, or someone purporting to be her. She served me some tea. I drank it and found that it had “a interesting spicy taste”, from which I immediately concluded I’d been drugged. (And that the author is blissfully free from the fascist rules about indefinite articles.) Here’s what happened next:

You feel sleepy.

>get up
In the middle of the conversation? That would be pretty rude.

>shoot allyson
Your gun feels much to heavy to lift...

>throw tea at allyson
(first taking the cup of tea)
You carefully pick up the teacup, making sure not to spill the hot contents.

You struggle to keep your eyes open.

>a tea
You don't believe that question will get you anywhere at the moment.

In other words, the game wants to let me know the PC has been drugged, but is not prepared for me to actually try to do anything about it. As with the lower-case “i”, I had to take a moment and soak in the fact of how this libertarian game keeps taking away my freedom to act. In fact, in the very next scene it pretty much ties the PC to a chair to shout the plot at him.

My game ended shortly after this, as the terrorists shot the PC in the head. I decided to give it another try, this time following the hints, and what I found was a puzzle having to do with a book code and a passphrase, which could allegedly get me into the terrorists’ hideout without being drugged. Following the hints exactly, I looked up the code and tried the phrase. (The phrase is, sigh, “Freedom from protection.”) The game did not accept this phrase. I tried again, making sure I had all the numbers and words right. The game did not accept it. Apparently the hints had steered me into a game-breaking bug.

At this point, I decided to quit the game and never come back. The word I would use to describe this decision is: liberating.

Rating: 4.4

Square Circle by Eric Eve [Comp04]

IFDB page: Square Circle
Final placement: 5th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’ve been an IF Comp judge for a long time now, and the autumn events of my last ten years are all tied up with comp games. I’m pretty much always playing an IF game on Halloween — I particularly remember the supremely un-spooky Mystery Manor. Similarly, I have a strong memory of playing and reviewing Castle Amnos on Election Day 2000. Now it’s November 4th, 2004, two days after an election whose results disappointed me very much, and the game that marks the occasion is Square Circle.

It’s fitting, really, because the game’s theme feels both political and timely. The PC awakens in a cell, his memory wiped clean (yes, it’s YAPCWA, Yet Another PC With Amnesia), imprisoned for no reason that he can remember. Further exploration reveals that in the PC’s world, criminal justice has adopted a Kafkaesque tone: criminals are defined as those people being punished for a crime, and therefore if you are in jail, you are by definition a criminal. With my government using a holding pen on foreign soil to detain alleged “enemy combatants” who have been charged with no crime and who have no access to due process, and with the authority behind this plan having been swept back into office by the popular will, the game feels eerily relevant.

The difference, of course, is that the Guantanamo prisoners won’t win their release with puzzle solutions, no matter how clever. Then again, the game’s “justice” system is meant to be based on pure rationalism (though of course it’s a through-the-looking-glass kind of rationalism), and nobody ever accused George Bush of being overly beholden to rationality. In any case, Square Circle ties its themes together quite neatly, with the emphasis on rationalism gone horribly awry reflected both in the PC’s imprisonment and in the paradoxical geometry puzzle that holds the key to his escape.

The game’s design is similarly good overall. The geometry theme carries over into the design of rooms and objects, with squares and circles repeating all over the place, not to mention cubes and spheres. The rhythmic echoing of these shapes helped me begin to wrap my mind around the game’s titular problem, and while I stumbled into the beginning of my solution by dumb luck, I was thrilled to figure the rest of it out by myself. I was even more surprised to discover that I hadn’t solved the game’s central puzzle, but in fact opened up a much larger vista of puzzle and story. Many of those puzzles had multiple solutions available, all of which made at least some sense. Options like that always make a game more fun.

The plot unfolded satisfyingly, teasingly doling out hints about the PC’s identity. By now, the amnesiac PC is a hoary cliche, but Square Circle felt a bit fresher than the average YAPCWA game by virtue of a couple of little plot twists. Unfortunately, one weaker puzzle undermined the game’s totalitarian feel by enlisting the elements as co-conspirators against the PC. It’s one thing when other people create a maddening environment for a character, but unless those people have a weather-control device, bringing something like the wind into the equation is a dirty trick.

The other serious issue with the game’s design has to do with one of its dead ends. I quite liked the way that Square Circle allows you to do utterly dumb things, and the consequence is generally instant death. However, there’s one path that puts you into an unwinnable situation which does not announce itself as unwinnable in any way, and in fact teasingly offers a repetition of the solvable opening scenario. I wasted precious time flailing around here before turning to the hints and finding that I needed to restart. I don’t care for this sort of design — if you’re going to end my game, just end it.

Speaking of that hint system, it was generally quite well-done. The hints were menu-based and Invisiclues-style, with enough contextual awareness to only offer hints on the problems currently facing the PC. I certainly leaned on the hints quite a bit, and found them quite adept at providing just enough nudge. Unfortunately, I did run into a problem at the very end of my game session, where I was faced with a roadblock and the game failed to offer me any hints about it. A couple of other glitches afflicted the game, too, including some typos, and a bit of freaky parsing:

>draw square around circle
What do you want to draw that on?

What do you want to note?

>get note

What just happened? I still don’t know. On the other hand, the game pulls off some amazing parsing tricks when it gives the PC a marking pen and some paper. In his attempt to create a square circle (as demanded by the entity holding him prisoner), the PC can draw a square, and a circle. Even better than that, he can draw whatever he likes. For instance, the game responds to DRAW CARTOON with “You draw a cartoon on the note,” and from that point forward, CARTOON becomes a synonym for NOTE. I thought that this was really an amazingly cool bit of parser trickery.

Lots of other little conveniences were on hand as well, though I suspect many of the ones that reach for player-friendliness are already built into TADS 3. I particularly liked X WALLS, which provided an actual description for each wall of a room, creating a wonderfully complete feeling for the game’s world. In fact, some of the game’s description levels go intoxicatingly deep:

>x guardian
The guardian is a lithe, athletic-looking man in his mid-thirties,
with short fair hair and a hard, unsympathetic face. He’s dressed in
a pale grey uniform [...]

>x grey
It’s a drab, though reasonably smart, uniform consisting of pale grey
trousers and a tunic of the same colour. The tunic has a pair of
breast pockets, with a badge above the left one.

>x badge
The badge bears the inscription NEW ENLIGHTENMENT PUNISHMENT SERVICE
and depicts a set of prison gates and a sword.

>x sword
The highly stylized sword is depicted hilt up and to the left, with
its blade interlacing the prison gates.

Wow. I mean, wow. I just adore that kind of thing. I also love when that kind of largesse is applied to a game’s overall design, providing a nice long playing experience… except when the game gets entered in the comp. Square Circle suffers from being oversized for a comp game — not heinously so, but I think I was only about 75% through when the two-hour bell rang. So that’ll hurt its rating with me. Otherwise, though it’s a little unpolished in places, this game offers an intriguing scenario and some enjoyable puzzles, and I recommend it, especially if it sees a revised post-comp edition.

Rating: 8.1