Aftermath by Graham Somerville [Comp00]

IFDB page: Aftermath
Final placement: 37th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Sometimes a comp game can be summed up in one word. Of course, that never stops me from going ahead and writing three paragraphs about it anyway, explaining why that word fits, but for those with a distaste for verbosity, that one word can be a handy precis. Aftermath is such a game, and the word, I’m sorry to say, is “dismal.” The game’s topic is war, and not the glory of triumph in battle or the allure of military machinery, but the dismal, dismal existence of lone soldiers on frost-covered battlefields, struggling out from under heaps of bodies and fighting off the human vultures who scavenge through the corpses’ belongings.

This topic, by itself, is quite a downer, but still could be the basis of an excellent game. Unfortunately, Aftermath‘s dismal characteristics don’t stop there. The writing is dismal, the grammar is dismal, the spelling is dismal, the coding is dismal, and the puzzles are beyond dismal. Run-on sentences and other grammar bungles are everywhere, programming errors are legion, and there are as many spelling mistakes as dead bodies. (And with this game, that’s really saying something.) In fact, after I finished the game (with an inexplicable 120 out of 100 points) and received the ending message, I found myself still at the prompt. When I typed “L”, the game said “It looks like an ordinary to me.” I still had all my possessions (including “a apple”), but was trapped in a bizarre post-game limbo. It was almost as hard to figure out as some of the game’s puzzles.

Oy, those puzzles! From the very beginning of the game, I quickly determined that guessing the verb, as well as the noun, was going to be necessary in numerous cases. On top of that, several times very particular objects (or sub-objects) must be examined before the game will reveal things that, by all rights, should be dead obvious (pardon the pun) to the PC. Sadly, that’s not even the worst of it. There’s one puzzle in particular that made me say to my monitor, “How in the hell was I supposed to know to do that?” My monitor never answers me when I ask it that kind of stuff — probably for the best, since it’s not the kind of question that really has a good answer. I’d be quite surprised to learn of anyone who solved all the puzzles in Aftermath without the walkthrough, because not only do they require reading the author’s mind, but they occasionally fly in the face of all logic and sense as well.

The real shame is that an IF game in the war genre could be so good, and Aftermath falls so short of its potential. Heaven knows there’s a ton of inherent drama in war, drama that works from Henry V to Platoon have mined to spectacular effect. What’s more, it’s the kind of genre we don’t see very often in IF, which tends to be more or less dominated by science fictional and fantastic themes (a trend to which I’ve made my share of contributions.) Once and Future starts out in a war, but quickly shifts into Arthurian Fantasy mode. Remembrance delves into WWI, but in a way that could hardly be called interactive. In fact, the only memorable IF game in the war genre I’ve played is Persistence of Memory, which leaves great swaths of territory still untouched.

Aftermath, unhappily, can only manage to come up with gratuitous gore and relentless dreariness, sprinkled throughout with wince-worthy histrionics and unintentionally funny English and TADS errors. It’s all the more disappointing, because the game could have been so moving. Aftermath has a very solid theme, and its basic plot engine, the idea of a character who is the sole survivor of a battle and is obsessed with building a monument to the dead, could have made for a dynamite story. Aftermath isn’t that story, though. Instead its only success, as well as its disappointing failure, lies in the fact that it is just so dismal.

Rating: 3.1