Best of Three by Emily Short [Comp01]

IFDB page: Best of Three
Final placement: 7th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

It’s a common conceit in romance novels: Girl meets Boy; Girl takes an Immediate Dislike to Boy because he’s aggressive, arrogant, insufferable, etc.; under Girl’s influence, Boy sheds his Gruff Exterior; Girl falls for Boy and they end up Happy Together. I love Pride and Prejudice as much as the next Jane Austen fan, but I’ve always had a few problems with this structure, since it seems to reinforce the idea that jerky guys are really sweethearts underneath, so long as they meet a sufficiently [sweet/nurturing/independent/fiery] woman — these fantasies rarely come true in real life, despite the people who go through their lives trying to make that story happen to them. Maybe having the Girl fall for somebody who was kind from the beginning might make for a duller story, but it’d be a less pernicious story, too.

No doubt these objections all arise from my own High School Issues, but this is the mindset I brought to Best Of Three. In this case, we see the Boy being an ass at the very beginning of the story, only to learn later that he was the Girl’s high school crush, both of them now having graduated and, theoretically, put the past behind them. The game consists mostly of an extended conversation between these two, with the Girl as the PC, and although the text kept prompting me to feel charitable and affectionate feelings towards the Boy, it was a hard role to step into. It probably didn’t help that I found the Boy himself to be a rather pretentious, pompous git, and I distrusted him, even after he apologized, even after he revealed his own demons to me, and even after his Gruff Exterior was history. What the experience reminded me is that in IF, things the player actually experiences happening to the PC are orders of magnitude more powerful then things the player is told that the PC is feeling.

Of course, the beauty of IF, especially that written by Emily Short, is that there really are choices available. In a romance novel, the Girl has no choice but to tread the path that has been prescribed for her by the author, but IF offers the dizzying freedom to say exactly what we wish we could say to the story’s haughty twit, or at least to find a closer approximation to it. The first time I played through this game, I meekly obeyed its prodding, making nice with the Boy and moving to rekindle the romance between the characters. Even then, I found myself having the PC speak much more bluntly and honestly than she was comfortable with, and the Boy reacted with predictable standoffishness. Still, at the end, the spark had been fanned, but the result felt strangely hollow to me.

So I restarted the game — it doesn’t take long, perhaps 45 minutes at most — this time ignoring its tenderhearted hints and pulling out the reactions I had wanted to take the first time around. In a testament to Emily Short’s formidable skills as a designer, the game handled this direction with considerable grace and flexibility, despite its being against the fairly obvious grain of the text. I arrived at an ending that the game clearly didn’t view as optimal, but that, thanks to some exquisite writing, felt far more satisfying to me, and even let the PC off the hook somewhat in its final words.

Having had both of these experiences made me appreciate the game much more than I would have had I not replayed, and there is much to appreciate here. The game’s goal — to create a conversation that feels authentic, and that moves the player, the PC, and the NPC to new emotional states — is an ambitious one, but one well worth chasing. On several levels, the game succeeds. At many points, the conversation does indeed feel authentic, and it’s clear that the underlying code is quite sophisticated; I noticed, for example, that the NPC would observe and comment when I’d change the subject, or be taken aback if I said something he wasn’t expecting.

There are still a few bugs in the system. Some of the same problems I noticed in Pytho’s Mask were present here as well: there were times when the conversational options didn’t seem to fit the situation, for example replies offered when no question had been asked; there were times when the game didn’t respond to a command at all, just printing a blank line; there were times when the NPC responded to my change of subject, then brought the conversation back to his own interests, resulting in a seeming non sequitur (well okay, maybe that’s a good simulation of real life. 🙂 ) Still, glitches aside, the conversation felt real more often than it felt artificial, and that is a significant achievement. The writing is superior throughout, and achieves pure brilliance on occasion. I may have had some issues with the storyline, and I may have encountered some bugs, but I enjoyed Best Of Three very much nonetheless.

Rating: 8.8