PAX East Part 2: There’s More At The Door [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the third in a series of posts about my visit to PAX East 2010, which was life-altering in a good way. I’ve cleaned up the text ever-so-slightly and the links ever so much more.]
After some suite chat, 2:00 rolled around, which was the time PAX was officially supposed to open. So a large contingent, myself included, headed con-wards. My first and most lasting impression of PAX is: PEOPLE. People, people, and also, more people. Behind them are other people, who block your view of the people already inside, and if you turn around, you can see a long line of people, stretching back farther than you can see. I feel like if I’d missed my plane, I could probably have walked a couple of blocks from my house in Colorado and gotten in line for the PAX keynote with Wil Wheaton. Good lord, there were a lot of people.

Serious luck was on my side, as I had Rob Wheeler along to act as my Virgil through the utterly overwhelming and confusing human ocean that was the PAX entrance. He’d attended the Seattle PAX the previous Fall, and had also scoped out the scene beforehand to pick up his Speaker badge. (More about that later.) He helped me navigate my way into a long entrance queue, along with Sarah Morayati, a very friendly (and talented, I later discovered) woman who came on the scene in the last few years.

Meeting Sarah was my first taste of a feeling that was to get very familiar over the next couple of days. I am, I discovered, Unfrozen Caveman IF Guy. It’s as if I’ve been in suspended animation for the last five years, and I thawed out at PAX, like Captain America looking up at the Avengers and thinking, “Who are you guys?” When Dante was born in 2005 (and really, a little before, as we were preparing for his arrival), I withdrew pretty thoroughly from the IF scene. I handed SPAG over to Jimmy Maher, I pretty much stopped writing reviews, I stopped reading the newsgroups, and I stopped visiting ifMUD. There have been exceptions here and there — my review of 1893, for instance, or my work with Textfyre — but for the most part, I have been absent. It turns out that a lot can happen in five years! I’m excited but a bit overwhelmed at how much there is to catch up on.

Speaking of overwhelming, when the line finally moved into the convention proper, we quickly heard that we wouldn’t make it into the keynote. We connected up with Stephen, and headed into the expo hall. This is about the point when sensory overload started attacking my brain cells, making it impossible for me now to retrieve my memories of who was where when. I know there was a group of us, and we met up with another group, and Mark Musante was there, and Jacqueline Ashwell was there, and Iain Merrick was there, and Dan Shiovitz was there, other people I don’t know very well were there, and probably lots of others I do but everything is blurring together because have I mentioned that good god there were a lot of people?

In the expo hall, there was also a lot of noise and sound. Wait, make that A WHOLE GODDAMNED LOT OF NOISE AND SOUND!!! And people. Of course. We watched Rob play Dante’s Inferno, which apparently involves Dante kicking lots of ass and not, as someone pointed out, fainting a lot, the way he does in the book. We watched Stephen play some game that involves falling and is impossible to Google because its name is something like “AaaaaAAaaaAAAAaaAAAAAa!!!!” We saw lots of booths and bright colors and LOUD SOUNDS and so forth. You get the idea.

After some time, I went with a subgroup of people to attend a 4:00 panel called “Design an RPG in an Hour.” It was crowded! I ended up leaning against the back wall. The panel was more or less like improv comedy, except take out the comedy and put in its place boilerplate RPG elements. What will our setting be? What is the conflict? Who are the protagonists and antagonists? What are their special traits? (i.e. What will their stat categories be?) It was pretty well-done, albeit dominated by what Stephen accurately termed “goofy high-concept stuff” from the audience. For instance, the guy shouting out “talking dinosaurs!” got a round of applause. I was happy to be there in any case, because there was a 5:30 panel on IF that would be in the same room, so I figured we’d stake out the good seats.

Now, this is a very cool thing. Some IF community folks pitched the idea of a PAX panel called “Storytelling in the World of Interactive Fiction,” and to our general delight, the PAX organizers made it part of the official con schedule! Going to this panel was one of the main reasons I wanted to come to Boston. So when it became apparent that PAX enforcers would be doing a full room sweep to prevent the very camping behavior I was counting on, it was time to make a new plan — and apparently, there was quite a line forming. So we snuck out before the panel ended to get in line.

And my goodness, it’s a lucky thing we did. When I first saw the room, I couldn’t imagine how we’d fill it with people wanting to hear about IF. But after we took our seats (which were quite good), people started to flow in. And then more came. And then more. The chairs: filled. The walls: filled. The aisles: filled.


I get chills again as I write it. I mean, I’m very sorry for the people who got turned away. I met several of them over the course of the weekend, and they were quite disappointed. But holy shit, what hath PAX wrought when we can cram a huge room with people interested in our medium, with tons more hoping to get in? It was stunning, absolutely stunning.

The panel itself was great. It consisted of some of our best: Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin, Robb Sherwin, Aaron A. Reed, and Rob Wheeler moderating. I won’t try and recap the panel, except to say that it was wonderful to hear sustained, intelligent, live discussion of IF. The charming Jenni Polodna, another arrival during my years on ice, wrote some very thorough notes about it, and Jason Scott filmed it, so you’ll probably be able to see it yourself sometime. Which, if you were one of those turned away, might help a bit.

All I know is that at the end, I felt like I had a whole lot of games I needed to play.

Top 10 IF games to play if you’ve been in suspended animation for the last five years

1. Blue Lacuna by Aaron A. Reed

2. Violet by Jeremy Freese

3. The games of the JayIsGames IF Comp

4. Lost Pig by Admiral Jota

5. Make It Good by Jon Ingold

6. De Baron by Victor Gijsbers

7. Alabaster by a Emily Short and also a whole boatload of people.

8. The Shadow In The Cathedral by Ian Finley and Jon Ingold. [Hey, one I’ve played! I was even a tester for it!]

9. Floatpoint by Emily Short

10. Everybody Dies by Jim Munroe

Amnesia by Dustin Rhodes as crazydwarf [Comp03]

IFDB page: Amnesia
Final placement: 27th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Wow. Well. This one was… painful. Just abysmal. Really, really bad. When I played Curse Of Manorland, I kept having the urge to MST it in my comments, but my comments for this one mostly just looked like, “Aaaahhhh! The PAIN!” I mean, I don’t even know where to begin. It seemed almost like one of those joke games, you know, the ones where the joke is, “Look how bad this game is! Isn’t that hilarious?” I never really thought those joke games were very funny, but I don’t think this one is even joking. Here’s the first room:

A cool beach where you should have washed ashore and not have been
able to remember anything because you where supposed to have amnesia,
which you didn't, which completly ruins the whole storyline this game
was going to have, so now the auther will have to make a game up on
the spot, enjoy. By the way if you want to learn about me just type
about. Their is a huge rock sitting here innocently.

See what I mean about not knowing where to begin? The author says he’s in high school, and in fact writes, “I might I win the award for youngest IF writer, maybe that will get me a couple of points from the voters.” Sorry, dude. David Glasser wrote VirtuaTech at 14, and it’s miles better than this. Hell, Ian Finley wrote Babel at 17. Besides, my reaction to this game wasn’t “Oh, it’s pretty good for a high schooler,” but rather, “Holy crap, something this subliterate came from somebody who’s made it all the way to high school??”

Here are some things this game needs: Spell-check. Proofreading (to catch things like “Their is a huge rock,” which spell-check will miss.) Descriptions that care enough to actually, y’know, describe, and to write out their words instead of “the center of the town with houses NE, NW. To the W is a volcano, to the N is a mountain, and to the E is a jungle.” Even the game itself knows it sucks, because it mentions the fact every couple of rooms. Well, games that suck… suck. They shouldn’t be released. Show a little self-respect, and a little respect for the people you’re asking to spend time on your work. Damn.

Rating: 1.6

Kaged by Ian Finley [Comp00]

IFDB page: Kaged
Final placement: 1st place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Kaged is totalitarian IF. I mean that in two ways. First, the game’s setting is a paranoid, Kafkaesque dystopia, where a totalitarian government is clearly in control. The game tips us off quite early to the fact that it’s placing us in a very dark world indeed. The introductory text is full of capitalized phrases, phrases like High Inquisitor and Citadel of Justice. These give us a clue that the powers in charge surround themselves with an overwhelming air of authority, and the intro’s gory imagery makes it obvious that all is not well in this Stalinist wonderland.

When we reach the first room, a number of standard props are waiting for us: heavy, immovable desks symbolizing the drudgery of work; a seal and inkpad hinting at numbing bureaucracy; a solid iron typewriter, a technological relic to tell us that we’re in a place where innovation is squashed, where the status quo is upheld and even enforced for its own sake; and of course, a standard uniform, reminding us unsubtly that the PC is just one of a million pieces in the authoritarian machine. Then, finally, when we reach the first important scene of the game, we enter the chamber of the High Inquisitor himself. The Inquisitor’s job in this society is described thus: ” All decisions and power lay solely in the Inquisitor’s hands, the legal hocus-pocus of the past swept away. True Justice at last.” The irony is as thick as anything you’ll find in A Mind Forever Voyaging, and if you don’t get the point by now you never will. I found it all about as pleasant and effective as a hammer blow to the face. That is to say, Kaged is unremittingly, relentlessly dark in plot, setting, and characterization, and it certainly worked on me, spooking me into some of the sharpest paranoia I’ve ever experienced in IF.

Remember, though, I mentioned that there are two ways in which Kaged is totalitarian IF. Not only does it depict a totalitarian regime, it enacts one as well. With the exception of one branching point, both directions of which are functionally equivalent, and both of which put you at the same spot, your path through Kaged is very much predestined. Deviations from it are not tolerated. Commands that don’t advance the story tend to be met with terse dismissal: “That’s ridiculous.” Others are rejected with the rationale that the risk they involve is too dangerous, not that the game minds your taking the risks it intends. A few choices simply aren’t implemented at all.

A great deal of this is quite appropriate and logical, given the game’s setting. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, as are guards, and it’s a sensible design choice to disallow obviously suicidal commands with a “You don’t want to do that” type of message. In addition, this design dovetails neatly with the game’s plot. However, there are times when Kaged oversteps even these bounds, laying a controlling hand on the player to enforce the plot very rigidly indeed. For example, I figured out much of the foreshadowing in the game rather early on, and tried some rather reasonable actions to test my conclusions. Despite the fact that these actions would not have placed the PC in danger, certainly no more than most of the actions that the game requires to advance the plot, they were forbidden under the simple rubric of “You don’t want to do that.”

This bothered me — if I’ve figured something out, why can’t I act on that knowledge? Because it isn’t time yet, the game tells me, and besides it wouldn’t be in character. But when a game slips hints to you and then forbids you from acting on those hints, it has moved beyond simply shaping the character. In the case of Kaged, I felt very much that the game itself became an example of the kind of dictatorial control that it ostensibly was working to decry.

That being said, I’m in a dilemma about how to rate it. On the one hand, I have to admit that it does an outstanding job at achieving what appear to be its goals. By the end of the game I was twitchy, angry, and thoroughly awash in the reality-questioning quasi-madness brought on by works like Brazil and 1984. Like those works, Kaged is a kick in the head all the way through, and a very powerful kick at that. In a way, I love this — I find it a brilliant indictment of authority run rampant, and perhaps even a radical thesis on the problems of non-interactive IF. All that makes me want to rate Kaged quite highly indeed.

On the other hand, if I give it what it wants, doesn’t that make me complicit? If I truly believe in resisting totalitarianism (and I truly do), then shouldn’t I resist Kaged and its demands by giving it the lowest rating possible? Shouldn’t I raise my voice as strongly as possible to insist that IF like this is unacceptable? Maybe I should. But then again, what about that old rationale of irony? Sure, Kaged shows us totalitarianism, and controls us with an iron hand, but isn’t it just making a point by doing so? Sure. Of course it is. It’s all ironic, you see? That’s what it is. And it certainly would be overly paranoid of me to think of that as just a rationalization.

Rating: 9.6

Exhibition by Ian Finley as Anatoly Domokov [Comp99]

IFDB page: Exhibition
Final placement: 5th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Exhibition is a game of absences. It has no plot. It also has no puzzles, at least not in the way we’re used to thinking about puzzles. There are no takeable objects whatsoever in the game, and most of the action consists of standing around examining things. What it does not lack, however, is quality. It’s a masterwork of storytelling, creating a spellbinding narrative from spaces inbetween. I loved it. The story takes place at an art exhibition, the final show of a painter named Anatoly Domokov, who committed suicide shortly before the show opened. The only thing to do is stand around and look at the show’s twelve paintings, but devoid though it is of traditional action, the exhibition has psychological action galore. The player may view the paintings from one of four viewpoints: the wife of the dead artist, a critic, a twenty-year-old man, or a student. Although we can see (via HTML TADS image embedding) a drawing of each character, we do not see the paintings. Instead, each character describes each painting in magnificently written paragraphs, and in doing so tells as a little about the painting, and quite a bit more about themselves, usually unintentionally. The absence of the paintings is just another example of the way Exhibition tells us its most revealing secrets by what it chooses not to include.

Like last year’s winner Photopia, Exhibition is all about someone whom the player never controls. Unlike Photopia, this game goes one step further: we never even see Anatoly at any point in the game. Instead, what we get are descriptions of his works, sometimes mixed in with anecdotes about him when the work is being viewed by someone who knew or met him. With each description from each viewpoint, we get another piece of the puzzle. All the pieces fit together like a jigsaw, but they do not form a clear portrait of the artist. Instead, like a frame around his outline, they define his shape, each moving from a different direction to collide with one of his boundaries, and sometimes with each other too. At the end of the game, we know Anatoly’s form, but only obliquely, filtered through the very individual perceptions of each viewer.

In the bargain, we are granted insight into his art, his loved ones, his disposition, and his culture, but all these insights are lines around a central emptiness, an absence reflected in the artist’s final painting, “Iscariot.” The painting, in the words of the critic, is “a simple desert landscape with a frayed noose hanging empty on a gnarled tree and a scrawny goat searching in its shadow.” Anatoly hanged himself, and was found next to this completed painting. Each character offers an interpretation of the empty noose (as well as its grisly companion), and each interpretation gives us a piece of the truth. The author notes that, in part, Exhibition aspires to be “an experiment in how tales are told and the inevitable gap between the teller and the audience.” It is by shining its light through these gaps that the game so sublimely illuminates and limns its subject.

Unexpectedly enough, this collection of descriptions is a puzzle, though certainly not in the tradition of most IF puzzles. It is up to the player to create that outline, to put the pieces together so that one viewer’s comments clarify those of another viewer, and both together sharpen the focus on Anatoly’s silhouette. Even the shape of the gallery itself, walls around a space, contributes to the developing portrait. Exhibition makes the process of deduction easier with its stellar production values. In the reams of text presented by the game, I found not one grammar or spelling error. I didn’t find a single bug either, though the game’s design is admittedly simple as far as programming is concerned. These virtues by themselves give me great pleasure, but what made the game a true joy to play was its wonderful writing. As an exercise in character and viewpoint, Exhibition is an impressive performance. As storytelling, it is mesmerizing. Exhibition may be a game of absences with death at its core, but like the stories it tells, it wields a power far greater than the sum of its parts.

Rating: 9.9

Life On Beal Street by Ian Finley as Anonymous [Comp99]

IFDB page: Life on Beal Street
Final placement: 26th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

One of the things I love about the IF competition is that its emphasis on shorter lengths of work allows and encourages experimentation. Life on Beal Street, if nothing else, is certainly an interesting experiment. It’s a different kind of computer-aided fiction, one in which the computer starts with a preset opening paragraph, then randomly chooses a second paragraph from a set of five available, then a third from a different set of five, and so on until it randomly chooses an ending. Together, these paragraphs make up a narrative arc whose plot couldn’t be simpler (protagonist walks down a street and arrives at a house) and the majority of whose action takes place inside the PC’s head. This action always follows the same pattern — start walking, think about person X, think about person Y, think about yourself, arrive at your destination and see what happens. The player’s role is to prompt the computer to make its next random selection, ostensibly by choosing to continue walking down the street.

The game’s greatest asset is that all of the paragraphs in the various sets are written very well indeed. The author does an excellent job of capturing that feeling of reverie, of walking down a street while thinking intensely about one’s own life, the very features of the street triggering and shaping the direction of the thoughts. The descriptions of the characters on whom the protagonist ruminates, and what those descriptions imply about the PC itself, are evocative and well-judged. Moreover, the delicate balancing act of providing an ungendered PC, onto which the player can project his or her own gender and sexual orientation, is done very well here, especially considering the fact that the game deals directly with interpersonal and even sexual subject matter. At its best, Life on Beal Street provides a sort of kaleidoscopic effect after a few playings, giving us a glimpse of the myriad ways in which we might understand our own lives, ourselves, and our relationships with others. There are some flaws, of course. I wish the game hadn’t chosen “Beal” as the name of its street, as it is distractingly reminiscent of the famous Beale Street in Memphis. I would have had similar problems with “Life on Rudeo Drive” or “Life on Madeson Avenue”. Also, there is one point where the computer unexpectedly says “* NO CHOICES DEFINED *”, though as far as I could tell there were as many (or as few) choices defined as ever.

And in fact, that brings up the game’s largest flaw of all. It isn’t, in any meaningful sense, interactive fiction. Yes, the author works hard to emphasize that the choice between continuing to walk the street and turning back is a real one, just like those we make in everyday life. This is true enough in itself, but as a claim for interactivity, it’s a crock. What it amounts to, more or less, is a choice between reading the next paragraph and quitting the game. These limited options make Life on Beal Street no more interactive than a book. There is one more possibility, which is the opportunity to say “no” to a chosen paragraph and have the computer spit out a new one, but that turns to be the equivalent of continuing to draw paragraphs from a hat until you realize that the hat is empty. Thus, in the final analysis the appeal of Life on Beal Street is quite fleeting. There’s a wonderful sense of openness and excitement in the first few plays, one which quickly contracts as paragraphs start to repeat, and finally shuts down entirely as you search through the whole thing brute-force to find any text you haven’t yet seen. Once you’ve done this, the game becomes just an interesting novelty whose possibilities have been exhausted. It’s definitely worth the download, but don’t expect to keep it long.

Rating: 6.1

The City by Sam Barlow [Comp98]

IFDB page: The City
Final placement: 13th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

The City gave me a very strong sense of deja vu. So many parts are hauntingly familiar. Here’s the story: You wake up, not knowing who you are, where you are, or why you are wherever you are. Sound familiar yet? If not, here’s more: You seem to be trapped in a surreal and inescapable institution. (This institution is called “The City”, hence the name of the game. Yes, that’s right. It’s not about an actual city.). Does this ring any bells? OK, here’s more: your situation is iterative, bringing you back to the same point over and over again. No? Well, how about this: at one point during the game, when you give a command that goes against the narrative’s wishes, the parser replies, in bold letters: “That’s not how you remember it.” This should definitely sound familiar to anyone who’s played the latest Zarf offering. Plotwise, it’s as if somebody chopped up Mikko Vuorinen’s Leaves (another escape-from-the-institution game whose name had only tenuous relation to its contents), added two tablespoons of Andrew Plotkin’s Spider and Web, garnished with a sauce of Greg Ewing’s Don’t Be Late, threw in a pinch of Ian Finley’s Babel, put the mixture into a crust made from tiny pieces of various other text adventures, stirred, baked for 45 minutes at 350 degrees, and served it up for this year’s competition. Now, I’m not entirely convinced this is a bad thing. I think that lots of great works of art, interactive fiction and otherwise, are really just inspired melanges of things that had come before, so I’m not particularly opposed to such derivation on principle. For me, though, some of the derivative aspects of The City didn’t work particularly well. This was especially true for the Spider and Web stuff — I felt that the game crossed the line between homage and rip-off, heading the wrong direction. In addition, the convention of waking up with no idea of who you are or where you are, despite how well suited it is to IF, is starting to feel very tired to me. Perhaps I’m just jaded, or burnt-out, but when I saw the beginning I said “Oh, not another one of these!”.

Now, this is not to say that the entire game was derivative. The plot certainly didn’t break any new ground, but certain aspects of the interface were imaginative and innovative. The City does away with status line and score, not to mention save and restore. Abandoning the first two precepts did lend the game a greater sense of rawness, of the interactive experience being immediate and unmediated by any artificial tracking devices. The absence of save and restore, on the other hand, was a pain in the neck. See, as much as IF might want to emulate real life, it’s never really going to be real life. Consequently, there will be times when I only have 15 minutes to play a game and want to at least get a start into it. Or when a fire alarm goes off and I have to shut things down. Or when my wife wants to go to sleep, and I need to turn off my computer (which is in our bedroom.) You get the idea. At those times, I want to preserve the progress I’ve made. I don’t want to have to start from scratch, and I don’t care how short the game is, I don’t want to waste my time typing in a rapid series of commands to get to where I was when I had to leave the game last time. Especially since with my memory, I’m likely to forget one or two crucial actions which will then oblige me to start over again. Here is the lesson for game authors: please do not disable interface conveniences in the name of realism. It will not win admiration from your players, at least not from this one.

One innovation I did like in The City was its expansion of the typical IF question format. The game allowed not only the typical ASK and SHOW constructions, but also questions (both to the parser and to other players) like “Why am I here?”, “Where am I?”, or “Who are you?” Now, it didn’t allow question marks, which made the whole thing look a bit strange syntactically, but I found it did have a pretty good record of responding realistically to reasonable questions. I can imagine how much work must have gone into this feature, and I think it really made a difference — I felt much freer to question NPCs in a much more lifelike way. Even when I bumped into the limits of this realism (with questions like “what is going on here?”) I still felt outside of the bounds of traditional IF. Unfortunately, the energy that went into this innovative question system must have been leached out of other technical parts of the game. There were a number of bugs in the game, including one that rendered the game completely unwinnable, forcing me to, you guessed it: restart. Since I couldn’t save, and since the bug happened about 2/3 of the way through the game, I had to completely restart and type in all the commands that had brought me to that point — you can be certain I was grinding my teeth the whole time. In a non-competition game I almost certainly would not have bothered, choosing not to finish rather than to waste my time in such a manner. If anybody needs another reason not to disable save and restore, it’s this: when bugs in your code force the player to go backwards, that player will not appreciate having to back all the way up to the beginning. In addition to the bugs in the game’s coding, there were also a number of mechanical errors with its writing as well. These were not egregious, but they were there, and wore on what little patience remained after the bugs, the disabled conveniences, and the ultimately frustrating nature of the plot itself. I think the question system from The City is a valuable tool that could be well-used elsewhere (though I’d appreciate the ability to punctuate my questions with question marks). I would be very happy to see that system integrated into a game with an original plot, working code, and error-free English.

Rating: 5.5

Babel by Ian Finley [Comp97]

IFDB page: Babel
Final placement: 2nd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Babel is not only one of the best competition games I’ve ever played, it’s one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I’ve ever seen, period. The game starts from a well-worn IF trope: you awaken alone, with no memory of your identity. Then, Babel unfolds into a breathtaking, emotional story. The work of exposition and plot development is performed through the protagonist’s enhanced powers of tellurgy, which the game defines as “the ability to experience past events by touching objects present when the event occurred.” The clarity of these visions varies according to the emotional intensity of the event being witnessed. This device, reminiscent of that in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, is the central convention of the game, and it allows a degree of character development very rare in interactive fiction. Certainly other games (most notably Zork: Nemesis) have used this device in the past, but none have brought it about so convincingly and so effectively as does Babel. The tellurgic episodes gradually bring an awareness of the character’s identity, and how he came to be in his amnesiac state, as well as tell a chilling story of scientific arrogance and attendant disasters.

Another interesting aspect of Babel is the moral ambiguity of its main character. Typical IF heroes (or heroines) have few ethical shades: they are either unambiguously on the side of good, working to save the universe or some version thereof, or basically self-interested seekers of wealth or fame. The hero of Babel falls into neither of these convenient categories. Instead, he appears first as a victim, then eludes that simple assignation as well, becoming a character of depth and complexity very rarely realized in IF. The experience of playing such a character was a powerful one, especially as the story gradually revealed just how willing a participant he was in his own undoing.

Finally, I think it’s worth noting that after playing only three games from the ’97 competition, I’ve already seen two that deal with a metallic research station where the player discovers the frightening results of unbridled scientific inquiry run amok. The meaning of this thematic fascination in a community devoted to the supposedly “archaic” text form is a speculation for another essay, but I feel safe enough asserting this: Babel is an outstanding treatment of the theme, the best I have ever seen in IF, and one of the best I’ve ever seen in any medium anywhere.

Prose: Babel‘s prose was nothing short of outstanding. It unerringly conveyed the experience of being stranded in a deserted Arctic outpost, addressing all the senses and the emotions as well. Powerful turns of phrase abounded, and extreme experiences (such as being out in the Arctic winter wearing only a hospital gown) were vividly rendered. The characterization and dialogue in the cut-scenes of the tellurgic visions was sharp and effective, outlining strongly defined and complex characters. Small touches like tiptoeing across the cold floor in bare feet, or the equation of the cold-hearted scientist’s eyes with the Arctic ice (notice the pun), combined with broader strokes for an astonishingly realistic and well-written whole.

Plot: The game’s plot unfolds masterfully, revealed in dribs and drabs by the tellurgic episodes. The author provides a chronology for all these events with the (rather forced) device of giving the character a calendar on which he “instinctively” jots down the date of each occurrence. As the story develops, the tension becomes greater and greater: the unfolding mystery of the character’s origin serves to heighten the power of the story’s eventual climax. Some of the Biblical imagery is just a tiny bit heavy-handed, but the whole is strong enough to overpower any objection of didacticism or triteness.

Puzzles: The puzzles almost effortlessly achieved the ideal of blending seamlessly into the narrative. There were no arbitrary puzzles, and the artfully gradual revelation of the plot was served elegantly by simple but logical obstacles. There were no puzzles that were particularly ingenious or unique, but that wasn’t the point of this game. The puzzles were there to provide some control over the narrative flow, and in this they served their purpose just right.

Technical (writing): The prose mechanics were excellent. I only noticed a couple of proofing errors in this very word-heavy game.

Technical (coding): Coding was equally strong. I found a couple of very minor bugs, but there were many, many touches that made it clear that a great deal of thought, foresight, and effort went into the coding of this game.