Blink by Ian Waddell [Comp04]

IFDB page: Blink
Final placement: 21st place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Blink claims to have multiple paths. According to its ABOUT text, there are “several instances throughout the game where you can quickly switch to a different path by saying something different or doing something else.” This is simply not true, at least not as I understand and define the idea of multiple paths. Yes, there are a couple of conversations whose outcomes can be altered by various menu choices. However, none of these alterations have any impact whatsoever on the story, which is quite linear. There aren’t even any points where the game offers more than one goal at a time — everything is very much on rails, and any deviations from the path result in either gentle rebukes from the parser or a little bit of scenery description.

I know this, because after one trip through the game, I went through it five more times looking for the alleged paths, only to find myself always in the same sequence of scenes, each of which has only one exit. Finally I ran it through TXD and looked at all the game text, and sure enough, I’d pretty much seen the whole thing. The experience led me to think about what we mean by “multiple paths.” In a sense, there are multiple paths through even the tiniest IF game. Even in an Inform shell game, you can, say, SING and then PRAY, or PRAY and then SING. Strictly speaking, these are two different paths. However, since both of them simply result in default parser responses, neither of which affect the game world or the PC, they are functionally equivalent. That’s the way Blink is — sure, there are different ways to go through it, but none of those differences are significant. The game’s story, and its ending, are identical no matter what you do, and thus I would contend that it only has one meaningful path.

Even that path is a short one — Blink is a small game, and that’s another one of its problems. Not that smallness is a problem in IF per se, of course, but Blink‘s main project seems to be to provoke an emotional response in the player, and it’s just too bare to provide the necessary connection. The specifics are too spoilery, but at its base, the game presents a PC who is confronted with the specter of loss, and thus must reevaluate some of his past decisions. However, when we barely know any of these characters, all they can be is unadorned archetypes, and those aren’t enough to create character identification. Plenty of affecting stories boil down to something like “boy meets girl, boy loses girl”, but if the actual story is just those six words, then it’s not going to affect anyone. Of course, Blink isn’t this extreme, but it’s still insufficient in the end, and consequently its methods feel hamfisted and overbearing.

Additionally, there are a few places in the game that are hampered by awkward diction or bad coding, and in a game this size, those problems loom large. For instance, there’s a conversation that starts with a question, and then when you try to TALK TO the character, the parser tells you that you have nothing to say, even as the conversation continues. An example of the diction problems is the creek is described as the “epicentre of the entire forest.” Aside from the peculiarly British spelling from what is clearly an American PC, “epicenter” is a term that refers specifically to the center of an earthquake’s shock waves — it’s not just a synonym for “center.”

Still, there are things to like about Blink. The implementation is thorough, with all first-level verbs implemented carefully. The plot’s rails are constructed well — that is, whenever the game prevents the PC from taking a divergent path, it generally provides a pretty good reason. The story coheres well enough, and I liked the fact that the PC begins geriatric, and then progresses backwards through his life via flashback. In fact, there are the seeds of an excellent game in Blink. If it really had offered multiple paths, it could have been a compelling presentation of difficult choices, a la Tapestry. Even if it had remained on rails but its story and characters had been better fleshed out, it might have made a pretty moving character study. In its current state, though it’s nicely implemented and it hangs together okay, it feels falsely advertised, and there’s just not enough meat on its bones.

Rating: 5.5