Eric’s Gift by Joao Mendes [Comp02]

IFDB page: Eric’s Gift
Final placement: 16th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

In the “about” text for Eric’s Gift, the author mentions that much of the inspiration for the story came from a dream. Somehow, this seems appropriate, because the experience of playing the game was quite reminiscent of a recurring dream of mine: the one where I find myself in a play, but I don’t know my character or any of my lines. The other actors look at me expectantly, waiting for me to say the words that will advance the plot, and all I can do is madly improvise in a futile attempt to hit on the right topic.

Eric’s Gift is one of those games that runs on triggers — examining a particular thing, or asking about a particular subject, or performing some other action triggers a non-interactive cutscene, which changes the PC’s location and moves the plot along. When games like this work, they give the feeling of a story advancing smoothly, right in sync with the player’s actions. When one breaks down, though, it’s hell — players flounder about looking for the right action as the plot’s momentum evaporates, along with the fun of the game. Rather than guess-the-verb or guess-the-noun, the whole thing becomes a game of guess-the-trigger, which is worse than either one, since it encompasses both verbs and nouns, but you can never be sure which you’re trying to guess at any given moment.

That’s just what happened to me in Eric’s Gift. I was in a conversation scene where, unbeknownst to me, I needed to examine a sub-object of an object (that is to say, a second-level noun) in order to trigger the next scene. Thinking I’d examined everything, and having tried to leave, or do various other more or less appropriate actions, I kept fishing for new things to ask about, feeling like one of those characters in Sartre’s No Exit, doomed to spend all eternity trapped with the same annoying person.

In a situation like this, it really helps a lot if the game is thoroughly implemented, and in part, Eric’s Gift accomplishes this. All available scenery objects are described, and a few off-the-beaten-path conversation topics are implemented, too. However, as time wore on and I kept not guessing the trigger, the NPC began to feel more and more threadbare, always failing to respond to my increasingly desperate topic choices.

Perhaps part of my problem was that I was a bit distracted by the game’s insistent use of the same metaphor over and over and OVER again. Saying that a woman has a “light in her eyes” is already a bit of a cliché, but quite tolerable if said once, maybe even twice. This game hits it so often that it becomes comical. My breaking point was when I encountered this description: “Her eyes shine with a light of their own, with an intensity that almost blinds you.” Mind you, there had already been many repetitions of the “light in the eyes” theme, but this one was way, way over the top. How could the light in someone’s eyes, which I take to mean an animated, vivacious expression, almost blind me? I couldn’t help but picture the NPC with high-beam headlights for eyes, the PC shielding his face from the glare. The lesson here is that any given metaphor is best used sparingly — the more often we see it, the less effective it becomes.

My other issue with Eric’s Gift is that it is pointlessly science-fictional. What I mean by that is that although the story is set in the future, it gains virtually nothing thereby. A few details are changed here and there — people drink “synthcaf” instead of coffee, the TV is called a “tri-di”, and so forth — but otherwise the story might just as well be set in 2002. Not one significant point of plot or character derives from the futuristic setting, and consequently that setting is little more than a distraction.

Adding a science-fictional sheen to an otherwise mundane story doesn’t somehow make that story cooler. Quite the contrary, in fact — it drains the story of mainstream appeal while gaining nothing in sf credibility. Oh, and one more thing: there are serious logical holes in the plot, especially in the defining element of the plot. Although its writing and coding was competent, the logical flaws, awkward emotion, and frustrating design make Eric’s Gift one that I won’t be keeping.

Rating: 5.4

The Case Of Samuel Gregor by Stephen Hilderbrand [Comp02]

IFDB page: The Case Of Samuel Gregor
Final placement: 27th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I think I can see what this game tries and fails to do. Of course, I may be totally mistaken about this, but I think what’s happening here is that TCOSG is trying to show us something like an insane PC, an unreliable narrator whose version of reality shifts as the game progresses. Unfortunately, what it ends up with is an incomprehensible PC whose descriptions, reactions, and actions make less and less sense as the game progresses. The unreliable narrator is an extremely tricky gimmick, and would be hard for anybody to pull off successfully; for a host of reasons, this game is not up to the task.

For one thing, the writing is frequently unclear. For instance, take a look at the following:

Samuel Gregor's Kitchen
Apparently Mr. Gregor does not prepare food at home very often, for
the kitchen is in immaculate condition. That is, if the appliances
weren't showing signs of being thirty years old. And it's no wonder,
since the room is only eight feet across, and there are no windows.
You can understand why he is not presently at home.

Okay, first sentence, so far so good. Second sentence: all right, I’m thinking this means that the kitchen would look more immaculate if the appliances didn’t look old. I’m still understanding. Then the third sentence comes along and everything goes haywire. What’s no wonder? That the appliances look old? The appliances look old because the room is small and has no windows? Surely not. Reaching further back, perhaps it’s no wonder the kitchen is immaculate, because it’s small. Because… small kitchens stay cleaner? They take less time to clean?

Maybe it’s no wonder Mr. Gregor doesn’t use the kitchen, because it’s small. This makes the most sense of all, though it’s a big stretch from the actual words. So okay, let’s provisionally go with that, and on to the fourth sentence. I can understand why he is not presently at home. Um, I can? Is my understanding that he’s not home because he has a small, clean kitchen with old appliances? If so, I don’t really understand my understanding. Do people avoid their own homes because they wish the kitchen were bigger? Not anybody I know.

There’s a lot of this sort of unclear writing throughout the game. At one point, it told me, “You are becoming increasingly aware that the whole of this story is being foisted upon you.” I thought, “well, yes, and not very well at that. But what does this mean to the PC?” Apparently it means a great deal, because there was a huge, otherwise unannounced shift in the game at that point, which pretty much left me behind, never to catch up, even after throwing up my hands and going straight from the walkthrough.

Once I did go to the walkthrough, I discovered that not only is this game plagued by unclear writing, its puzzles are hopelessly obscure as well. There’s one puzzle that involves getting through a locked door, which of course is nothing strange. What makes it unique, though, is that the actions required to get through the door have absolutely nothing to do with the door itself, and there’s no reasonable way to expect that those actions would have any effect on the door at all. The only reason to do them is because they’re implemented, not because they make any kind of story sense. Apparently, there was an alternate solution that involves giving food to someone who’s carrying massive amounts of food already and shows no sign of being hungry, but I could never get this to work. It’s just as well, because the working solution had all the illogic I could stomach at that moment anyway.

TCOSG calls itself “An Existential Adventure” and throws in a Kafka quote at the end, but I have to say I didn’t see the existentialism in it. I’ve read Kafka, Camus, Dostoyevsky, and Sartre, and enjoyed them all — this game doesn’t have much in common with them. It certainly brings forth a certain meaninglessness, but not in a good way. It does seem to attempt to take us into the subjective world of one individual, but the execution is so muddled and confusing that instead of inhabiting a point-of-view, I ended up on the outside of both the fiction and the interactivity, poking the game as if it were an anthill.

In the general sparseness of its implementation and the linearity of its plot, TCOSG leaves virtually no room for freedom of choice, and so another existentialist tenet goes out the window. In fact, between its writing, its coding, and its puzzles, the experience of playing this game is less existential than it is absurd. Absurdist IF can be great if it’s done intentionally. That’s not what happened here.

Rating: 3.7