IFDB page: Glowgrass
Final placement: 3rd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition
Glowgrass is a fine piece of interactive science fiction in the tradition of Planetfall. Once again, you play a character whose ship has failed, touching down amid the well-preserved ruins of an ancient civilization. You explore these ruins, piecing together strange technology and small clues which lead you to the discovery of how a deadly plague wiped out the race which once dominated the planet. Of course, there are differences along with the similarities. Rather than an Ensign Seventh Class, you play a “xenohistorian”, and the ruins you are exploring belong to the Ancients, who are apparently (it’s a little unclear) not a separate race from your own, but rather your people’s ancestors. Also, Glowgrass is a much more serious game, with none of the silliness and whimsy of Planetfall. Finally, it is, as befits a competition game, much shorter, and therefore its ending is rather unsatisfying, leaving off just when it feels like the real game should begin. I won’t give away anything about this ending, but it pulls a little surprise which casts the assumptions of the rest of the game into doubt. I’m hopeful that Glowgrass is a preview of a longer adventure, so that the secret revealed at the ending can be explained and explored to its full extent.
Another important way in which Glowgrass distinguishes itself from Planetfall is that its postapocalyptic exploration is clearly focused on our own world. Various clues scattered throughout the game make it clear that the player character is exploring the ruins of old Earth. However, the old Earth explored by the character is not our present-day world, but rather a speculative extrapolation of a future 60 or so years from now. Thus Glowgrass becomes a small puzzle-box of possible futures, one fitting inside the other, and each one interesting in its own way. Cull does a very nice job of extrapolating technologies, both for the “Ancient” future and the far future, using small touches to demonstrate the character’s far-future understanding colliding with a researched past (which is our future.) If my description is confusing, it’s only because I’m not doing as good a job as Cull does of making the overlapping eras perfectly clear.
Glowgrass also concerns itself with an imagination of virtual reality. The number of IF games which involve some type of VR or simulated reality (Delusions, AMFV, Mind Electric, etc.) leads me to believe that our medium is particularly suited to exploring the possibilities of VR. It makes sense, considering that IF partakes of some element of simulation, that it demonstrates a particular facility for making itself a simulation of a simulation. Glowgrass pushes the envelope a bit by making its only NPC a virtual reality construct, thus neatly avoiding the problems of sentience, competence, and individual action — the character can’t go anywhere or do much of anything except talk, and her knowledge is limited by her programming: a perfect IF character. Glowgrass is a well-written game with a pleasantly creepy aura, a pleasurable way to spend a couple of hours and hopefully a prelude to more quality work.
Prose: The prose in Glowgrass was quite effective. In particular, the author made good use of the opportunities afforded by the player’s first entry into a particular location. For example, in one part of the game you find an “Ancient” skycar, and the game effectively capitalizes on the natural first reaction to finding such a vehicle: “Looking at the skycar, you feel a surge of hope. Despite the vehicle’s age, it seems intact. Maybe, if you could somehow get it to work…” However, having evoked and emphasized that reaction, the game quickly quashes it: “The thought dies as quickly as it came. Stupid idea. You have no idea how to fly the thing, and who knows what parts are missing?” Prose techniques like this build a very convincing player character, and help the game to succeed in creating an immersive fictional experience.
Plot: I’ve covered the basics of the plot above, so I’ll just use this space to say that the plot is not what it seems, and that I found the ending rather frustrating. In the last few sentences of the game, the author rearranges and twists your perceptions of the setting and the characters, but just as the secret is unfolding, the game ends. I’m hopeful that this game will one day serve as a prologue to a more thorough exploration of Glowgrass‘ absorbing world. In short: I want more!
Puzzles: According to the author, Glowgrass is “a story, not a puzzle game,” so the puzzles are intended to serve as natural propulsion for the storyline. In the main, they work quite well in this regard. Really the only area where I had trouble was in figuring out a piece of technology whose description was (I felt) a little too vague to suggest the use intended by the author. Once I consulted the walkthrough and found my way past this obstacle, the game flowed quite smoothly. Thus, if that part of the game (which I consider more a faltering of the prose than a puzzle) were polished a bit, Glowgrass‘ narrative flow would be very well served indeed by its puzzles.
Technical (writing): I found no mechanical errors in Glowgrass.
Technical (coding): The game’s coding was quite well done, with some very nice touches (I appreciated a response to “Who am I?”). There were only a few areas where the illusion broke down a bit too far, the main one being the “sculpture” which you can “SIT” on but not “ENTER”.
OVERALL: A 9.4