Aftermath by Graham Somerville [Comp00]

IFDB page: Aftermath
Final placement: 37th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Sometimes a comp game can be summed up in one word. Of course, that never stops me from going ahead and writing three paragraphs about it anyway, explaining why that word fits, but for those with a distaste for verbosity, that one word can be a handy precis. Aftermath is such a game, and the word, I’m sorry to say, is “dismal.” The game’s topic is war, and not the glory of triumph in battle or the allure of military machinery, but the dismal, dismal existence of lone soldiers on frost-covered battlefields, struggling out from under heaps of bodies and fighting off the human vultures who scavenge through the corpses’ belongings.

This topic, by itself, is quite a downer, but still could be the basis of an excellent game. Unfortunately, Aftermath‘s dismal characteristics don’t stop there. The writing is dismal, the grammar is dismal, the spelling is dismal, the coding is dismal, and the puzzles are beyond dismal. Run-on sentences and other grammar bungles are everywhere, programming errors are legion, and there are as many spelling mistakes as dead bodies. (And with this game, that’s really saying something.) In fact, after I finished the game (with an inexplicable 120 out of 100 points) and received the ending message, I found myself still at the prompt. When I typed “L”, the game said “It looks like an ordinary to me.” I still had all my possessions (including “a apple”), but was trapped in a bizarre post-game limbo. It was almost as hard to figure out as some of the game’s puzzles.

Oy, those puzzles! From the very beginning of the game, I quickly determined that guessing the verb, as well as the noun, was going to be necessary in numerous cases. On top of that, several times very particular objects (or sub-objects) must be examined before the game will reveal things that, by all rights, should be dead obvious (pardon the pun) to the PC. Sadly, that’s not even the worst of it. There’s one puzzle in particular that made me say to my monitor, “How in the hell was I supposed to know to do that?” My monitor never answers me when I ask it that kind of stuff — probably for the best, since it’s not the kind of question that really has a good answer. I’d be quite surprised to learn of anyone who solved all the puzzles in Aftermath without the walkthrough, because not only do they require reading the author’s mind, but they occasionally fly in the face of all logic and sense as well.

The real shame is that an IF game in the war genre could be so good, and Aftermath falls so short of its potential. Heaven knows there’s a ton of inherent drama in war, drama that works from Henry V to Platoon have mined to spectacular effect. What’s more, it’s the kind of genre we don’t see very often in IF, which tends to be more or less dominated by science fictional and fantastic themes (a trend to which I’ve made my share of contributions.) Once and Future starts out in a war, but quickly shifts into Arthurian Fantasy mode. Remembrance delves into WWI, but in a way that could hardly be called interactive. In fact, the only memorable IF game in the war genre I’ve played is Persistence of Memory, which leaves great swaths of territory still untouched.

Aftermath, unhappily, can only manage to come up with gratuitous gore and relentless dreariness, sprinkled throughout with wince-worthy histrionics and unintentionally funny English and TADS errors. It’s all the more disappointing, because the game could have been so moving. Aftermath has a very solid theme, and its basic plot engine, the idea of a character who is the sole survivor of a battle and is obsessed with building a monument to the dead, could have made for a dynamite story. Aftermath isn’t that story, though. Instead its only success, as well as its disappointing failure, lies in the fact that it is just so dismal.

Rating: 3.1

Persistence of Memory by Jason Dyer [Comp98]

IFDB page: Persistence of Memory
Final placement: 9th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

NOTE: Because of the nature of Persistence of Memory, it’s difficult to talk about it without revealing a key secret. Therefore, be warned that any and all of the following review could be considered a spoiler.

Memory is a new twist on the one-room game. The setting is war; could be Korea, could be Vietnam, but it’s never really specified, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s a war in a foreign land, with villages, dense foliage, helicopters, rifles, and land mines. Especially land mines. In the first move of the game, you step on one, and realize that if you remove your weight from it, it will explode. Thus the potential paths which the game appears to have at its outset are reduced to one: wait. This restriction of freedom is a recurring theme in Memory. In incident after incident, the scope of action contracts until it becomes clear that there is only one action which will lead to your survival. Sometimes these actions are rather horrifying, but the game demands them if you wish to finish. I have mixed feelings about this kind of forcible plotting. On the one hand, it makes for an extremely linear game, and it curtails interactivity quite dramatically. This obstruction seems to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom about IF — it violates one of the Players’ Rights in Graham Nelson’s Craft of Adventure: “To have reasonable freedom of action.” In Nelson’s words, “After a while the player begins to feel that the designer has tied him to a chair in order to shout the plot at him.” On the other hand, I also think that interactive fiction can be a very good medium for conveying a sense of futility or entrapment. Because IF by its nature seems to require at least to a certain degree freedom of movement and action, and because it also creates a sense of immersion in the story’s world, when a piece of IF chooses to violate that perceived requirement the player’s sense of identification with the trapped character can be very strong indeed. Something about the frustration of having so few actions available to me which would not result in death made the equation of my situation with the character’s feel more intense than it would have were I just reading a story about this character.

Because of the game’s premise, you don’t seek out the puzzles; the puzzles come to you. And each puzzle must be solved if the character is to survive. Luckily, all of the puzzles make sense and have intuitive solutions, though in some of them it’s not clear what the deadly moment is until it arrives, and sometimes I found myself resorting to a save-and-restore strategy in order to defeat a puzzle’s time limit. I don’t think I could have solved the game straight through, because some puzzles had rather unexpected and uncomfortable solutions. This is where I found myself ill at ease with the game’s lack of interactivity — there’s a fine line between identifying with a trapped character versus simply feeling trapped into an action because the designer allows you no other choice, even though more options might have been available in reality. It’s hard to explain without revealing more spoilers than I already have, but some pieces of the plot felt rather forced, as though only one solution was provided because only that solution would create the game scenario desired by the designer. However, the choices worked in the end, and I found I only needed to look at the hints once, and in retrospect I think I probably could have avoided that had I spent more time on the puzzle that was stumping me.

The writing could get a little histrionic at times. Some descriptions tiptoed along the line between what works and what doesn’t. For example, the mud around your feet is described as “torpid”, a word which usually refers to a sluggish mental state. I suppose the mud’s thickness and viscosity could be compared to slow mental processes, but it’s a stretch. There weren’t too many moments like this — for the most part the prose did a fine job of conveying the situation, and in fact sometimes was quite good indeed. The description of the hairs rising on the back of your neck as you try to conceal yourself from enemy soldiers was chilling and engrossing. I found no technical errors in the writing, nor in the code. Overall, Memory does a very good job with an unusual choice of subject matter, and when it was over I felt not triumph, but relief. I suspect this is what the game intended.

Rating: 8.3