A New Day by Jonathan Fry [Comp97]

IFDB page: A New Day
Final placement: 10th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

A New Day is an ambitious piece of work which attempts to examine IF metalevels in a fairly original way. Its author bills it as his first real work of interactive fiction (he dismisses Stargazer, his entry in last year’s competition, as a kind of instructional prelude to his actual IF writing career); in Fry’s words, A New Day is the first thing that is “for better or worse, truly a Jonathan Fry game.” More often than not, it’s better. Although the game certainly packs some frustration and confusion (the unwelcome kind, not the pleasurable kind), it also provides some fresh surprises and a thought-provoking premise.

I found the plot a little difficult to follow, but from what I could piece together, the game opens shortly after its author has died (apparently electrocuted by his laptop), leaving his IF work in progress an incomplete shambles and ruining his plans to enter the competition. In addition, something else has emerged on which the author hasn’t planned: an entity who calls himself Winston. Winston claims to have been created as a part of the game, but gained sentience all on his own, along with some measure of control over the game’s virtual setting. He further contends that he himself has entered the game in the competition so that you (the player) could help him investigate the author’s death. Thus in the first few moves of the game we already have the real author (who appears in the acknowledgments section), a fictional representation of the real author, the game, the game’s characteristic representation of itself (or an aspect of itself), the player, the player’s murky fictional avatar within the game (just what is the interface simulating?), etc. Things get even more complicated from there.

Clearly, A New Day wants to position itself in the avant-garde of IF and explore fictional levels in the manner of experimental modern fiction. This is certainly a worthwhile project (and one that has been touched upon by many games including A Mind Forever Voyaging, Piece of Mind, and Bureaucracy), and A New Day manages to break some intriguing ground along the way. However, the game is by no means an unqualified success. The author overuses one off-the-wall prose technique in one section of the game, a little of which would have gone a long way. Also, I found the puzzles often to be counterintuitive and confusing. Finally, the game gives the impression of having bitten off a bit more than it can chew. I found myself wondering if the author had carefully thought through all the semantics and implications of the levels he imagines — by the end it all seems a bit of a muddle. Still, A New Day has some shining moments, and the author is right to think that it’s a significant step up from Stargazer. I look forward to the continued maturation of Jonathan Fry’s artistic voice.

Prose: The prose is smooth in some areas, faltering in others. On occasion the author still suffers from the awkward phrasing which plagued him in Stargazer, but it’s clear that a significant improvement has been made. The Athens section does a nice job of communicating the feel of the city (or so it seemed to me, but then I’ve never been to Athens), and other parts of the game neatly sidestep the necessity for strong prose by deliberately excluding description. [SPOILERS AHEAD] In addition, the author pulls a wild prose stunt about 2/3 of the way through the game, breaking down the most basic conventions of words and sentences in order to simulate a software crash. This works wonderfully at first; Fry uses an well-judged combination of sense and nonsense to convey the barest notion of setting. However, it becomes pretty tiresome after a while (and the nature of the puzzles dictated that I would be seeing a lot of that area). Fry finds the right balance of gibberish with text for his experiment, but misses the mark in measuring how much is too much in the larger context of the game. [SPOILERS END]

Plot: I’ve recounted much of the plot above, so I’ll just say here that I found it to be one of the most complicated, but also one of the most predictable, of the competition games I’ve played so far. The levels of representation certainly do get entangled (perhaps moreso than the author bargained for), [SPOILERS AHEAD] but some elements, such as the “revelation” that Winston was the murderer and the final, climactic scene inside the guts of the computer, were strictly pro forma. The combination makes the game feel rather more gimmicky than it should, as if the stylistic devices haven’t been considered beyond their immediate surprise value. [SPOILERS END]

Puzzles: I found A New Day‘s puzzles to be rather difficult and counterintuitive on the whole. The last puzzle was especially tough, but more because I wasn’t clear on exactly how the setup of wires and sockets and etc. was arranged. I’m inclined to think that this is more a fault of the prose than necessarily a shortcoming in the puzzle itself –however, in its present form the unclear prose made a difficult puzzle quite impenetrable for me. I also found many of the puzzles to be rather gratuitous, working against rather than with the flow of the story. Examples that come to mind are the tourist’s handbag and the password in the garbled section.

Technical (writing): The writing was fine on a technical level.

Technical (coding): The game included some nice coding touches, including an exits list on the status line which was context-sensitive depending on what section the game found itself in. Also, Winston was quite thoroughly programmed, which helped to flesh out his character and deepen his effectiveness. Overall, Fry’s coding job was admirable.


Piece of Mind by Giles Boutel [Comp96]

IFDB page: Piece of Mind
Final placement: 16th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

This story seemed to struggle to find its voice, vacillating between the chilling (the voice in the boxes), the satirical (the copyright man), and the bubblegum epic (participating in the adventures of Jeff Steele, Galactic Hero, and battling the Chromium Knight). The writing never seemed to settle into one style, and as a result the entire work felt disjointed, as it was not the result of a unified vision, but rather a collection of “wouldn’t this be neat?” concepts, halfheartedly strung together. The other lasting impression left by the game is one of frustration, since a bug prevents players from winning. Consequently, although Piece has some interesting moments, it fails as a whole.

Prose: Lots of the writing was really quite winning, and provided several nice moments of humor (the improvised songs) and drama (the opening sequence). I just wish the story could decide what it wanted to be, because the amalgam lacked an overarching purpose. One final note about the prose: I found several of the puzzles quite difficult because the room description seemed to belie the character’s willingness to do the action necessary to solve the puzzle. Examples are smashing the television and touching the computer screen. I think that room descriptions play a very complicated role in defining the character’s traits, and while the contradicting room descriptions were an interesting experiment, they didn’t work for me in this case. Perhaps if I’d gotten more sense of desperation, or if the character-defining traits (“I’ve managed to avoid smashing it so far.”) were described in less of an offhand way, I’d be more inclined to lead the character to do things that it is described as wanting to resist.

Difficulty: Due to the phenomenon described above, I found myself consulting the walkthrough quite often. Of course, then there’s the separate issue of the game’s unsolvability. Frustratingly, this bug sets the difficulty at “impossible.”

Technical (coding): Having a game-killing bug prevents Piece from getting a high score on coding. Apart from the fact that the game is unwinnable, I found the coding to be pretty smooth, although I think Inform is capable of handling things more smoothly. For example, when walking into the copyright office without clothes, the game should prevent the player from entering rather than allowing entrance only to revoke it.

Technical (writing): The writing was relatively free of typos (though I think I noticed one in one of the box quotations, unless the author is playing subtly on the meaning of the = sign.) and grammatically correct.

Plot: Well, I’m not sure I ever really understood the plot, since I never got to see the endgame. The concept of a character who is aware it is being controlled is an interesting one, and I think one with great potential. Unfortunately, that potential is not realized here, due to the game’s schizophrenic approach.

Puzzles: As mentioned above, the structure of the room descriptions made some of the puzzles quite difficult. Others, though, had their share of wit and pizzazz. I especially enjoyed the copyright man.