Who Created That Monster? by N.B. Horvath [Comp04]

IFDB page: Who Created That Monster?
Final placement: 25th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Who Created That Monster seems to want to be several different things all at once, but it doesn’t really succeed at any of them. At first, I thought the game would be some kind of trenchant political satire or commentary. After all, it’s set in Iraq, 22 years in the future — what better premise to examine the complex situation in Iraq today? Indeed, there are some moments that seem to be clearly satirical, such as this statement by an American TV commentator in the game:

“For the longest time, the Arab world insisted on calling America ‘The Great Satan.’ What’s really insulting about that is the way it lumps the entire United States together into one monolithic entity. In reality the US is a nation of 400 million people, with a wide variety of ethnicities and points of view. Keep that in mind, Arab world.”

That’s certainly satire, and not the most subtle satire at that. But aside from a few moments like these, the game seems oddly reluctant to actually adopt a point of view. I kept waiting for some kind of twist that never came.

For instance, throughout the game, the PC finds himself confronted by terrorists, and he must kill them or be killed by them. These threats are announced with the sentence, “A terrorist enters the area,” as if the PC can immediately identify an “evildoer” by sight, even in a world where everyone, including investigative reporters, carries around an assault rifle. I kept expecting some revelation from the game — maybe the PC accidentally kills someone he thinks is a terrorist but who is actually a national leader, or maybe someone identifies the PC as a terrorist and starts taking pot shots at him — something to break down the PC’s painfully simplistic and artificial point-of-view. But no. The terrorists are never developed into anything but simple wandering monsters. They might as well be orcs.

So okay, forget political commentary. Maybe WCTM is just supposed to be an exciting science fiction thriller. Here, too, it misses the mark, this time due to its unenthusiastic writing. Here’s a perfect emblem:

>x mysterious note
It looks like an ordinary mysterious note to me.

Yawn. If the game can’t be bothered to provide some detail about the objects in its world, how am I supposed to become immersed in that world? Granted, there are some nice touches, like the surveillance spheres that float everywhere, or the occasional holographic advertisements that pop up in front of the PC’s eyes. These fillips are sf clichés by now, but they still provide a nice futuristic feel.

Then again, some of what might be intended as science-fictional is so underexplained as to appear magical. For instance, when you shoot a terrorist, it vanishes “in a puff of smoke.” Now, this might be the result of some kind of advanced disintegrator bullet technology or something, but even if it is, the game never mentions that. Instead, the result is more or less equivalent to what happens to the troll in Zork (albeit less compellingly described), which only adds to the feeling that the terrorists are lazily imagined wandering monsters.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the game is the way that it occasionally decorates the action with a blurb about the past or future history of Iraq. Even these, though, suffer from prosaism:

1920 . The history of Iraq begins when British mandate is declared.

What? This statement makes it sound like the British issued a mandate in 1920 stating “Today the history of Iraq shall begin!” We need a little more.

The satirical and speculative elements fall away from WCTM like flakes of dry skin, leaving only a bog-standard IF “collect the gems” game. Sadly, even this falls prey to some truly bizarre design decisions. For instance, there are four different buildings in the game, all of which have the same basement. Not just four identical locations — one location, to which the DOWN command leads from all four buildings. No explanation whatsoever is offered for this behavior, but it’s not a bug. In fact, one of the puzzles hinges on this extremely strange geography.

In another spot, the game is terribly heavy-handed with its cueing, robbing players of the opportunity to put the pieces together themselves. Finally, WCTM seems to have trouble keeping track of what and where its objects are. A manila dossier becomes, in some scenes, a green dossier. A building is reported as being to the southwest when it’s actually to the northwest. Between its bugginess, its bizarre design, and its apparent unwillingness to put much craft into its world-building or its futurism, WCTM ends up being a pretty dull game.

Rating: 4.6

I Must Play by Geoff Fortytwo [Comp04]

IFDB page: I Must Play
Final placement: 14th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Once upon a time, that time being 1997, C.E. Forman wrote a comp game called Sylenius Mysterium. It was set at night, in a near-deserted mall, with an arcade and a game store. The teenage PC starts out with $20 in his inventory, and while a storm rages outside, he finds his way to a particular arcade game. When he plays it, he suddenly finds himself inside the game! Now, seven years later, we’ve got I Must Play. This game is set at night, in a near-deserted arcade. The 8-year-old PC starts out with $20 in his inventory, and while a storm rages outside, he finds his way to a room full of arcade games. When he plays them, he suddenly finds himself inside the games!

Happily, the project of I Must Play is a bit less literal-minded than that of Sylenius Mysterium. While the latter was built around a real-time prose implementation of a side-scrolling arcade game, requiring the player to type commands like JUMP as obstacles approached, IMP instead creates prose versions of classic arcade games, in a similar manner to some of the games in the IF Arcade project from 2001. Still, the parallels are startling. Given that one of the things Forman blew his top about before leaving the IF community was Babel‘s alleged resemblance to his own game Delusions, I can only imagine how he’d have reacted to IMP.

In any case, the prose arcade environments in IMP serve as simple puzzles, leading to a slightly more complicated endgame, one which is also an arcade re-creation but which uses a few connected simple puzzles rather than just one. These are well-done for what they are, and while I wasn’t impressed with the quality of the writing, neither was I annoyed. I had a fine time with the game until I hit a particular puzzle, one which placed the PC in a political environment. To avoid the spoiler, I’ll just say that in order to win this puzzle, I had to do something that is anathema to my beliefs. I did it, but it turned me off immensely, and I cruised through the rest of the game without engagement.

Yes, I know it’s just a game. Yes, I’m aware that it doesn’t take itself too seriously, and may not have been trying to advance a political agenda. Yes, I’m sure that I’m reacting more strongly than I would have if my blood pressure hadn’t just been raised by the presidential debates. Still, what’s true for me is that I felt herded by the game into a reprehensible action. This has happened in good IF before — a classic example is in Trinity — but in those instances, the action is meant to be symbolic, to lend power to the themes of the story. In IMP, the action seems to be more or less an arbitrary puzzle-piece, serving no thematic or emotional purpose. It felt starkly out of place in what otherwise seemed to be a fairly lighthearted endeavor, rather like getting a relaxing massage and then having the masseuse suddenly wrench your little finger backwards for no apparent reason.

Part of what felt offensive to me about the scene was its terribly simplistic nature. I don’t mind art that takes positions opposite to my own nearly so much when those positions seem to be thoughtful and well-argued, or at the very least entertaining and/or funny. What I got in IMP was a gross oversimplification, a caricature really, of both the issue in question and of politics in general, one that lacked any redeeming humor, flair, or cleverness. Now, I will say that I remembered partway through the puzzle that the game’s perspective character is an 8-year-old, and when I kept that in mind, the simplistic presentation bothered me a whole lot less. However, there are some parts of that puzzle that feel dumbed-down even for a third-grader, and other parts that felt too politically opinionated for a child.

The whole thing left a bitter taste in my mouth. In short, the game had me, and then — via a short series of aggravating scenes and statements — it lost me. I’m sure that won’t be true for everybody. People who share the beliefs portrayed in that scene will have a much easier time navigating it (though I imagine that even some of them will still be less than pleased with its primitive formulations), and some people who share my beliefs will be dispassionate enough about them that the scene won’t bother them. It’s not that the game is super-fantastic aside from that, but until it rubbed me the wrong way, it was a pleasant enough diversion. For me, though, even though I finished IMP, I didn’t end up getting a lot of pleasure out of it.

Rating: 7.3

[Postscript from 2021: This review ended up rather controversial, despite the many qualifiers I placed around my reaction. “It’s a friggin game, for pete’s sake” was the emblematic response. So I wrote a subsequent post explaining my response to the issue at hand in much more detail. The issue was gun control, and although I didn’t love being embroiled in a debate about my review, I did enjoy that the subthread got called “I Must Gunplay.”]