Fusillade by Mike Duncan [Comp01]

IFDB page: Fusillade
Final placement: 18th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

In my review of Prized Possession, I mentioned that the game felt like a long series of opening sequences. Fusillade does it one better, stringing together an even longer series of vignettes, each of which only lasts a couple of dozen moves at most before it shifts radically, changing not only time period, but character, plot, and milieu as well. Fusillade is certainly an appropriate name for such a work — there’s never any time to settle into a particular character or story, and the effect is rather like being bombarded with prologues: eyeblink IF.

The problem here is that, like many prologues, none of these sequences offers much interactivity at all. Each sequence is quite straitjacketed, and although it might allow other input (or it might not), its responses will be minimal until it gets the magic word it’s looking for. At times, this is rather transparent, as the situation is enough to compel most players into typing the right thing without much prompting. At other times, it can get a little frustrating:

>go to house
A fine idea. You can crawl, walk, or run.

For once you're tired of struggling on your elbows. You want to walk.

Walk? Why walk? These fields are endless and the world is yours. Run!

In a sudden frenzy of insanity, you hold onto your dress and run like
the wind toward the house. [... and another paragraph after that]

This exchange occurred after I had already gotten long responses from “crawl”, and then from “walk” (very necessarily in that order.) But the game still tells me I can “crawl, walk, or run”, when in fact it’s only prepared to offer me one of those choices at a time, at which point it ceases to make much sense to even talk about them as choices.

This problem reaches its zenith a few scenes in, and I’m going to give a direct spoiler now, because in my opinion it’s a scene that potential players should be warned about. I certainly didn’t appreciate having it sprung on me without warning. But if you’re adamantly anti-spoiler, you might want to skip ahead to the next paragraph. Warning over.

The scene I’m talking about is a rape scene. You’re thrust into the POV of the victim (not that it’d be any better if it were from the rapist’s POV), and there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect the scene in any way. I tried leaving. I tried dropping what I was carrying, which the narrative voice told me I was supposed to give to the rapist. I tried biting. Hitting. Killing. I tried pouring water on him, given that I was supposedly carrying a jug of water, and the game appeared not even to have implemented the water. So Fusillade threw mocking prompts at me, even though it didn’t matter what I did at those prompts — the rape is inevitable.

Once this became clear, I got angry, and emotionally disengaged from the game. I don’t mind short scenes. I don’t mind brief stretches of non-interactivity, or even long stretches if there’s some point being made, as in Rameses. I don’t even particularly mind violence, as long as it’s also in the service of some sort of useful storytelling, though I prefer that violence of this level be flagged with some sort of warning upfront. But when you put me through a rape scene, for no apparent reason except that it’s “just another scene”, and offer no real interactivity, despite the appearance of choices, I find that unacceptable. From that point forward, I was going through the motions, not about to engage with another character, in case the game had any other nasty surprises up its sleeve.

The other thing that becomes apparent after a while is that these scenes just keep coming. The idea might have worked over the space of 5 or 10 scenes, but this game just keeps bringing them on and on. Between the non-interactive nature of each scene and the emotional disengagement I was already experiencing, this endless procession of vignettes started to feel grindingly tedious after a while. When the end came (and the first real option in the game, though it only makes a few paragraph’s worth of difference), I was relieved.

I’m not sure if this is the response the game intended, but I doubt it. The whole thing ended up feeling more like a way for the author to show off his (admittedly impressive) MIDI composing skills than any kind of attempt at actual interactive fiction. So despite the fact that the game is pretty well-written and well-implemented (though there are a few glitches here and there), I ended up not enjoying it too much. It’s fine for a while, but one scene had a devastating effect on my emotional engagement, and there was way too much to get through after that. Perhaps one of these scenes really will become the prologue to a full game of actual interactive fiction (rather than just prompted fiction) — I think I’d enjoy that, as long as it isn’t that one horrible scene.

Rating: 5.8

Schroedinger’s Cat by James Willson [Comp01]

IFDB page: Schroedinger’s Cat
Final placement: 39th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, I’m an idiot. I don’t get it. I must confess, playing this game directly after Prized Possession is making me begin to doubt my own brain. I mean, on the last game I was pretty well able to feel like my confusion was due to the game’s shortcomings. This time, though… I have the sense that if somebody sat down with me and explained the rules behind the environment in Schroedinger’s Cat, there’s about an equal chance that I would either think “Of course! Brilliant!” or “I still don’t get it.” Either way, it doesn’t do much for my ego at the moment.

So maybe I’m not that bright. But what’s also true is that games like this just really aren’t my cup of tea. I’m not a great puzzle solver, being more attracted to IF for its ability to immerse me in a setting and a story. Consequently, when a game pretty much consists of one (pretty tough) puzzle, devoid of any particular narrative or character, and then doesn’t provide the solution to the puzzle… well, I’m sure some people would find it a pleasure and a delight, but I’m not one of them. To me, puzzles in IF are a lot more fun if they advance a story rather than just existing for their own sake. This game is utterly uninterested in portraying anything beyond the bounds of its own puzzle. For instance, there are two cats in the game, each of which is described with “A cute little [white/black] cat”, sans full stop. Not exactly a description to stir the soul. A similar game from 1998, In The Spotlight, at least gave some reprieve from its starkness by providing cute and funny responses for various commands. Schroedinger’s Cat doesn’t even provide an in-game reward for solving the puzzle — in the words of the author, “Success is measured in understanding. Once you know how the world works, you can consider yourself the victor.”

Which I guess would make me the loser. You win, tough game. But the experience wasn’t much fun for me.

Rating: 3.8

Prized Possession by Kathleen M. Fischer [Comp01]

IFDB page: Prized Possession
Final placement: 11th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

“Show, don’t tell” is a piece of advice often given to beginning writers. The basic gist of this advice is that authors should endeavor to let us observe the action and draw our own conclusions, rather than just flatly announcing the state of things — it’s far more effective to show a character fidgeting, biting her nails, and stammering than to just say, “Marcy was nervous.” The danger of this advice is that it is so easy to misinterpret. After all, if you think about it, even the showing is telling, because you have to write something — you can’t spell “storytelling” without “telling”. (Hey, my own bumper-sticker ready piece of writing advice!) Consequently, some writers hear “show, don’t tell” and take it to an extreme, thereby leaving out important swaths of the story on the assumption that readers will be able to connect the dots. Well, maybe some readers can, but the more transitions, background detail, and other such connecting stuff gets omitted, the higher the number of readers who will stumble through the story in a state of perpetual confusion.

It’s a difficult balance to achieve, and I fear that Prized Possession finds itself on the confusing end of the spectrum. For instance, at the end of the first scene, the PC has just effected a daring rescue but paid a heavy price. That first scene omits a lot of detail about who the PC is, why she finds herself in such dramatic circumstances, and what caused the tragic end event, but these omissions aren’t too bothersome, as we trust that the story will get filled in. Instead, none of this information ever comes to light; the game careens into its next scene, which takes place ten years later, and provides no explanation whatsoever of what has happened during the intervening period. The PC is in entirely different circumstances, but these are, again, unexplained. This sort of phenomenon happens over and over throughout the story, and my notes are filled with bewildered complaints like “wait — when did I get untied?” and “I am so lost.”

I readily admit the possibility that I just wasn’t bright enough to follow the plot. If this is the case, then no doubt other reviewers will provide the perspective I lack. Until then, I can only report my own experience, which was that although I was able to tentatively piece some things together as the tale moved inexorably along, I found myself having reached the end without much more understanding of the story or characters than I’d had before I read the first screen. Moreover, during most of the points inbetween, I really wasn’t offered many choices. The story moves along relentlessly, a series of rigid set-pieces. These set-pieces came mostly in two varieties. The first type requires nothing but repeated “WAIT” commands, until its final move, at which some set of circumstances appears that demands a particular command — if any other command is entered, the game ends. The other type is all a tightly-timed puzzle consisting of anywhere from 5 to 10 moves. There’s seldom a moment to spare, and should the player deviate from the prescribed path, a quick (and usually nasty) end awaits.

Both of these sorts of scenes are fine in small doses, but an entire game of them isn’t much fun, at least not for me. The opening puzzle is a good one, and in fact the entire opening sequence is taut and promising, but the game falls down by making its entire contents very much like an ongoing series of opening sequences. Each time one of these set-pieces ended, I waited for the game to open out into greater interactivity and to provide me with more information, but instead I was just thrust into yet another set-piece. Adding to the frustration was the fact that the parser tended to be maddeningly selective about what input it would take. Getting out of things tended to be a particular problem, and my word of advice to players of this game is to try “get up” when it seems that more sensible commands aren’t working. In addition, the game’s conversation system sometimes intrudes where it isn’t necessary. This system (which works quite neatly when it’s introduced at appropriate times) requires the command “TALK TO ” and then may offer a list of topics to discuss. However, there are times when it shouldn’t be necessary, or in fact may not even make sense, to type “TALK TO”:

As your foot hits the floor, someone grabs you from behind, clamping
a callused hand over your mouth.

"Scream, and you are dead," rasps a man's voice in your ear. [...]

"Do you understand me?" the man asks, his arms tightening around you,
crushing you against his chest.

You mutter something incomprehensible.

>talk to man
... nod your head yes or shake your head no?

You nod your head yes.

The game should have accepted the first response, especially given that this response was exactly what it was looking for.

Hm. Reading over this review, I realize I’ve been focusing on the negative, perhaps unfairly. There’s a great deal to like about Prized Possession, which perhaps is why its restraints and its lapses chafed at me so much. I’m not sure the game could even be fixed without a major redesign, but I do think that in many ways, the author is on the right track. A game with this kind of genre, plot, characters, setting, and writing, with more information and freedom provided, would make for a very memorable IF experience indeed.

Rating: 6.9