Unraveling God by Todd Watson [Comp02]

IFDB page: Unraveling God
Final placement: 12th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

And so the legacy of Photopia continues. Here we have a linear, puzzleless narrative, told in small portions out of chronological order, each of which is preceded by a blank screen with one word in the center. Sound familiar? Of course, there are differences: all segments are told from the same point of view, and rather than being a vision of tragedy, Unraveling God is more of a morality tale in the familiar Things Man Was Not Meant To Know tradition. I also don’t mean to suggest that UG is some sort of lame rip-off. It isn’t. I don’t think this game is trying to be Photopia, but is using many of the tools that Photopia used first in order to tell its story.

What we may in fact be seeing is the development of a new subgenre of IF; maybe fragmentation is such an effective way to tell a puzzleless IF story that it’s bound to become a time-honored technique in story-heavy games. The story and the writing are certainly the feature attraction in this game. You play Gabriel Markson, a scientist who has stumbled across a way to freeze organisms in suspended animation without the use of cryogenics. You are also, as a number of well-judged character details indicate, not a very nice guy. The game’s prose does a fine job of portraying the PC as a complex villain, someone who has elaborate mental structures dedicated to justifying his behavior, and this portrayal makes his opportunities for redemption meaningful. There are one or two logical gaps in the story, but for the most part events interlock nicely, which also lends power to the story’s climax.

The technical elements, unfortunately, weren’t as trouble-free. To begin with, UG started with the inherent disadvantages of the ADRIFT parser, and didn’t manage to overcome them with careful compensation like The PK Girl did. Because the game is more or less puzzleless, the parser’s deficiencies didn’t hurt it as much as they hurt this year’s other ADRIFT game, A Party To Murder, but they were still fairly irritating. In addition, this game had its own unique problem, which was that it was plagued by a mysterious lack of articles. For instance:

A typed label on the manilla folder reads, "Time Magazine draft
article." Manilla folder is closed.

You take manilla folder from the desk.

(manilla folder)
You open manilla folder.

This kind of thing happened throughout the game, and kept reminding me of that old Saturday Night Live skit from the 80s where Tonto, Tarzan, and Frankenstein sing or read well-known works like “The Raven”: “Once upon… midnight dreary… While pondered… weak, weary…” The frequent injection of unintentional comedy doesn’t do much for a dramatic story. The grammar errors didn’t help either.

Still, I found some value in UG despite these flaws, and there’s one more thing I’d like to point out about it: this game is pretty clearly a work of Christian IF, and it is Christian IF done properly. I’m not a Christian, and I’ve been offended in the past by games like Jarod’s Journey whose overt mission is an evangelical one. This game chooses a richer path, which is to tell a story set in a world in which Christian myths turn out to be true, and exploring the consequences and subsequent choices for the characters once this revelation occurs. It’s not exactly great religious literature, but it does manage to portray a Christian world without condescension or arrogance. Because it allows a little complexity into its world, UG ends up a more thought-provoking and rewarding piece of work than the sort of Christian IF that just wants to shout scripture at the player.

Rating: 6.9

Aunt Nancy’s House by Nate Schwartzman [Comp97]

IFDB page: Aunt Nancy’s House
Final placement: 33rd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I began learning Inform, one of the first things I did was to put together a little simulation of the cottage I was living in at the time. It was great fun making a text adventure out of my current environment, adding both magic and realism as I saw fit. That Inform program would have easily been finished in time for submission to the 1995 IF competition, but I didn’t submit it. My reasoning at the time was that even though it was fun for me to walk around my virtual cottage, it would be really boring for other people. Now that I’ve played Aunt Nancy’s House (hereafter called ANH), I know I made the right decision.

According to its author, “Aunt Nancy’s House is actually based on my aunt’s (soon-to-be-former) house, and was created as a way of teaching myself Inform. There are no puzzles, the idea is mainly to wander about in an interactive environment and have fun.” Well, “wander” was certainly there, but “fun” wasn’t, at least not for me. Basically ANH simulates an empty house. That’s it. I have no doubt that creating this simulation was pretty exciting for the author, but without that connection to the subject material, other players are going to be bored.

ANH taught its author how to use Inform — I look forward to when he applies that knowledge to the creation of a game.

Prose: The game’s prose wasn’t outstanding, but it served its purpose.

Plot: ANH has no plot.

Puzzles: ANH has no puzzles. (Hey, puzzleless IF!)

Technical (writing): I spotted a few grammatical errors in the game, which I’ve passed along to the author.

Technical (coding): ANH has a number of bugs, which I’ve also forwarded to the author, but for a first exercise in learning Inform, it was put together pretty well.


[Postscript from 2020 — This game inspired one of my favorite reviews ever from Andrew Plotkin, one I still recall to this day. Relevant excerpt: “…somehow I get the impression that the author has spent a lot of time being bored in this house. I mean — I wandered around, I turned on the tv and the video game machine, I turned them back off, I poured myself a soda. Then I went back upstairs. Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time at relatives’ houses that way.”]