Episode in the Life of an Artist by Peter Eastman [Comp03]

IFDB page: Episode in the Life of an Artist
Final placement: 11th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

My wife used to teach a college course called “Shakespeare For Non-Majors,” which was usually full of business and engineering students, there either to fulfill their dreaded “Literature and the Arts” core curriculum requirement, or else to, as she sometimes put it, “get their Cultural Literacy cards stamped.” Students generally came into this class with one of two attitudes towards Shakespeare. Some of them hated him — they called him “boring”, and groused of having him thrown at them all their lives as some sort of ultimate authority. Usually, a major part of these students’ problem was that they actually just didn’t understand the meaning of the words when they looked at a Shakespeare text.

The other category of students loved Shakespeare, and actually embraced and revered him as an ultimate authority. They would claim stridently that he was the Greatest Author Of All Time, that he had a perfect understanding of Human Nature, that his works are Timeless, and that every scrap of his texts embodied Deep Truth. Interestingly, these students usually also didn’t understand the meaning of the words when they looked at a Shakespeare text, but they knew enough to recognize that much of our culture sees Shakespeare as a dispenser of wisdom, and believes that if you can quote strings of words from his sonnets or plays, that ability indicates that you’re an intelligent person with great insights about life.

The PC of Episode is one of this latter type. His life could hardly be more mundane — he gets up, gets dressed, eats breakfast, and goes to work at a factory, where he spends all day in front of a conveyor belt putting green widgets on red wodgets. Yet he thinks of himself as smart and wise — an artist, in fact, and hence the title. “No one could put those widgets together like I could,” he says of himself. A large part of his faith in his mind and soul comes from the fact that he carries around a book of quotations, of which he has memorized great swaths, and he can pull out a quote for even the dullest occasions. Yet, as the text makes plain, knowing a quote isn’t the same thing as understanding it. For instance, when an unexpectedly blue widget suddenly appears on the conveyor belt:

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and he knew what he was talking about. He knew that sometimes the widgets would be green, and sometimes they’d be blue. So I’ve been doing this job for eight years, and every widget I’ve ever seen has been green. That doesn’t mean the next one won’t be blue. You’ve got to just take what comes and go on with your job. Emerson understood that, and that’s why he was such a great genius.

Of course Emerson wasn’t thinking of blue and green widgets when he wrote the “foolish consistency” line, and of course that line comes from a much larger explanatory context, but those things don’t bother the PC a bit — in his mind, he has access to Emerson’s “great genius”, to what literary critic John Guillory (swiping a term from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) called his “cultural capital”, and that genius is helping the PC deal with a difficult situation. In fact, all he’s really doing is taking his own thoughts and slapping the label “Emerson” on them so that he can call them wise and not have to question them any further. This trait permeates the character, and makes him one of the most intriguing PCs I’ve seen in an IF game for a long time.

The design of Episode nicely reinforces the PC’s character. At first, I was annoyed with it for making me go through such extremely quotidian tasks as showering, picking out clothes for the day, and so on. Once I grokked the PC a little better, though, I loved the game for doing that. By forcing me to step through those tasks, and to experience the PC’s unwavering interest in and enjoyment of them (as well as hearing his ceaseless grab-bag of quotes applied to them), the game let me become closely acquainted with the PC’s mindset in a way that still felt interactive and advanced the plot. Because it’s preceded by such an exceedingly ordinary morning routine, that blue widget and the PC’s shock at it carries much more of an impact than if it had been the beginning scene of the game.

Speaking of shock, I was rather jarred by the fact that the game apparently takes place in the Zork universe. The PC carries a five-zorkmid bill in his wallet, finds a Dimwit Flathead lunchbox, and so on. Now, granted, one of the game’s major plot points rests on its Zorkian setting, but it feels a little strange to see references to people like Emerson and Shakespeare, or to see crates labeled “USDA GRADE A”, as if those things had some part in the Zork universe. There’s also the fact that nowhere does the game acknowledge that permission for use of these things was sought or received from Activision. It’s almost as if the game itself takes some part of the PC’s simple-mindedness.

That’s what’s so puzzling, and vexing, about this game. For all that it seems to be very cleverly written and designed, it also suffers from these logic gaps, as well as from sloppy coding and some serious bugs, one so bad that it can derail the game completely and force the player to a RESTORE or multiple UNDO. With a game like Rameses, part of the clue to look beyond the surface of things is the fact that the game is obviously coded with intelligence and care. I didn’t find that to be the case with Episode — aside from the aforementioned bug, I suffered synonym problems, guess-the-verb, and basic weirdnesses like the fact that the score stayed 0 out of 100 for the entire game.

I found no mechanics problems with the prose, which made the lackluster coding feel all the more odd. I still can’t decide whether this game is the product of great writing skill paired with novice coding abilities, or whether it’s just a not-very-good game that ended up unintentionally profound. If it’s the former, Episode would benefit greatly from a once-over by someone like Mike Sousa, who enjoys collaboration and whose TADS skills are impeccable. If it’s the latter, well, I guess I’m about to give my highest score ever for a bad comp game.

Rating: 8.4