My Angel by Jon Ingold [Comp00]

IFDB page: My Angel
Final placement: 6th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Interactive Fiction is a new enough medium that at least once a year, usually more, a work appears that approaches the form in a way that has never yet been attempted. The IF competition, with its emphasis on short works, has become a haven for this kind of experimentation, and this year is no exception. The most interesting experiment I’ve come across thus far is this game, My Angel. My Angel‘s experiment is to offer the player a “NOVEL” mode, one which actually fulfills both senses of the word: not only does it more closely resemble a prose novel than does any other IF, it is also something that has never quite been seen before.

In NOVEL mode, all input and stock parser responses appear in a two-line status window above the main game text window. In the lower panel, story-related output appears in neatly formatted paragraphs. Because this format can sometimes be hard to follow (it’s difficult to tell where the last output leaves off and the new one begins), the game thoughtfully provides an ALTERNATE command, which prints every other piece of output (more or less) in bold text. I’ve sometimes thought about how IF might be done in this format, but could never quite get past certain mental stumbling blocks: the possibility of repetition, the need for stock responses, and the problem of sequiturs.

My Angel applies a number of ingenious solutions to these problems. First, it adopts the already rather oblique tone of literary fantasy — this particular prose style suffers from a dearth of sequiturs anyway, so the sudden shifts of focus brought about by a flailing player become less obvious. In addition, the game takes stock responses such as “I don’t know the word <whatever>” or “You can’t see that here” and shifts them to the status line, not allowing them to interrupt the flow of the story. It’s also, as far as I can determine, not above simply ignoring the player’s input and continuing with the story, though this doesn’t happen often, and it’s rather difficult to tell for certain when it has happened, because there’s sometimes a significant (but not complete) disconnect between the player’s input and the game’s responses. Finally, My Angel restricts the player’s choice of verbs (though not drastically) in order to reduce the combinatorial explosion of necessary text.

As for repetition, well, My Angel didn’t quite lick that one. I still encountered several instances where the game repeated the same output two or more times in a row. You wouldn’t see this kind of sequence in any but the most avant-garde literary novel, so its appearance detracted from the game’s illusion of an unfolding prose story. For the most part, however, My Angel succeeds admirably in maintaining that illusion. Its writing is mostly quite good, and the intersection between its writing and its coding sometimes verges on the brilliant, not just for NOVEL mode itself but for the way that it deftly picks up on a player’s command and weaves it into the ongoing narrative.

The narrative itself, on the other hand, is a bit confusing, or at least it was to me. Ironically, I think the story’s problem may be one of too much novelty. We are presented with an unfamiliar world, one which appears to be more or less the generic medieval pastoral setting of copious genre fantasy, but which occasionally hints at mysterious magics, the logic of which we are left to figure out. Complicating the situation is the fact that these magics are the sort that are only visible to one person, and therefore we can never be entirely certain that they aren’t simply the delusion of the viewpoint character. That character shares a very unusual relationship with another character, one which (again) isn’t clearly spelled out.

Finally, these two are embroiled in a specific plot, one which begins entirely in medias res, leaving us to piece together the backstory through flashbacks that sometimes obscure more than they reveal. Between trying to decipher the setting, the plot, the characters, the backstory, and the sometimes impenetrable prose style, I frequently found myself feeling very much at sea in the story, lacking adequate purchase in any sort of familiar concept. When the climactic moment came, it didn’t have much of an effect on me, because I never quite understood what exactly underlay the climax’s emotional thrust.

On the other hand, the parts that I did understand, I found quite evocative. There are a number of very arresting images in the game, some wonderful turns of phrase, and the central relationship is a fascinating one. Even better, there are a few lovely puzzles. These puzzles are the best kind — unique and interesting, but of a piece with the story rather than simply tacked on. NOVEL mode makes them feel even more integrated, creating as it does the appearance of an unbroken flow of text.

I encountered one or two grammatical errors while traversing the story, and the occasions when it appeared to be ignoring my input annoyed me somewhat, but overall I came away feeling impressed as hell with My Angel. It’s a daring experiment, executed with grace and care, and it provided me not only with some vivid impressions of setting and story, but with a good deal of food for thought about the possible future directions of IF.

Rating: 8.6

Lomalow by Brendan Barnwell [Comp99]

IFDB page: Lomalow
Final placement: 21st place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Ever feel like you’re first reader for the slushpile? I get that feeling sometimes as I near the end of a long list of competition entries, and I definitely had it playing Lomalow. It’s sentences like this that produce such a feeling: “The sheer mountain cliffs end abruptly at and are ended abrutply at by a dense forest of tall evergreens.” Huh? The author announces at the outset that the game’s only puzzle is “how to get to read all the text that you possibly can.” The implication is that reading the text is its own reward. This is a nice concept, but works better when the text is actually well written. There’s a fair amount of prose in this game, and seeing it can be rewarding, but often not for the reason the author intended. For instance, at one point, a wind howling above the pit you’re in is compared to “a giant child puffing across the top of a Coke bottle.” This comparison may have been intended to inspire awe, but for me it was a very comic image. Somehow the idea of a kid blowing on a Coke bottle failed to evoke the fury of nature.

My favorite passage, though, was a room description, and I can’t resist quoting it in full:

This area seems to be filled with abrupt ends. To the east,
the mountain ends abruptly at the forest you came from, and vice versa.
The forest also ends abruptly at the cliff which you are standing on.
It's about ten feet wide and ends abruptly in midair. Far above, a
riverbed abruptly ends at the abrupt end of the mountain, generating an
incredibly long but relatively narrow waterfall. From the roar that
emanates from below, you presume that this waterfall ends abruptly at
some flat surface, creating high-intensity sound waves which end
abruptly at your ears, which end abruptly at the side of your head,
which ends abrutply at your shoulders, and so on and so forth.

By the time I got to the end of this passage, I almost fell out of my chair I was laughing so hard. The problem is, I’m not at all certain it was meant to be funny. The contrast suggests to me that the game’s prose has escaped its control — the same word is repeated 10 times in 6 sentences, sounding sillier each time (it doesn’t help that the final occurrence is misspelled) and jarring badly with the overall tone of the story.

The mounting ridiculousness of the repetition in the above passage is echoed by the repetitive nature of the game itself. Lomalow is designed so that the only way to win is to ask the two characters the same questions over and over and over again. A typical interaction might be to type “ASK WOMAN ABOUT BOOK.” She will give a very short answer, trailing off with an ellipsis. Then, the player must type “G” again and again until the old woman starts to repeat herself. After that, the player must repeat the process with a different noun substituted in place of “book.” Then, repeat all of the above with the game’s other character, an old man.

After going through the cycles a few dozen times, the whole thing starts to seem really funny. I kept imagining what life would be like if all conversations had to be carried out this way. I’d have to ask my wife about the store 29 times to get the entire shopping list down. You’d have to ask the cop about the ticket 8 times before finally receiving it. When the final climactic scene came, my main emotion was relief that the characters could bring themselves to utter more than a few sentences at a time without being prompted. Relief was followed closely by amusement when the old man screamed at me, “We’re magic BIRDS, aren’t we? What do BIRDS do, guy?” Of course, it took me a while to get to this scene, because I kept running out of nouns to substitute in the conversations.

I turned to the hint system for help, but all it tended to give me were cryptic suggestions along the lines of “Don’t be dense. You’ve already seen 14220. Why haven’t you talked to the old woman about it?” My suspicion is that these odd messages are the result of a bug in the hint system caused by having Inform print an object’s number rather than its name. The numbers may have been intentional, but if so, the decision to use them makes the hint system pretty useless.

So Lomalow is a very flawed game, hampered by its overblown prose and its numbingly iterative design. That’s what I have to say as a critic. Now, here’s what I have to say as an author. The thing I liked about Lomalow, and the thing that kept it from becoming a purely irritating experience, was the obvious sincerity that was driving it. Yes, it’s the product of a novice writer. But every writer is a novice at some point, and I’m quite certain that almost every respected writer (of interactive fiction and regular fiction too) started out writing passages that were just as silly as, if not sillier than, the ones I quoted in my first paragraph. It’s a necessary thing, and I know from my own experience that fear of looking foolish in public can hold a writer back from going through that stage. Since it’s a stage that is almost always one of the first steps on the path to real skill, the fear stops many writers from reaching their true potential.

So even though, from a critical standpoint, I can’t see Lomalow as a success, I applaud its author for having the courage to overcome that paralyzing fear. I could see the promise of improvement shining through much of the text, and the game’s very existence suggests that the author is committed to pursuing that promise. These thoughts allowed me to play through Lomalow with a smile rather than a grimace.

Rating: 5.0