Identity Thief by Rob Shaw-Fuller [Comp02]

IFDB page: Identity Thief
Final placement: 13th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

A couple of years ago, there was a comp game called VOID:CORPORATION, which proclaimed itself to be cyberpunk. Unfortunately, as I said in my review, what it did instead was “just slap a cyberpunk sheen on standard fantasy tropes”, and was consequently pretty weak. Only a few days ago, I heard from the author of that game, who had just found my review and thanked me for writing it, so V:C was on my mind when I saw Identity Thief describe itself in Comp02 as “a cyberpunk interaction.”

Happily, this game exceeds its predecessor by a long stretch. Rather than being thinly disguised versions of Tolkien or Zork, Identity Thief‘s characters, settings, objects, and plot arise organically from a much more science-fictional premise, a premise nicely limned in the game’s optional introductory material. The prose maintains a very fine level throughout, sometimes even hitting rather sublime and poetic metaphors. The gadgets, such as implanted hands with “memory plastic” that can store palmprints of anyone whose hand you clasp, are delightful and have a great “wow factor.” What’s more, the story starts out with an arresting setup, moves quickly into a high pitch of urgency, and then keeps going into stranger and stranger territory.

I was particularly taken with what I suppose you might call the game’s second half. [I’ll try to be pretty vague here, but some of what follows could be construed as mild spoilage.] The first half involves completing a particular task, and indeed the first pleasant surprise is that there’s still more game to go when that task is completed — I fully expected the story to end, but instead I was asked to do the next logical thing, given what had happened up to that point. As that second scenario progressed, I felt more and more uneasy, suspecting that some big whammy was coming my way, but I didn’t try to get away. I didn’t even want to try to get away, because I knew that wasn’t what the character would do, even though the character himself was probably sharing my apprehensions.

Through its excellent writing and careful plotting, the game had cemented such a solid emotional connection between the PC and myself that I never flipped into the more “gamelike” state of mind that would attempt to obtain the most favorable outcome no matter how its methods might jar against the character or the story. This sort of split consciousness is essential to dramatic irony, and is exceedingly difficult to achieve in IF. Identity Thief achieved it, at least for me, and deserves a great deal of praise for that.

Where the game falls apart, though, is in its depth of implementation. The first part of the game has the PC hunting for a particular object, but a great many reasonable commands related to such a hunt were met with the response “You have better things to do.” This is unsatisfying not just because it thwarts my attempts to solve the puzzle, but because it’s patently false — the PC’s highest priority ought to be to carry out just such actions.

Another area where the implementation seems particularly threadbare is in its major NPC. This NPC, when questioned with the right word, rarely fails to offer large quantities of information, much of it critical to the plot. However, those words can be difficult to determine, and to pretty much every other topic, the NPC responds, “I do not understand your question.” And while that statement may be perfectly true, it is not sufficient.

As a result of these problems of shallowness, Identity Thief feels like it’s one or two drafts away from being finished — bugs and prose errors are rather rare (though not entirely absent), but the game could still benefit greatly from a beta-testing session that addressed not only things the tester finds that don’t work properly, but also things the tester tries that don’t prompt a unique response. Identity Thief is already a good game, but as yet it lacks the polish to be anything more.

Rating: 8.8