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