Remember how one-room puzzlefests were the big trend of the 1998 competition? Well, I think I’m getting a handle on what it is for ’99: non-interactive fiction. It’s the legacy of Photopia, I suppose. But how little we knew, when we played that one short, brilliant Red Planet section of Photopia where every chosen direction advances the plot, that in a year we’d be playing entire games that operate like that. So far I’ve seen Halothane, which enforces its plot fairly rigidly; Remembrance, which limits the player’s options severely by restricting them to a very short menu; and Life on Beal Street, which is no more interactive than a book. Perhaps the worst offender yet, though, is A Moment of Hope. At least Beal and Remembrance didn’t pretend to be anything but linear roads with no detours available. At least Halothane allowed some freedom of action. Because A Moment of Hope is a TADS game with the appearance of an unrestricted parser, it gives a very believable facade of interactivity, when in fact it’s anything but. Here’s a sample from towards the end of the game:
You flip your pillow upside down, and hope you can go to sleep.
Turning to your other side, you give it another try.
>GO GET A SANDWICH
You kick at the tangled blanket, convinced it's what is preventing your
>IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT I TYPE, DOES IT?
In a valiant attempt to block out the sun, you vainly cover your head
with your pillow and try to relax. ...It doesn't work.
You finally decide to give in. It's time to get up.
This is the most drastically non-interactive section of the game, but every section of it crowds that side of the continuum. There is only one exit from each location — even if others are described, the game forbids travel in all but one direction. When the game wants you to, for example, read an email, any other command is met with something along the lines of “Not right now, you’re busy.” Adding to the aggravation, sometimes commands have to be repeated multiple times in order to get the parser to accept them. At one point you have to repeat a command eight times in order for it to actually work.
Let’s take a moment to think about this. It seems clear that what the game wants to do is to tell me a specific story. It seems equally clear that the game isn’t much interested in what I want to do. Why, then, was this written as interactive fiction and entered into the IF competition? To really delve into the reasons would be an essay in itself, but one that comes to mind is, as I said earlier, Photopia. After all, the big winner from last year was a game that heavily emphasized the “fiction” side of the IF equation, so that must be the way to win competitions, right? Well, not necessarily. Even setting aside the fact that the three previous competitions were won by games with prominent and interesting puzzles (Edifice, Meteor, Weather/Zebulon), there’s also the fact that Photopia restricted interactivity strategically rather than just doing it indiscriminately. To take one small example, think about the Red Planet section of Photopia compared to the section of A Moment of Hope I’ve quoted above. [PHOTOPIA SPOILERS AHEAD] The Red Planet section of Photopia is part of a story being told to a small child. Even though the player may not know it at the time, the responses of the parser are really Alley’s responses, and the player’s input really Wendy’s participation in the story. This fact constitutes a sensible, cogent reason why every direction taken advances that section’s plot: Alley is telling a story to a small child, and using a clever technique to move the story along so that Wendy won’t find herself pointlessly wandering around the landscape. No such fictional level is present in A Moment of Hope. The game’s responses and player’s input are no more or less than they seem, and as such, when the game uses Alley’s trick on the player it seems rather condescending. After all, we’re not small children with five-minute attention spans. A range of choices and a landscape to traverse won’t lose us.
The game doesn’t take that risk, though, perhaps because its main character is so unsympathetic that it can’t afford to allow any player input that might make him less pathetic. The basic plot here is that an incredibly insecure guy has gotten an email from a matchmaking website. The site has matched him up with somebody he really likes, but how serious is she about him? The game is unrelenting with the constant reminders of just how strung out this guy is. Especially in the first section, almost every single turn yields multiple messages about the PC’s deep, deep depression. No wonder, then, that the game wants to restrict player action. What if a player came along who wanted to make the choice to just forget about this girl and call a friend instead? What if a player wanted to just turn off the computer (the computer in the game, I mean) and read a good book? Hell, what if a player wanted to at least make the damn bed? Nope, wouldn’t fit the story. Wouldn’t fit the character. So it’s not allowed. But a player can’t help wondering: what am I doing in this short story? It’s written well, with no mechanical errors (or coding errors), but if A Moment of Hope were straight fiction, I wouldn’t much want to read it. But I did read this game. Come to think of it, because it was a competition entry, the whole group of judges was a bit of a captive audience, wasn’t it? Hmmm, maybe the choice to write the story as IF rather than straight fiction isn’t so mysterious after all…