Vicious Cycles by Simon Mark [Comp01]

IFDB page: Vicious Cycles
Final placement: 6th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

[Note: Because Vicious Cycles gives so little away upfront about its content, this review could be considered a wee bit spoilery. If you’re terribly averse to that sort of thing, go play it first. It’s worth playing.]

Timing can really be a bitch sometimes. Vicious Cycles takes terrorism as one of its subjects, and isn’t entirely unsympathetic to the terrorist in question. This choice was almost certainly made before 9/11, and before that date I think I might have been much better able to make the emotional leap that the game encourages. Today, though… having been inundated with news of the real people whose real lives have been affected by terrorism, and felt the consequent wrenching emotions, I found it difficult not to project those emotions onto the game’s fictional scenario, and that made me a lot less receptive to the story than I probably should have been. That story was a good one (though perhaps just a trifle hackneyed in its presentation of a dystopic future where corporations rule the world and advertising is all-pervasive), but I just wasn’t the best audience for it today. Still, even taking those reactions into account, there is a lot to appreciate about Vicious Cycles.

The game’s best feature is its central concept, which is a great riff on the nature of IF. You play a character hooked into a “time-shunt” and trying to prevent a disaster from occurring. The way the device works is that it sends your consciousness back in time, to inhabit the body of a bystander, whose actions you may then control in your attempt to prevent the disaster. If you don’t manage to stop the catastrophe, you’re shunted back to the beginning of the scenario, to try again with a different sequence of actions. In Groundhog Day, a similar concept was played for laughs, but here the iterations are deadly serious, a race against time with horrible consequences.

I thought this sequence was very well-designed indeed, going against the typical IF grain to fine effect. Here, not only do you learn from each death, but you actually must learn from your deaths in order to make progress on the problem. Having just finished (and loved) Planescape: Torment, where the main character is immortal and death is sometimes a necessary puzzle-solving component, I appreciated this twist very much. The overall puzzle is intricate and satisfying to solve, and the game does an excellent job of slowly doling out information as the PC gets closer and closer to completing the scenario.

Unfortunately, bad timing isn’t the only thing that drags the game down. The author credits testers, and I’ve no doubt that the game has received at least some testing — the main sequence hangs together well enough. However, either the author ran out of time to fix all the problems, or further testing is necessary, because little glitches abound. These bugs range from things like typos and misspellings to responses printed on the wrong turn, and in one case even a death that didn’t restart the time-shunt cycle. Troubles like this happened frequently enough that I was often jolted out of an otherwise absorbing story by their presence. I sincerely hope the author puts out a post-competition version of the game, with the final polish complete; when and if that happens, Vicious Cycles will be a sparkling IF experience, at least for an audience not overly sensitized to the terrors of terrorism.

Rating: 8.6