Sun and Moon by David Brain [Comp02]

IFDB page: Sun And Moon
Final placement: 21st place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Sun And Moon is a strange beast. It certainly isn’t a text adventure, not even one of those multiple-choice web text adventures we’ve seen in previous competitions. Instead, it’s something altogether more interesting. After the manner of the ingenious online promotional campaign for Steven Spielberg’s movie A.I., Sun And Moon draws us into its story through a conglomeration of web sites — diaries by fictional characters, press releases by fictional companies, and so on. To a degree, this works pretty well. The weblog really looks like a weblog (it’s even on, pop-up ads and all), and the personal websites of the other characters are convincing too. They all mix links to actual sites with links that extend the fiction, thereby significantly blurring the boundary between the story and the world.

The game even provides email addresses for the characters. I tried writing to these to see if I’d at least get an autoresponse, but alas, it wasn’t to be. The company web site stretches credulity a bit, especially the “here’s where I’ll bitch about the boss, because I’m sure he’ll never read it” section — only the very confrontational or the very stupid would actually do such a thing on their own company’s website. Still, the overall effect of these narrative elements is absorbing; the fictional pieces of Sun And Moon are strong.

The interactivity is another matter. Certainly, there’s a degree of interactivity to following links from one web site to the next, but given that pretty much all the fictional content of those sites is just static text, that interactivity is only a shade greater than turning the pages of a book. Instead, Sun And Moon provides the vast majority of its interactivity in puzzles that bear almost no direct relationship to the story itself.

It seems that several of the characters in the story are puzzle enthusiasts (mazes and cryptic crosswords), and offer puzzles of their own creation via their web sites. Oh sure, some small element of the solution to these puzzles relates back to the story, but for the most part they are puzzles for their own sake. One could certainly argue that there are plenty of text adventures for which the same is true, and it’s interesting to think about where this game sits on the interactivity spectrum when compared to pure puzzle games like Color And Number. Nevertheless, it was my experience that the story and the interactivity in Sun And Moon sat alongside each other in ungainly halves, a narrative quite literally alongside a crossword, joined by tendrils that were tenuous at best.

Centaur works like this certainly add spice to in the ongoing debate about defining the term “interactive fiction.” In fact, I’m inclined to predict that Sun And Moon will spark a bit of a debate over just what sort of works belong in the competition. Personally, I wouldn’t bar works like this one from the comp — I’d rather have a wide definition of IF than a narrow one, and at several points in the game I was excited not just by its content but by the possibilities its form suggests. Then again, it doesn’t have all that much in common with a regular text adventure, and it almost seems unfair to rate it alongside TADS and Inform games.

So I’m in a quandary. On the one hand, my ratings tend to be based on how much I enjoyed the experience of a particular game, and I enjoyed the experience of Sun And Moon a fair amount. On the other hand, much of that pleasure wasn’t due to Sun And Moon itself, but rather because it introduced me to the fascinating form of cryptic crossword puzzles, and because it inspired me to think about what sort of stories might be created using these media. In addition, for me there is no way this game could have fit into two hours (though some portion of my time was devoted to teaching myself about cryptic crosswords), and consequently there’s a great deal of it I haven’t seen or solved.

What I did see provided an interesting story and some neat puzzles, but not what I would call an immersive fictional experience. Rather than being a fully realized piece of web IF itself, Sun And Moon feels more like a signpost to some very interesting territory ahead.

Rating: 7.3

Tapestry by Daniel Ravipinto [Comp96]

IFDB page: Tapestry
Final placement: 2nd place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

I thought this was really an impressive piece of work. Yes, it was a bit heavy-handed at times, and probably a little too derivative of Neil Gaiman’s visions of Fate and Evil in his Sandman cycle. But nonetheless, I found the situations compelling, the dilemmas convincing, and if a work is going to be derivative of someone, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Gaiman. I sometimes resented having my emotions so blatantly manipulated (somewhat akin to my feelings in a few Spielberg films) by the Dickensian drama of the mother and wife with wasting illnesses, the struggling family business on the edge of ruin, and the innocent “victims of inexorable fate” in the form of an onrushing car. Still, the fact is that the work succeeded in pushing my emotional buttons, and I was moved by the story. Tapestry is an ambitious piece, and both its successes and its failures are due to its exploration of the possibilities of interactive fiction. For example, the feeling of not being able to control the car despite what you order the character to do is an extremely chilling one, and it is an effect that would not pack the same potency were it attempted in static fiction. By the same token, though, exchanges with the wraith seemed a bit forced due to the limits of the medium — often complex points were reduced to the level of trying different versions of “tell wraith about x”. I have to admit, even though I’m educated enough to recognize “Morningstar” as Lucifer (the author even whispered in my ear to tell me so), I still chose his path my first try through the game. At the endgame, I was forced to think about my choices, and to recognize that I had been (and therefore could be) manipulated into making a choice that was wrong for the character, even if it wasn’t morally wrong, even if it is the choice I myself would have made under the circumstances. It wasn’t a nice feeling.

Prose: The prose tended toward the histrionic at times, and unfortunately this actually occasionally diluted the emotional impact of the situations. However, my experience of those moments was that they stuck out from the general trend of the writing, which was quite craftily done, and in fact sported some moments of real intensity and poignancy despite the occasional cliché.

Difficulty: I didn’t find the game too difficult to get through, but then again it wasn’t particularly puzzle-oriented. In fact, the path of Morningstar required a great deal more puzzle-solving than the path of Clotho (which is the other one I tried). Is there a message here?

Technical (coding): On the whole the coding was quite proficient. I was a little unhappy with what I perceived as some shortcuts (for example, a medicine bottle not implemented as a container), and the author’s realistic setting caused a few problems with Inform‘s standard responses. (Examples: entering “DIAL 911” and being told “You don’t know that phone number.”, and being told that I really should clean the soot that’s collected on my carpet, yet “CLEAN SOOT” receives a reply of “You achieve nothing by this.”) Apart from these details, the coding was accomplished quite handily.

Technical (writing): Grammatical and/or spelling problems and typos were not entirely absent, (I remember noticing an “a” used in place of an “at” or some such) but they were very few and far between.

Plot: I found the plot quite compelling. The prologue worked quite well for me, (though I did appreciate the “begin” command after my first time through) and the mutually exclusive endings were well planned. Ultimately, the game’s plot boils down to the idea that moral dilemmas can be extremely powerful in the medium of interactive fiction. I think this is a very, very good idea indeed.

Puzzles: As mentioned above, this work wasn’t really very puzzle-oriented. The puzzles that were included were integrated well with the game — no gratuitous grafted-on “crossword” elements — and this was both a strength and a weakness. The strength: nothing interrupted the suspension of disbelief created by the game’s dramatic scenarios. The weakness: character-driven puzzles (which most of these were) all too often boiled down to how to fill in the blanks on “tell ____ about ____.”