A New Day by Jonathan Fry [Comp97]

IFDB page: A New Day
Final placement: 10th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

A New Day is an ambitious piece of work which attempts to examine IF metalevels in a fairly original way. Its author bills it as his first real work of interactive fiction (he dismisses Stargazer, his entry in last year’s competition, as a kind of instructional prelude to his actual IF writing career); in Fry’s words, A New Day is the first thing that is “for better or worse, truly a Jonathan Fry game.” More often than not, it’s better. Although the game certainly packs some frustration and confusion (the unwelcome kind, not the pleasurable kind), it also provides some fresh surprises and a thought-provoking premise.

I found the plot a little difficult to follow, but from what I could piece together, the game opens shortly after its author has died (apparently electrocuted by his laptop), leaving his IF work in progress an incomplete shambles and ruining his plans to enter the competition. In addition, something else has emerged on which the author hasn’t planned: an entity who calls himself Winston. Winston claims to have been created as a part of the game, but gained sentience all on his own, along with some measure of control over the game’s virtual setting. He further contends that he himself has entered the game in the competition so that you (the player) could help him investigate the author’s death. Thus in the first few moves of the game we already have the real author (who appears in the acknowledgments section), a fictional representation of the real author, the game, the game’s characteristic representation of itself (or an aspect of itself), the player, the player’s murky fictional avatar within the game (just what is the interface simulating?), etc. Things get even more complicated from there.

Clearly, A New Day wants to position itself in the avant-garde of IF and explore fictional levels in the manner of experimental modern fiction. This is certainly a worthwhile project (and one that has been touched upon by many games including A Mind Forever Voyaging, Piece of Mind, and Bureaucracy), and A New Day manages to break some intriguing ground along the way. However, the game is by no means an unqualified success. The author overuses one off-the-wall prose technique in one section of the game, a little of which would have gone a long way. Also, I found the puzzles often to be counterintuitive and confusing. Finally, the game gives the impression of having bitten off a bit more than it can chew. I found myself wondering if the author had carefully thought through all the semantics and implications of the levels he imagines — by the end it all seems a bit of a muddle. Still, A New Day has some shining moments, and the author is right to think that it’s a significant step up from Stargazer. I look forward to the continued maturation of Jonathan Fry’s artistic voice.

Prose: The prose is smooth in some areas, faltering in others. On occasion the author still suffers from the awkward phrasing which plagued him in Stargazer, but it’s clear that a significant improvement has been made. The Athens section does a nice job of communicating the feel of the city (or so it seemed to me, but then I’ve never been to Athens), and other parts of the game neatly sidestep the necessity for strong prose by deliberately excluding description. [SPOILERS AHEAD] In addition, the author pulls a wild prose stunt about 2/3 of the way through the game, breaking down the most basic conventions of words and sentences in order to simulate a software crash. This works wonderfully at first; Fry uses an well-judged combination of sense and nonsense to convey the barest notion of setting. However, it becomes pretty tiresome after a while (and the nature of the puzzles dictated that I would be seeing a lot of that area). Fry finds the right balance of gibberish with text for his experiment, but misses the mark in measuring how much is too much in the larger context of the game. [SPOILERS END]

Plot: I’ve recounted much of the plot above, so I’ll just say here that I found it to be one of the most complicated, but also one of the most predictable, of the competition games I’ve played so far. The levels of representation certainly do get entangled (perhaps moreso than the author bargained for), [SPOILERS AHEAD] but some elements, such as the “revelation” that Winston was the murderer and the final, climactic scene inside the guts of the computer, were strictly pro forma. The combination makes the game feel rather more gimmicky than it should, as if the stylistic devices haven’t been considered beyond their immediate surprise value. [SPOILERS END]

Puzzles: I found A New Day‘s puzzles to be rather difficult and counterintuitive on the whole. The last puzzle was especially tough, but more because I wasn’t clear on exactly how the setup of wires and sockets and etc. was arranged. I’m inclined to think that this is more a fault of the prose than necessarily a shortcoming in the puzzle itself –however, in its present form the unclear prose made a difficult puzzle quite impenetrable for me. I also found many of the puzzles to be rather gratuitous, working against rather than with the flow of the story. Examples that come to mind are the tourist’s handbag and the password in the garbled section.

Technical (writing): The writing was fine on a technical level.

Technical (coding): The game included some nice coding touches, including an exits list on the status line which was context-sensitive depending on what section the game found itself in. Also, Winston was quite thoroughly programmed, which helped to flesh out his character and deepen his effectiveness. Overall, Fry’s coding job was admirable.


Stargazer: An Adventure In Outfitting by Jonathan Fry [Comp96]

IFDB page: Stargazer
Final placement: 19th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Stargazer worked quite well as a prologue, but I’m not sure I cared for it much as a stand-alone game. Just about the time I thought the action was about to start, the entire game ended. This made for a rather anticlimactic experience, especially since I worked through the game in well under the two hours allotted. Also, the game’s brevity worked at cross purposes to its genre; confusing references and unfamiliar objects can usually be let slide in fantasy since they are sure to be explained later. Not so in Stargazer. Aside from these problems, however, the piece was fairly enjoyable. There were a few technical problems, but nothing too great, and the author created a world I wanted to learn more about, which is certainly a step in the right direction. Stargazer worked well as a prologue — I look forward to the game.

Prose: Aside from the sometimes awkward or convoluted sentence structure (“One reason for this is that this is also…”, “…any other senses you may have.”), the prose worked fairly well. I got a nice sense of the turbulence of the river, and I thought the dialogue worked fairly well. Nothing was wonderfully well-crafted, but most was certainly serviceable.

Difficulty: I found the game quite easy — I finished it in about 40 minutes. Unfortunately, this ease aided the sense of anticlimax triggered by the game’s abrupt ending.

Technical (coding): Overall the coding was strong, though there were a few weak points. These points included: two separate moss/lichen objects which shared names, so that in one location “X MOSS” yielded “Which do you mean, the moss or the lichen?” over and over again; an object which is on a rock across a rushing river, yet which can still be touched or moved, a god who demands a sacrifice when the verb “sacrifice” isn’t in the game’s vocabulary, and a dusty lens which responded to “X DUST” with “You can’t see any such thing.”

Technical (writing): The writing was sometimes rather awkward, but it was generally correct in spelling and grammar.

Plot: Well, Stargazer didn’t contain much plot, though it did have the beginnings of one, and probably contained a lot of foreshadowing (though it’s difficult to tell without seeing the story ahead). What was there was an intriguing beginning, but not much more.

Puzzles: While quite easy, the puzzles moved the story along well, and were very well integrated with the storyline. I’ll be interested to see what challenges the author has in store in the actual game.