The Case Of Samuel Gregor by Stephen Hilderbrand [Comp02]

IFDB page: The Case Of Samuel Gregor
Final placement: 27th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I think I can see what this game tries and fails to do. Of course, I may be totally mistaken about this, but I think what’s happening here is that TCOSG is trying to show us something like an insane PC, an unreliable narrator whose version of reality shifts as the game progresses. Unfortunately, what it ends up with is an incomprehensible PC whose descriptions, reactions, and actions make less and less sense as the game progresses. The unreliable narrator is an extremely tricky gimmick, and would be hard for anybody to pull off successfully; for a host of reasons, this game is not up to the task.

For one thing, the writing is frequently unclear. For instance, take a look at the following:

Samuel Gregor's Kitchen
Apparently Mr. Gregor does not prepare food at home very often, for
the kitchen is in immaculate condition. That is, if the appliances
weren't showing signs of being thirty years old. And it's no wonder,
since the room is only eight feet across, and there are no windows.
You can understand why he is not presently at home.

Okay, first sentence, so far so good. Second sentence: all right, I’m thinking this means that the kitchen would look more immaculate if the appliances didn’t look old. I’m still understanding. Then the third sentence comes along and everything goes haywire. What’s no wonder? That the appliances look old? The appliances look old because the room is small and has no windows? Surely not. Reaching further back, perhaps it’s no wonder the kitchen is immaculate, because it’s small. Because… small kitchens stay cleaner? They take less time to clean?

Maybe it’s no wonder Mr. Gregor doesn’t use the kitchen, because it’s small. This makes the most sense of all, though it’s a big stretch from the actual words. So okay, let’s provisionally go with that, and on to the fourth sentence. I can understand why he is not presently at home. Um, I can? Is my understanding that he’s not home because he has a small, clean kitchen with old appliances? If so, I don’t really understand my understanding. Do people avoid their own homes because they wish the kitchen were bigger? Not anybody I know.

There’s a lot of this sort of unclear writing throughout the game. At one point, it told me, “You are becoming increasingly aware that the whole of this story is being foisted upon you.” I thought, “well, yes, and not very well at that. But what does this mean to the PC?” Apparently it means a great deal, because there was a huge, otherwise unannounced shift in the game at that point, which pretty much left me behind, never to catch up, even after throwing up my hands and going straight from the walkthrough.

Once I did go to the walkthrough, I discovered that not only is this game plagued by unclear writing, its puzzles are hopelessly obscure as well. There’s one puzzle that involves getting through a locked door, which of course is nothing strange. What makes it unique, though, is that the actions required to get through the door have absolutely nothing to do with the door itself, and there’s no reasonable way to expect that those actions would have any effect on the door at all. The only reason to do them is because they’re implemented, not because they make any kind of story sense. Apparently, there was an alternate solution that involves giving food to someone who’s carrying massive amounts of food already and shows no sign of being hungry, but I could never get this to work. It’s just as well, because the working solution had all the illogic I could stomach at that moment anyway.

TCOSG calls itself “An Existential Adventure” and throws in a Kafka quote at the end, but I have to say I didn’t see the existentialism in it. I’ve read Kafka, Camus, Dostoyevsky, and Sartre, and enjoyed them all — this game doesn’t have much in common with them. It certainly brings forth a certain meaninglessness, but not in a good way. It does seem to attempt to take us into the subjective world of one individual, but the execution is so muddled and confusing that instead of inhabiting a point-of-view, I ended up on the outside of both the fiction and the interactivity, poking the game as if it were an anthill.

In the general sparseness of its implementation and the linearity of its plot, TCOSG leaves virtually no room for freedom of choice, and so another existentialist tenet goes out the window. In fact, between its writing, its coding, and its puzzles, the experience of playing this game is less existential than it is absurd. Absurdist IF can be great if it’s done intentionally. That’s not what happened here.

Rating: 3.7

Timeout by Stephen Hilderbrand [Comp01]

IFDB page: Timeout
Final placement: 35th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’m in a dilemma about this game. I played through once, found some things to enjoy about it, and reached an ending that was pretty clearly not optimal. Not having a clear idea about how to reach the optimal ending, and running short on time, I pulled out the walkthrough, and it showed me something about a particular item that I hadn’t really understood (due to the game’s vague description of that item): it had a subcomponent that could be examined to yield more information. However, when I did so, the interpreter crashed with a fatal text buffer overflow error.

Now, I’ve developed a pretty strict rule about unfinishable games — I give them a 1, write a short review explaining the problem, and move on. The question is: does Timeout fit that category or not? I did finish it, so in a sense it’s not really unfinishable, but on the other hand, it seems impossible to reach a more optimal ending. What to do?

Here’s what I’m deciding. I won’t give the game a 1. I was able to play through successfully (well, for one value of the word “successfully”, anyway), and that’s worth something. That first experience had some good points — there were some funny spots in the writing, and some sort of fun cut scenes. On the other hand, it was mostly a negative experience. Timeout‘s implementation is maddeningly shallow, leading to lots of encounters like this:

You can see a trash can (which is closed) here.

>open can
That's not something you can open.

Or this:

A steel door is set in the north wall, and a passageway heads west,
back to the hallway.

>x steel door
You can't see any such thing.

The door is locked.

>unlock door
You can't see any such thing.

Trying to get immersed in such a world is like trying to scuba dive in a puddle.

There were other problems too, including a NASTY FOUL IT’S/ITS ERROR, which is becoming my version of the Olympics’ “mandatory deduction” items. And then the fatal crash. All this comes together to make a game that’s not really worth my time in its competition version.

Rating: 3.0