Where Evil Dwells by Paul Johnson and Steve Owens [Comp98]

IFDB page: Where Evil Dwells
Final placement: 14th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Where Evil Dwells is subtitled “A Creative Differences Production”, and the billing is apt. This is a story that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It starts out in Gritty Detective mode: you’re a grizzled private eye, brought to a creepy house by the tale of distressed young girl. However, once you get into the house and roll up one of the rugs, you are confronted by dust bunnies who “glare accusingly at you.” Say what? This is not a metaphor. The dust bunnies are implemented as actual, animate creatures. Oh, OK, so this will be a supernatural twist on detective adventures. But wait. In another room, you find a series of collector’s plates depicting “scenes from Samuel Beckett’s lesser known children’s play ‘Waiting for Godot to Finish Up in the Bathroom So I Can Go.'” Well, that’s just plain silly. When this picture is combined with the article you find on “getting ectoplasmic residue stains out of linen”, Evil starts to look like a Ghostbusters-style comedy with, uh, detective influence and, er, maybe a strong inclination towards silliness. But perhaps not, because once you get into the forest, you might find yourself in a “broken and bloodied heap” facing an “impossibly large behemoth”, shivering while “true horror sets in as it leands [sic] its malefic head through the gap, its eyes fixed intently on you.” Wow, horror. You don’t expect broken and bloodied heaps in Ghostbusters-style comedies. That’s what the whole game is like. Its tone staggers drunkenly from one room to the next, sometimes from one response to the next. Some rare works can actually pull this off, bringing all the disparity together into a harmonious whole. Where Evil Dwells is not one of those works. Instead, the differences undermine each other, and every time a solid tone gets established for the story it is promptly squashed by whatever comes next.

There are other inconsistencies in the game as well. Some parts of the prose are quite good, bringing across the tone of the moment with well-chosen diction and rhythm. Others fail to even follow the basic rules of spelling and grammar. Some parts of the game were marred by repetition; I read the phrase “none-too-comfortable, circa 1970 sedan” so many times I’ve been able to recite it from memory since the first five minutes of the game. Other parts combined evocative description with unintentionally funny misplaced modifiers: “Too emotionally broken up, and half in shock, you were able to get little else from the girl…” Pull yourself together, detective-man! The coding was the same. Some aspects of it were quite strong. For example, I’m not positive but I think that pronouns were redirected in a fairly complex way, so that the last noun mentioned in your inventory would be “it” after an “inventory” command, and a similar effect was achieved in room descriptions. On the other hand, basic attribute omission on some items allowed me to do things like carry a canopy bed around. Yes, I am a strong detective.

Dissonances aside, Where Evil Dwells has several things to recommend. I could just say “the good parts are good,” but that’s not specific enough. The game is just the right size for a competition game — I finished it in almost exactly two hours. One or two of the puzzles are pretty far-fetched, and I’m certain I never would have solved one in particular without consulting the walkthrough, but some of the puzzles are creative and well-clued. Some good design choices were made, though again, some bad ones as well. For instance, there is a highly annoying random event that sometimes steals things from you, but finding out that those things are recoverable took much of the sting out of this problem. Overall I’d say that Where Evil Dwells is a pretty muddled piece of work, but in its best moments it shows great promise of what it could have been. I look forward to the future productions of these authors, once they improve their proofreading skills and get their “creative differences” resolved.

Rating: 7.4