The universe has a hell of a sense of humor. How else to explain the fact that right after I finish IF’s broadest sex parody, Comp01 feeds me this game, the centerpiece of which is a serious attempt at explicit IF erotica? I can’t say what the experience would have been like had I not just played Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country, but I’ve no doubt it would have felt at least a little different. Then again, the game’s own warning signals were enough to notify me that I wouldn’t necessarily be emotionally invested in the seduction it describes.
Kallisti introduces us to Katie, elaborately and repeatedly making the point that she’s a virgin — “the flower of her youth, her purity, remained unbroken.” Then we meet Gustav, who takes one look at Katie and decides “I will have you.” This charming fellow is the PC, and it doesn’t say much for Katie’s good sense that she’s (apparently) immediately attracted to him. I was creeped out before the first move, very scared that I was about to find myself in an interactive rape fantasy. It didn’t turn out to be that, not exactly, but I had a hard time swallowing the idea that any moderately intelligent woman could be seduced by lines like these:
"...I came to this gray city around a month ago. There really was
nowhere else to go. All roads lead here. All roads led to this
moment, here with you. I do not usually work as a printer, but there
was little else I could find at short notice and besides, my funds
are limited presently. I'm talking to you because you interest me."
Yet, we are told, Katie is interested… very interested. We know this not so much from observing her actions, but from being flat-out told by the narrative voice: “She had been ready to leave before she found Gustav here and now her heart beat faster than she would admit.”
The term I know for this type of writing is “head-hopping”, and it’s not generally spoken in complimentary tones. What happens is that the narrative voice appears, for the majority of the game, to be a tight third-person rendition of Gustav’s point-of-view. However, every so often, we find it disconcertingly reporting on something happening inside Katie’s head, yanking us out of the POV we thought we were inhabiting. This sort of problem is why the omniscient third-person voice is so hard to write.
In interactive fiction, the problem is seriously compounded by the fact that as readers, we can’t help but inhabit the viewpoint character. If Gustav is the PC, I expect the game’s voice, be it in first, second, or third person, to report on the information available to Gustav. When it steps outside Gustav’s experience, especially if it doesn’t signal in any way that a transition is occurring, I feel like the storytelling voice is cheating, feeding me information I have no legitimate way of knowing. It pulls me out of whatever character identification I might have been experiencing, and thereby distances me from the story.
I can accept this sort of thing in an introduction, before the story has really started, but once I start typing in commands, I am that character, more or less. Of course, in cases where the character is repugnant, I’ve already distanced myself anyway, and I found Gustav repugnant from the get-go. The head-hopping destroyed any remaining link between me and the PC.
Of course, as the game progressed, it became clear to me that I didn’t mind being unlinked from the PC. But when an interactive story reaches this point, it’s hard for me not to ask myself why I’m still playing. I don’t like the character, I don’t care about the story, so what’s keeping me here? Sometimes, really well-done writing, puzzles, or programming will do it. This game, unfortunately, had a number of bugs (though they weren’t of the catastrophic variety — mostly just input that the game failed to process in any way, even to give an error message), and I found myself unable to connect with its prose most of the time.
There were some fine images (I particularly liked the moment when Katie’s smile is described as “brittle as leaves”), but too much of it felt self-consciously poetic, reaching for profundity it didn’t quite grasp. What kept me in the game instead were glimpses. At times during the conversation scene, I felt a flash of really deep immersion, that feeling that the game will understand anything I type, where the interface melted away and it felt like a conversation. Even during the sex scene, there were a couple of points where the implementation was deep enough that even though I never lost awareness that I was just typing commands into a keyboard, I felt like the PC would understand most any instruction I gave him.
The feelings never lasted long, always shattering at the next error message (or even worse, absence of any message at all), but they were thrilling when they happened. There’s been a good start towards something here, and I hope to see it built upon in the future.