Kallisti by James Mitchelhill [Comp01]

IFDB page: Kallisti
Final placement: 31st place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

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.

Rating: 6.7

Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country by Adam Thornton as One Of The Bruces [Comp01]

IFDB page: Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country
Final placement: 30th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: If you’re offended by obscenity, profanity, depravity, and what have you, please don’t read this review. In fact, if you are such a person, please avoid any further encounters with anything that has the word “Stiffy” in the title, up to and including this review and (for God’s sake) this game.

The original Stiffy Makane, a game authored by Mark Ryan and occasionally known by its full title, The Incredible Erotic Adventures of Stiffy Makane, earned its place in the annals of… er, in the history of IF by being fairly vile in subject, extremely terrible in execution, and very (unintentionally) funny. It became the standard by which all other awful, poorly implemented, ridiculously puerile “adult” IF is measured. It even inspired a MSTing co-authored by one “Drunken Bastard” who, one gathers, may go by a number of other aliases as well.

In short, this was not a game crying out for a sequel. Yet, here we have it. SMTUC is extremely vile in subject, fairly good in execution, and very (intentionally) funny, which makes it a real treat for anybody who can stomach an extremely vile game for the sake of humor. For those of you in this category, I’m loath to spoil any of the game’s wonderful, awful surprises, and I encourage you to heartily ignore any whispers of “moose cock” and suchlike that you may hear around the less reputable corners of the newsgroups. At least, ignore them until you play the game, and then don’t hesitate to join in. For those of you not in this category: listen, I already warned you once, so just stop reading already!

SMTUC opened my eyes to several things that I could have happily lived my entire life without seeing, and put several images in my head that will no doubt haunt me to my grave, but it was a good time for all that. For one thing, it lovingly parodies not only the original Stiffy (not a tough target), but also an entire subgenre of games, the redheaded stepchild of IF: “X Trek” (also not a tough target, but what the hey.) These would be pornographic pieces of IF, mostly written in AGT, devoted to detailing the sexual adventures of Star Trek characters. Such things, I’m told, exist — I’ve never sought or played one, due no doubt to my timid and puritan spirit.

In fact, there’s even an entire newsgroup devoted to them, alt.games.xtrek. I’ve never visited (see above for reasons), but rumors have filtered down to me that it’s become a hotbed… er, a haven for attempts to write legitimate IF erotica, a form of which I have never seen a successful example, though I’ll grant I haven’t looked very… er, searched with much diligence. SMTUC is not an attempt at erotica, but rather a gleeful poke (okay, I can’t keep avoiding it — double entendres ahoy from this point forward) at “adult” IF as it stands. There’s the requisite Horny Chick, whose uniform is just ever so “hot and chafey”, and who, when coaxed out of it, is more than happy to perform the most obliging acts on the PC. One of my favorite lines of hers:

>feed rohypnol to terri
"No thanks, I already took some."

There’s the aptly named Hot Chick, whose function the game makes clear:

The Hot Chick here is, as you have come to realize after innumerable
runs through the holodeck, the reward for your puzzle. The logic is
simple and always the same: jump through some hoops, get to fuck the
girl. If only real life were so easy!

Indeed. Up to this point, the game is a standard, serviceable parody of AIF, with a few gleeful jabs at people on the periphery of the r*if community, such as Espen Aarseth, Chris Crawford, and Brandon Van Every. I’m not sure which I liked more, the IF-related parodies or the AIF-related ones.

However. The game does continue beyond this point, and it’s here where we really cross the boundary into “the undiscovered” (at least by Stiffy, anyway.) I hate to spoil anything (and the following will be a medium-level plot spoiler, for those of you who care), but it’s essential to the point I want to make that following these two fairly standard AIF bangs, Stiffy fucks (and is fucked by) a giant, hairy, male Space Moose. This Moose is Stiffy’s mentor in the brave new world of homoeroticism, and thanks to the adroit manipulations of a not-at-all-neutral author, Stiffy has no choice but to enjoy it.

And so we come to the thing I liked best about SMTUC: the game’s (brace yourself) feminism. Yes, we get two scenes of the standard AIF objectification of female sexuality, though even these are subverted somewhat, given that one of the “women” is actually a rather unenthusiastic robotic hologram, and the other expresses strong dissatisfaction with the experience (“Barcelona sighs deeply, pushes you out into the hallway and snarls, ”Scuse me. I gotta go tickle the Elmo. Bye now.'”) After this, though, the Moose makes Stiffy his bitch, and suddenly the predatory PC gets scored upon rather than scoring. (Well, he still scores — one point, to be precise — but you know what I mean.)

By upending the traditionally male exercise of porno IF and making its PC the object as well as the subject of penetration (and penetration by a moose, no less), SMTUC takes a sly swipe at what’s really offensive about most AIF: the fact that it takes one of our most intimate, personal human behaviors, and reduces it to an exercise in hoop-jumping, involving thoroughly dehumanized players. Honestly, I have no idea whether this was at all Adam’s (oh sorry, “Bruce’s”) intention, but that’s how it struck me. Is it some kind of revolution or great step forward? Nah, but it was fun to see (and hear, and read about) Stiffy hoisted, as the saying goes, by his own petard.

[Oh, I’m out of paragraphs and forgot to mention the music and graphics. So: Yay music! Yay graphics! (Well, except for one particular graphic that, however appropriate it may have been, I just can’t say yay to. You know the one.)]

Rating: 9.2