The Big Mama by Brendan Barnwell [Comp00]

IFDB page: The Big Mama
Final placement: 20th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Big Mama is an ambitious work with an intriguing structure and a strong sense of place. Somehow, though, it just didn’t work for me, and I think there are a few reasons why. For one thing, the protagonist has the same first name as me, which produced a strange experience that I don’t think any other piece of IF has given me. It’s an odd feeling to have the PC introduce himself as “Paul” and be addressed as such in a game that hasn’t asked for my name explicitly. I suppose that I wouldn’t find this offputting in and of itself if the PC was a character I could relate to. Unfortunately, he isn’t — I found him pretentious and grandiose. One of the most prominent examples of this pretentiousness is the PC’s insistence on constantly referring to the ocean as “the big mama” — one or two references of this sort would be fine, but when the game hammers at it over and over again, flying into rhapsodic soliloquies about how “It’s like some caring, artistic superior being has crafted this little coastline as an experiment in environmental beauty,” I start to get the feeling it’s trying to impress me with how deep and soulful the PC is, and I wasn’t that impressed.

Those kinds of details tend to make me roll my eyes a bit, and they’re everywhere in the game. Another example is the room description in which the PC reacts to a sign reading “Private beach: next 1.5 miles” by snorting “Stupid imperial measurement!” This is the sort of behavior trait that would annoy me if I found it in a real person — it strikes me as contrariness for the sake of it rather than for any rational reason, and when it’s divorced from any explanatory context, as it is with this PC, my initial response remains as my lasting impression. Meanwhile, the game is not only ascribing all these traits to me in the second person voice, it’s actually using my name to do so. Weird.

Oddly, the game’s very open-ended structure only served to underscore this feeling for me. At one point (when you type “score”), the author himself intrudes to insist that “it’s all up to you.” In fact, however, it isn’t. If you try to swim in the ocean, for instance, you are told “You’re a stand-on-the-shore-and-watch-the-waves-roll-in kind of guy, not a frolic-in-the-crashing-surf kind of guy.” When this happens, the game forcefully reminds me that despite its proclamations of freedom, the PC is never going to act like anything but the rather pompous character I was trying to steer away from. I can understand that there need to be some limits on what’s implemented in a game, but I’d rather not hear any claims like “it’s all up to you” unless those limits are very wide indeed.

That complaint aside, however, TBM‘s structure is absorbing. The game sports at least 39 endings (at every ending you reach, you are told “You have reached ending #[whatever]”, though the game rather coyly avers that “The total number of endings is a secret.” Anyway, I got to ending number 39, so I know that there are at least that many.) I played through the game about 20 times, and was impressed by the number of possible branches to take, though again I still felt disappointingly straitjacketed by the character’s consistency. If I had liked the character, I think would have spent even more time chasing down the various possibilities.

The writing in the game was well proofread — I think I only found one error (an it’s/its mixup) — and it was very effective at producing a strong sense of place for me. TBM provides quite a few vivid details for its beach setting, and when I closed my eyes after playing the game for an hour or so, I nearly felt transported. The actual style of the prose, on the other hand, felt just a little over-the-top to me at times, but this may have been a further outgrowth of my reaction to the PC’s perspective. In addition, TBM suffers unfairly in my mind because I can’t help comparing it to Sunset Over Savannah, one of the best-written IF games out there and certainly the best one to be set on a beach. I think another thing that deflated the power of the writing for me was that the game begins with a series of “light-hearted” admonishments by way of introduction, and I found this sequence irritatingly precious. That’s pretty much the story with me and TBM — there’s nothing wrong with it, particularly, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Rating: 7.2

[Postscript from 2020: This game inspired one of my all-time favorite reviews ever written for a piece of IF, Adam Cadre’s review from, which I subsequently reprinted in SPAG. The whole thing still sends me into fits of helpless laughter. Also, the big mama.]