Augustine by Terrence V. Koch [Comp02]

IFDB page: Augustine
Final placement: 13th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Augustine is clearly a well-intentioned, sincere work of IF, and it’s clearly the product of a substantial amount of work. Just as obviously, it is the work of a novice author, and its flaws are hard to ignore. Consequently, my reactions to it were mixed. On the one hand, it’s got a fun story, interestingly grounded in the actual history of St. Augustine, Florida. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal that the PC is an immortal from the 15th century, whose fate has been tied up with the city over the centuries. Unfolding through a combination of flashback and present-day narration, the plot describes the culmination of the PC’s eon-long quest to defeat his eternal nemesis and end the curse of his immortality.

Okay, so it’s a little derivative. But I liked it anyway, especially the connections between the walking tour of St. Augustine’s ghosts and the PC’s actual history. What in another work would feel like eye-rolling coincidences felt rather natural in this one — the PC is the one supernatural element in an otherwise mundane world, and it makes perfect sense that the superstitious stories of that world would accrue around his otherwise inexplicable activities. There were moments when it was quite fun to inhabit this character, and to traverse the city’s history through his eyes.

Unfortunately, there were a number of reasons why it was only moments of fun rather than fun the whole time. In the spirit of constructive criticism, I want to look at some of those problems. First, there are the simple mechanics of the prose. The text is infested with spelling errors, typos, grammar errors, and even the dreaded its/it’s error. Every time one of these came up, it took me out of the story — instead of feeling transported into history, I was thinking, “it’s the ‘distant past’, not the ‘distance past.'” Proofreading is more than a formality; it’s an essential element in making sure that your writing draws readers in rather than pushing them away. The same can be said of bugfixing. Sequences like this thoroughly deflate a story:

You block Kasil's blade. However, his attack stops your progress
and you must defend against Kasil strikes. Kasil backs you up against
the railing.

>thrust at kasil
You thrust at Kasil as he steps aside. When he charges at you
again you step aside and he misses you. This gives you the
opportunity to slip away from the railing and maneuver behind Kasil.
You swing, but he whips around and deflects your sword. The two of
you continue to battle as Kasil backs away from you to the north.

>slash at kasil
Kasil isn't important.

Isn’t important? The guy I’m currently swordfighting with, who is currently trying to kill me with his “Kasil strikes”, isn’t important? Not to you, maybe. A minute after I got that response, I figured out that Kasil had actually moved to the north, and therefore was no longer in that location to be slashed at. But in that case, the response should be “Kasil isn’t here.” He’s certainly still important.

This is standard stuff; you could find it in a hundred different reviews of IF games. That’s because it matters — it’s often the difference between games that work and games that don’t. However, there’s a more subtle flaw at work in Augustine, one I’m not even sure I can articulate. It’s a sort of awkwardness to the storytelling. First, we get a prelude set in 1403, where a small boy (after some insta-death dead ends) evades brutal soldiers on a slash-and-burn raid. Then the scene shifts to a businessman in 2002, on a business trip to St. Augustine and strolling around the city’s attractions. Then, at what is more or less the end of the game’s first act, we learn that these two are the same person.

The reason this feels wrong, unfair, is that the prose in the 2002 section betrays almost no indication that this PC has known the city for three hundred years. Yes, upon close inspection, there are a couple of weirdnesses to be found, but mostly he seems to be just another tourist, seeing locales and objects in flat, untextured terms. Consequently, when the revelations came, I was left wondering whether the PC was having flashbacks of past lives, or had amnesia of his history, or something. Nope. It’s just that the writing unreasonably obscures what his historically informed responses to the landscape and people should be. It’s the lesson I wrote about in my article for the IF theory book: landscape creates character, whether you want it to or not. Rather than harnessing this effect, as the best IF games do, Augustine suffers by it.

Rating: 7.4