IFDB page: The Granite Book
Final placement: 16th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition
Sometimes, rarely, I’ll read something, or see something, or hear something that is so foreign to me, so alien, that it’s hard to say whether I like it or not. It’s almost as if the question doesn’t pertain; the piece seems to come from another dimension altogether, and I’m hard-pressed to apply human rules of quality to it. However, if I have to form an opinion, that opinion will be a negative one — when I can’t relate to something in the slightest, that thing fails to appeal to me.
Case in point: The Granite Book. At no time during this game did I have any clear conception of what was supposed to be going on. At various points, I thought that the PC might be a king, a transient, a guy on a date, a psychopath, a spirit, or a troll. Perhaps he’s the itinerant ghost of an insane troll king, looking for love. I really have no idea.
Some of this confusion and dislocation comes from the game’s choice of voice: the entire thing is written in the first person plural, like so:
We weren’t sure, but jagged rocks emerging, staring into our face,
alone as we were in that obscure and emptied world, looked familiar,
greeted us again with laughter and the scrape of gravel inside
I’ve only seen this verb tense used successfully in one place: the “royal we”, where kings and queens speak of themselves in the plural, because they are the living embodiments of their countries — hence my guess that perhaps the PC of this game is a king. It was the royal we that was used (although not in any simple way) in last year’s game The Isolato Incident, and in my review of that game I mentioned how I found it similar to Comp99’s For A Change, because both took ordinary descriptions and substituted out words, requiring the player to filter through strange language in order to make sense of the action.
The Granite Book, though, takes things one step further: not only are strange words in place of ordinary ones, but even the concepts those words represent seem to have no analogue in the real world, or even any fantasy world I’ve ever encountered. It’s not the royal we that’s at work in this game, but rather something much stranger.
For me, this was one remove too far. If nothing ever makes any sense, than I really don’t care about any of it — it just seems like a bunch of gibberish to me. As is probably apparent from the passage I quote above, verb tense is only the beginning of what makes this game opaque. From its tangled sentence structure to its nonsensical landscape and its thoroughly baffling end, the game’s perfect impenetrability never seems to crack. This sort of thing is bad enough in other kinds of art, but in IF the frustration it triggers is even more intense, because we’re supposed to take these frictionless descriptions and actually grasp them, put them to use.
I found I could make a little progress by examining second and third level nouns, but even then it was just a parroting trick, spitting back the words used by the game whenever they seemed important, not because I understood what they meant. I can imagine solving the game without the hints, if I was lucky enough to guess at the right interpretation of its descriptions, but I can’t imagine understanding it. I can’t exactly say that’s a defect in the game — who knows, maybe I’m just not bright enough to get it? But I can authoritatively say that I didn’t enjoy it.