I appreciate historical fiction, so I was pleasantly surprised after I started playing Gigantomania, a piece set in Stalinist Russia, written by Michelle Tirto and programmed by Mike Ciul. Divided into four acts, the game has you jump up the food chain of the Stalinist caste system, following the exploits of a lowly peasant worker, a patriotic industrial laborer, a dutiful government bureaucrat, and finally the thoughts of the grand master himself. Unfortunately, it’s a technical decision in this fourth and final act that unhinges what is otherwise a very solid game.
I am no scholar of Russian history, so I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the game’s portrayal of this time period. Suffice to say, the overall experience fits with my personal impression of the time, and since the game appears to have been inspired by a history class, I can only assume the game’s setting is not just the product of the author’s imagination.
The opening sequence is brutal, and sets the tone for a dark exploration of the period. As you migrate from one social class to another, the game underscores the unsavory elements of life that are common to each. As a peasant, do you choose to steal your neighbor’s most valuable possession to bribe the local Collector into letting you give away less of your precious grain? As the laborer, how much are you willing to sacrifice in order to leap ahead of everyone else in the bread line? And as the bureaucrat, what name do you give the local officials in order to not to implicate yourself in the latest scandal?
“Hitler is excruciatingly sensitive with that black comb on his face, and I have him to thank for those Polish officers.” –the mind of Stalin, as portrayed in Gigantomania
Uncommon to interactive fiction, the authors take the approach of telling the tale from the first-person perspective. This approach sometimes doesn’t work in IF, but within Gigantomania, the format helps convey the narrative. Each character is effectively shown to have his own motivations, his own trials to face. The prose also successfully immersed me in the day-to-day activities of each personality: I felt the grunge of a daily harvest, the grind of the iron and steel works, the urgency to conceal contraband items, the lunacy of a leader.
As for the gameplay, there is little to do in terms of puzzles. The narrative progresses through either (1) a series of well-defined, if sometimes repetitive, tasks; or (2) a nodal conversation system. As mentioned before, you are offered choices, but their impacts are localized to that particular act of the game. Thus, although your decisions are important to understanding the mindset of the characters, they are little more than window-dressing. They offer no ramifications to the overall conclusion of the game.
The downside to Gigantomania is the implementation of the fourth and final act, which you complete by electing one stream of conscious over another via the conversational menu system. Not a bad concept at all, and it was quite effective at first. Unfortunately, I ran into something that looked like this:
Yet, Hitler doesn't really need Poland - it was a just plaything, a dollhouse for him. Whereas we need access to sea that isn't ice for nine months of the year. 1) Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. <Nbd7> 2) What would be the point? <Nbd7>
I wasn’t certain what to make of the “Nbd7” tags. When I selected option 1, I was presented with another option that consisted solely of one of these tags:
>> 1 <e4>
My additional interaction went like this:
1) <dxe4> >> 1 <Nxe4> 1) <Qc7> >> 1 <Nc3>
What to make of it, except to think that I had uncovered a bug where perhaps the internal tags that marked points in the conversation were accidentally being revealed. Fortunately, text eventually returned, interspersed with these odd tags. I was able to complete the game, but the appearance of these oddities took me out of the immersion, and I noted them as a really, horribly huge bug that prevented me from enjoying the game’s climax.
I learned later from another reviewer that these tags actually represent the moves of a chess game in which the character is supposedly immersed. This knowledge would have added a whole new layer to the fourth act, but, unfortunately, the implementation leaves those of us not familiar with the game’s dialect in the dark. Since at least two players did not pick up on the symbolism, I can only assume that there were other players confused by these tags as well. It’s a bit sad, for this particular design decision ruins what is otherwise a very solid game. Should the authors chose to update their game, I strongly suggest they reconsider how they implement their closing act.
Rarely does a game sweep me off my feet, carry me giggling and squealing over verdant meadows, only to dump me off a cliff into a pool of sharks. That’s how I felt after attempting to play J. Robinson Wheeler’s The 12:54 to Asgard. Inspired by the themes of Speed-IF U, this work of IF offers a great deal of promise in its first part, only to falter and eventually collapse in its second part. Indeed, the two parts of the game are so far off in terms of polish and implementation that I wonder if two different authors had their hands in this.
Enter the life of a disgruntled maintenance man who has been called into work during the middle of a torrential thunderstorm. Within a few turns after entering your workplace–a TV studio shut down for the night–it’s clear that your goal is to fix the leak in the roof. A meter in the status bar, which starts at “foul”, measures your mood as you progress through your main task and a few other chores you might discover along the way.
The depiction of Studio A’s innards, of its catwalks and closets, drew me into the game’s world. I truly felt like I was in the bowels of a television studio that had been hastily abandoned for the night. The placement of a bucket and sponge, the mangling of the maintenance closet, and the carelessly taped piece of cardboard to the roof clearly suggested someone had attempted to remedy the leak, but clearly I was left to clean up everyone’s mess. Couple this with the mood meter and the protagonist’s grouchy voice, and you have an excellent beginning to a game.
“Cripes, that one was close. Did a cow just explode? ” –The 12:54 to Asgard
Unfortunately, what happens after you fix the leak is what sends the game into its literal death spiral. Task complete (?), you plummet into the second part of the game, a journey into the afterlife where neither your environment nor goals have the cohesiveness they did in life. Perhaps that’s the point, but unfortunately, the actual technical implementation of this portion of the game is so shoddy that the afterlife seems more like an afterthought.
After a quick ride with Death across the River Styx, the first technical problem manifests as a young girl:
>say hello (to Polly) "Hello, Polly," you say. The girl runs over to you and shakes your hand. "Nice to meet you," she says. "I'm Polly."
Note that I didn’t know the name of the little girl at the time, but the game seems to assume that I do. Yet I don’t think I’m supposed to know her name, otherwise why would she run over to me and introduce herself?
Polly also remains mostly unresponsive to inquiries, not an uncommon occurrence in IF, but demoralizing nonetheless. After following her to a series of gem-encrusted turnstiles, I was met with my second technical challenge: How to enter the devices after receiving the appropriate token. Various commands failed to work, including:
>go through turnstile (the turnstiles) They're not something you can enter.
At last I opted to “follow polly”, which brought me to another devastating bug:
Inside the farmhouse Evening supper is being prepared in the kitchen. A fire glows in the front fireplace. Polly is here. >x fireplace You can't see any such thing.
Polly also remained unresponsive and after awhile, I exited the farmhouse. Thinking I could reenter, I tried to do so, only to find I had been locked out. Unable to get back in the place I had just left, I vigorously knocked on the door. Someone who was not Polly shooed me away. It was here that I theorized I had accidentally stumbled into a room I was never meant to enter: It was simply a “holding” room within the game.
Exploring the area around the cottage left me directionless in terms of where to go and what to do. At some point, I found myself back at the turnstiles. I repeated the “follow Polly” command and the cycle restarted. Sadly, I was so far-off track from the game’s path that even consulting the walkthrough didn’t give me any guidance. I gave up on my adventure, never getting a chance to catch the train the title promised. And I was left with many questions about my initial experience: For example, if the focus of the game is on the afterlife, then why did I spend so much time trying to fix a leak in my actual life? And what was the point of the mood meter, which abruptly disappears when I die? In other words, why not simply start me off in the afterlife?
Based on the author’s credentials, there’s an excellent chance that finishing the game would have answered my questions, but the buggy technical implementations and lack of guidance or goals in the afterlife prevented me from getting that far. A shame, really. A little more polish and attention to the afterlife would have made my journey in The 12:54 to Asgard a much more fulfilling and a lot less of a train wreck.
“It was five minutes before the end of the world. Well, the end of the world for us, anyway. Yue, Jenny, and I spent those five minutes trying to barely scrape by on some sort of presentation in AP Lit.” Now that’s a hook: Three friends, the end of the world, and Advanced Placement Literature class. So begins East Grove Hills by the pseudo-anonymous author, XYZ, and I was immediately drawn in.
The game is an autobiographical account of Thomas Wu, a 16-year-old boy who has survived a tragic event that occurred in East Grove Hills High School. You, as the player, travel in Thomas’s footsteps as his narrative shifts back and forth through the times before, during, and after the event. Typical teenage themes overlay his story: Social exclusion, dealing with the loss of family and friends, awkward relationships, and his general boredom of it all. In addition, the genre of IF is prevalent among the themes. Thomas admits to spending many evenings playing “crappy text adventures”, which, in turn, causes him to think in terms of cardinal directions as we guide him through a walk to a park.
“The teacher was using the last ten minutes of her life grading us on our presentation.” –Thomas Wu
Although the concept of IF plays a central role in the story, interactivity mostly does not. Player actions are generally limited to moving around (when possible), examining objects, waiting, or conversing with a person. In the meantime, the story gradually unfolds turn after turn, not exactly climaxing with what might be construed as a “twist”, which unfortunately left me distracted and dangling. Did the events in the game actually happen? Or was this just an angsty game written by an angsty teenager? I wasn’t certain how to interpret this major revelation. Or maybe that was the point. Regardless, it left me in a state of confusion rather than one of reflection.
Other gameplay issues are apparent, including basic IF implementation mistakes, such as mentioning objects that have already been described in a room’s main description. Also, there is at least one major bug that I encountered halfway through the game. When ensconced in one particularly exciting scene, I was suddenly thrust back into a conversation I was having with a character from the previous scene. Upon finishing the conversation (again), the scene in which the bug originated started up afresh. Fortunately, the bug did not reappear, lest I would have been caught in an infinite loop.
These flaws took away some of the game’s emotional impact. That, and I couldn’t help feeling I was replaying a novice’s version of Adam Cadre’s classic game, Photopia. For someone who has played both games, comparing East Grove Hills and Photopia is inevitable. Both rely on a linear narrative of flashbacks and forwards to tell a tale of teenage tragedy. East Grove Hills is less adept at the telling, depending on a solitary voice to recount the events, the prose of which is not as mature as any of Cadre’s voices.
Nevertheless, East Grove Hills is worth a look to see how a tragic short story can be told in the medium of IF.
When presented with a game entitled A Quiet Evening At Home, I expect a story about anything but. Surely such an evening within Interactive Fiction will be interrupted by invading aliens, or the discovery of my neighbor’s body, or even the Rapture. Alas, no. This game authored by Anonymous offers what it promises: You, the daunting adventurer, spend a quiet evening at home performing a few mundane chores so that, ultimately, you can go to sleep.
This is clearly the anonymous author’s first attempt, or one of his first attempts, at writing IF, the dead giveaway being the “I implemented my apartment” world model. The other giveaways are that basic gameplay and writing flaws abound. Indeed, the very first room demonstrates several of these:
Sidewalk You are standing on a densely-settled residential street in front of a beige house with red trim. A short flight of stairs leads to the front door
Note the missing period at the end of the paragraph. And…
>x door You can't see any such thing.
>x house it's the shortest house on the street, and it's got beige-painted siding. It's home. you've got to use the restroom! >enter house That's not something you can enter.
After seeing these numerous capitalization errors and the fact that I couldn’t examine a door or enter a house that was clearly in front of me, I nearly quit on my fourth move. Nevertheless, I continued onward, since, to the game’s credit, it was clear that I had a goal. I did find the bathroom, though as far as I can tell, I never actually *used* the bathroom. Apparently, the game simply flags the fact that you enter the bathroom and that’s that. No notification is given to the player that the mission has been accomplished.
Similar errors and quirks throughout the work deprived me of my enjoyment, so I eventually quit without finishing. Too bad, since according to other reviews, the ending awards the player with a dream about weird alien sex… or something.
If a lesson is to be learned, authors, it is this: Unless your first game is a polished work of IF, please do not submit it to the competition. By all means, submit it to the community. Folks will be more than happy to test the game and offer constructive feedback. Use the knowledge to build a new game with more polish, more pizazz, one worthy of the competition. In other words, keep writing, anonymous, and hopefully you will feel that your next game deserves your name on it.
The annual Interactive Fiction Competition, edition the 16th, has been underway for nearly a month, but vacation and classes and, well, let’s face it, life in general, have delayed my chance to download and start evaluating the 25 (26?) new games to emerge upon the IF scene. Fortunately, the past week has given me a brief respite, and I’ve started checking out the entries.
Although I have played and judged the competition in previous years, I have never written down my thoughts about my experience. I’m hoping that by announcing in this very post that I will, indeed, review the games that I play1, that I will actually take some time and effort to contribute to the game reviews already available, most of them very insightful and informative, and some not-so-much. I will aspire mine to be the former, with one post per review when time permits.2
In the meantime, I’ll simply say that out of the half-dozen games that I have played, only one has stood out among the others: The Warbler’s Nest by Jason McIntosh3. It’s well-written and well-crafted, which–for those interested in how I “rate” a game– are my two main criteria for what constitutes a good, and therefore fun, piece of IF. In a nutshell, “well-written” refers to the literary aspects of the game, and “well-crafted” refers to the technical implementation. You might wonder if there can be a difference, but trust me, you can have a beautifully written piece of IF that is horribly bug-ridden; and you can have a technically elegant game that is riddled with grammatical and spelling errors. I have seen and played both. And within each year’s competition, you can usually find games that span all corners of my particular reviewer’s matrix.
Quite honestly, I’m not certain what to attain publishing reviews. Certainly not fame or glory. But perhaps by studying the games of others, I will be better prepared when I gather up both the time and courage to submit a game of my own.