Interactive Fiction Competition: Andromeda Awakening and Blind

Like a lot of people, I still have fond memories of old text adventures. You know, the games like Zork, that describe your surroundings to you with text. You enter commands like “go west”, “examine the vase”, or “hide wig under troll”, and the game responds with more text explaining the results. Though text adventures stopped being commercially viable decades ago, they are still being made today by a dedicated community of enthusiasts. Now usually called “interactive fiction”, a name that reflects an interest in the literary possibilities of text that responds to the reader, these free games are often better than the ones people used to pay for. The biggest event of the year in this community is the annual “IFComp“, which accepts any interactive fiction games with the caveat that they should be completable within two hours.

I’ve drifted away from the interactive fiction world in the past decade or so, but every couple years I try to use the IFComp as an opportunity to get involved again. This time, it looks like I really will succeed: 15 days into the 45-day voting period, I’ve played 5 of the 38 entries. I’ll get to slightly less than half of them at this rate, but I’m pretty happy with that. And, of course, I’ll be reviewing them here.

If you are new to text adventures and interested in getting started, they can be a little confusing at first. Fortunately, there are a lot of resources out there to explain them. And while some games are specifically aimed at beginners, probably the best thing you can do is check out the IFComp games. Since they’re intended to be shorter works, and they all contain walkthroughs to help you out when you’re stuck (either in standalone text files, or with the “HELP” or “HINT” commands), you can learn a lot by exploring as much as possible and then turning to the help when needed. The IFComp games range from unplayable messes to masterworks, so start out by trying out the winners from past years.

Also, of course, I’m not the only person reviewing this year’s games. A lot of other discussion can be found from the relevant IFWiki page. I recommend Emily Short’s reviews, which are very well-written and often focus on interactive fiction as a narrative tool.

Below the fold, (slightly spoilery) reviews for Andromeda Awakening and Blind.

Andromeda Awakening iconAndromeda Awakening is a traditional puzzle-based exploration game by Italian author Marco Innocenti. This is the most common approach to text adventures (in fact, most of the game is spent exploring abandoned underground tunnels), but it still feels unique due to the fact that English is obviously not Innocenti’s first language. He writes overdramatic purple prose that is sometimes riveting, sometimes laughable, and sometimes just unnatural. For example, here are the narrator’s thoughts upon entering the subway station that he uses daily:

There. The big underground empire. The place where all human fears gather.

In the end, everything digs deep, but nothing as deep as terror.

The prose is filled with mixed metaphors and awkward phrasing (“The next thing that comes to your mind is a blow to your stomach”), or even exaggerated contradictions (one scene ends with “The last thing you see, before your eyes are closed forever…”, and the next immediately starts with a description of opening your eyes). It verges on parody at times, but it certainly keeps the game interesting. Many games have the flaw of seeming too dry and unemotional even when the story should be exciting, so at least for a while, it’s a nice change of pace to find one that goes far in the other direction.

The plot concerns a far future empire, with the player character being a scientist who has discovered a horrible secret that could destroy his planet. Most of the future tech is consistent and comprehensible to the player, which is very important in a game like this. One nice touch is the “E-Pad” the player carries, which has short encyclopedic entries for all the strange words that the game features. Bridging the gap between the character’s knowledge and the player’s is an issue in many games, but this helps.

Despite doing a lot of things right, though, the game got frustrating for me by the end. It’s not just because of the overwrought text (though that played a role, especially when I missed a passageway because it doesn’t always focus on the important facts), but because of the structure. For one thing, it felt like a few different games mashed together: Once you stumble into the underground empire, your background as a scientist with important information is irrelevant, and the hints you find there about the evil roots of civilization are never developed. Also, I didn’t feel prepared at all for the game’s conclusion, because it doesn’t fit in with the claim at the beginning that a human conspiracy is willing to kill you and your partner to cover up the truth.

Most of the puzzles are fair and interesting, but there were several that I don’t think I would have solved without the walkthrough. That’s par for the course in comp games, especially if you’re trying to stay within the 2-hour limit, but I do think that a few needed to be better clued. There was one especially frustrating point at which I was led to believe that I couldn’t do something because I tried a slightly wrong word. (Spoiler: I put the elektron directly on the interesting spot on the wall instead of the “wall” in general.)

In general, my reaction to the game was mixed with good and bad, but by the end I was just ready to see it done.

Grade: C+

Blind iconBlind turns one of the basic assumptions of text adventures on its head. Most games are heavily focused on what you can see, with “look” and “examine” being two of the most vital commands. In this case, though, you play a blind woman who simply cannot look at the surrounding environment! It doesn’t keep beating the player over the head with a message, but the understated way in which you work yourself out of trouble in a realistic setting (the character has been kidnapped and needs to escape) underscores the reality of living without sight.

The “look” command still gives some information, with the understanding that you are not literally looking around, but the real information comes from telling the game to “feel”, “hear”, or occasionally “smell” items. This conceit isn’t always used to its full potential, but it is often startling in its effectiveness. For once, it makes perfect sense that a text adventure would force you to explicitly examine every object for clues, because the character can’t discover them any more quickly than the player can. (Room descriptions, unfortunately, are still given in full immediately. Only one refers to the fact that you actually need to take time exploring it thoroughly first.) It definitely heightens the tension and connects the player to the character when some of the awful secrets of the kidnapper’s house need to be uncovered so slowly. The visceral implications of the “touch” command combine with the piecemeal exploration to create several shocking moments.

From a technical perspective, the game is put together with above-average skill, with almost no mistakes to distract from the immersive experience. (The only annoyance was that many objects had a default response of “It smells like an ordinary ____” or “sounds like an ordinary ____”, even when there was nothing ordinary about the object or it obviously should have smelled like nothing.) The puzzles are simple and rarely interrupt the pacing of the story, which slowly becomes more tense as it continues. There were actually quite a few significant-seeming items that I never used, but the epilogue of the game had an “extras” section that hinted at alternate ways to complete it.

Blind isn’t notable for the writing or the puzzles, but it was one of the tensest stories I’ve ever played through. Days after finishing it, it sticks in my mind more than any other game so far in this competition. It’s definitely recommended.

Grade: A-

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