Interactive Fiction Competition: It And The Guardian

(Though the IFComp ends today, I’m still catching up on my reviews. Here are my impressions of It and The Guardian, with a few more to follow later this week.)

Despite the name “interactive fiction”, most works are first and foremost puzzle-based games. Does this limit its literary potential? About a decade back, there was a movement to create “puzzleless IF” that would let the characters and plot come to the forefront. I remember those attempts as unsuccessful, though; interacting through a text parser naturally leads to situations that need to be figured out, and without a focus on puzzles, it was easier to notice the ways that the computer system didn’t completely model reality.

Coming back after a few years away from IF, I’m pleasantly surprised with how far a plot-based focus and puzzleless approaches have come along. Some of the games that I already looked at (The Play and Keepsake) are about living through a simple story, with the only puzzle being the metagame of figuring out how the story can be changed on subsequent playthroughs. Here, I look at two more works that certainly don’t adhere to a pure puzzleless approach, but keep the puzzles very simple in order to focus on their story.

Emily Boegheim’s It is similar to The Play and Keepsake in that it’s a short game meant to be replayed several times. (While you can spend a lot of time exploring, most games will be completed in a few moves.) However, it feels a little more puzzle-like in that the player needs to figure out the possible actions that can be done with the surrounding environment, rather than choosing between options that are given to you. The puzzle then becomes how many endings the player can find, especially since the “ideal” ones take the same sort of lateral thinking that traditional text adventures require.

The plot concerns a children’s hide-and-seek game, in which everyone needs to find the first person’s hiding place. It’s fraught with potential for hurt feelings and ostracism, since it draws attention to a specific loser who finds the place last rather than rewarding a winner. The young girl leading this game in this story definitely enjoys the power that that gives her.

A single round of hide-and-seek plays out quickly. It’s a good setting for exploring alternate endings, because everyone playing this should be familiar with the dynamics of a children’s game, and should now have some adult perspective that will let them feel free to ignore or subvert the game if desired. Attack the other children, leave the game entirely, or try to win – it’s up to you. The girls at this party have their own personalities and motivations, and working with those can lead to some interesting results.

It is an enjoyable work, and well-made. (The area you can explore is well-described and bug-free, and the descriptions of what nearby children are doing makes the initial games feel busy and interesting.) However, it is very short. Playing to a single choice over and over can only stay interesting for a little while. This is a pleasant, and successful, exercise in short fiction, but the focus on making one simple choice would keep this from working well with longer works.

Grade: B-

Lutein Hawthorne’s The Guardian approaches interactive fiction in a different way. The story doesn’t really fit in with the traditional expectations of the genre, but it takes advantage of them to provide a different experience.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to talk about this without spoilers. I’m usually comfortable with giving moderate spoilers in my reviews, especially since that seems to be the standard for IFComp games. But, even though I remain vague in my review, I worry that anything I say will ruin the atmosphere for a new player. So I’ll cut to the chase and start with a very dry summary: The Guardian features hyperbolic, occasionally flawed prose and risks losing its audience when the narrator begins to moon over a lost love that the player has no attachment to. Much of the game felt pointless while I was playing it, and I was definitely annoyed at times. However, the ending offered a justification for many of my annoyances, and the overall effect grew on me after I finished it. This is a clever, original approach to storytelling in an IF environment, and though the story is a little slight and the environment needs to be more explorable, it’s definitely worth trying.

I don’t recommend it if you’re unfamiliar with interactive fiction. You need to have at least a little experience before a game such as this can take advantage of your expectations. For everyone else, though, this may become an important discussion point about the genre’s potential.

Grade: B

From here on, there are spoilers!

Though the story still isn’t long, The Guardian’s structure is the opposite of It or The Play. Instead of offering many potential endings to choose between, there’s only one possible plot and resolution. In fact, most of the time is spent walking from location to location, with almost no branches in the path or items to experiment with.

This is what makes the story frustrating at first. People expect to make choices in interactive fiction, and they can’t here. The intentionally vague setting doesn’t help at all, either. But it makes perfect sense within the story for the character to have this singleminded focus, and this becomes acceptable as the player figures out what is going on and the memories that surface slowly become more specific.

One of the most clever things this story does is to borrow the “score” system from puzzle-focused games. The score seems arbitrary at first, since it just rewards points for walking down a pre-set path, but it reassured me that I was doing the right thing and convinced me that I wasn’t overlooking puzzles. Continually moving ahead is important to the feel of the story, and its atmosphere would be ruined if the player kept trying to stop and puzzle it out. (In fact, my complaint that the environment is not more explorable is arguably unfair, as it is in-character for the protagonist to ignore the details of the surroundings. But there was a divide between the protagonist and me, and I wish Hawthorne had found a natural way to tell me I wasn’t motivated to examine everything.) The points should have been awarded more consistently, though: A long stretch in the middle with no change in score made me wonder if I was missing something, and the end of the game caught me off-guard because so many points are given on the final action.

So is it a good idea to make a player interact with a story that really has no choices? Normally, no. It works here because it portrays a protagonist whose path is pre-set. As a normal prose story, this would be fairly uninteresting and feel like it was missing a worthwhile hook (especially given the florid descriptions.) But here, the player’s involvement in the (lack of) choices is the hook! The journey you take in this game is long, and even though it was represented with only a few rooms, typing in the actions still helped that length come across. After the fact, I definitely felt like I’d been more invested than usual in the story.

Despite my misgivings, this story had an effect on me. By taking away choices where I expected to have them, it put me in the character’s shoes, and with nothing to distract from my journey, the actions I typed in made me an active participant. I’m not sure if all of the specifics of The Guardian can be adapted to more interactive works of fiction, but it’s definitely a fascinating experiment.

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