Interactive Fiction Competition: Saving John and Who Among Us

Continuing very slowly through the IFComp 2013 games, I’ve tried two of the web-based entries. These are both Twine games, a hypertext system that has become common in the past year. Think of it like a classic Choose Your Own Adventure, though the computer can track variables and make more complex choices than “turn to page 45”. This is very different from the more free-wheeling text adventure format.

Below the fold, I discuss Saving John and Who Among Us.

Saving John by Josephine Tsay

Saving John uses the restricted choices to let you explore the memories of a broken man. John is in the process of drowning (figuratively and literally), and needs to come to terms with his life in order to trust the woman who is reaching out to save him. It’s not difficult to find your way to the winning ending, but the real point is to explore the story and puzzle out John’s life. There are many repeated themes, some of which are relevant to the immediate situation (a focus on breathing and taking hands), and others that seem to hold special meaning to John (such as a tendency for people to exclaim “Honest to God”).

If there was a big secret in the story, I never found it. The meandering scenes repeat frequently, and it only took about a half hour before I decided that it would take too much effort to figure out if I’d missed anything. There is a fairly straightforward secret that you’ll figure out within a couple playthroughs, and that provides some predictability to which ending you’ll arrive at. But while the writing seems good enough to have even more behind it, I don’t know that it’s there.

The structure is a little weird. Sometimes your choices just let you direct John’s memories, either sticking with the current focus or finding another one. But other times, you get to choose how he reacts in a remembered scene. It never feels natural that I can apparently direct how the past went, since the story works best when I feel like I’m an observer trying to puzzle out what happened to John.

Really, though, the most frustrating thing is the way the scenes repeat. The dream-logic is appropriate, but it’s easy to “remember” the same one over and over by accident. Also bothersome is the treatment of John’s disorder, which feels much more in line with Hollywood portrayals than the reality. Since it is a common trope, though, and it provided the puzzle structure to the story, I decided to accept it.

Over all, Saving John is certainly flawed and would benefit from more scenes to flesh it out. But it’s a quick experience, and the dreamlike prose is interesting to explore. I could see others being less forgiving of its weak points, but I definitely stayed involved the whole time.

Grade: B-

Who Among Us by Tia Orisney

Who Among Us reads almost like fan fiction: The author took pains to consider how Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None could be moved to modern-day Russia, and then added in a heist plot. It doesn’t make a lot of sense if you try to think it through – How could someone plan on luring these particular people to a remote house given the series of coincidences that apparently led to them learning about the stolen money there? And along those same lines, this lacks the careful planning of Christie’s novel. If there are clues that you could use to find the murder ahead of time, I didn’t figure them out and the story didn’t tell me. The ending feels sort of arbitrary. But the story is still pretty complex, and it was no small feat to write.

It’s a shame that with all the effort that was put into this, it doesn’t seem like any time was devoted to making a second draft. Who Among Us is filled with typos, awkward phrasing, and even notes or control codes that should have been hidden. The writing style does help mitigate this. It has a breathless, casual voice that sounds more like a friend telling you how his day went than standard prose. It works as a story that you aren’t supposed to overthink, and kept my attention. The number of writing mistakes is still a problem, though, even by my more forgiving IFComp standards.

The story is also very linear. It’s difficult at first to accept this in a hypertext story, because you have almost no agency. It can go several screens without a choice, and when one does arrive, your decision will have next to no impact on the story. Until you have to decide who to trust at the end, you’re really just along for the ride.

This was frustrating sometimes, because there was a compelling and detailed world. I would have liked to be able to explore it, even if the game did force me to go along with the main story and not do anything too out of character. But on the other hand, it’s also an example of interactive fiction’s draw: If I were reading this as a static short story, I would have put it down after a few minutes, bored by the writing and annoyed by the mistakes. With some simple tricks to claim that it is “me” in the story, though, I was hooked. That casual prose kept things moving, the choices made me a little more invested in the story, and I stuck it out.

The ending didn’t provide much payoff. After all the build-up, as well as knowing the source material, I was hoping for something more satisfying. Despite that, this did provide an interesting experience. In the end, I feel disappointed with it largely because of the lack of proofreading. This falls firmly on the “story” side of the story-game continuum, and the frequent errors kept pulling me out of the experience. Without that, it could have been an engrossing example of how interaction can spice up even a linear story.

Grade: C

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