Interactive Fiction Competition: Mazredugin and Our Boys in Uniform

I thought that the big story of IFComp 2013 would be all the Twine-based games, but now I’m wondering if I was wrong. Admittedly, I’ve only played through six entries, but so far the dominant theme seems to be that they aren’t very good. Hopefully this is just bad luck on my part, as I used a randomizer to choose the order I’d play them in. It’s worrisome, though. Today’s two are the weakest yet. With one using Twine and the other using a traditional text adventure engine, it’s clear that the problem isn’t just one technology or community.

I should also say that I was hesitant to talk too much about these. Giving bad reviews is always a little weird, especially here when I’m talking about freely-released amateur works. Both of these entries had a sympathetic purpose, and I don’t want to insult the authors. On the other hand, they were submitted into a contest which relies on ratings from anyone who wants to participate. Besides, my good reviews don’t have any meaning if I don’t talk about the things that disappointed me as well. So here is a discussion about two IF games that didn’t work well at all.

MazreduginMazredugin by Jim Q. Pfygx-Vobk

I feel especially bad complaining about Mazredugin, because I have to give it credit for good intentions. It wants to let you play through a short story from four points of view. It has a message, too, since those four people are sullen teens who need to learn to appreciate themselves and others. The game isn’t about world-saving heroics, but rather doing what you can to help those around you.

The author (using the pseudonym Jim Q. Pfygx-Vobk) seems more like one of those uninterested teens than an adult trying to help, though. The writing is lazy and the game is buggy. I had trouble following what I was supposed to do, and only made it through the first time because the puzzles are simple and innocuous actions kept solving them for me. The second time I played, my character needed to solve one of his puzzles by putting one item in another without any real hints. The only reason I solved that was that in my first game, I’d triggered that action by accident so I knew it was required. And the third time, as the kid who needed to make a fire, I simply couldn’t get through. The game kept getting confused about its state, telling me that I was still holding sticks after I’d set them on fire, not letting me get the sticks that were needed next, and so on. Even the walkthrough couldn’t get me past it. The walkthrough is incomplete, actually, just pointing out some of the main actions you’ll need to do but not everything, and not getting me past that one puzzle’s bugs. In a comp game, that’s a major sin.

The main problem of the game seems to be that the author didn’t understand the capabilities of interactive fiction. I had no investment in the story, because it would stall out for a while and then suddenly dump over a page of (passive, unfocused) text on me. The puzzles that were solved when I thought I was just gathering information (moving somewhere or asking someone else a question) implied that the game was interpreting my commands very differently than I intended, and so I felt none of the involvement that IF can provide. And since the game’s whole point was to appreciate the different characters, I’m especially disappointed that they never progressed much beyond their basic outlines. With a chance to “talk” at the end and see different futures for each character, you do get a glimpse of what the author intended to do, but even that is too glib and incomplete.

Grade: D

Our Boys in Uniform by Megan Stevens

Our Boys in Uniform juxtaposes writings about World War II with a cynical veteran’s complaints that it’s all lies and propaganda. It uses a Twine interface to give you one such passage with multiple words highlighted. One word is a “truth”, according to the narrator, and will let you move to the next piece, while one is a “lie” and sends you back to the start of the sequence. The rest are “propaganda”, and give you one of those cynical passages but leave you with those same choices.

It’s unclear what the difference is here between “propaganda” and “lies”. In fact, it’s also unclear what option should be the truth. This bills itself as a “logic game”, but I found it to be mostly an exercise in clicking around until I found the right choice. Individual words usually lack context, so I didn’t know what was meant by a word like “developing” or “caused” until the nameless narrator explained to me what made it right or wrong. This was interactive only in the sense that I randomly moved around, and it made the  mistakes that returned me to the beginning feel especially punitive.

This isn’t a traditional story, but there’s nothing wrong with that. What is wrong is that the work tries to make a very strong point without ever justifying it. The narrator’s ramblings are sometimes evocative or incisive, but never give support for their claims. The text is vague and the narrator remains a cypher. In fact, he never seems worried about convincing anyone of his point. It’s like the “interactive” experience of sitting next to an opinionated drunk man at a bar, right down to the feeling that you’re trapped and unable to guide the conversation in any way.

I’m sympathetic to a lot of what this work talks about, but still found it preachy and unconvincing. If you disagree or even consider yourself neutral on these topics, you’ll find it downright offensive. To the author’s credit, she seemed to be invested in exploring a character, and apparently didn’t entirely agree with the narrator. A disclaimer at the end talks about that briefly and does make it feel slightly less ridiculous. It even briefly gives a reason why you might want to question the things that we’re taught about wars and history. If only something like that had made it into the main story.

Grade: D+

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