Interactive Fiction Competition: Machine of Death and Trapped in Time

There are only a couple days left in IFComp 2013. (You can always play the games, of course. That’s the deadline to participate in the voting.) I have a couple more reviews today, and fortunately they’re more positive than last time.

I don’t expect to have time to post again by Friday. Even if I do, I’ll probably write about something else. I want to write my last IFComp article after I can see the full results.

Machine of DeathMachine of Death by Hulk Handsome

Machine of Death is a Twine-based Choose Your Own Adventure set in the open world created by Ryan North and others: In the near future, a machine is created which can tell anyone exactly they will die, but frequently in clever, easily-misinterpreted ways that lead to ironic stories. I’ve been meaning to read the short story collections for a while now, but the samples I’ve seen have convinced me that people are interested in taking this concept beyond its obvious uses.

In this case, author Hulk Handsome does have the expected twist endings and clever anecdotes about the way such a machine would change society. But he also seems really interested in character studies. The pieces of this game that stick out in my mind are the brief conversations with other people who definitely have more to their life than being a twist in a Machine of Death story. In fact, much of this game involves social situations in which your reactions don’t have an immediate effect. Sometimes what you say triggers a mention (at least for color purposes) later, and sometimes it only gives you a feeling of participation. But they felt believable and were part of the consistent internal logic that the game had. I know I’m not much of a Twine expert, but so far, this is the best example I’ve seen for how a branching-path system can contribute to an organic, fair story and game.

It’s not perfect, though. The game tracks a lot of variables based on your responses, and it does miss a few things. (Most importantly, you can ask someone about bloodstains you saw whether or not you actually saw them. Hopefully that will be fixed in a later version.) And nothing ever goes in depth. But that’s partly by design: The game has three very short stories, all based around different death predictions. You can play through the games a few times each to figure out what’s going on, and the different paths complement each other, rather than holding contradictions.

One story features the requisite “wacky death prediction” that keeps coming up as your character tries to enjoy a night out. It stayed fresh through a few replays. Another quieter one is about exploration and then making a decision. It has one trick, but it’s a good one. There’s no need to replay that one once it’s understood, though. The third is disappointing, as it feels like more of a programming exercise than a story. You need to get across town on a time limit, and each choice you make reduces your total time. There is a point to this one, and it’s consistent with the “enjoy life, don’t stress out about death” message that this whole game has, but it felt like a let-down once I figured it out.

Overall, Machine of Death was my favorite game so far in this year’s competition. Admittedly, the entries so far have set a low bar, and I think that I was also influenced by what I know of the other Machine of Death stories. But, though it was a little buggy and the message fairly obvious, it did provide a fun story that was interesting, solvable, and didn’t wear out its welcome. I want to see more like this.

Grade: B

Trapped in Time by Simon Christiansen

This was a surprise. Trapped in Time is an actual PDF. I played it on the computer, but you could print it out and read through it like an old-school Choose Your Own Adventure. This may be partly an exercise in nostalgia (the game does seem eager to emphasize that “you are the hero!” and even includes blank spaces for you to write your name into the dialog), but the story was designed specifically around the numbered paragraphs of an old-school book. As the title implies, your character becomes stuck in a time loop, and you’ll repeat the same short story forever if you can’t find a way out. At first, there is no escape, but you’ll start to learn other options that involve adding numbers to the current section you’re on. (Add 10 when talking to someone in order to show them your badge, for example.) Exploring those options won’t immediately save you, but you may find yourself with another new trick the next time you repeat the story.

It’s a cool exercise, though not a very good story. At the beginning, before I knew what was going on, my main impression was that the setting was vague and missing personality. When I completed it, I was disappointed by the resolution(s) available. The whole point of this is the puzzle in the middle of the game. That did hold my attention, but even while playing I kept wondering why I had so few options. Your character is a highly trained, well-regarded “chrononaut”, but he has no skills and few people to turn to as he repeats the day’s events over and over. While thinking the puzzles through logically, try to avoid thinking about the story logically.

Also, though I liked the idea of “add X to a section to do a special action”, I often found it unintuitive. At first I kept trying to use special conversational features one paragraph too late, thinking that it should be a response to the given paragraph, rather than a replacement for it. And I got stuck on the last special choice to apply to the main story, because it only worked on one of several similar situations.

I appreciate what this story was trying to do, and it did work as a curiosity, but didn’t live up to its potential.

Grade: C

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