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6 Stars IFReview Rating The Great Machine - A Fragment

IFReviewed by Victor Gijsbers on 2007-04-13 06:36 

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Jonas Kyratzes


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6 Stars IFR Overall Rating
Interactive Fiction should be, as its name implies, interactive. This means that a reader must have some kind of meaningful choice when deciding what to do next - if the reader has no meaningful choices whatsoever, the story would have been bettered served with the more common medium of the linear, written text. The meaning of choices in an interactive fiction story can wildly vary, of course: they can have a meaning as possible solutions to a puzzle, as ethical choices, or it can even be as simple as deciding what things and places to explore next.

Interactive Fiction should be interactive - but once in a great while a piece is written that is not interactive, and uses this lack of interactivity as a way to reinforce the point that the story is making. One famous piece of IF, which I will not name to avoid spoiling it for anyone who has somehow managed not to play it, uses a carefully hidden lack of interactivity to make a point about free will and fatalism. Why do I bring this up? Because in the end, anyone's appreciation of The Great Machine will depend to a large extent on whether or not one thinks that this piece used its lack of interactivity to effectively make its point.

The Great Machine is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style story about war, and especially about war being bad and incomprehensible. We see the world through the eyes of a traumatised soldier, who is also ill and emotionally unstable. This is reflected by a wide use of a very fragmentary style of writing, with parts of sentences and even single words following each other without logical connection but with lots of white space and rows of dots between them. This writing style does work to some extent, giving the piece a surreal and vaguely unsettling atmosphere; however, especially towards the end of the piece it is used too often and becomes quite annoying to read.

Taking on the task of portraying the horrors of war, The Great Machine faces it with courage. No humour here to soften the horror, and no shying away from fly-covered corpses of children either - this is good, and although this may mean that some find the narration unsettling and unpleasant, I would argue that that was the aim of the author. It is unfortunate, however, that sometimes the horrors are forced upon us too heavy-handedly, the following being an example:

(Thousands of others have fought and died on this very spot, ages ago. Their names are forgotten, their causes gone. Their bones are buried below your feet. You do not know this.)

Show, don't tell - the old adage may be tired and overused, but it is nonetheless true. Another reason why it is hard to be truly moved by the piece is that we cannot identify with any of the characters - no NPC is talked about enough to get to know him or her, and the player character himself remains a nameless, almost abstract entity. This makes it hard to become engaged with the themes of warfare, cruelty, emptiness, madness and lack of freedom that the author wishes to explore. Also, gives the short length of the game, this rich thematic content may simply be too much to explore in any depth.

Against the backdrop of the war story, the narrative mentions a 'Great Machine', which crunches the world between its wheels; the player character dreams about himself being tied to a wheel of fire, spinning around for eternity. This is where the non-interactivity of the piece comes into it. No matter what you do, the story progresses much the same way and always ends in the same way - with the wheel having turned one complete cycle. Potentially, the non-interactivity and cyclicity of the story reinforce the theme of 'the great machine', thus strengthening the piece and making it into a good piece of IF. Unfortunately, for me at least it never became clear what the author wanted to convey with his machine metaphor, and the narrative as a whole seems too light and short and filled with other details to comment effectively on the shackles of fate and eternal recurrence. To me, the lack of interactivity made The Great Machine more irritating than moving, and that cannot have been the author's goal. It may be, however, that the metaphors of 'the great machine' and 'the wheel of fire' carry more resonance with other, and in that case they will probably enjoy the tale.

If I have understood it correctly, the current piece is actually a fragment of a larger piece that is in the making. I believe that with just a little bit of editing (making the narration a bit more coherent and a bit less repetitive) this piece might make a very fine chapter in some larger, more interactive work. As it stands, though, the lack of interactivity is merely unfortunate and the story too short and lacking in characterisation to engage us with the dark themes that it wishes to explore. I do not especially recommend it, but I do recommend keeping an eye out for the larger project.

    Victor Gijsbers Profile

    Name Victor Gijsbers
    Gender Male