IFReviewed by Paul OBrian
on 2006-07-19 08:43
Interactive Fiction is a new enough medium that at least once a year, usually more, a work appears that approaches the form in a way that has never yet been attempted. The IF competition, with its emphasis on short works, has become a haven for this kind of experimentation, and this year is no exception. The most interesting experiment I've come across thus far is this game, My Angel. My Angel's experiment is to offer the player a "NOVEL" mode, one which actually fulfills both senses of the word: not only does it more closely resemble a prose novel than does any other IF, it is also something that has never quite been seen before. In NOVEL mode, all input and stock parser responses appear in a two-line status window above the main game text window. In the lower panel, story-related output appears in neatly formatted paragraphs. Because this format can sometimes be hard to follow (it's difficult to tell where the last output leaves off and the new one begins), the game thoughtfully provides an ALTERNATE command, which prints every other piece of output (more or less) in bold text. I've sometimes thought about how IF might be done in this format, but could never quite get past certain mental stumbling blocks: the possibility of repetition, the need for stock responses, and the problem of sequiturs. My Angel applies a number of ingenious solutions to these problems. First, it adopts the already rather oblique tone of literary fantasy -- this particular prose style suffers from a dearth of sequiturs anyway, so the sudden shifts of focus brought about by a flailing player become less obvious. In addition, the game takes stock responses such as "I don't know the word <whatever>" or "You can't see that here" and shifts them to the status line, not allowing them to interrupt the flow of the story. It's also, as far as I can determine, not above simply ignoring the player's input and continuing with the story, though this doesn't happen often, and it's rather difficult to tell for certain when it has happened, because there's sometimes a significant (but not complete) disconnect between the player's input and the game's responses. Finally, My Angel restricts the player's choice of verbs (though not drastically) in order to reduce the combinatorial explosion of necessary text.
As for repetition, well, My Angel didn't quite lick that one. I still encountered several instances where the game repeated the same output two or more times in a row. You wouldn't see this kind of sequence in any but the most avant-garde literary novel, so its appearance detracted from the game's illusion of an unfolding prose story. For the most part, however, My Angel succeeds admirably in maintaining that illusion. Its writing is mostly quite good, and the intersection between its writing and its coding sometimes verges on the brilliant, not just for NOVEL mode itself but for the way that it deftly picks up on a player's command and weaves it into the ongoing narrative. The narrative itself, on the other hand, is a bit confusing, or at least it was to me. Ironically, I think the story's problem may be one of too much novelty. We are presented with an unfamiliar world, one which appears to be more or less the generic medieval pastoral setting of copious genre fantasy, but which occasionally hints at mysterious magics, the logic of which we are left to figure out. Complicating the situation is the fact that these magics are the sort that are only visible to one person, and therefore we can never be entirely certain that they aren't simply the delusion of the viewpoint character. That character shares a very unusual relationship with another character, one which (again) isn't clearly spelled out. Finally, these two are embroiled in a specific plot, one which begins entirely in medias res, leaving us to piece together the backstory through flashbacks that sometimes obscure more than they reveal. Between trying to decipher the setting, the plot, the characters, the backstory, and the sometimes impenetrable prose style, I frequently found myself feeling very much at sea in the story, lacking adequate purchase in any sort of familiar concept. When the climactic moment came, it didn't have much of an effect on me, because I never quite understood what exactly underlay the climax's emotional thrust.
On the other hand, the parts that I did understand, I found quite evocative. There are a number of very arresting images in the game, some wonderful turns of phrase, and the central relationship is a fascinating one. Even better, there are a few lovely puzzles. These puzzles are the best kind -- unique and interesting, but of a piece with the story rather than simply tacked on. NOVEL mode makes them feel even more integrated, creating as it does the appearance of an unbroken flow of text. I encountered one or two grammatical errors while traversing the story, and the occasions when it appeared to be ignoring my input annoyed me somewhat, but overall I came away feeling impressed as hell with My Angel. It's a daring experiment, executed with grace and care, and it provided me not only with some vivid impressions of setting and story, but with a good deal of food for thought about the possible future directions of IF.