Played to Completion: Yes, six or seven times.
Number of Saves: 3
Shades of Anchorhead meet Bad Machine, with a touch of Spider and Web thrown in (for the slow comprehension of the mysterious messages that have been in there since the start of the game).
This is a tight, brilliantly coded piece, with a clever metafictional explanation for the IF interface; puzzles effective and accessible, no serious sticking points; near-perfect implementation, save only some minor frustration with controlling the pyramid and the viewer in the panopticon chamber. Also, it's good to see Daniel Ravipinto back in the IF scene. We haven't heard from him for a long time.
Actually, let me talk about the puzzles for a little longer. The manipulation parts of the puzzles are really not very hard at all -- it's all finding keys and looking up documents, finding bits of information and figuring out where to apply it. The real challenge is extrapolating the implications of a course of action. This is one game where you can make master plans and carry them out, rather than being forced to step through an obstacle course of puzzles predetermined by the author.
This works largely because there are multiple endings; I got all five, and they're all sensible (within the logic of the game-world, anyway). The game handles the divergence gracefully. The first ending I got more or less by accident. But when I saw what had happened, I was able to think up a good way to avoid that particular ending, so I went back and tried something else. Because of the game's structural conceits, the failed playthroughs become part of the story of how the player reaches a final, desired outcome.
For that alone, it makes a fantastic breakthrough in interactive fiction design. I played it and thought, oh, so that's how it's done. I've been trying, and not getting it right, for years, but this really offers free will for the player in a context where the choice actually matters to the story.
Some of the tricks Slouching plays would not be repeatable in future games. I don't think I could play many more works with this kind of exploitation of the SAVE/RESTORE/RESTART aspects of IF: it's clever, but it would wear fast. Nor (I think) would it always really work to leave the player so much in the dark at the beginning about his mission and even his identity. I was overwhelmed the first time I tried to play it, and confused. When I went out to talk to James, and got the string of gobbledygook, I sighed and quit, recognizing that I was going to have to put real work into just comprehending what was going on. I'm not always in the mood to do that -- at least, not at that level. When I decided to come back, it was worthwhile, and the game had given me the sense that it was solidly implemented and worth revisiting.
So what does that leave us with, in terms of repeatable achievements? Here's the list as I see it.
- One: the scope of possible actions is small and clearly defined; the player is not left with a large wash of options any of which might or might not turn out to be significant. There are only a few people to talk to, a few locations that can possibly be visited, a few things that can be done in each location.
- Two: the player is carefully educated about those possible actions and their probable results because he spends the first part of the game learning about someone else who has previously done some of these things. The tone of the game, the things that have happened in the backstory, etc., make it clear that murder and suicide are viable possibilities in this world. The first ending you get will make it clear how high the stakes are.
- Three: the outcomes are rigorously and sensibly worked through, and all combinations of player action are accounted for. There's nothing stupidly left out because the author wanted to coerce the player into a given ending. This has to do, again, with the basic problem being well-defined: something is happening, and it can only come out a certain number of conceivable ways, and all of those ways can be achieved by the player with the proper contrivances. In that sense, player free will is only possible because the story is tightly defined.
- Four: on the other hand, the basic problem is not as narrow as a binary choice; it is organic to the whole story, and not tacked on at the end; and there could be real differences of opinion as to what was the best outcome.
- Five: the game is short. I'm not sure how you could do this in a long game. Possibly the investigation portion would have to take a long time (in which the player becomes familiar with his options). Once you start letting the player make vital decisions, though, you have to keep the action short or else go mad: the combinatorial explosion has begun. And besides that, the moment of decision, if you've built up to it right, is the climax of the story. It wouldn't work, pacing-wise, to have it drag on too terribly long. This is why the timer built into the game is so important. Once you've started down one of the major paths (killing the infected), the game gives you only a certain number of moves to finish whatever you're going to do. It would lose much of its narrative impact if that portion of the activity continued for long.
- Six: the puzzles are relatively easy, and most of them are contained in the investigation portion. This sort of goes with point five. It is hard for the player to feel that he has real freedom if there are three options but two require fiendish brilliance to achieve. At that point, those options aren't options; they're easter eggs. The moral choice only opens up if the player can really see several ways to go, and pick one of them.
Maybe I've missed some stuff, and maybe I'm on the wrong track, but that's what I see, in terms of game design. In retrospect it seems obvious, and I've tried to do some of those things myself from time to time, but they've never succeeded for me quite the way this game succeeds -- maybe because I couldn't find all the relevant bits, maybe because I don't have what it takes.
In any case, this is a really masterful piece of work. It's not just the best game in the comp, it's one of the most important games written in years. I'm not saying that all IF should be like this; for that matter, I didn't even really like the story very much, in the sense that it was more depressing than I enjoy, the main threat seemed like another Mysterious Handwavy Evil that did not get explained enough, and the clever parts were sometimes too clever for their own good. I didn't mind the Latin, but a few other people griped about being expected to understand it, and I suppose I see their point. But forget all that. It doesn't matter, just as it doesn't matter that I didn't like the story in Photopia and I got irritated with its emotional manipulation. This is another one of those games that expands the boundaries of what IF can do, and I imagine we'll be seeing the repercussions for some time to come.
I hope that doesn't mean that next year's comp has a half-dozen steampunk entries, is all.