Brass Lantern
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by Eric Mayer

Posted 7 January 2000 to

Some thoughts on Stephen Granade's excellent COMMON GROUND. I have tried to minimize spoilers but especially with a short game I'm not sure what would and wouldn't be considered spoilers. If any players of the game have an opinion on this please post!

* * SPOILERS * *

        There's something to said for IF that is both short and easy enough for the time-pressed and puzzle-challenged among us to finish at a sitting. When, as is the case of Stephen Granade's COMMON GROUND, that sort of game is also engrossing, insightful and uses the medium to create an effect that couldn't be achieved as well in a short story the something to be said has to be "Yay!" Some might say "Bravo" but let's not get too high falutin' here.
        COMMON GROUND is a game about a teenager, Jeanie, who is, no surprises here, dissatisfied with her family/home/life. The plot is simple (unless someone informs me I should've moved the waterbed and went through the hidden trapdoor into the 50 rooms of underground caverns). Jeanie gets her bag and waits for a ride, while mom comes in with the groceries and Frank sits in the den and fixes a toaster. The puzzles are so easy that even I had no trouble solving them without hints.
        What makes this boring sounding game fascinating is that it is truly IF. In the course of four scenes the player begins as Jeanie, then takes the role of her dad and mom before returning to Jeanie's perspective. Each of the characters, and hence the player, sees the family home, and the other family members, from a different perspective. Obviously, this is not something that could not, and has not, been done in regular fiction, however, IF has advantages which Stephen exploits.
        For one thing a mundane family home becomes more interesting when it must be explored rather than merely being described. It is more interesting to discover, as Jeanie, that the posters on your bedroom wall are boring, than to be simply told that by the author. More importantly the player gets to experience "living" as each character. The device of having the player, as Frank, tinker with the simple puzzle of fixing the toaster, goes a long way toward allowing an appreciation of Frank's outlook on the world.
        Puzzles, I think, are important to IF. They don't have to present a challenge, but one thing that differentiates IF from regular fiction is that the player brings a higher level of involvement due to the fact that the player has to look and examine and manipulate objects and move around to experience the story. Puzzles - however simple - are an important means of creating player involvement without which IF becomes nothing more than fiction on a computer screen.
        COMMON GROUND does point out that although IF benefits from requiring the player to take active steps to discover at least parts of the story, even in IF the author remains in control. For example, in COMMON GROUND, even though we get to look through the eyes of each character it is Stephen who has selected what we can and can't see. It is still the author who designs the point of view we experience just as in a piece of regular fiction. Consider that though we seem to be in Jeanie's head in the first scene, we are not told specifically, unless I missed something, what her intentions (revealed in the fourth scene) are.
        A final note, COMMON GROUND demonstrates quite admirably something that too many writers forget - writing is not so much putting down words as seeing. What (objects or characters, or actions) the author selects to tell a story is more important than the particular words the author selects. If the story is designed well enough the words need only describe it. If the story is not designed well enough no amount of verbiage will save it.
        Stephen Granade has designed an excellent, enjoyable, and medium-stretching game in Common Ground.

This article copyright © 2000, Eric Mayer

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