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The Best and Worst

by Emily Short

Posted 16 November 2001 to

I didn't play most of the competition games this year: I played some of them, and then became massively unhappy, and stopped. The fact that I was running a fever may have been involved, but, in any case, after about October 8 or so I don't think I even tried any more games.

That said:

There were two games about which I have enough to say to make it worth posting about them. One was All Roads, which was my favorite, and which I am fondly imagining will win. (We'll see.) My notes:

It didn't make a lot of sense to me; this is drawback one. And it seemed, even on the first playthrough, fairly railroaded; this is drawback two. Mitigating circumstance: I had a fever when I played, so it's probably my fault about the not making sense.

But: first of all, I love games that center around intrigue and subtle political machinations. If I thought it would have any chance of pulling entries, I would run MachiavelliComp. I loved the shifty Italianate mystery. Score 1 point here.

But the second: I was won, and I can't tell you why, from the moment I found myself in the Empty Room, with the pigeons flapping through the light, and the rib vaulting above me. So whole and complete was the evocation of that room that I haven't been able to claw it from my brain again since: the light with its oblique angle, the sounds, the various smells. My version owes not a little to the top of the tower at Cologne cathedral, where the light comes through a stone birdcage-- a high place, not a low one, but still defined by masonry ribs and shafts of sun.

Any game that can do that for me has accomplished much of what I seek in IF. It was confusing, okay. I didn't get it, okay. I need to play it again, and then I need to talk to the people who have figured it out. Fine. But that doesn't matter, because the place, and the quality of the place, are in my mind deeply. Something particular and rich remains behind, when so much else is utterly forgettable.

Point the second: Kallisti. Man, do I wish I hadn't entered this year just so that I would have had the pleasure of voting this a 1.

First, the surface issues.

I didn't like the narrative style; the shifted tenses reminded me of Winchester's Nightmare, but the default responses were not as cleanly replaced. I didn't like the rather pretentious, self-satisfied feeling that settled somewhere betweeen narrative voice and Gustav's internal monologue. In some games, you can ignore the prose style; this is not such a game. If there's anything on offer, you feel that it is supposed to be contained in that bombastic, self-consciously important writing, since there's certainly little enough to entertain otherwise. This is prose that demands to be taken as Literary.

Unfortunately, it is also the kind of writing that makes people hate writers. Moreover, it's beleaguered by sinister errors:

I could be dancing at l'OpÈra now if it hadn't of been for the accident.
[what should Gustav have drank?]

Word to the author: if you insist on writing in a style that aspires to sophistication and elevated diction, then you had damned well better at the very least get your basic grammar right. Errors of this sort glare hideously and, inevitably, draw attention to the pomposity of the rest of the writing.

Then, well, the substance.
My original notes say:

I can't say I care for the character interactions, but that's mostly because I can't see how to make them go forward, find the writing somewhat turgid and uncompelling, and would like to do something else, I guess. The virginal woman doesn't seem to react to my stripping naked in front of her; shouldn't she? You'd think.

Further play leads me to suspect that the stripping naked was a bug, not a badly implemented feature. But: one of the reasons I played this through was because I was intrigued by what seemed to be presenting itself as an attempt at realistic NPC-drawing, and thus worth comparing to my own work (and indeed someone else referred to the game as 'Galatea-porn'). The attempts to find something to talk about with her seemed forced and uncomfortable, though: there was often no way to follow up on her statements, and nothing particularly interesting to get out of them, and I suppose this was reasonable enough, given that the protagonist was only marking time before he could slap her on the ass and take her home. Nor did what she say seem to add up to anything but the most artificial of characters. Hard to believe that a woman of flesh and blood and feeling existed beneath or through or around these words.

So there's no character there. Fine. And there's no literature, either, and god knows there's no game: interactivity-wise, this is difficult and depressing. Is there an idea? The prose style seems to say, "Take note: I am the writing of a clever person."

Well, no, there's not an idea, though there is a suffusion of weary cynicism and a few haphazard symbols strewn around. And this, I suppose, is why I really got impatient with the game: because it represents, and by implication defends, a view of the world that is ultimately as tawdry and degrading as the game's endscene: one in which people are not people but manipulable objects; in which sex is only a control device, conversation is for only showing off rather than for building a communion between people, love is inconceivable, and even the clean fire of intellect is diffused into pointless pseudo-academic jargon.

It made me actively angry. If you're going to write a game about the weary perishing of the world, at least write it in clean English. Without, god help us, that pert mounds line.

This article copyright © 2001, Emily Short

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