Posted 16 November 2001 to rec.games.int-fiction
Being a newcomer to the IF community, who only decided to participate in the comp midway, I chaged my mind several times on how I should grade the games that I played. I only played a small amount of them, and most of the ones I scored were ones which I felt were not really interesting in any way. I decided to forgo judgement on the games that did interest me until I had a better view of where I stand towards the genre of IF in general, so I refrained from grading them - and then life kicked in and I became too busy to actually do so.
However, three of the games that I have played created a strong enough impression on me so that I want to discuss them. These games are Best of Three, The Gostak, and Triune. Note that I include strong spoilers for Triune.
Before I start, I'd like everyone to remember that I'm a person who has yet to release a single work of IF, and that, in writing and completing these games, the writers already achieved more than I have in this field. I'm writing these reviews because I have something to say about these games, not because I think I can do better.
Best of Three
Best of Three is a very, very well written and intelligent work, written by an author who is rightfully confident of her skills, which include programming as well as prose (an opinion which I could have reached solely upon this game, but I have played most of her others as well). Unfortunately, she seems to have dedicated herself to a sub-genre of IF that is, at least for me, one of the least satisfying.
Best of Three suffers from an inherent dual-personality. On the one hand, we are presented with a character, who seems to have a history and life of her own, real world relationships, and feelings. On the other hand, I am the one given the ultimate control on this characters behavior. When playing the game earnestly, in order to live the story rather than to see all the possibilities, I would make the decisions that would seem right to me, based on my own life, feelings, and experience. Which, in this particular case, are rather different than the character in question. More than once, I found myself wishing that instead of a conversation game this was a time-travel one, where I could go back in time and repair what to me seemed like drastic errors commited by the character. That I cared about her enough to wish that is testimony to the skill the game was written (compare this to Kallisti, another game where I was made to play a very different personality, and after five minutes, realized I didn't want to and stopped). But that I found myself repeatedly in situations that made me realize that this character's priorities and personallity conflicted with mine, left me, upon the completion of the game, more annoyed than anything else.
This is the problem for me in all NPC-interaction based IF. In puzzle-based IF, or plotline-based IF, where the PC's actions determine the flow of the game rather than his or her emotions and words, putting myself in someone else's shoes can be part of what makes it interesting. But in this kind of game, I basically have two ways of going about playing them - Either superessing my own personality and try playing the game fully as another person - which only works for me if the person in question is someone I really want to be, for whatever reason (I'd be tempted to bring up Photopia here if another of Adam Cadre's games, I-0, wasn't a better example. Sure, Tracy Valentine's world was somewhat shallow and stereotypical, but being her was just fun). Or, the other tack is trying to play the game as if the person in question was me, putting myself fully in the world in question and seeing how it would react to me. But for that to work, the PC's personality should be less obtrusive, allowing me to really go in whatever direction I wanted to, and to care about what I want to, and to feel what I want to. I'm not saying that the PC should lack a history, experience, and a position in the world - but that the way he or she should feel about these should be up to me, not up to the game, which, in Best of Three, was not the case.
That said, I did enjoy Best of Three very much. It uses a relatively small amonut of words to say really a lot, painting a world which is both realistic and touching. It does not preach (see my review of Triune below), or otherwise bludgeon me, but it leads me where it wants me to go pretty well. I just had to make the mental switch and decide that this is not IF but rather branching non-interactive fiction, in order for me to see this.
A much shorter review here. I love this game. I really do. It's the one competition game that I spent the most time on, the only puzzle-based one which I didn't either abandon or take to a walkthrough on. I'm still trying to complete it. I love it as a puzzle, not as a work of fiction, I love it the same way as I love solving an interesting cryptogram, without caring a bit about the world given within it in any other way except as a conundrum to unravel. And ultimately, to me, a good puzzle is less satisfying than good fiction. So I'm very glad that I came across it, but I feel its unfair, both to it and to the other competition entries, to compare it against works which attempt to be fiction. I'd liked to have had this compete against Schroedinger's Cat and You Were Doomed from the Start alone, so that I could give it a 10 and the other two a 1 and call it even. But by putting it on the same playing field as games such as Best of Three just makes it seem inappropriate.
There are two ways for me to judge this game - a rational one, and a totally egocentric one. On the ego-centric level, I'd have to give this game a 10. It seems to have been designed for one and one purpose only - to clash with me. In which it succeeds perfectly. It embraces not one, but two philosophies which I strongly dislike, and it does so well. It creates the ideal world in which to do so, creates characters which seem just right for this world, and it uses its descriptions and puzzle structure to keep me interested enough to play it to the end, just to discover that it's really the perfect ending to achieve the goal of annoying me and wishing that I had the author's phone number just so that I could call him or her at home and shout at her or him.
On a more rational level, I'd have to say I hated this game. It seems to be grounded in the sort of feminism that should have died with the nineteen-seventies, the sort of feminsim that boils down to chanting "internal genitalia good, external genitalia bad". I'm not saying that this philosophy didn't serve a purpse - it did, an impotant one, and it helped break a lot of barriers that needed breaking - but the world doesn't break down into black and white, and in order for progress to be achieved a more enlightened approach must be taken. I realize that this game was the fantasies of a teenager - and as such it features the sort of simplistic ideology that a teenager, especially one who has good reason to hate men (and also, it seems, to hate women) if her family background is any indication - but the game never seems to present this viewpoint in anything that resembles a critical eye - until we reach the very ending -
And then we discover that the game isn't really about male-female relationships at all, it's just a single, long, "life doesn't work that way" message. And if there's one thing that I hate about IF, it's "life doesn't work that way" messages. As Adam Thornton said in In the End 2 - this isn't life. And yes, I know that the entire point of Triune was that this isn't life. But I knew that coming in. I knew that every step of the way, and not only because I took those steps in compass directions. The game seems to assume that I'm too stupid to realize the difference between truth and fiction - just like it seems to assume that I'm too stupid to understand the need for feminism without putting it into the most simple terms possible. The author of this game seems to say "I write IF games and you play them, which means I am in a position of authority and must teach you how this world works". Well, the world doesn't work that way either, even if the game does include a unicorn.
This article copyright © 2001, Eytan Zweig