2007 IF Art Show Reviews

I was asked to be a judge in the 2007 IF Art Show, organized by Marnie Parker. The games can be downloaded here.

As ever, if you're new to interactive fiction, I would recommend a visit to A Beginner's Guide to Playing Interactive Fiction before you download anything.

If you're new to the concept of the IF Art Show, it's a somewhat different sort of interactive fiction - the point is to "experience interactivity as a medium. This explorative venture is intended to be two-way: for [authors] to explore the various interactive techniques [they] can use to involve players, and for players to interactively explore [the author's] piece in turn."

At any rate, my reviews for the 2007 IF Art Show...

The Symbolic Engine
by Evan Schull

Still Life (Objects)
I was apprehensive about this piece at first. It opens in a sparsely described white room with an amnesiac PC standing in front of a giant machine. On the giant machine are a bunch of fiddly little bits which don't seem to work. "Minimalist descriptions and a tedious puzzle involving buttons and dials?" I thought to myself. "I thought this was the IF Art Show - home of richly described objects and environs in a puzzle-free setting!"

Never fear, though. The puzzle was so easy even I solved it rather quickly, and then the real point of the game was made clear: we're actually in the depths of a library, and the machine is a fount of information about the history of humans and the Earth prior to the Collapse, when humans finally paid the price for exceeding Earth's carrying capacity.

Now is a good time to compliment the author, Evan Schull, on his first work of interactive fiction and, in fact, his first foray into coding beyond basic HTML. I encountered only one confusing but ultimately minor bug. The piece was generally polished with respect to mechanics and grammar, and it is evident that he worked very hard on the piece.

I would have enjoyed a higher degree of interactivity, and I was a bit dismayed here and there by some descriptions which seemed inappropriately informal or lazy given the overall setting (e.g. Schull's description of a green button as "Small. Square. Buttony." - while cute, the humor seemed out of place in the game, and the terseness of the description wasn't something I expected to see in a polished IF Art Show entry). On the other hand, there were some very nice touches, such as descriptions which changed after you viewed an object... it's small bits of polish like that that I've come to expect from IF Art Show entries.

by nespresso

I did not enjoy this entry, nor, I hope, was I meant to enjoy it. The author calls Rendition a 'political art experiment.' In theory, it's an interesting premise: force the interactor to press the limits of the Geneva Conventions while torturing a subject to extract information.

While the premise had a great deal of promise, the game could have been improved by, say, providing the PC with implements of torture and a list of all the various methods of torture currently being utilized without apparent retribution by countries who have signed the treaties of the Geneva Conventions. It would also have been helpful to either have a language translator present (another NPC) or at least make it clear that the PC understands the language of the person he's interrogating; without any comprehensible exchange of information, the piece merely became an exercise in figuring out the best way to beat someone half to death. Furthermore, it deprived both the author and the interactor of the opportunity to explore both sides of the coin: how one person can actually bring themselves to torture another human being and the motivations involved, as well as how people react under the inconceivable agony of torture (how some will snap and provide information, while others will endure to the death, while still others will simply say whatever they think is necessary to make the beatings stop).

While this piece was painful to explore, the concept is particularly well-suited to interactive fiction. I would be very interested in seeing an updated release that explored the psychological aspects of torture in more detail, utilized a more realistic framework, and avoided large amounts of distracting disambiguation. Any future release should also contain a disclaimer from the very start that the piece is intended for mature audiences and contains very graphic violence and language.

Varronis Museum
by David Garcia

Varronis Museum has an interesting premise, similar to ones I've been toying with lately myself: setting a story in an ancient civilization, heavily researched. In the case of Varronis Museum, you are a fifteen year old Roman girl, the daughter of a patrician, who has been left to wander the house of family friend while he and your father discuss some business.

The game strives to recreate a house from ancient Rome. It does this rather well, though at times I felt it was a touch too heavy-handed with the interjection of Latin words. For example, the description for the home's atrium reads as follows: "A large chamber roofed over with the exception of an aperture in the center (compluvium) to which the ceiling tilts in order to throw the rain water into a reservoir (impluvium)." When the game was able to explain the Latin words through sentence context rather than parenthetical explanation, it worked much better. I very much enjoyed exploring the rooms available and imagining how people lived during this time period.

The principle issue I had with the game was that the title, Varronis Museum, coupled with an apparent score category in the status line (which reads "0/9 insights"), led me to believe there was more to this game. The concept of a 'museum,' as we call it, didn't exist until the seventeenth century or so, but the word itself stems from an ancient Greek word, mouseion; mouseions were sacred places dedicated to the nine goddesses of the arts and sciences (though I don't believe that's actually covered anywhere in this version of the game). Indeed, there is at least one shrine in the piece. So with nine goddesses, a shrine, and a potential score of 9 "insights," as well as various descriptions in the game that implied there were puzzles to solve, it felt like there should be more to it. As it turns out, there is more to the game - just not in this release. So, while you can explore a house in ancient Rome and learn a bit of Latin, none of the objects can actually be manipulated, and puzzles that quite obviously exist can't be explored. Essentially, this is an extremely early beta of what promises to be a much larger, richer game.

So, while the setting was there, it wasn't truly immersive and interactive, and the piece itself is far from complete; Varronis Museum might have been better as an entry in IntroComp, actually (not that I have a vested interest in attracting entries for IntroComp or anything...).

This review, as well as the reviews of other judges in the competition, can be found at Marnie Parker's IF Art Show site.