Posted 16 November 2001 to rec.games.int-fiction
Hello, my name is Jonathan, and this is my first year playing current Competition games. Unfortunately, I've had an insane six weeks, and have only been able to play a very few games, thus I did not vote. I'm writing because two of the four games I've played, Kallisti and No Time to Squeal, seem very controversial, and I'd like to chip in my two cents.
This is not a review. I'm hoping to join the discussion. This article includes spoilers, and probably shouldn't be read by anyone who hasn't played both Kallisti and NTTS. Furthermore, this article includes quotations from both games, and graphic descriptions of both sex and violence.
First, No Time to Squeal, by Robb Sherwin and Mike Sousa. I've never played a Sherwin game before, though I have played Mike Sousa's recent At Wit's End. There's one distinct similarity in the opening sequence: both At Wit's End and No Time to Squeal start out with sports. I hate sports. I hate everything about sports. I hate players, coaches, and sportscasters. In At Wit's End, the sports got out of the way quickly. Not so with No Time to Squeal. In the first chapter of No Time to Squeal, you play Kieron Scott, an agent representing a football player with a propensity toward making an ass of himself. You begin the game by playing golf with a team manager. Should you beat him at golf, or throw the game, hoping to get on his good side? These are the sorts of decisions that make my skin crawl with contempt and revulsion. Unfortunately, it is not possible to kill oneself at this point in the game. Fortunately, it is possible to attack the team manager with your pitching wedge, and the game responds to this in a logical and satisfying manner.
That said, the first chapter of No Time to Squeal is incredibly immersive. The game starts with a rather lengthy introduction to the PC and his job, but the original and polished writing offsets the length of the introduction. At no point in this game do the authors show off their knowledge of adjectives. Their humor is consistent and low-key, and they regularly choose detail when sparse writing would have moved the plot along just fine. Those details are the most remarkable thing about this game. Another review (which I can no longer find) mentions this delightful piece of prose: "The Patriots are picking twenty-third, and have a history of not being overly concerned with drafting or signing guys with... well, with some question marks. Katzenmoyer, Peter, Meggett, Mowatt -- it's not exactly like quarterback Donny Osmond handing off to halfback Marie." That line is more or less mandatory, but the optional prose (found by examining everything) reveals such gems as: "[The champagne glasses] kind of look like the ones you had at your wedding. Bucky has demonstrated that they are, in fact, the kind that make a noise when you spin a finger around the edge of one. (Over and over again, actually.)"
In short, what we have here are original descriptions of everyday objects and concepts. This is the very definition of immersion, and immersion, in my opinion, is the purpose of writing IF instead of traditional fiction. One could read the first chapter of No Time to Squeal for hours, finding new things to examine and new things to ask the very well-defined NPCs. Choices like what to order from a menu or which sweater to wear when you get home may seem like a waste of code, but they served to utterly involve me in the life of a character I found sickeningly pedestrian.
After a while, the plot catches up to you, as you find your very pregnant (like, 39 and a half weeks pregnant) wife lying unconscious on your kitchen floor. In your living room, you find that a window has been broken inward, presumably by a baseball on which someone has written "NO TIME TO SQUEAL KIERON." This baseball is the single most annoying thing in the game. No hint of an explanation is given. We later learn that Mrs. Scott had an accident, and that her current unconscious state is not directly related to the baseball. OK, so where the hell did the baseball come from? No one knows. As a red herring, it's incredibly tacky.
The plot speeds up at this point, which is unfortunate, since I was enjoying the unnecessary prose so much. You rush your wife to the hospital, where she ends up in an Operating Room. Showing the sort of logic that will get you arrested in real life, you sneak into the Operating Room (with the game's first, very easy, puzzle) and find your daughter, stillborn. You then get the message:
*** You have failed to save the life of a newborn ***
And can restart, restore, or quit. Undo is not an option.
And here is the controversy. RESTORE and QUIT work as advertised, but RESTART takes you on to Chapter Two. Many people, at this point, restored their game, attempting to win the first chapter of the game, which is quite unwinnable.
I didn't do this, because I didn't have a saved game. Why didn't I have a saved game? Because, as detailed in the orientation which first-time users are encouraged to read, this game has a WINNABLE command. Every so often, I'd check to see if the game was still in a winnable state. Since it was, I didn't save. Would I have been annoyed with this game if I did have a saved game, and restored it, only to find myself losing again? I really, really, doubt it. I don't understand the controversy surrounding the use of metacommands. IF is a genre, not a single game. Different IF games will play by different rules. IF writers are not obligated to uphold a standard of fair and decent behavior. If an IF writer uses unwinnable states to make their game too difficult to be enjoyable, that's one thing. But there is nothing sacred about metacommands.
Besides, what logic really propels someone to try to save the life of that newborn? In the first chapter, you play a sports agent. Your daughter dies because her umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck. What exactly do you hope to achieve, here? Perhaps, if you restore the game, you can push the doctor out of the way and perform a Caesarian yourself. As soon as you get that message, "You have failed to save the life of a newborn," it should be obvious that some trick is afoot.
In Chapters Two, Three, and Four this story is retold from other perspectives: Mrs. Scott's, her nurse, and her doctor. In each of them, the authors maintain their level of superior prose and humor, with strange and enjoyable side vignettes. Unfortunately, the plot is moving a bit faster now, so there's less time to explore. There are no puzzles in this section of the game, and you are railroaded rapidly to Chapter Five. Such is life.
Chapter Five is an Alice in Wonderland homage. Some reviewers have complained that there are far too many of these in Interactive Fiction, and that is probably true. Still, No Time to Squeal contains a very unusual Wonderland homage, and it's not clear from the beginning that you're about to enter Wonderland, as you obtain your magic shrinkage potion from a sleazy-looking vendor in a tenement alley.
With this chapter, the game changes in two ways. First, it becomes puzzle-oriented. (A walkthrough, including it's own brand of humor, is provided.) Second, it becomes sickeningly violent. Observe the following excerpt:
She is a wisp of a woman, approximately 5'7" and slight of build. She is laying in tattered clothes on a stinking mattress, her hands and left leg bound to the apartment walls with thick chain. She has been viciously ripped from just below her neck straight down toward her pelvis, Her internal organs are scattered about her gaping chest cavity, although some have leaked over to the bed and others smear the walls, slowly crawling down to the floor. Her long blonde hair is matted with blood and pulp into the sheets upon her bed, and she seems unable to focus, articulate her horror, or die.
"The hare rips away a purplish, engorged organ and some fleshy, meaty sections of the woman's stomach. He hurls these parts at the left wall, splashing her blood everywhere and he does so with meticulous strain and patience."
There are no doubt some who will argue that there is no excuse for putting such things in a piece of Interactive Fiction (or a Usenet article, for that matter). That aside, the violence of the game succeeded in shocking me (the presumed intent) where Hannibal failed. Up until this chapter, No Time to Squeal was, as I've said, quite pedestrian. A baseball crashes through a window; a spurned boyfriend shows his ex-girlfriend a gun. But mostly, golf is played, sweaters are selected, pregnancies are discussed, wealthy men smile at one another, and good-natured husbands, wives, nurses and doctors all conspire to
***save the life of a newborn***
To be ripped from that world and placed into an Alice in Wonderland homage complete with a white hare modeled on Jack the Ripper was a real shock. I had never before seen such graphically violent descriptions in IF, and I must say that I'm not glad that has changed. Still, as a literary device, the violence probably succeeded.
Shortly into the final chapter, the murderous white hare throws a piece of intestine at you, which transforms into a snake. The snake snugs dangerously around your neck. The game is hinting, at this point, that you are playing the unborn child of the first four chapters (who is being choked by an umbilical cord, remember). You must remove the snake from your neck, escape the hare, and travel through a portal that doubtless is intended to symbolize something less corporeal than a vagina. If you succeed in doing so, the game rewards you with the message:
*** You have saved the life of a newborn baby girl ***
Frankly, I don't see how anyone could have played this game all the way through and misunderstood the plot of Chapter Five. I can understand if people missed the snake/umbilical cord reference, but the endgame should have clenched it: the little girl in the Wonderland homage is the unborn child in the first four chapters. And that's all (thank G-d) I have to say about that.
And now, Kallisti by James Mitchlehill. I think the opening paragraphs say a great deal:
"Katie was a virgin, though few people knew. She worked at a printers firm and enjoyed the company, but not the affections of men. She would sometimes advise her colleagues on how to treat their lovers. Despite the many offers she had received, the flower of her youth, her purity, remained unbroken.
"Gustav was a printer who had recently started work at Katie's firm. Though they laboured in the same building all day, he had little occasion to be with her. Regardless, Gustav had noticed her on his first day. He watched Katie leave, and when he came to close the workshop at the end of the day he thought of her and said to himself, 'I will have you.'"
Gustav is surely the least likable character ever placed into IF, PC or NPC. The PC in Little Blue Men was pathetic and contemptible; Gustav is diabolic. That's fine. That was the author's goal, as he makes very clear by the end of the game. It didn't reduce my enjoyment of the game, though I understand if it did yours.
For my part, I wanted to know just how sick Gustav was, and tried the most outrageous possible solution, namely, RAPE KATIE. The game didn't know the word rape, but TIE KATIE WITH SCARF returned:
"Gustav advanced on Katie. In his hands was her own scarf. She backed away, instinctively, though she could not have known what he intended. Gustav was perhaps twice her size. He could do anything to her and all she would have been able to do was struggle against his strength.
"Gustav stopped. This was not how he wanted it to be. He slipped the scarf back into his pocket and smiled at her as if he had never intended a thing."
Well, gee. I feel better about him already.
What did reduce my enjoyment of the game was the character of Katie. Chapter One of the game is a seduction, similar to what we'd expect from more modern works of AIF. Armed with a scarf, his mysterious good looks, and his questionable wit, Gustav must, under the reluctant hand of the player, encourage Katie to surrender her maidenhead. This is accomplished by asking her about her life, asking her opinions on things like love and sex, complimenting her various body parts, then kissing her hand and neck. At that point, she swoons and asks the slimy Gustav to take her, and you proceed to Chapter Two. It should be noted that this game has no walkthrough, even though correctly navigating Chapter One does constitute puzzle-solving, in my book.
Katie ruins any enjoyment I could get from Chapter One. Gustav is contemptibly one-dimensional, as he was designed to be, with self-congratulating lines like:
"'I haven't introduced myself properly yet, have I? Very well. I am called Gustav. I came to this gray city around a month ago. There really was nowhere else to go. All roads lead here. All roads led to this moment, here with you. I do not usually work as a printer, but there was little else I could find at short notice and besides, my funds are limited presently. I'm talking to you because you interest me.'"
I'm OK with that. What I'm not OK with is the one-dimensional aspects of Katie's character. One could argue that since Gustav sees Katie as nothing more than a walking box, she would appear one-dimensional to him, in any case. But there's no reason she should seem so wooden and dull to the players. The only major conversational thread I found discusses her clichéd career as a dancer, shattered along with her leg. Her regret at her failed career is her only non-physical characterization. The rest of it is her ass, her legs, her marble skin.
And the prose of Chapter One, no matter what the subject, is terrible. Florid and illogical, it pushes all previously known boundaries of pretension. Examine Katie's face and get:
"There was a strange quality to her face, beyond the usual variations in features. That is not to say she wasn't attractive, for she was, and deliciously so. But beneath the mask that she, like all people, had put up in defense against the world, there were hints of something greater, some beautiful paradox eating fruit from the trees in the gardens of contradiction."
I don't want to know what a beautiful paradox eating fruit from the trees in the gardens of contradiction is. I do know that the only joy I'll ever get from those words is forcing them upon unlucky Usenet readers. Two basic rules of style: never use an adjective when a noun will do, and never use a prepositional phrase when anything else will do. I've probably violated them both in this article, but damn. Kallisti takes the cake.
On a technical level, Chapter One seemed to work fairly well. There are typos and grammatical errors, though in my opinion they were far less serious than the pretension of the writing. The game is told from third-person limited perspective, Gustav's. When the game returns an error message, it does so in brackets, to let you know that it is breaking character. If you ask Katie about the same subject twice, you get the error message, "[there was nothing to be gained by pressing the topic]," which seems appropriate for the genre. Unfortunately, the chapter has one major bug. Asking/telling Katie about her ears, nose, or mouth will return only a blank line. Trying again will return "[there was nothing to be gained by pressing the topic]." I, for one, hope that the author takes the time to correct the bug. After all, the most hated game in the archive should be bug-free.
Chapter One includes an occasional annoying jump into Katie's thoughts, letting us know that she feels compelled to talk to Gustav. It is important to note that although the text implies that Katie is attracted to Gustav, it does not say so. It merely says that she wants to stay and talk with him. This is an important aspect of Chapter One that I have not seen mentioned: the author is already building towards Chapter Three, bad prose and all.
Thus, I'm glad I slogged through Chapter One. It seemed odd to me that someone had entered what appeared to be a standard work of AIF with ridiculous prose into the Competition; I felt certain he was building to something strange.
Chapter Two: coitus, still written in that horrible style. I'd like to bring up the response to KISS KATIE'S BREASTS:
"Gustav ran his tongue across Katie's breasts. He took a nipple into his mouth, sucking gently upon it. He was not entirely ignorant of the symbology, of the infant suckling at its mother's breast. Was there an echo of the same original pleasure? Did this make him safe? And of course, now he could not be separated against his will; the safety was complete. In mere decades, he had gone from tears to seduction; and now, pondering socio-sexuality as he grazed his teeth over her pert mounds, to the reductio ad absurdum of world as symbol and symbol as world. A breast is just a breast; Sometimes the fuck of your life is just the fuck of your life and the psychologists and analysts can go screw themselves as the living learn how to live."
Dan Shiovitz has amusingly complained about this paragraph, saying that he doesn't like Foucault in his porn. This paragraph, in my opinion, is not meant to be arousing. It is possible to ponder socio-sexuality during foreplay; it happens when you are not even remotely interested in the person you're about to fuck. As badly-written as the paragraph is, it nonetheless illustrates that Gustav is emotionally and psychically divorced from his own "lovemaking."
And, without puzzles, we move into Chapter Three. The intro for the final chapter ends with the sentence, "Rain began to fall, boiling as it touched his skin."
That should be a big hint. EXAMINE GUSTAV clues us into the new plot:
"Gustav's body had changed. He was naked, deep red skin like cooling iron. When raindrops touched him, they boilded, droplets of scalding water spitting away. Two twisting horns had pierced his forehead, narrowing to razor-sharp points. He had grown, seven feet tall, hooves instead of feet."
Certain types of bad writing lend themselves to communication in certain genres. Unnecessarily terse writers do well with military history; pretentious writers do OK with metaphysics, and in the short third chapter, the author's style becomes much less annoying. Many reviewers have said they didn't understand Chapter Three. I suggest Gustav became the physical manifestation of his metaphysical self; by seducing the only virgin in the city, he transformed himself into a physical demon. This did not surprise him, although we're not clear as to why it shouldn't. What does surprise him is Katie, who is in this transformed realm, laughing, presumably at him. The golden apple of Greek mythology lies at Katie's feet, her possession, to be given to him. When he takes it, he thinks "So this is perfection." We are supposed to conclude that Katie was never an innocent, that Gustav achieved perfection through his act of coitus, and that perfection is as empty, for Gustav, as sex.
In many ways, Kallisti fails as a piece of IF. The author clearly felt that his prose would be a major selling point, and his prose is terrible. There are bugs in Chapter One, and it's completely possible to interact with Katie in Chapter Three, returning the message, "[it is not known how Katie could be touched]." Many people completely misunderstood the final chapter. But Kallisti shoots high, really high. Kallisti attempts to present a philosophy through a work of AIF, and if you understood Chapter Three, it succeeds in this lofty goal. Emily Short has written against this philosophy, and I'd like to quote her excellent review: "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."
I disagree with Emily's final statement, regarding intellect being diffused into pseudo-academic jargon. This is a weakness of the author's writing style, not a part of his philosophy. Otherwise, Emily has described Kallisti's philosophy perfectly. But it's a philosophy, dammit, no matter how sophomoric. Sand and Little Blue Men, whether they intended to or not, advanced the notion that life is futile. Kallisti deliberately advances the notion that sex is sinful and empty. I would far rather play in the adolescent philosophies of Kallisti than be subjected to another round of Zork clones.
This article copyright © 2001, Jonathan Penton