Thursday, October 8, 2015

Midnight. Swordfight. (a review)

"Midnight. Swordfight" is a parser-style interactive fiction by Chandler Groover for the 2015 annual interactive fiction competition.

One of my favorite things about the IF comp season is the opportunity to play so many different styles of games with limited preconceptions about what I'll experience.  Sometimes I jump straight into a game without reading the blurb.  During my first fifteen minutes with this one, I mistakenly thought I was playing an "Adrift" entry.  ("Midnight. Swordfight" is actually written with Glulx).  I'm glad I double checked that before writing this review.  That would have been an embarrassing mistake to go uncorrected.

Nothing Spoilery until after the page break.

"Midnight. Swordfight" is a fable, set on the grounds of a castle or manor house, in some alternate fairy tale universe.  Depending on the choices a player makes, the story could either be an absurd fantasy or a bloody horror tale.  In that sense, it is a proper tribute to the classical fairy tales (Grimm Brothers tales, or one from any number of other European or non-European sources).  The contrast of horror and comedy makes for good story telling.  It builds tension, then releases, and back again.  My favorite TV shows are, in the modern venacular, "dramedies".

As a game, this one has some interesting features.  Traditional compass directions are replaced with clock themed directions (future, past, clockwise, counterclockwise).  The difference, however, is mostly superficial.  Time has stopped for all but the player and a few NPCs.  There are no time-dependent puzzles, no puzzles at all, really.  Multiple endings are available, depending in part on which props the PC carries at the end-game.  Each game is short and the player is encouraged to try again.

Object implementation is strong.  There was scarcely a thing mentioned in the story which couldn't be examined or offered as a conversation topic to the one NPC who will talk to you.  I liked the way the conversation system was handled.  While in conversation mode, the player simply has to mention conversation topics.  No need to repeatedly type "ask NPC about ..."  The verbs in this game are implemented less well, but player expectations are managed carefully.  The player has been instructed what verbs are allowed through an in-story mechanism, and the player quickly learns not to test the limits of the parser.

Nice game, not too long or fancy or philosophical.  My spoilers follow the break.

I found about five unique endings in 30 minutes before turning to the walkthrough.  I had overlooked two important props which are needed to unlock many of the other endings.  One of these props I should have seen easily in the cloakroom.  The other is well hidden near the grandfather clock.  I wish the story had done a better job of tying up its own loose ends.  There is a dead girl in the fountain.  Is she there to set the horror mood, or is she part of one of the endings?  There is a giant dead beast on the moon.  Is it there as a fantastic set-piece, or was it meant to symbolize something more fundamental?  The central conceit of this story is that the Countess has challenged me to a duel.  Yet by the end of the game, I'm still not sure why.

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