Saturday, October 22, 2016

Eight characters, a number, and a happy ending (review)

"Eight Characters, a Number, and a Happy Ending" is an interactive story written by K.G.Orphanides for the 2016 interactive fiction competition. The game was written with the Quest authoring system.

I noticed that the title contains an Oxford comma, something which made me smile. Oxford comma is a subject which has inspired some great cartoons, a dopey controversy, and a pretty good song.

A year ago, during the 2015 competition, I began to notice IF authors using a wider variety of authoring tools. The trend had been going on before I noticed it, of course. This came at the same time as a trend toward making parser fiction more accessible to a wider audience. And finally, a trend toward games which toggled between open choice input and menu driven input. I began to wonder if there wasn't some platform available which would allow players to choose how to engage with the story. Players who didn't want to type could interact with onscreen buttons or menu-mazes. Players who felt typing was simpler or more immersive could interact that way. "Quest" might be just that system.

Mild spoilers follow:

Although I didn't know about "Quest" at the time I imagined a dual parser/button system, the current version of "Quest" seems to fit my expectations. This lulled me into thinking that "Eight Characters" would be a game I could complete without typing any verbs. That's not in fact true and I turned to the "help" page early because of my false expectation. ("touch" is not implemented as a verb in any of the drop down menus. It might be implied by other drop down actions...yet it is required as a typed action early in the game.) That was not the only point in this game where I felt I was asked to "guess the verb." But back to "Quest", this is a platform which offers the potential to eliminate "guess the verb" entirely.

I really liked the final puzzle in "Eight Characters" (figuring out a password, and typing that in at the right time). I was able to solve that on my own by combining information from different sources, and felt satisfied by the conclusion.

The story is an interesting one, so I won't go on my usual rant about the cliche of waking up from stasis on board a space ship. Here, the sci-fi backstory is complex enough to make it worthy of an amnesiac's gradual rediscovery. The themes are war and peace, mind-control and free-will. The story is book-ended by several well chosen quotes from military philosopher/strategist Sun Tzu. There are at least two (sub-optimal) endings I was able to discover without the hints page, and then there is the titular "happy ending" which is worth it even if you have to solicit the walk-through.

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