Saturday, November 4, 2017

"Absence of Law" (review)

"Absence of Law" is a parser game written by Brian Rushton for the 2017 Interactive Fiction competition. I enjoyed Rushton's previous competition entries "Color the Truth" and "Ether".
I waited until late in the competition to play "Absence" because I suspected it would be a good one and I wanted to end the 2017 season with a good experience. I was not disappointed.

Mild spoilers may follow

Dr Law (the protagonist in "Absence") is disembodied, which naturally limits the player's actions. But unlike other limited parser games in this competition (or any I've ever seen) the action choices keep changing as the story enters different modes of play. I might describe these different play modes as "gamelets", a series of puzzles which are each solidly coded and fun but which could almost stand alone as amusing diversions. By mid-game I was starting to feel like the science fiction elements of the story had been contrived to host this collection of puzzles. That was a popular game design in the nineties. Remember "Curses" and "Winter Wonderland" were each lauded in their time as "sprawling puzzle-fests". But if I ended a review in 2017 by calling anything a "sprawling puzzle-fest", I would be seen as damning it with faint praise.

The story in this game is that Dr. Law is near death. His brain has been uploaded to a computer, which is nearly out of batteries. The player has been recruited to help bring Dr. Law back to life. This is done through a simulated computer interface, not through the more typical physical interactions simulated in most text games. The player explores and troubleshoots the work of three competing research groups, then during the end game must decide which of the three research technologies to use to reanimate Dr Law. When I played the first time, I was confident that the path I chose was the only one that could lead to a successful ending. I played again (from a restored position) and realized that there are three successful endings. That is an admirable design feature: to write a game which is "unlosable" but creates enough tension to make the player believe their choices matter. There were several other stages of this game where I felt a similar sense of tension, though I suspected that I didn't really need to make a save copy of my position.

My favorite puzzle was a language puzzle in the MOIRAI area. This is an invented language puzzle, where the player has to learn the language of an NPC well enough to begin linking together their words to give commands. I had a little trouble in the beginning and had to check the hints for the correct syntax to link together words. Then I was off and running.

"Absence" pays homage to a lot of older games. The "XYZZY" response delivers one of the most thoroughly implemented Easter Eggs this competition season. (For those new to interactive fiction, "XYZZY" delivers hidden content in many parser games). There is a complete list of inspirations in the end credits, and a few more I thought of which are not in the end credits. The computer interface reminded me of "Suspended" (but the puzzles in "Absence" are a lot more sophisticated). The Robot test sequence in "Absence" reminded me of "Slap that Fish" and "Gun Mute" two games with similar combat mechanisms. (Gun Mute is listed in the end credits, Slap that Fish is not).

Finally, I had an odd mental flashback while playing this to some barely remembered text-graphic hybrid on my Commodore 64. All I remembered clearly about that game from thirty five years ago was a screen with an eight bit color map of the world and its network of communications satellites. There was a puzzle which required trading items back and forth between international spies until everyone was satisfied. It wasn't an easy puzzle and if I ever managed to solve it, it was only through brute force and frequent restarts. I couldn't remember enough about that game to understand why it came to mind while I played "Absence of Law". I mention it here because I was bemusedly shocked, after reading the end credits of "Absence", to see "Hacker by Activision" listed as an inspiration. That was the game I had remembered! I guess Rushton remembers "Hacker" more clearly than I did and succeeded in channeling that game's techno-puzzler spirit without recycling its content.


  1. Does this mean you're done with the Comp games?

  2. I may try one or two more. I've played "Alice" but not for long enough to write a review. I'll probably get back to that one so I can cast a vote on it. November is a busy month for me.