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IF Comp 2008: Violet

Yeah, screenshots totally don’t work with Interactive Fiction, do they?

The IF Comp 2008 awardsresults were announced a couple of days back. It’s… well, I don’t pretend to be anything other than a casual observer of gaming’s one true art-subculture, but seeing their yearly competitions is something which always makes me happy, even if I barely touch any of the actual games. That said, I was following Emily Short’s takes on the entrants, and given her rep, I wasn’t surprised that her three stand out games ended up comprising the top three (Albeit not in her chosen order). Namely: Violet, Nightfall and Everybody Dies. I’ll try and give the two runners up a proper play in the next few days, but here’s my take on the victor. It’s really rather neat.

The competition gravitates towards Short-IF. Basically, you don’t judge a game on more than the first two hours – so people specifically trying to enter the competition work within those boundaries. Which suits me fine, as that short piece structure is what I tend to find most interesting about the genre – relatively-rapid, deliberate experimentation – and, since the games are such a length, leads to me experiencing more of the results of those experiments.

Violet is like that. It’s also enormously accessible – the parser is really generous, it introduces more unusual commands when you try to do the, it’ll re-do moves up to a point if a step re-sets them all and its active hint system is comprehensive- and softly emotive. In terms of narrative tone, it perhaps trips into being a tad saccharine for my tastes a couple of times, but considering it was looking at heading into bleakness for bleaknesses sake, I suspect its author – Jeremy Freese – made the right decision. Generally speaking, its emotional moments are terribly well judged, not least in its most striking and memorable narrative quirk.

Its told in the second person. Rather than getting your character describing what happens when you try an action, you get your girlfriend narrating its effects. What’s wonderful about this is its using Interactive Fiction’s technology to precisely simulate the phenomena of a person in your head, of knowing what someone would say even if they’re not there. It’s an idea both beautifully conceived and excellently executed – the details of the relationship as they gradually come to light have the ring of truth to them. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the author has either drawn from life or friend’s life. If not, he’s applied an novelist’s eye for detail.

(And randomly, I realise that the narrator is the mainstream’s conception of SHODAN as applied to an Indie IF game. But that’s another essay, y’know?)

The story is a one-room game with a simple concept. You’ve promised your girlfriend you’d write 1000 words of your grad-student dissertation before coming home. But can you manage it when everything in the place is trying to distract you?

It’s a good question. It lead to me experiencing the strongest game/life confluence since my first plays on the Sims. I’m sitting in my room, avoiding finishing off a review of Luke Haines’ Autobiography by playing an Interactive Fiction game about a guy trying to work out how to finish a piece of a similar length and is trying to do everything to overcome his procrastination. Whilst playing, I certainly found myself questioning my relationship with my girlfriend, shall we say, and that recognition turned into open farce as the scenario escalated. I felt. I laughed. I enjoyed. You can’t ask much for that from a game.

Perhaps the biggest compliment for Violet: the second I finished it, I sat down and rather than obsessively refreshing forum threads, I tied off the Luke Haines review and went out to hang with my good lady.

Admittedly, we played Left 4 Dead.

You can download Violet from here, but you’ll need some manner of interpretter to play it. I think this one will work. Or you can take comment-thread Ryan’s advice, and play it in-browser here. Damn you, comment-thread Ryan. You are full of clever.

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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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