Ferrous Ring is another game from IFComp 2007. Expect spoilers beyond the link.
Ferrous Ring was the first game I played from this year’s IFComp that was well written, in a quality-of-the-prose sense. Given that about half of each room description is a bald list, you may question this claim. I must admit I hadn’t played many games at this point.
But Ferrous Ring‘s first person narration is one of the best examples in this competition of characterization through prose. (Another, perhaps even better, is Lost Pig. But I’ll get to that later.) For example: It’s a convention of interactive fiction that a room description doesn’t describe every floorboard or pebble in the general area. It can’t. So it describes objects that are somehow important. Ferrous Ring draws attention to the convention; when its narrator lists objects, he literally lists them. Now it’s not a convention, but a character point. This is someone who thinks like an IF game: he sees what’s important to him and disregards everything else.
And he sees in binary. He divides everything between two Manichaean lists of Good and Bad. You notice after a while that people he doesn’t know–i.e., generic scavengers–tend to end up in the “Bad” category. He has an almost animist world view, talking about inanimate objects as though they’re living things. I had the impression that the narrator might have a touch of Asperger’s.
I wish I could say I understood the world as well as the character. The narrator talks about other characters and past events as though we ought to be as familiar with them as he is. Which may be a bit of fourth-wall-breaking characterization; he can’t imagine that his readers don’t share what’s in his head. But it makes the game disorienting. Especially because his first-person error messages are also nonspecific and uninformative: they’re all along the lines of “I am suddenly struck by the compulsion to… do something. But my thoughts wash over it – drown it.”
Also aggravating: the game is on rails. There’s a set path for you to follow and not much else to do. And sometimes simple actions (i.e., printing a photo) require you to type tedious extra commands that should be implicit (i.e., TURN PRINTER ON, an action so obvious that the character should take it automatically when you type PRINT PHOTO).
But, again, that may be the point. Ferrous Ring quotes B. F. Skinner a couple of times, opening with “A person does not act upon the world, the world acts upon him.” Maybe Ferrous Ring is about how our environment, and our own natures, and even the choices made by others, limit the choices available to us. On the other hand, the author also quotes Sartre: “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.” Which I guess isn’t necessarily a contradiction.
In the end, the narrator finds himself in a house in a tunnel, waiting for some destiny which he’s sure is coming for him. It seems unlikely that any destiny will find him there; it didn’t find his predecessor, who was waiting for the same thing. It looks more like his promised “armor” has allowed him to separate himself entirely from the rest of humanity. It’s late and I’m getting sleepy, so I’m not up to pondering the significance of that right now. Ferrous Ring‘s author says in the “read me” file that the game was intended to make a few philosophical points. I am not totally one hundred percent sure what those points were supposed to be. Ferrous Ring is enigmatic the way the Sahara desert is dry. But one thing I’m fairly certain of is that this game gets more things right than it does wrong.
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