IFComp Reviews: Deadline Enchanter

Another IFComp 2007 review. There are lots of spoilers behind the link.

My other reviews talk about rules. Create a deeply implemented environment. Don’t force the player to follow your walkthrough. Don’t create puzzles that can’t be solved without the walkthrough, or telepathy. Deadline Enchanter breaks all my rules… and it’s good. Any “rule” can be broken, if the author breaks them on purpose, for a specific effect.

Deadline Enchanter will likely be this IFComp’s most controversial work. People will go into this with expectations, and will be disappointed. I didn’t catch on to what was happening until halfway through. The problem is that Deadline Enchanter looks like a game; you type commands and it responds. But it’s more of an interactive short story, with a single not-immediately-obvious branch point.

Deadline Enchanter is a story in the form of an artifact from its fictional cosmology, where cybernetic elves landed their floating city in the Dakotas. (Don’t look at me like that. The concept comes off less ridiculously within the story… mostly because it isn’t so baldly summarized. What would you think if I told you Hamlet was about a guy who dithered for three and a half hours until everybody killed each other?) Among the Folk little interactive environments are an art form; the narrator, in desperate straits, hastily programs her heart and throws it out into the world. The conceit is that the player’s traversal of the story affects the narrator’s world.

The catch is that there’s only one route through the story. The narrator provides a three-part walkthrough giving you the vital commands–and you have to read it, because there are things you won’t otherwise discover. In a straight game this is sloppiness; the result of a writer who didn’t realize the player had no access to the information. Here it’s deliberate: a sign of the narrator’s desperate haste. (But this is also where Deadline Enchanter stumbles. The first and third parts of the walkthrough are obvious. The second part appears in response to an action that must have seemed obvious to the author, but which not everyone will think to take.)

Following the narrator’s instructions–typing commands, getting responses–creates a sense of complicity. Which is important, because there is a decision to make. Because Deadline Enchanter poses as an artifact from its world, it’s a meta-decision: whether, at one crucial point, to continue the story–to rescue the narrator’s lover, and in doing so kill the narrator–or to quit your interpreter. The decision is part of the narrative; what the player chooses in reality means something within the story. Deadline Enchanter asks you to judge its narrator: who or what is she? Should you trust her? Do you want to be complicit in her self-sacrifice?

The game environment is deliberately shallow, so the illusion of a complete world behind the story depends on the quality of the writing. It’s solid; the Folk are a glimpse of something strange and frightening and alien, and there are details–the doll, the living ancestor embedded in the floor–that will stick with me. Ordinary things from the real world are in the eyes of the narrator the stuff of myth. Instant coffee is alchemy; squirrels are heraldic beasts.

As with An Act of Murder, I’ll be very interested to see who the anonymous author turns out to be. I hope Deadline Enchanter manages to get the score it deserves.

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