Another IFComp review. (I’ll try to have some other stuff soon, for anyone uninterested in interactive fiction who might happen upon this blog.) Spoilers past the link.
Interactive fiction is an environment delivered to the player in words, in response to commands which could be rephrased as questions–“what does the white house look like,” or “what will I find if I open the mailbox?” Varkana opens with the viewpoint character boosting a friend up to see over a wall, listening as she describes a scene meant to orient the player to the world and the character to the plot. Varkana puts its character in the same position as the player. The player instantly identifies with the character, is immersed in her environment.
The environment–a relaxed little fantasy city-state with an artistic bent and powerful neighbors–is a good place to be immersed in. It feels bigger than the game, a place with a life outside of puzzles. The puzzles don’t feel like puzzles. They’re domestic problem-solving: chasing down your friend’s cat, gathering materials for an art project, teasing information out of a laconic stranger. Simple tasks, like you face in real life. But not boring: by this point the game world has charmed you, and you’ve identified with the character enough to see her through her day. And the game drops hints of something bigger in the background, an uber-plot you’ll presumably uncover if you keep your eyes open and ask the right questions…
…And at the last minute it all goes horribly wrong. Varkana dumps your point of view into the previous character’s friend, one of the local guards. To reach the optimal ending you have to help a character you have no reason to like or trust–according to the best information you have, someone you ought to arrest. You’ve got a weapon in your inventory that looks tailor-made to get the drop on him, but the game won’t let you use it. So you help the guy escape, and the game finishes with a great unwieldy infodump of all the background you should have been allowed to uncover for yourself.
According to some of the discussion on rec.games.int-fiction, the author had planned a longer game but cut it off short to get it into the competition on time. I hope she goes back to finish it. What she’s got here is just about half of a brilliant game.
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