IFComp 2008: Recess at Last and Violet

(This is another Interactive Fiction Competition review .)

Here we have two games about not being able to write. One of them is good. It isn’t Recess at Last.

There are spoilers this time, so I’m including a “read the rest” link.

In Recess at Last your character is a kid kept in at recess because he hasn’t finished his history assignment. So from the start I’m entirely underwhelmed by his problems. But he’s got a pencil and a nice blank sheet of paper sitting in front of him, so this should be pretty simple, right?

>write paper
In your best cursive handwriting, you write “Paper” on your blue jeans.

>write on paper
In your best cursive handwriting, you write “On paper” on your blue jeans.

Okay. Weird, but maybe the kid was too lazy to do any reading, even on Wikipedia. Off to the library! The author hasn’t bothered to implement some of what’s mentioned in the room description. (Who was the author who visited this kid’s school recently? We’ll never know–it’s impossible to examine the display.) But there is a book on Vasco da Gama. Let’s sit down and read:

>read book
You flip the pages randomly and arrive at page 17:

Page 17 doesn’t seem to have any information you need for your worksheet.

Try to read the book and the kid flips to a random page every time. Clearly he is unfamiliar with the entire concept of “book.” And now we see why this kid is struggling: he’s a total moron. Dumb as a brick. One of the future Sarah Palin voters of America. Really, his parents ought to just pull him out of school and put him to work as a chimney sweep. Prodding him along is about as much fun as actually doing some damn fourth-grader’s homework for him.

So it’s interesting that I didn’t hate Violet, even though, when boiled down to its essential salts, it has exactly the same premise. Why? Let’s count the ways.

1. The stakes are higher. Recess at Last‘s kid is missing recess. Violet‘s protagonist is a grad student whose inability to complete his thesis threatens to end his relationship with his girlfriend. Only one of these problems is a thing which can be related to by someone over the age of ten.

2. Theme. As in, Violet has one. The puzzles are variations on one fundamental challenge which both serves as an overarching meta-puzzle and tells us something about this character: his writer’s block stems from some serious attention-deficit problems. I can relate. (Notice how there are sometimes a couple weeks between posts around here?)

The solutions are also linked, and let us in on what’s going on here emotionally. In the course of the game this guy destroys every gift Violet created for him. It feels wrong. By the time you break the snowglobe there’s real tension: this relationship is in trouble, and it’s your fault.

3. Violet has a voice. Violet‘s narrator is a voice in the protagonist’s head, an imaginary avatar of his girlfriend who urges him to write. And this tells us something else about the protagonist: his relationship with this woman is what’s really important to him. This is his goal. At the same time, it shows us Violet, as filtered through the protagonist’s perceptions, and gives Violet a voice unlike anything in the competition.

4. Implementation. Violet takes place in a single very detailed room. You can examine anything. You feel like you can try anything you like. Recess at Last gives you an entire very sparsely implemented school building, and manages to be even duller than a real elementary school.

Violet wasn’t an entirely smooth experience. Breaking something is irrevocable–the undo command excepted–and the game wants you to fulfill certain conditions every time you do it. At first the initial responses were misleading–I thought the gifts couldn’t be taken apart at all. Then came the stage when I knew what I wanted to do, but the game wouldn’t let me do it, and I couldn’t figure out why. That drives me crazy. But, hell–Violet was too charming to stay mad for long. I’m happy to see Violet and her grad student back together in the end. But, guys–don’t have kids. Or if you do, at least don’t write any games about them.

1 thought on “IFComp 2008: Recess at Last and Violet

  1. Thanks so much for your review of Violet. Your discussion of the theme and voice of the game are quite consonant with what I was trying to do, so it was very gratifying to read. Also, at least with respect to one of the puzzles, and maybe more, I will be addressing the issue you point to with gameplay in a post-competition release.

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