IFComp 2008: Everybody Dies

IFComp 2008: Everybody Dies

(This is another Interactive Fiction Competition review .)

This next review is of Everybody Dies, in which everybody dies. Actual spoilers reside past the link.

Illustrated interactive fiction has been around since the commercial days, but Everybody Dies does something new: it combines IF with comics. (IF trivia mavens might object to the “new” part, and bring up Infocomics. They weren’t the same thing.) No matter how good the actual game was, this was going to get my attention. I have a not-actually-professional interest in comics. (Is there a phrase equivalent to “professional interest” for amateurs? If not, I’m voting for “unprofessional interest.”) Everybody Dies interleaves an IF game with cut scenes made of sequential, narrative illustrations—in other words, comic strips. This is something I haven’t seen before.

Everybody Dies switches between the points of view of three employees at a big box store who slip back through time to prevent their own deaths. Their three souls inhabit one body at a time, able to take certain actions and provide different perspectives on the scenes. The comic sequences are a silent, symbolic parallel story that comments on, and expands on the themes of, the main game. They eerily recast the old comic image of a progressively bigger line of fishes eating each other. These fish, we find, aren’t being eaten—they’re nesting, like matryoshka dolls. Their killer is a right-wing lunatic living in a fish-eat-fish world of racial hierarchies, imagined slights, and hair-trigger vengeance. The victims, nearly strangers, don’t consume each other but shelter each others’ souls.

Both the writing and the comics are great, as you might expect given the talent involved—author Jim Munroe is a professional writer, with published novels to his credit; Michael Cho is a professional comic artist. The art style, to indulge in the time-honored hack critics’ tradition of comparing artists to other artists, rests somewhere in a triangle whose vertices are Dan Clowes, Adrian Tomine, and David Mazzucchelli. Cho uses a limited palette of black, white, and an accent color which is also an informational cue: the portrait of each character has its own color which reappears in the cut scenes to clarify the metaphor.

The writing is the best I’ve so far encountered in this year’s IFComp. Which may be faint praise considering some of the competition—the guy who wrote Press Escape to Save is back, I see—but it really is good. Everybody Dies establishes characters with a few paragraphs. Each character has an immediately recognizable voice. Get through one short scene and you know these guys.

The implementation of the game is shakier. Everybody Dies isn’t hugely buggy, though bugs do exist—for example, if Ranni examines the graffiti in the third chapter he gives a response in Graham’s voice. The biggest problem is that details are lacking. You don’t notice right away just because what writing there is is so good, but Everybody Dies is sparse. There are few objects in each scene and some of them still have the default “I see nothing special about the [thing]” description. Seeing things from different viewpoints is a major part of this game’s charm. Taking a few more weeks to enrich the game-world could have pushed Everybody Dies from “great” to “a classic of the form.”

Which leads me to a bigger question. Occasionally the IF community grumbles that the yearly competition has warped the medium around it like a z-code black hole. Everybody wants to be in the IFComp; nobody pays much attention to the few games released beyond its borders. This year I’m starting to think these people might have a point. There’s a theme running through this year’s games. They seem empty. Underwritten. Undertested (or just underfixed; I beta-tested a couple of last-minute games whose authors clearly didn’t allow themselves enough time to put in the work they needed). Unfinished. Many of this year’s games were just plain rushed out before they were ready. And this isn’t the first time: I’m reminded of last year’s truncated game Varkana, which for its first three-quarters looked like a new classic but ground to a sudden halt and infodumped the rest of the plot. Think we’ll ever see a finished version? Or, even if we do, that anyone who played through the first wreck will pay any attention? Neither do I.

If Everybody Dies was rushed, it didn’t suffer much. I’ve tried less than half the games but unless the other half contain an unlikely amount of life-changingly great literature this will be in my top three. But many games did suffer—I’m looking at you, Freedom! And you too, A Martian Odyssey!—and now they’re making the players suffer along with them.