IFComp 2009: Snowquest

This is another Interactive Fiction Competition review.

The best games this year all do something different with setting, creating something other than caves, spaceships, and random surrealist-comedy wackylands—Duel in the Snow, Byzantine Perspective, Rover’s Day Out (spaceships and apartments are standard IF settings, but it combines them in new ways) and now Snowquest. (Which is, okay, snow again—but it’s not something we see very often, and in any case each game has a different feel.)

This shouldn’t surprise me; IF is about setting as much as anything else. Choosing a different setting isn’t enough in and of itself, of course—Gator-On shows us the Everglades, but only as a few dozen rooms with identically vague descriptions and nothing to look at. But thinking outside the usual IF boxes is a good start; it’s a sign that authors have ambitions to blaze their own trails.

According to the help menu, one of Eric Eve’s goals with Snowquest was to make a game that fit into a limited amount of memory. In the end it just fit, so he had to make efficient use of limited resources. This is reflected in the structure of the game. The PC has very few tools, and must use them wisely to survive in an arctic landscape.

Snowquest is good at leading the player through an apparently wide-open landscape. The early game herds the player into a cave; theoretically you might send the PC off in any direction, but the game forbids this for sensible, non-arbitrary reasons.

It’s not clear, at first, who the PC is. For the first few rooms I assumed this was a game about a 19th/early 20th century Arctic explorer. There’s a dream in which the PC is chasing something white—a unicorn, a woman in a white dress, a butterfly. Then the game veered into a fantasy quest. Then the PC wakes up back in the cave, and sees a plane crash, and recognizes the pilot, a young woman, as herself.

Then we cut to an airport, and learn that the first half of the game was a premonition of the future, shown to the pilot by an FBI agent with a hypnotic crystal he picked up somewhere.

I have to admit that this does not immediately appear to make sense. First, if this was a premonition of a plane crash, what was the fantasy-world quest business? Second, for someone who’s just met an FBI agent who carries around a magic fortune-telling hallucination crystal, the PC is remarkably nonchalant. Mostly she worries that the parcel she’s been given might contain drugs. After the bleak and uncanny arctic sequence this crime-drama resolution seems almost random. Almost.

And yet… the visionary first half of Snowquest and the realist second half mesh only awkwardly, but what’s interesting is how, even if it doesn’t quite come together, Eric Eve is working to make the two halves fit. In the dream, the PC throws a stick to distract an apparent wolf whose behavior suggests it may really be a dog. When, in the real world, it becomes obvious that Agent Wolf is not what he seems, the player knows exactly what to do to throw him off balance. It’s a neat bit of parallelism and rock-solid game design.

Snowquest kept my trust. This isn’t a bunch of random stuff thrown together, but a nearly cohesive world containing random stuff. It doesn’t quite work, but Snowquest is worthwhile for having tried something outlandish, and having made an effort to do it well.