IFComp 2008: Piracy 2.0, Nightfall

(This is another Interactive Fiction Competition review .)

Piracy 2.0 and Nightfall bring up interesting issues regarding player knowledge vs. PC knowledge. Spoilers past the link.

According to its help menu, Piracy 2.0 is an adaptation of a game Sean Huxter wrote in the 1980s in BASIC.

Wait, don’t run away! This one is actually not crap!

Most people who come up with reimplementations of their very old IF games don’t bother to update them to take account of 20 years of progress, but Huxter went back to the basic idea and rebuilt the concept from the ground up. The result has a certain amount of depth to it, or at least as much depth as a game gets when it doesn’t reach beyond standard-issue off-the-rack space opera tropes. There are multiple endings. The puzzles are logical and well-clued. There’s an annoying gimmick where space pirates pop up at random moments to shoot at you—the rest of the time they’re strangely absent—but it’s not a game-killer. (The author protested on rec.games.int-fiction that “most” games have random encounters with enemies who try to kill you. Well, no—most games don’t. RPGs might, and first person shooters, but adding random combat to interactive fiction is missing the point.)

The piles of dust lying around reminded me of the first episode of Red Dwarf. I was, therefore, disappointed that there was no clever response to EAT DUST.

An odd, but difficult to avoid, aspect of Piracy 2.0 is the disconnect between the player’s knowledge and the things the PC ought to know. A lot of the game involves manipulating the ship’s systems, entering codes and activating defense measures. An important step towards solving the game is getting to secure terminals where you can pick up instructions and lists of codes. But the PC should already know his ship works! And, if he’s a good space captain, he’ll have the access codes memorized as well.

What Piracy 2.0 needs is what Nightfall has: commands for THINK and REMEMBER. Nightfall’s PC is running around a city he knows very well. It’s a big map (bigger than it needed to be; it would have worked better if only the important locations were implemented, interleaving transition paragraphs to deal with travel). But it’s easy to get around because if you GO TO any location you should already know the game will walk the PC through the map. THINK allows the PC to strategize, REMEMBER reviews relevant memories.

The memories are important. Nightfall gives the player the pieces of a story that began many years ago and comes to a climax during the game. How good a story is this? I’m actually not sure. Compared to the best short stories in any genre—that ten percent that, going by Sturgeon’s law, is not crap—what I saw of the characterization was a bit too simply motivated, too uncomplicated. But I didn’t see all of it! Knowing there was a time limit, but unsure what it might be, as midnight approached I rushed things, cut corners, and missed a lot of things I should have investigated. When I realized later that the time limit was longer than I thought, I was royally pissed off that I’d lost the chance to discover those things for myself.

That experience highlights both an advantage and a drawback of interactive fiction. A story like Nightfall lets players piece the story together themselves and draw their own conclusions. The direct involvement lends force to its emotional punch. But there’s no guarantee that every player will experience the optimal story; they may miss something, or experience certain events in… not the wrong order—that would be a bug. But a less effective order. If Nightfall doesn’t work for someone, is it because it’s not the game for them? Or is it just that they didn’t see it at its best?