(This is another Interactive Fiction Competition review .)
When Machines Attack lives somewhere beyond good and bad. I’m including some comments on last year’s Press Escape to Save, too. Spoilers past the link.
Last year’s IFComp had some good games. It had many bad games. And then it had Press Escape to Save, “a story demonstrating society.”
Mark Jones’s Press Escape to Save wasn’t any good at all… but it wasn’t bad in the sense that Nerd Quest is bad. Press Escape to Save came from some kind of alternate universe where our human notions of “good” and “bad” are irrelevant. In Gun in Cheek, his survey of strange crime fiction, Bill Pronzini calls books like Cleek: the Man of the Forty Faces and The Corpse with the Floating Foot “alternative classics.” Press Escape to Save is one of the alternative classics of interactive fiction.
PEtS finds the PC awaiting execution for a crime he didn’t commit. You see the first glimmer of anti-genius in his conversation with his cellmate (quoted here sans menu options):
“I was charged for a crime I didn’t even commit. Now I’m going to be hanged.
“Huh, that’s funny. Somebody will probably bail me out of this one, says the man. Now tell me your name kid.”
“My name is Jimmy.”
“Yes, I’m Jimmy.”
“And point the finger at the correct Jimmy, the boss Jimmy, that is.”
“You heard me. Now who’s boss?”
“I hereby declare that there will be no boss,” you say in a patriotic tone of voice.
The man grabs your collar and puts his fist in killing position. “You’re wrong boy.” “There’s gonna be a boss, and it is going to be me. Understood?”
“Alright, alright. YOU’RE the boss.” He lets go of your collar.
“Good. And just in case you were wondering, my name is Master Jimmy. Okay?”
“Okay”, you say in a completely acknowledging voice.
Mark Jones is, in the words of Teresa Nielsen Hayden, “on bad terms with the Muse of Language.”
That night a mysterious ghostly figure, who when he isn’t acting mysterious and portentous says things like “Come on, guys,” materializes to guide the PC and Jimmy through a mysterious fourth-dimensional void, leading to what I’ve cited elsewhere as my favorite moment in the game:
You can’t see any such thing.
That wasn’t a bug so much as a koan.
At the end of the fourth dimension is a small two-bedroom apartment with a breakfast bar. There the figure reveals that he is a scientist who has stolen from the pool of potential human knowledge. “I couldn’t stop drinking from the winepress of the mind,” he confesses, and he means it: in this strange realm knowledge is a liquid, and it’s kept in, y’know, a pool. “The knowledge then gets pumped into the abstract discovery space, where human minds can legally obtain it.” He gives you a sklorpfel, which is a gun and a light source and at one point must be put in your mouth to keep the light from giving away your position. “It doesn’t taste very nice,” says the game.
It’s hard to get through PEtS without a walkthrough. Normally I give up on games like this but with PEtS I kept going, laughing all the way.
So you can imagine my joy when I realized Mark Jones had returned bearing When Machines Attack. It’s not quite as much fun as Press Escape to Save—it’s overlong and there are sequences where you sit at an assembly line and run machinery, which are about as much fun as actually sitting at an assembly line and running machinery. But the writing… oh god, the writing.
You are suddenly awakened from your senses by a loud and disgusting spitting sound from the counter area. To your horror and disgust, you turn around and find the strange semi-human behind the counter spitting on it with his abnormally long tongue, and wiping the countertop with his face.
The PC is David Waters, who on the strength of “a pretty strong background in, simply put, spaceship manufacturing and engineering,” has been hired to work in a spaceship factory. Why he needs engineering qualifications isn’t clear; he’s just working on an assembly line. Also, he’s working a fourteen-hour day, and lives in a dorm on the factory grounds where “the workers are required to habitate themselves over in their rooms for the night.” I had no idea they built spaceships in the Marianas.
It’s tempting to review this thing just by quoting from it:
The jars and the myriad of them makes your bones feel brittle and makes the atmosphere in this room seem really dense, in addition to being very eerie…. The containers on the shelves seem to whisper to you, like they want you or something.
WHAT?? The locker doors are all opening and closing rapidly, like they’re demon possessed by some spirit of inanimate object possession. The clang open and shut, open and shut, open and shut in rapid succession, sending your ears to auditory hell.
You look down the stairs to see the robot fighting with the huge monstrocious machine. But the robot is no match for the machine. Like a toothpick, the executionist-like machine snaps and remove one of the robot’s arms as it tries to break loose from it’s sardonic grip.
Your mouth freezes open, and all that comes out is dim wheez.
It quickly becomes clear why no employee before David has penetrated the mystery behind the factory. They’re all stupid. Here’s James, who’s in the middle of his lunch (chicken salad with metal bits mixed in):
James then looks up in mild shock. “Ahh!!!” he exclaims. “I FORGOT.” He shakes his head. “I forgot that THIS food is part of their PLAN,” he says shaking. Priscilla drops her fork. You look at him.
“Wait, a minute, what are you saying?” you ask James, slightly perplexed. James motions to his plate. “The FOOD! You’re not supposed to eat it.” He leans in closer. “I received a tip from somewhere that this is the reason why people don’t survive here…”
Yeah, I can see how that would slip your mind.
I guess a guy would have to be pretty dense to accept a job with this factory in the first pace. The receptionist, who has “something wrong with the way she walks, like she doesn’t turn corners completely or something,” has gotten into the habit of explaining everything very clearly:
“As you can tell,” the receptionist begins, “this is a locker room.” You look around and nod in agreement.
“But what you don’t know, is why this place is here.” You nod your head in agreement again, still feeling in the wrong after showing up late.
The receptionist talks some more. “In these lockers, workers who work at these facilities are required to wear lab suits. And when these workers are done working for the day, they are required to put them back in the lockers. Are you getting this?”
When Machines Attack’s gory moments caused some uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. At one point Priscilla is mauled by sheet metal before the PC’s eyes. I was caught between laughter and appalled shuddering. Still, When Machines Attack is one bad game I recommend you play anyway. Compared to this thing, Nerd Quest and Lair of the Cyber Cow are dim wheez.