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IFCOMP 2006 - The Initial State

Game #7: The Initial State (by Matt Barton)
Played: October 17th (3 hours 10 minutes)
Platform: Unknown – Possibly Microsoft C++ (MS-DOS Executable)
Unofficial Score: 7-

     Game’s Blurb:
     Initial State is a deeply psychological text adventure set in deep space. You play as an amnesiac who finds himself stranded aboard an immense ship drifting through space. The game is also a literary exercise in the "unreliable narrator" tradition.

     XYZZY Response:
     I don't follow you. Type HELP if you're confused.

     If, by chance, you have already played The Initial State, you are probably goggling at the “7” I rated this game. I suspect most judges won’t finish it, and of those, most won’t play past the first few minutes. It will get 1’s and 2’s and a few 3’s from judges. It will probably rank near the bottom of IFComp 2006 (although, if past trends hold true, at least four games will likely rank lower).

     After playing Labyrinth four days ago, I wanted to take a break before playing and reviewing the next IFComp entry (even though I’m woefully behind as it is). Among other reasons, I just felt as if I’m being too critical. My short reviews of IFComp 1999 – during my initial period of renewed interest in interactive fiction – are more in line with how I wish I could play and review IF now. It was fun then. It was almost impossible to disappoint me, even in a below-average game. I was still writing IF in QuickBASIC, and I saw things from that side. I was accustomed to home-brewed engines, I wasn’t completely spoiled on the conveniences of IF shortcuts, and I could become immersed even in games that might annoy me today.

     So, when I set out to play the next entry on my randomized list today, I wanted to relax more, play for fun, and try to focus less on the technical failings (if any). Luck dealt me the ideal game for such an attempt. It’s a home-brewed game played in a DOS window, lacking even the courtesies some other home-brewed games provide (a “save” feature, an “undo”, “x” as an abbreviation for “examine”, no status bar, etc). A week ago – or a week from now – I might have rated it much much lower.

     In my ranking explanations for a “7”, I make this claim:

     This could also be a game that might have been a “6” or even a “5”, except that the story seemed unexpectedly good, making up for the more serious problems.

     I did find the story in The Initial State unexpectedly good. The game’s blurb, however, is a little scary. Amnesia and an unreliable narrator? Yikes! Somehow, though, it works. The narration didn’t seem all that unreliable to me, but the amnesia bit was certainly there. I enjoyed piecing together the backstory, little by little, exploring and finding various notes, clues, and crew journals (video, audio, and written). If the story hadn’t seemed so interesting, and if I hadn’t started out trying to focus more on the story and less on technical flaws, the lack of hints and a walkthrough might have convinced me to give up before two hours – let alone three.

     There are three things I figured out, which really helped. First, even though the game has no transcript feature (nowadays I somehow feel lost if I don’t run a log), it was easy to set the properties on the DOS window to maintain 9,999 lines of scrollback (more than enough to complete the game). This could then be cut-and-pasted into a transcript. Second, the game’s data files, while lacking a file extension, are just plain-text. If you open the “verbs” file in NotePad (for instance), you can add synonyms for the verbs already listed (most useful to allow “x” as a shortcut for “examine”). Third, you can scrap complicated actions that involve using an object with an indirect object (xobject). All such cases, unless I missed something, can be accomplished with “USE (object) ON (xobject).” Instead of “point remote at screen” you will “use remote on screen”. Instead of “unlock chest with key” you will “use key on chest”. If you imagine it as the text representation of an old-school graphic adventure (pick the inventory item and then use it “on” something in the room), this simplistic approach is probably an easier pill to swallow.

     The Initial State would have been far better if it wasn’t held back by these and other limitations. The lack of an out-of-the-box “X” verb alone (especially when it was so easy to add) tells me that the author may have little to no experience with modern interactive fiction.

     That said, I hope Matt Barton does write more IF (perhaps in one of the programming languages designed for it). The writing is full of odd analogies that sometimes prompt a cringe or two (and not for the reasons Matt probably intended), but overall I found that it fits the story. There are some really clever, creative bits among it all, and the text in general is descriptive and interesting from start to finish.

     If ignoring the lack of the niceties found in other interactive fiction (something that will be impossible for most judges, I accept), The Initial State still has a few problems with its own construction. It seems to want to accept answers to “be more specific” questions, but it didn’t quite seem to work. For instance:

     USE REMOTE

     What do you want to use the remote control on?

     SCREEN

     Even if I could screen the screen, I wouldn’t.

     It doesn’t trim accidental leading spaces from command prompts, such that “look at couch” will work but “_look at couch” will not. It lacks obvious verbs like “read”, which would have been easy as an alias for “examine”. Sometimes, there were blank responses to commands (notably when trying to “break” certain things, but in other cases too). I saw a few minor typos, one spelling error stood out (not bad, really), and one case of “it’s” where the author meant “its”. At the end, there appear to be some end tags missing in at least one of the pseudo-XML data files, allowing you to completely skip a couple final puzzles (those that would otherwise require the scalpel and the club). Some noun synonyms (for objects) are there, but not enough to help in all areas.

     The hardest thing to overcome in playing The Initial State, though, is how commands have been filtered into such a tiny list of things that will actually be understood by the game. The game advises you to type HELP if you are confused, but you’re likely to snap back that the game itself is confused. At least knowing that the game just uses “GET”, “LOOK” and “N/S/E/W” (plus the all-purpose “USE X ON Y”) turned it from unplayable to very easy to complete for me.

     I was really impressed by the story. I think I saw most of it (a peek at the data files shows that I only missed a couple clues along the way), and I think I have most of it figured out. I never understood what the one- and two-word messages were meant to show. Can anyone tell me? Also, was the ending a clue that something else may have been happening, or is it as straightforward as it seemed?

     On the surface, The Initial State may appear to be just like every other “unfortunate loner (sometimes with amnesia) escapes an abandoned (and/or doomed) space ship” game we’ve seen in past competitions. This one is something different. It has a backstory that I really felt moved to learn more about. I had a real sense that the game was written to tell this story, where in some others it’s more like a story was contrived merely to justify writing a game set on an abandoned (and/or doomed) space ship.

     I enjoyed the time I spent playing The Initial State. Looking at it for its own merits as an interactive story, and without allowing its crude custom engine to be the dominant factor in that, I score it a “7” on my scale. It gets a minus, though, for those technical limitations that played a lesser role in the base score.

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