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IFCOMP 2006 - MANALIVE Part 1

Game #2: MANALIVE, A Mystery of Madness Part I: Enigma (by Bill Powell)
Played: October 8th (3 hours 25 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 5

     Gameís Blurb:
     London, 1912. When you invade a bored boarding house and proceed to climb the garden tree, stage an impromptu concert, and propose to a stranger, your fellow lodgers assume you're eccentric, rather than insane. Until you show them your revolver.

     XYZZY Response:
     That's not a verb I recognise.

     I originally planned to play MANALIVE Part 1 and Part 2 together, then write a single review. After all, it is one story split in two.

     My plan has changed.

     To start, I didnít know the first part would take well over three hours to complete. I also expected the quality between Part 1 and Part 2 to remain the same, but now, I donít want to take this for granted (or rather, I donít want to assume the second part will suffer from the same problems found in the first). Part 2, being Powellís second game, may be more polished. It was entered separately, and I would like to review it separately, on its own merits. I may still play and review the second part next (it would ordinarily come much lower on my random list), but the reviews wonít be combined.

     Not long ago, I had a discussion with David Fisher on the Interactive Fiction Forum (http://www.intfiction.org/forum) about adapting static fiction to interactive fiction. The discussion centered around Star Wars, where many players would know the source material very well, and either be tempted to test the boundaries of the story or simply glide along the rails. To introduce interaction, the author must take liberties with the story, introducing pieces that were off-screen, so to speak. MANALIVE proves that an interesting story can make interesting IF, but it also suffers from design and coding flaws that prevent it from being a really successful conversion.

     Because this is the second game on my list and the first was also an adaptation, I will take a moment to draw comparisons. While Moon-Shaped borrows from static literature at a basic level, it doesnít appear to duplicate the text verbatim (text that is probably written a hundred different ways in as many versions). MANALIVE is less adaptation and more conversion, to the point that the G. K. Chesterton story (previously unknown to me, but included with the game in a separate text file) makes up much (most?) of the text in Powellís interactive version.

     This makes it a hard game to judge. Whatís good in MANALIVE is writing that can probably be attributed to the Chesterton original (published in 1912 and not under copyright at this time). Powell has necessarily added to this with the introduction of puzzles, parser responses, etc, but until (and if) I read the source material, itís hard to tell one from the other. As an adaptation, I donít fault Powell. He is evidently a huge Chesterton fan, and it makes sense to preserve the flow and wit of the original. Still, if you strip away what isnít directly adapted from the source, youíre left with a frame that seems unstable and under-implemented.

     Itís a game plagued with bugs. These range from mere distractions (like missing line breaks) to text that is out of sync with the state of the game (Iíll list a few, momentary), to situations where the game is seemingly frozen in an unwinnable state. Because this is a story Powell already knows, I suspect itís a matter of writing with proverbial blinders on. If the game was tested by anyone but the author, it doesnít show in the end product. Testers without an existing knowledge of the source material would have been ideal.

     This isnít to downplay what really is a worthy achievement: turning static fiction into interactive fiction. The hours spent taking the text and bringing it into Inform, coding the rules and the relations, piecing it back together in a sensible way Ė the effort shows. Still, this is undermined by the implementation problems, and thatís unfortunate given the effort Powell has shown.

     When the text describes something that doesnít reflect the state of the game, it becomes hard to trust anything that happens. This is common in MANALIVE Part 1. Near the beginning, I am described as having climbed a tree I never actually climbed. Then when I do, Iím described as climbing back down upon taking an action that is probably supposed to happen while up there (although I had already climbed down). I had my belongings with me on the roof (which may have been a bug in itself), yet the other fellows brought these same supplies up with them. When Diana is in the kitchen, her description claims she is still out in the garden (which was earlier). She can also be asked about supper again, even though itís the morning of a new day. Hunt appears at the back door at one point, even though I had just passed her outside.

     These discrepancies are overshadowed by the more serious problems. Iím sure the causes are simple and easily corrected, but the result is still bad. An interesting action is suggested by the text (in regards to an NPC), near the start of the second chapter. If you take this action, the story skips not only the rest of chapter 2, but all of chapter 3. You arrive in a state that is clearly meant to happen later. I believed this might be intentional (although it seemed unlikely), until I realized from the walkthrough that the same NPC should be there afterwards, yet she isnít. This also skips a few things that may very well matter from chapter 4 onward.

     The strangest thing I encountered, though, was in trying to talk with Inglewood at a point the walkthrough said I must. He would not respond, which meant I could not advance, which meant the plot was stuck there. I restored an earlier save, went through a little differently (but for the same results), and then it worked.

     This leads to another problem in the conversion from static to interactive. The author knows what must happen for the plot to advance, but we as players donít Ė unless, of course, you are already familiar with the G. K. Chesterton story. It may be reasonable to Powell for players to enter rooms that were previously off-limits or try to cheer up an NPC when the motivation is lacking in the text, but without clues (good ones), we as the players may overlook it. The ďspecial verbĒ puzzles didnít seem as big a problem (they were hinted in the text, and seemed reasonable enough), but there were times when I just wasnít sure I was supposed to be doing something. The hinting may be there, but if so, itís a shade or two too subtle at times. For example, it is necessary to unpack your belongings (not just leave them behind) before the plot will proceed at one point. This is easily accomplished, but without some motivation, easily missed.

     Much of the game also felt under-implemented, as though Innocent Smith was an actor on a stage rather than a participant with real freedoms. I donít necessarily mean freedom of action (which is generally okay in this game, but Iíll get to that), but freedom to poke at and play with the props. In a stage play, this would only serve to remind the audience that itís a cardboard world, with scenery that is easily toppled. So it is in MANALIVE Part 1. The story is rich in detail, but most of it is either ďnot seenĒ when referenced, or ďnot importantĒ to the story.

     Then there are the small things. Your score drops to zero in some losing endings. It would be nice if the chalk was assumed (since itís all that fits) when drawing. I have transcripts that point out more, available to the author upon request.

     Where Powell strays from the source material, as far as I can tell, it leads to a losing ending. Early on, you can end the story by not retrieving your hat. You can die from poisonous spores (more or less), a little later. You can also take an action near the end that seems to be what the story expects of you, thereby ending before Part 1 is supposed to. These are interesting endings (and easily reversed with an UNDO or two), showing that that story does stray from the source material. It just isnít in a way that can allow the real story to proceed.

     The walkthrough reminded me of one I saw in the 2004 IFComp, for a game called Ruined Robots. It was a list of commands (including the mistakes), as though recording had been enabled but not edited for accuracy later.

     This is a strong first draft. The competition deadline probably smacked Powell the way it always does for most of us, but with more time, more revision, and more testing, MANALIVE Part 1 could probably have been what he intended it to be.

     In its present state, itís a ď5Ē on my scale. Itís a bit above my definition of ďpoorĒ (due more to Chestertonís story than to Powellís implementation), but it still seems a little below average. I liked it well enough, but the problems did become a distraction. I hope for a better experience in MANALIVE Part 2.

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