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IFCOMP 2008 - Afflicted

Game #1: Afflicted
Author: Doug Egan
Played On: October 1st (1 hour 35 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:2 + P:1 + S:1 + W:2 + B:1 = SCORE: 8

     Gameís Blurb:
     This isn't the safest neighborhood. A young woman was abducted near here only recently. But as a city sanitarian you are obligated to complete your annual inspection of the local dive.

     >xyzzy
     You break mimesis to pay your respects to Will Crowther.

     The first game in every IFComp is always the toughest to score and review. My enthusiasm from the prior year has given way to other responsibilities, and (Iím ashamed to admit) Iíve fallen into the bad habit of playing little to no Interactive Fiction in the spanning months. I tend to feel a little out of sorts with the first game, uncertain whether Iím being too critical or not critical enough. This year is even tougher, because Iíve adopted a new rating system that may keep my votes bottom-heavy if Iím too stingy with and protective of the 2ís.

     This is demonstrated perfectly by Doug Eganís Afflicted. The writing is fine. The story is fine. The puzzles are fine (although they donít extend much further than basic exploration and observation). Itís a technically sound game. But if no aspect of the game is ďgreat,Ē it can be no higher than a ď5Ē (or a ď6Ē if given the bonus point) by my new scoring system. So, what really merits a categorical 2? Excellence? Or just anything that feels a step above mediocre?

     Itís obvious that the gameís core theme is intentionally hidden by the author, and I wonít spoil it here. That it becomes increasingly grim and disturbing should be enough to set the tone. At times, though, whatís probably meant to be macabre seems a little silly. It succeeds most of the time, and does offer up some gruesome imagery, but every once in a while it just seems more odd than shocking. (Iíve never, for instance, encountered any game in which the protagonist can experience the aftertaste of urine.)

     Before it goes full-on weird, it does a great job of putting the player in the role of a restaurant health and safety inspector. The premise seemed dull at the outset, but before long I was smirking and happily noting every violation I could come across Ė and actively seeking them out, no less. This is pretty important, because the story begins to open up as you encounter more violations and as you start to suspect the truth of things.

     The storyís biggest flaw is that it seems to rely on the player to carry on with the same sense of duty as the protagonist. Thatís fine at first, but itís hard to believe that any sane and rational-minded human being would carry on with his little notepad to the extent that this protagonist must. If thereís a legitimate reason beyond just an inflated sense of ďbeing thorough,Ē it doesnít come across in the story. I was already ready to bail out, yet the game insisted that I hadnít yet completed my duty. To hell with duty. Iíd have bolted to my car the moment the ice in the sink melted.

     The storyís second biggest flaw is that certain losing endings should probably go a little differently. In particular, itís possible to get arrested. But, itís possible to get arrested while carrying things that should raise a few eyebrows (or at least some kind of explanation in the ending). Itís not so much that the core story is on rails (I donít mind this in most games), but there are a number of implausible circumstances (why isnít the PC pursued down the hall, for instance) even discounting the supernatural.

     Itís a solid implementation, for the most part. I was pleased (especially early on) that many optional (and non-obvious) actions were anticipated by the author. The game was clearly tested and polished prior to release. I only encountered two sticking points, but they were pretty important sticking points.

     In the first, I couldnít figure out how to make use of something found in a first aid kit. The pressure mounts, and each turn counts, yet I fumbled with the right verb or action to make it work. It turns out that some simple (and even obvious) phrasings work fine, but what I tried wasnít outrageous or anything. I imagined the PC fumbling around the way I was, so it kind of worked for the story, but probably not as the author intended. In the second case, I tried to reassemble something the wrong way, to no obvious affect. I was missing, hmmÖ ďjoiningĒ pieces, so to speak, but was left with the feeling that this just wasnít something the game supported and I was on the wrong track. Later, thankfully, I tried again with better results. An opportunity was missed there, though, to clue the player and give a little hope for later.

     The protagonist can accumulate an inventory of generally useless stuff -- things encountered while noting violations, primarily. I hesitate to call them ďred herringsĒ because they may be pieces of alternate puzzle solutions, but in my play-through (and selected re-plays) I never found uses. This leaves them feeling like red herrings, even if thatís not the case.

     There is one thing in particular the protagonist must do to advance the story, yet itís something I suspect most players will try to avoid on subsequent play-throughs (or even UNDO to before it), yet I couldnít find an alternative. I think there probably is an alternative, but I didnít find it. Something obvious (using one of the items in inventory) didnít work for me. And the game didnít really give a good reason why it wouldnít.

     All in all, I came away with the impression of a good, competently constructed game. Iím scoring it an optimistic ď2Ē on writing -- its strongest quality -- although I expect even better from some of those Iíve yet to play. All other categories get a solid ď1Ē (including the bonus point, just in case Iím being too tough on this yearís first entry), for a composite score of ď7.Ē

     Update: After playing far too many poorly-tested, broken games after this one, I have bumped the implementation score up to ď2Ē for a composite score of ď8.Ē

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