Posted by: Ben | October 7, 2008

if: Opening Night

(videogame. Z-code. Batterham. Interactive Fiction Competition 2008)

If you want to do this thing properly, I am coming to realise, there’s no use in umming and ahing. In order to make the salient and coherent points it is sometimes necessary to make, it’s going to require spoilers. Dirty great big fat ugly spoilers. For this game, among other things.

First things first. Opening Night made me cry like a girl.

I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any other videogame that has made me cry. The Baron made me shift uncomfortably in my seat. Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl makes me jump every time the gas central heating gurgles in the night. And Populous made me hallucinate little isometric pyramids everywhere I looked.

So it’s a game capable of producing an emotional response. It has that in its favour. But how important is that, really? I might be able to produce a tear on command while viewing that prison drama with the magical black man and the seventy year-old mouse, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going within fifty furlongs of my “Best Movies Of All Time” list.

Let’s try and drive a bulldozer through the game, see if we can make a hole. We could start with the middle act, where reality starts to break down around the main character. The beautiful people are still in the theatre, but now there’s a dirty great gap in the floorboards in there with them, and – in a nice touch – they are milling around in apparent ignorance of it. (I tried IGNORE HOLE. No joy.) And there’s a wounded soldier who seems to have wandered in from another game. Normally when this sort of stuff starts to go on in IF, the player begins to lose interest. It’s absolutely critical to Opening Night’s success that this potentially hazardous middle section maintains the player’s interest throughout, and this hugely difficult balancing act survives the occasional wobble to finish with a standing ovation. From me, at least.

Most of the time spent playing (makes quotation marks with fingers) adventure games is on trying to read the author’s mind and divine the unlikely combination of objects required to solve a given problem. Opening Night pulls off the reverse trick, by making your identification with the player character so complete that by the final scene you find your inputs bending to the will of the character, doing what is required to complete the story even when it isn’t necessary in order to win the game. It’s mind control. It’s witchcraft.

Unimportant quibble: Not that I noticed it on first play through, but the ruined theatre is actually broken. You can’t get in or out through the vestibule, but the author neglects to explain why. (Perhaps the marble columns have fallen over, rendering it impassable.) And how old is the PC? A hundred and twenty? And if the usher is imaginary why does his torch get smaller? And isn’t it a little risky to go out for fresh air when the doorman might still be out there?

Important quibble: for God’s sake, man, if I refer to the rose in the final act because I have neglected to take an inventory in the last three turns, you may correct me and advise me that I am in fact holding a stem. Don’t just say “you can’t see any such thing”, you’ll only make me pat my pockets and look confused in an elaborate Chaplinesque manner, thus breaking the delicately constructed atmosphere. You dolt.

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