Posted by: Ben | October 12, 2008

if: Channel Surfing

(videogame. Glulx. probabilityZero. Interactive Fiction Competition 2008)

Here I squat in front of my laptop like Jabba the Hutt, waiting for the next bikini-clad space princess to cavort across the screen for my entertainment. This one’s another Glulx game, Channel Surfing by probabilityZero. Will I spring the trapdoor and feed her to the Rancor or will I run the risk of strangulation by keeping her around for a little while longer? More nonsense after the break.

Ten out of ten for bravery in attempting a pretty broad satire on television, politics and consumer culture, especially considering that the author has no real way of knowing whether judges in this sort of competition are going to be inclined to be sympathetic to his viewpoint. (Or does he?) And even given an audience of the converted, this sort of thing is very, very difficult to pull off successfully. It’s one thing to be snarky, hyper-critical and good at words, but to win your readers over and make them laugh, there needs to be an underlying empathy and warmth.

It’s this element that is perhaps a little patchy. The tropical island setup seems to be a wafer-thin construct to allow the author to mercilessly attack the contestants, which is all well and good. The villain of the piece, the “strategist”, is a cackling incarnation of evil who probably ties maidens to railway lines in his spare time. And, while it was nice to be President, I found the press conference a little… bald.

Still, Cat Or Dead Cat was fun, and like the best satire, it was right on the edge of believability. If probabilityZero for some mysterious reason does not earn millions of dollars writing interactive fiction, perhaps there’s an opening for him in devising game shows. After all, many satirists ultimately become what they profess to despise, perhaps suggesting a fine balance between loathing and longing. (cf Ben Elton).

The implementation is largely competent, with occasional ropiness. Please bear in mind that I’m crap at adventure games, I can’t get out of locked rooms and there’s no bigger turn-off for me than guess the verb puzzles I can’t guess. No puzzle-based game has a chance of getting a good score from me without a decent in-game hint system. I must say I struggled a bit with CHANGE CHANNEL TO 16, EXTINGUISH FIRE and TASE JULIAN. But that might be my problem. And while we’re on the subject of the implementation, there must be some way of moderating the quantity of text that the game dumps on the screen at any one time. Apart from anything else, it causes a moment of disorientation where you have to trace it up the screen trying to work out where you’d got to since your last input (or more usually, since the [more] prompt last appeared.)

The game ends with an ominous “We are the hollow men,” but I’ll get to elitism in interactive fiction another time.

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