Posted by: Ben | April 16, 2009

if: Vague

(Videogame. ADRIFT. Otter. Spring Thing 2009)

This is a review of Vague by fellow former Spectrum owner, Richard Otter. It contains spoilers, descriptions of nudity and in an earlier draft, a crude drawing of a penis which I thought better of before posting.

It was David St. Hubbins who said “There’s a fine line between clever and stupid.” As it happens he wasn’t referring to this game, but it’s a line that Vague walks boldly.

Even the introduction teases us with its clever stupidity – “Yet more badly written interactive fiction, or does it all have some meaning?” Perhaps this is just the “evil author” fishing for compliments, but the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive – badly written interactive fiction can indeed have some meaning – and the clue is right there in the title. Both suggestions are vaguely correct.

Some of the writing certainly seems to be bad in the sense of being careless. (Now I have no intention of picking on the author here, but he did go out of his way to draw attention to it, and it hardly seems fair to announce my concurrence without at least having a look at an example.)

Roof of Building

You are on the roof of the victorian gothic Global Building, which has 16 floors and was built around 3 years ago. A strong wind is blowing from the west and it looks like it could easily rain sometime today. A large antenna is whipping in the wind to your right and the air conditioning equipment in front of you is making a very loud noise. A large sign is fastened to the roof here. Just at your feet is the closed door leading down to the roof exit. You can go north, northeast, east, southeast, south, southwest, west, northwest and down. A dirty, smelly old tramp is lying on the floor.

This is a little unclear and I had to reread it a few times before coming to the conclusion that the building was built in the present day in the Victorian Gothic style (I’m no student of architecture but I’m picturing something like the Houses of Parliament). For no readily apparent reason, the style and age of the building appears to be randomised, and changes between playthroughs. The description unnecessarily provides the exact number of floors (exemplifying a somewhat robotic descriptive style that manifests elsewhere as a tendency to tell us the lengths of objects in millimetres, even when the PC does not seem to be a robot), and many directions that don’t work.

Elsewhere, we find “ball-like clumbs of tissue”, a word that presents as a misspelling of “clumps” but could easily be interpreted as a parapraxic portmanteau of “clever” and “dumb”.

And yet these idiosyncratic troubles do not defeat the writing as a whole, which is well up to the difficult job of crafting a coherent narrative out of an intentionally incoherent setting. On the evidence herein Otter’s writing style seems especially suited to science fiction, and the more fantastical settings are the most believable, which is a hard trick to pull off when you think about it.

If you haven’t played Vague, you might be wondering why I’m blathering about multiple settings and the PC sometimes being a robot. The reason is less interesting than it might have been. It turns out that I’m playing Richard Otter’s greatest hits. As easily as moving east or west, we are transported between diverse vignettes with little in common save for their origin in the sadistic imagination of the man who calls himself “the evil author”. (Shades, perhaps, of another, more illustrious, Richard?) Now as a complete virgin when it comes to Otter (that’s something I thought I’d never write), I initially found this somewhat off-putting, and indeed given the number of settings involved, not a little intimidating, but it turned out I didn’t have to go and play every single one of them to work out what I was supposed to be doing. Which was nice.

Now, before we get on to the “meaning” part of the equation, I presume if you’ve got this far down this column, you’ll have at some point read Graham Nelson’s essay The Craft Of Adventure. If you haven’t, go and read it now. There, doesn’t that feel better? See that diagram, about four fifths of the way down, where he shows you how not to design your map? That’s Vague, that is. Except Vague also has directions in non-working, irreversible and teleport-only flavours, just to make it that little bit less accessible. On the other hand any aesthetic rules may be considered breakable provided the breaker knows exactly what they’re doing. Which I suppose is the sixty-four thousand dollar question.

The thirty-two thousand dollar question being, does it all have some meaning? You’re walking through the games of Richard Otter, bollock naked before the amused inspection of trainspotters and barmaids. You have an especially severe case of Videogame Amnesia, and ten tasks to complete. Even if you succeed, your cat will very probably die. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to identify a possible subtext here. But which is it, or to rephrase that question, are you you or are you even him?

Maybe he wants to humiliate his players. What self-respecting IF author doesn’t? After all, clothes are available, but the player-character elects not to wear them. With regard to the sexual humiliation that occurs it is significant, in this context, that the player-character should be male. But the signs point to imagined autobiography. The dreamlike quality of the image of walking unclothed through familiar environments made strange is unmistakeable. And who but Richard Otter would dream of the games of Richard Otter?

On the technical side there’s also a damn clever Adrift-powered point’n’click interface such as I have never seen in my admittedly sheltered life. It autocompletes your typing, permits you to type words merely by clicking on them, and if you right click on a noun it will suggest a list of appropriate verbs. All of which is extremely slick and reinforces the suggestion that this is a thoroughly competent work.

I didn’t have a lot of fun playing Vague. But I did have a psychosexual awakening, and surely that must count for something.

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