Posted by: Ben | October 4, 2009

if: Resonance

A Glulx game in IFComp 09 by Matthew Scarpino

Resonance is right on top of my randomly-assorted pile for that jamboree of feats and abuses in the videoludosphere’s most accessible and least accessed medium, the Interactive Fiction Competition. Also the first one that I’m going to review.

In any other medium a festival of this importance would fly players and critics from all over the world to a pretty country town or exhibition centre. There would be ice-cream stalls and hot-dog stands and debate panels and lectures featuring authors, critics, academics and booth babes. It would be confusing and frightening. But interactive fiction isn’t like that. It’s small and quiet and likes to stay indoors thinking things over. Appropriately for the written word, its publicity is mainly through word-of-mouth and/or word-of-internet. I absolutely love it.

24 games, by authors who have put in serious hours for what reward? To have the loving fruits of their labours marked out of ten by a 200-strong focus group of assorted yahoos. Also some prizes. There will be criticism. Most of it will be constructive, and I really don’t want to be anything but respectful but by the 20th game one sometimes runs out of patience, and thinks (but hopefully doesn’t write) things like “This is a text-based adventure game about a character who navigates a simulated environment, manipulating objects as they go. Very similar to the 19 other games I’ve just played. The author is obviously an idiot.” So before I write anything at all on the subject of any particular game, let me first congratulate the authors on the time and effort they have put in.

Are you sitting comfortably?

“Long story.” Steve shakes his head. “You broke into a corporation looking for your wife. But they caught you. They took you to trial and left you with nothing except what’s in your pockets. You can’t even work as a private investigator any more.”

As it turns out they also left me with my big house and nice car, neither of which are technically in my pockets. But those things are essentially worthless since I can neither eat them nor make love to them.

I wonder if I am brain-damaged.

I mean it’s one thing to find yourself on a bar stool with amnesia, but when your brother who you do not recognise calmly explains that the mysterious voice you’re hearing in your head is most likely that of your missing wife, and then he goes on to remind you of your life story and where you live, you’re way beyond drinking too much. No wonder protagonist James Drayton can’t work as a private investigator any more.

The scenario can be reasonably inferred from the excerpt above, being noir meets horror with a dash of science fiction. Hard boiled, half-cut PI investigates mysterious disappearance in weirdo small town where the hairdresser is a conspiracy theorist and the local shop will sell you a used handkerchief for $25 and an old cigarette lighter for $45. Could there be a Twin Peaks influence going on or is it just Default Quirky? Either way it helps to defuse the inherently hackneyed plot.

The story has both structure and momentum. Every titbit of information and plot development leads directly to the source of the next, the player-character has strong and obvious motivation and I always felt I knew exactly what I was supposed to be doing at any one time, which is a nice feeling and one many games don’t bother to encourage. Plus the level of threat actually escalates as the story progresses, which again sounds obvious but doesn’t always happen.

It’s largely solidly programmed too, and designed for player-friendliness at every turn. It understands “GO TO”, or you can just type a place name and you’ll go there. Type “MAP” and a map appears on the screen. Vorsprung durch Technik. If you need to carry out an unfamiliar action like SWIPE a card or FLIP a switch, the game will point out the exact verb that you need. Other design features are similarly sophisticated. Looking at the walkthrough (which I was compelled to do for reasons I will shortly explain) shows there are multiple solutions, which is above and beyond the call of duty.

What it doesn’t have, or rather what it doesn’t have in the main storyline, are puzzles. Sure, there are obstacles to completing your quest, but it seems like a forced attempt to slow the game down when having broken into a newspaper office and encountered a policeman, Drayton’s cover story is that he writes puzzles for the newspaper and the cop decides he will let him go if he can solve two riddles. I mean I know there’s an intentional air of unreality to the town, but who is he supposed to be, PC Bilbo Baggins? The first one I got through trial and error, but the second one, if there hadn’t have been hints I would have had to google it.

‘Sometimes I’m white and sometimes I’m black. I’ll take you to your destination, but I’ll never take you back. What am I?’ I don’t know. Satnav? A road? Zebra crossing? Pudding? A taxi? There’s a hint, you say? Hearse? The only white hearse I’ve ever seen was in Ghostbusters, and that one was probably an ambulance. But never mind.

A more worrying problem is the presence of a number of bugs, some irritating and some downright game-breaking. The fact that at the start of the game you can enter your front room while still in your car and when you do it seems to be raining in your front room is all part of the homebrewed charm of interactive fiction.  More seriously, even with the walkthrough in front of me, having got this far of the game I can neither convince the Reverend to talk to me, nor get through the door into Kurnian’s office (having first chatted up his sister with my new suit and haircut). Typing in the walkthrough from the start to the point of going to the Reverend confirms that all I need to do is show him the folder and he should be something other than unimpressed, but he isn’t, and it’s possible that a similar gremlin is stopping me from getting into Kurnian’s office, so not only am I stuck but who knows what other puzzles later on in the game will be kyboshed by the inappropriate setting of flags or whatever it is. It’s probably a tiny little coding error that’s crept through testing, but sadly it’s also the point where it ceases to be playable in the way the author intended.

Oh – I nearly forgot.  It starts with “First time players should type ABOUT”, but they really shouldn’t because the introduction contains material better introduced through playing.

This is a game with its heart in the right place. It’s interesting, well-structured and compelling and all of those things. But because it’s set itself up as a game where you can explore different locations and mess about with things, to have that taken away from you, however inadvertently, still ruins the game. It’s possible to experience the rest of the story by typing in the walkthrough but all that really proves is that this kind of interactive fiction requires a different quality of writing to static fiction, a quality that doesn’t work so well when you take the interactivity away.

Rating: Good

Next: Byzantine Perspective


  1. “that all I need to do is show him the folder”

    I think you need to show him an ID, to be precise, your old license. Worked for me. (But it’s not what the walkthrough says, strangely enough.)

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