Posted by: Ben | October 5, 2010

if: Divis Mortis

If it’s October 2010, that means it’s time for the 2010 Interactive Fiction Competition, and I can’t help myself. I’m going to review some games.

The usual disclaimers apply (ie if I say Game X is rubbish it does not mean the author of Game X is a bad person and probably does not even mean there is anything wrong with Game X). I’ve still never finished writing a game in my entire life and your game is therefore automatically better than mine. As for my personal prejudices, I tend to favour great writing over great plotting or great puzzles, and this will be reflected in my reviews and scores. See the IF page for more. Like previous years, I don’t expect to be able to write a full review of every single game, and I am expecting to play and rate more games than I review.

The reviews will talk about the whole game, including critical plot points and surprises, and you are advised not to read them if you have yet to play the game and intend to.

So. This is a review of Divis Mortis, by Lynnea Dally, a name otherwise unknown to IFDB or IFWiki.

I don’t like to advertise my own ignorance except when absolutely necessary, but Google kindly added Latin to its translation service just the other day, which helps me to guesstimate that the title could mean “To the gods of death” or “Death to gods” or “God is dead” or possibly “Death division”.

Spoilers.

You realize that you are looking at an actual zombie. Your heart and breath quicken. If a person wearing a staff uniform has been infected, then who knows the extent of the plague, and how it spreads? You resolve to survive.

None of my guesses were right. It means “Alone, dead.”

This is more or less the first I’ve heard of it, but apparently plague-based zombie apocalypse is the biggest potential risk to health and safety in the workplace since the 9/11 attacks. That’s the setting for Divis Mortis, in which the main character seems almost to have been expecting what’s about to happen. But why? The key to this little mystery is in the ABOUT text, where Lynnea writes:

“The inspiration for Divis Mortis comes from my own life. I am rather fearful of a zombie attack, to the point where upon entering rooms I think about how to best barricade them, I make sure to stock up on blunt objects and canned food, and I always am running through scenarios in my head.”

Phobias are by definition irrational and unpredictable, but fear is a powerful motivator. This is the work of someone who sees society as fragile and apt to descend into barbarism at any time. And filling the power vacuum in the post-apocalyptic streets is the zombie, the pursuer from our nightmare who always, always knows where we’re hiding, the shambling, cannibalistic, uninhibited Other, the savage from the dark part of the heart. Hit him with a frying pan and we will probably survive, but we ought to look him in the eye first. Shouldn’t we envy the sensuous communality of the dead, while we’re barricaded in our nice clean hospital?

Not that the hospital is all that clean. Our hero wakes up, with amnesia, from a state of unconsciousness apparently resulting from an assault that’s never explained. There are dead bodies everywhere, but some of them have been stacked neatly, which even with my limited knowledge of zombie lore I’m pretty sure the walking dead never usually do. There are signs of a struggle. Zombies have invaded and mostly left, without eating all the bodies.

There’s a fellow in the basement who might possibly be a homicidal maniac, but until you physically gas him to death you won’t even suspect and by then it’s too late to ask questions. Questions like “Did you go mad and start your serial killing spree before or after the zombie plague happened?”

What I was getting at, before I started digressing: our hero was definitely expecting zombies. I know because when they see a dead zombie they think “it’s a dead zombie”, whereas someone who wasn’t expecting zombies might think “that dead body is in a hell of a state. Almost like a zombie, except it’s not walking around, so by definition it’s not a zombie.”

It turns out that our hero must have known all along about the whole zombie thing, which might provide a better explanation for their lack of surprise on seeing a dead zombie than innate necrobiophobia (fear of the dead that live), plus it allows for a convincing explanation for the amnesia.

I mostly like Divis Mortis. It is fun, which is partially due to the pleasing sensation that the puzzles are grounded in the physics of the world model, which is something that should always happen in IF but too often doesn’t.

The game isn’t afraid to kill you, but you never die without learning something and you’re never more than an UNDO away from putting things right.

Apart from poking holes in the plot, I have two major criticisms that need airing. The first and most important one is alluded to above. I do not like having to kill characters without a very good reason, especially not in the middle of the zombie apocalypse. I don’t know if I’m more worried that Lynnea’s whole life has been spent planning for said catastrophe or that her recommended survival tactic is to commit acts of violence, especially on fellow survivors.

This is almost balanced out by the final twist, which put a smile on my face. Happy endings do not come naturally to apocalyptic zombie fiction.

The second and lesser one is that while writing of high quality is to be found, there is some of what might be called lesser writing and it’s mostly in the opening sections. There’s one particular description in which just about every sentence has something wrong with it, but it’s worth it for “Upon closer inspection, you discover that the man is not “missing” a head, per se.” Lynnea Dally, if you are not already Mark Jones then you two should definitely get acquainted.

There’s a bit of sloppy proofreading in there too. “You open the microwave, but the light don’t come on”, “What you did not expect is to see are two dead bodies” and that kind of thing.

The writing gets better as it goes along – there was a brilliantly creepy part where I was menaced by a zombie boy in drag, who was utterly indifferent to having a can of chickpeas thrown at him – but some of the earlier sections could definitely use another pass. There’s a late flurry of drama – I only played through the final encounter once; I would have played it twice but was afraid of breaking the illusion that my actions were influencing the ending.

And yet I can’t help thinking that while it’s a decent game, it doesn’t attempt anything startlingly original or distinctive, nor is it unrelentingly excellent at what it does. It’s a perfectly good way to while away an hour or two, but not one for posterity.

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Responses

  1. […] (My earlier review of the same author’s 2010 entry, Divis Mortis.) […]


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