Posted by: Ben | October 5, 2014

if: The Black Lily

It’s October, so it’s time for the annual Interactive Fiction Competition, which this year is the twentieth. What a phenomenal achievement by the IF community and the various competition organisers. And to think, some people say video games are still a young medium.

For various unimportant reasons I have barely played an IF game of any description in four years. I expect I’ve missed out on some classics. Consequently if you want an informed perspective on the scene, I am the last person whose reviews you should read. And yet, here they are.

Disclaimers follow:

1) Even if I hate your game, I love you.
2) Your game is better than mine, since I haven’t yet written anything capable of being shown to another human being. But criticism is a skill too!
3) If you want a transcript, please get in touch and ask for one. I reserve the right to edit my own inputs to make myself look better.
4) Ratings are on a three-point scale of Great, Good and Grim, which will be finessed into a rating out of ten in time for the competition voting deadline.
5) This review may contain (a) spoilers right to the end of the game, (b) adult themes and (c) material that some people may find offensive.

Disclaimers out of the way, time for the first game, which is (drumroll:)

The Black Lily, a z-code game by Hannes Schueller.

(Here’s my review of Hannes Schueller’s 2009 entry, The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man. My younger self gave it a grumpy 3 out of 10 but word on the street is that a later reworked version was better.)

The Black Lily’s opening scene ought to serve as a reminder to the inexperienced or less habituated player of parser IF that one ought to follow the obligatory opening “X ME” with an equally obligatory “I”. Otherwise, if you’re like me, you may completely miss the existence of the protagonist’s dressing gown, creating an entirely different impression of his subsequent decision to mooch around the apartment staring out of the window at little girls and looking at pictures of his mother. Which might affect your interpretation of the crucial twist. When the game responded to “wear towel” with “It wouldn’t cover enough,” and within the context of other responses I naturally assumed that I was controlling a nude gentleman of impressivley-proportioned anatomy, and so found myself suitably misdirected. So point to The Black Lily for that, I think.


The protagonist is well characterised, his evident disdain for the undescribed masses (“There were people all around, but none of them were important”) and his objectification of his targets helping to set up the logic of seduction turning to murder. In one section the player is compelled to “take” an unknown woman as though she were an object (as, in the Inform language, she is) is a remarkable design decision that makes the player uncomfortably complicit in the character’s psychopathy. This empathy-through-misanthropy strikes me as a difficult and sophisticated technique, although it could alienate as many people as it impresses.

However, I was less impressed by the apparent lack of any clear connection between the protagonist’s two secrets, or of any sufficiently obvious crisis point in the protagonist’s story which precipitates the rather sudden ending (and here must I admit that I was only able to discover 2 of a possible 7 endings). The unravelling of the backstory merely leaves one with the unfortunate implication that transgender people are predisposed to murder.

Still, the presence in the final scene of Dagmar as the only character that the protagonist wants neither to ignore nor conquer, points to a deeper humanity at the core of story that would merit further exploration. But as I say, I only found two endings. So it’s hard to say whether the story is unfinished or whether I just didn’t finish it properly.

Some miscellaneous observations:

> “Personally, I am not a huge admirer of my body, but women seem to like it.” Humblebrag.

> The first conquest/victim is called Femi. I wonder if that’s short for anything.

> Found a willing and submissive shop assistant in the first and only shop I went into. Does every shop on the square have one?

> Dagmar’s conversation style: “Sometimes she uses strange phrasings which probably make sense to the German ear.” I think this might be a display of the German sense of humour on the part of the author.

> The big twist, of course, is that this James Bond-like gentleman-about-town turns out to work in a shop. Maybe that’s what pushed him over the edge.

Rating: Good.


  1. Thanks, Ben! Do you have a transcript? I’d really like to see which endings you got and how you got there.

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