Herein I continue with comments on Spring Thing games. If you wish to hold yourself unspoiled, do not read. This time around, it’s Victor Gijsbers’ “Fate”.
In theory, I’m a big fan of Victor Gijsbers’ work. He’s interested in problems of narrative and player choice in interactive fiction; he’s written some thoughtful blog posts on the topic; he reviewed my game “Pytho’s Mask” for IF-Review, and provided an enlightening analysis of its structural failings and successes. (At least, I found it enlightening.) His Spring Thing game last year, “The Baron”, justly won the XYZZY for Best Use of Medium in 2006, and perhaps uniquely in interactive fiction, it invites the player to articulate his motivations for doing what he does. “The Baron” covers some dark subject matter and its storyline didn’t satisfy everyone, but that made for interesting debate. I didn’t entirely enjoy the game, but I found it one of the most interesting pieces written last year, in terms of developing the form, and exploring the ways in which the player can participate in determining the meaning of an interactive story.
“Fate” felt somewhat more traditional but also more self-assured. Gijsbers again uses the technique of introducing menu choices at critical moments of game play — when the player is having conversations with other characters, but also when she is making a potentially momentous choice. The menus give us a chance to back down from ill-considered actions or courses that we might not be comfortable with. At the same time, these menus focused mostly on what the player chooses to do or say, and not so much on the reasons and intentions. “Fate” also relies more extensively on puzzles; while these are not mostly very hard, they give the game a different kind of pace and structure than we find in “The Baron”. My first playthrough of “The Baron” was a bit confusing, and I wasn’t always sure where the plot was going or how far through the story I might be; “Fate” offers the player a rather more coherent experience. The interaction is well-designed and the puzzles are fun; I enjoyed the puzzles and explorations in “Fate”, whereas I’m not sure there is any aspect of “The Baron” that I would call “fun” as such. (I doubt Gijsbers would be disappointed by this: it was not a work that aimed at amusing, I think.)
I’m not sure how much “Fate”‘s moral dilemmas worked for me, though. The central question always comes down to balancing suffering — are you willing to hurt X in order to save Y? — and while there are many permutations and many outcomes possible in the game, the choice often felt essentially arbitrary. There were certain characters I was inclined to like better than others; there were some whose happiness, health, or survival I found disposable. But this is essentially a question of choosing favorite individuals; whereas I did not feel there was a point in “Fate” where I was asked to choose one principle or moral stance over another. And the shortness of the game meant that the individuals all remained at least somewhat abstract to me, so that I did not feel too strongly even about my favorites. Gijsbers does make some attempt to sketch in story, to provide weight and characterization to some of the characters, but I felt there was not enough meat here to make the major decision points really powerful. Several of our enemies (Sir Charles, the prince) are too caricatured to take seriously, while the innocent potential victims (the gardener, the maid, the goat and pixie) are essentially just tokens for the concept of innocent bystander. The most ambiguous and interesting character is that of the player character’s husband, and I would have welcomed a bit more interaction with him.
So I enjoyed the game, and I thought it was another interesting essay in designing IF. I also thought it did not quite accomplish what it could have if it had framed its dilemmas a little differently (pitting different principles against one another) or else developed its characters more deeply (to make more interesting the choice of who has to suffer). I am left with the curious feeling that my favorite Gijsbers game is still one he has not yet written.