Introcomp 2011: The Z-Machine Matter

The Z-Machine Matter is classic mystery IF with a locked house and a set number of suspects. Moderately spoilery comments follow the break.

The basic genre here — noir-styled locked-house mystery — has been done quite a few times already, but there’s room to do it again well. The author has clearly lavished a lot of care on polishing his work, giving it detailed Infocom-style feelies and a bunch of player-experience upgrades drawing on the extensions by Aaron Reed. Parser error messages are cleverly customized. Exits and objects are given colored highlighting like in Blue Lacuna. (I don’t personally like that — I find it intrusive and wish to turn it off — but I understand the motives behind it.) A huge menu of helpful stuff is included. There’s a cute-looking map of the game space. Etc.

Underneath all this wealth of polish, though, the core game design is a bit out of control. It takes fairly skillful narrative work to introduce a houseful of people, make me remember who’s who, and make me care; here, the opening sequence of the game feels essentially meaningless (does anything we do before meeting Duffy matter? we don’t have a lot of context for it to do so, anyway) and then we plunge into the mystery-and-interrogation portion without a lot of direction to the first steps of discovery. Contrast Make It Good and An Act of Murder, both of which open up very wide eventually, but do guide the player carefully through the opening — and waste no preliminary time. I know there are a bunch of different helps here to assist the player in remembering who’s who, but if you need too many of those cribs, it’s a fair sign that you’re not helping the player enough to internalize this information.

So there’s that. Then there’s also the point that all the male characters are named after IF figures. This means that I get normalized to Emile Long, whose name I instinctively mistype over and over, and I find myself distractedly wondering

  1. whether it isn’t slightly off to name the victim after the late Mr Panks;
  2. how “Glulx” would sound if Andrew Plotkin did have a comedy German accent;
  3. why Emile has a skinny mustache;
  4. for that matter, why Emile is a man when all the other referenced figures (coincidentally all male, as far as I saw) get to keep their own genders (admittedly, Hugo gets two characters, one female, but this is due to family structure). Is it because period noir doesn’t have room for women other than as femme fatale figures? If so, I’m grateful not to be appearing in that role, but it draws my attention to a genre feature I’m not crazy about. Beverley Hugo’s dialogue really drives it home (“Mr Dollar, I’ve been studying physics quite a bit when I was out east. I have a few ideas of my own about fusion. What would an insurance detective make of a beautiful blonde scientist?”). Women with intellectual attainments, what a strange idea! Happily we’re able to quickly contextualize being a scientist as another feature submitted for male approval. And indeed as far as I could tell the women here exist predominantly as manipulators and sex objects rather than having the same kind of subjectivity as the men, which may be faithful to Raymond Chandler but was really not true in, say, Deadline;
  5. whether it would distress the author that I’m thinking these things when presumably the intention was mostly to have a light laugh;
  6. whether I’ve become overly sensitized to gender issues in games, or just sensitized enough, whether someone a bit more attuned to these things would be totally annoyed by the presentation of mental illness or of the Chumash, whether it’s always appropriate to bring these things up when they bother me, whether it’s my duty to other women to do so, whether conformity to a sexist genre is a good enough justification for the content, why it bothers me when I was fine with both Apocolocyntosis and Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom, whether being socialized to try not to make people feel uncomfortable is why women don’t generally complain more about shitty gender presentations — but, speaking of those, this game is very far from the most serious example, I mean it’s not like it’s got half-elf warrior ladies wearing two bracelets and a furry thong as their only “armor”, and besides I don’t think the author meant anything by it, so maybe I should leave it alone and save my fire for the things that truly go out of their way to deserve it, but then again maybe it’s exactly the fact that the author doesn’t seem to have thought about it that is the thing bothering me, argh I’m so tired of this entire mental hamster wheel and I find myself running on it so very often;
  7. why I’m wondering these things instead of paying any attention to the story.

So I was pretty distracted during play.

The author is clearly dedicated to this project, and keen on doing it as a tribute and nostalgia piece supersaturated with Infocom/IF community references. I myself think this kind of backward-and-inward-looking tendency is a bit off-putting to new players and that it would be more fun if the game stood more confidently on its own, so I would prefer seeing that stuff toned down a bit. But obviously the author’s tastes and mine diverge here, and that’s fine.

Regardless of that, I think there needs to be more care put into the structure of this piece. A lot of evidence is open at once, and that means it’s easy to find heaps of different information with no context to put it into. The story would be more compelling and also easier for the player to track if it were revised into stages: the player finds evidence A-C, which raises certain questions; then D-F, which answers some of those questions and raises new ones; and so on. It would have been more interesting, for instance, to encounter gradual hints that all was not right with Beverley, rather than almost the first thing I learn about her character being this letter saying she’s utterly insane.

I’d also relish having to think my way into some of these discoveries. The “Beverley is mentally disturbed” letter incidentally happens to be left around in plain view so that the whole household has presumably had a chance to read it. And I pretty much stumbled into a closet that turned out to have what I think is supposed to be a secret staircase — but finding it was such a non-event that I wasn’t sure whether other characters might know about it or not. I want more mystery in the mystery! And more time in which to start caring about the questions before I find the answers.

That sounds like a tall order, but it’s doable as a revision of the existing material, I’m pretty sure. To introduce more structure into the main body of the story would require either more geographical blocking (some areas you can’t get into at first) or else judicious use of time: Anchorhead, Christminster, Make It Good, etc. all make good use of game-changing events that happen when the player’s discovered enough. My impression is that there’s one such event already at the end of The Z-Machine Matter (though I’m not dead certain of how it’s triggered). Then the opening could also use some tweaking.

19 thoughts on “Introcomp 2011: The Z-Machine Matter”

  1. the women here exist predominantly as manipulators and sex objects rather than having the same kind of subjectivity as the men, which may be faithful to Raymond Chandler

    I think this is probably unfair to Chandler; if he’s not completely as one might wish on gender issues, many of his women don’t lack subjectivity. With characters like Vivian Sternwood Regan in the Big Sleep, or the youngest sister in the High Window, or Lola Barsaly in “Red Wind” (which I can’t recommend highly enough), or Mavis Bell in The Little Sister, what they want and what they want to protect is very important. Which might be said of the typical femme fatale, but these characters want different things (and so aren’t skilled manipulators the way the femmes fatales are). Marlowe generally recommends protecting these characters in some way — psychologically more than physically (in fact Lola has a great Action Girl moment) — which is pretty non-progressive, but they’ve still got subjectivity.

    This sounds like it’s more in the tradition of The Cheap Detective and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, maybe.

      1. Glad you liked it! Also, I’m not sure what the word “recommends” is doing in my original comment — I think it’s supposed to be “winds up”?

  2. Emily,
    thanks for your comments. I didn’t really think through how the, er, namesakes would feel to be represented in the game and it could be that this is too distracting for those in-the-know. It was really just meant as a wink of acknowledgement, no more. So I’ll have to consider that more thoroughly. BTW, Emile is meant to be a kind of dashing young David Niven character –hence the moustache. You’ve given me some good ideas in terms of pacing, so thank you. If you’d like to send me the SCRIPT transcript that’s much appreciated.
    –Zack

  3. I really enjoy your reviews in general, in particular because you often highlight gender issues. (Bonus points for the crazy woman scientist. Sigh.)

  4. If it makes you feel any better about whether or not you’re being “overly sensitive”, I had pretty much all of the thoughts on your numbered list, in more or less the same order. With all due respect to Mr. Urlocker (and not intending to start another one of those flamewars that seem to be, ahem, all the rage lately), I’d say that the reason I had similar thoughts is exactly that he presumably didn’t think about his female character and his gender-swap of your namesake beyond the humor aspects. This is exactly what many feminists refer to when they speak of “privilege”: it probably did not even occur to him that female (and feminism-attuned male) readers might find those aspects of the story problematic.

    Whereas ToaSK and [Thornton’s treatment of] the Stiffy franchise come across, to me at least, as if the author spent more than the average amount of time thinking about problematic depiction of gender. The female characters in both are satire — potentially disturbing satire, sure, but not set-dressing.

    Again, I do not intend to call Mr. Urlocker out or shame him or anything — he has plenty on his plate with this project, and of course he had to spend more time with some aspects of his story than others. And I’m not even saying that the innuendo-laden femme fatale (“I have a few ideas of my own about fusion,” really?) is necessarily an unequivocally bad story element, on her own. But I do squirm a bit when I encounter the “the [adjective] man, the [adjective] man, the [adjective] man, the [adjective] man, and oh yeah, the chick” formula.

    1. Whereas ToaSK and [Thornton’s treatment of] the Stiffy franchise come across, to me at least, as if the author spent more than the average amount of time thinking about problematic depiction of gender.

      Yeah, I had that impression as well, so perhaps that is indeed a lot of the issue. (And, for that matter, the women in Apocolocyntosis are not by any means a matching set of objects, but often have strong and specific desires of their own.)

  5. There have been some excellent points raised regarding gender roles, naming etc that go beyond what I’ve expected for what I consider to be a light work of IF in a classic 1950’s genre detective story. So I will need to give this some more thought.

    In case it was not obvious the names are mnemonic for suspects A, B, C, D, and E, as was done in “An Act of Murder”. I chose the IF names in part to acknowledge the contributions made by many people and technologies, some of whom might even be considered controversial. In case they are not obvious, I reference Nick Montfort, Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin, Nelson Graham, Howard Sherman, Don Crowther, Don Woods, Brian Moriarty, Marc Blank, Dave Lebling, The Brass Lantern, TADS, HUGO, ALAN, among others. Even my reference to Paul Panks was meant as a tribute. And there are numerous references to Infocom games, though some of these are admittedly quite lame in their current form.

    I disagree with the characterization of the female characters in the story as sex-objects but I will admit that they are not major characters in the overall story. There’s clearly a need to improve the writing and make the characters more than just “cardboard cutouts”, so that will be one of my areas of focus. The character of Beverley Hugo is intended to be a somewhat troubled person so I wouldn’t look to her as being a positive role model for anyone. Her mother, Amy Briggs, on the other hand was intended to be a strong character (a pioneer in her field), though admittedly it’s only backstory to the characters and situation at hand. And yes, Amy Briggs is another IF reference.

    Nonetheless, I appreciate the time people have taken to play the game and provide a thoughtful discourse.
    –Zack

    1. This is quite tangential, but just to react to your phrase “wouldn’t look to her as being a positive role model for anyone” a bit, I don’t think many people are claiming that female characters have to be Clearly Superior Humans In All Aspects. I think the confusion arises over the phrase “strong female characters,” which can be interpreted as meaning “characters that show no weaknesses,” but with an original intent somewhat more like “strongly-written characters that happen to be female.” Megan Fox’s character in Transformers is “strong” in the sense that she has no flaws, and therefore both entirely uninteresting as a character, and entirely useless as a promotion of what actual women can be like.

      Even in stereotypical/genre writing, in stories where there’s more than one male character, which is most of them, they get distinguished by personality traits (that one is the rebel, that one is the loyal soldier, that one is the drunk), but all too often, being “the female” is the “personality trait.” (Or being “the black guy.” Or “the guy in the wheerchair.”) Or you get “that one’s the slut and that one’s the girl next door,” or “that one’s Mom and that one’s Girlfriend,” which are still pretty cringe-inducing. So, “she’s the one who everyone suspects because she squandered the inheritance on a drug-smuggling operation that fell through because she was a bit of an amateur and one of the other characters ratted her out, and infamously has a suspicious-looking woodchipper out back” would make a character far from a positive role model, but might land her in “strongly written” territory (if I’d spent more than ten seconds on that summary, of course :P ).

    2. I confess the references turned me off quite a bit (enough so I’m not sure I could objectively review the rest). You clearly have a lot invested in them, so perhaps as a compromise you could tweak them to be slightly more subtle (i.e. keep the first name only of particular characters and change the last name to something unrelated, or vice versa). Beverly Hugo, for instance, sounds fine as a name. Emile Long sounds like a vaudeville theater sort of naming.

  6. In case it was not obvious the names are mnemonic for suspects A, B, C, D, and E, as was done in “An Act of Murder”.

    I picked that up, and, for what it’s worth, I didn’t take your reference — to Panks or anyone else — as intended to be anything other than an amusing tip of the hat. I just feel a little strange about having his death dramatized in this way, given that it wasn’t that long ago and that it seems to have been under unhappy circumstances.

    I didn’t run into much detailed discussion of the Amy Briggs character in my runthrough (though I didn’t keep a transcript — sorry, I didn’t realize you were collecting them until after I’d already gotten most of the way done). So my major impressions were formed by Robner, about whom I learned very little other than that she had a thing for the protagonist, and Beverley Hugo, who hit on the protagonist in the bizarre fashion quoted above. Maybe there’s more to them than I saw, but their establishing character notes in both cases are very much about their appearance and availability to men.

    Anyway, like I said, I didn’t get the impression this was intentional or malicious, and maybe there’s a lot more depth to their characters I never saw. But thinking about the masculinization of my name got me thinking about a lot of the related issues as well.

  7. Thanks for the feedback. Perhaps some of the references are too direct. I can appreciate that and will take it into consideration, especially if it turns out to be a distraction for some portion of the audience. It’s not feedback I’d heard before, but most of my testers are more fringe in the IF community, not necessarily hard core devotees.

  8. The game is set in 1950 and delivered in the style of a popular noir of the time. The presentation of women is entirely as per those films, those books, and accurately so, and that is why I find the time spent talking about gender roles in the review and this topic totally disproportionate to their relevance to the game’s quality, and counter to the whole point of setting something in any particular time and context. You know, apart from the Emile Long thing, which obviously is going to interact with the character’s name-sake.

    1. The presentation of women is entirely as per those films, those books, and accurately so, and that is why I find the time spent talking about gender roles in the review and this topic totally disproportionate to their relevance to the game’s quality, and counter to the whole point of setting something in any particular time and context.

      Erm. No. I know I sounded tentative bringing the gender issues up in the review, and I did feel tentative about it — because it’s not my purpose to shame anyone, because I didn’t think the bits I found uncomfortable were intentional, and because there are much more extreme cases out there.

      But I certainly don’t buy that the whole point of setting something in a past time or historical genre is that you’re allowed then to adopt the stereotypes of that context without reflection. If you do, then you can — at the very least — expect some parts of your audience to react with the same sense of alienation that they would to the source material.

    2. To address the gender view of a particular time is different from adopting that view in a contemporary work; and now I’m kind of talking about Mad Man.

      Although in the case of this Z-Machine business, being that all the characters are somewhat weak and poorly constructed stereotypes of one thing or another, I agree with you on this being a largely over-thought issue.

  9. (on the other hand, without this over-thought discussion, I wouldn’t have read that cool “Why Strong Female Characters Are Bad for Women” article Lea left here, so hurray for over-thinking)

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