IF Comp 2011: The Hours

The Hours is a twisty piece about time travel and conspiracy, of medium length for a comp game (I think it took me a bit less than an hour to go through). More details follow the jump.

The Hours wants to tell a complex and ambitious story about conspiracy within a time travel agency, but it’s plagued with technical problems.

The implementation is full of odd formatting effects (there are way more line breaks than it needs, to a distracting degree); a number of scenery objects go undescribed; errors occur even in the included transcript of the game. (The line breaks thing might be due to a misuse of Room Description Control, conceivably — in which case I feel vaguely complicit in the problem — but it’s not necessary for that to happen…)

The difficulties also extend to the writing, and these are more fundamental. Though the author has a potentially interesting idea, he isn’t able to deliver fully on the concept for reasons of narrative craft. The protagonist is not the prime mover in his own story: he spends most of his time being shunted from one event or situation to the next, doing what he’s told and rarely in charge of his own circumstances.

Meanwhile there is a core mystery to discover, but instead of teasing it to the protagonist gradually and allowing the player to take some agency in finding out what happens next, the author develops the story as a series of surprise information dumps from recordings and NPCs. Consequently, the protagonist feels wimpy and underdeveloped, the plot disjointed. The tone shifts as well, so it’s not always clear whether the work is meant to be comedy, mystery, or thriller.

This is not to say that the author didn’t put any thought into the game’s presentation. He has done away with compass navigation, instead listing possible exits in the status bar. A few built in tutorial messages introduce this idea, making it less surprising. The effect basically works, though I am not in the habit of checking the status bar regularly for game-essential information, so there were a couple of points where I missed a newly opened exit; if possible, I’d recommend instead putting this kind of information closer to the command line so that the player doesn’t have to do so much looking around to see new elements.

The treatment of the protagonist’s character is also interesting, though I’m not sure it goes as far as its author hoped. The player is invited to give the character a name and gender. (Though this is done in a way that itself raises some questions about gender roles and sexuality — I think unintentionally. At one point after a shower the protagonist is invited to choose to wear a suit or a dress, and this will determine the protagonist’s gender. I dressed my Emily character in a suit anyway. If I’m going on action-packed time traveling adventures, I’m damn well wearing pants. This had the further side effect that it let me hit on my female boss later on; I checked, and if you play that scene while wearing the dress, that option vanishes.)

The player also gets to specify how the character feels about situations. This is a mechanism for conversation — you pick tone rather than selecting exactly what the protagonist is going to say — but it’s a method that makes the protagonist feel much more plastic. Often with a conversation menu, I feel like I’m being asked to consider a range of things that are all in the protagonist’s mind to say; being asked how the protagonist feels invites me to imagine the protagonist him/herself as a fluid entity that I can define. This is an cool idea, and under other circumstances I think it might have given me a greater interest in the protagonist; but the choppy narrative and shifting goals meant that I rarely had a strong context for those choices, and that undercut them a bit.

On a personal note, I almost quit the game when I realized that I was supposed to burn the Library of Alexandria in order to make progress. Standards, you know?

Overall, The Hours needs quite a bit of structural work to be a really rewarding experience for the player, but the author shows ambition and an interest in formal experimentation — both promising.

3 thoughts on “IF Comp 2011: The Hours

  1. Pingback: IF Comp 2011: Overview | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  2. Pingback: IFComp, Part 4 « Saucers of Mud

  3. Pingback: IFComp, Part 4 « Saucers of Mud

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