IF Comp 2011: Tenth Plague

Tenth Plague retells the last Biblical plague of the Egyptians, the one in which the firstborn sons were killed. This is essentially a work of horror. Because so much of the game’s point is really about its starting premise, any discussion may be considered spoilery; if you like to play a game fresh, it’s worth trying this one before reading much about it.

Tenth Plague deserves some sort of award for the game I tried most often to quit or lose intentionally this competition.

The premise is that you’re the Angel of Death charged with killing the firstborn sons of the Egyptians as a prelude to the exodus. This is almost entirely a challenge to complicity — are you willing to go along with this? — with the fairly easy puzzles mostly serving to force the player to experience the horrors in more detail.

It’s fascinating to me to see Tenth Plague appear in the same comp as Cana According to Micah, because they’re both engaging with the Biblical tradition in a way not much seen in IF otherwise: elaborating and exploring the feelings of the human beings who might have existed at the center of these stories, as a route to understanding their moral meaning more deeply. Only, of course, they come to very different conclusions. Tenth Plague drives home the point that many of the actions of the Old Testament God as described are deeply disturbing, arbitrary, and cruel: over and over we’re faced with innocent victims and their harmless, grieving families, and it’s up to us to carry out the destruction of slaves, babies, and the entirely helpless.

That said, the best effects aren’t always the most obvious ones. One of my favorite moments in the game comes when the protagonist is standing (hovering?) over the roof of a home and notices that the roof tiles are thick with the bodies of dead locusts: a reminder that the other plagues have already brought terrible suffering to the Egyptians. If anything, I would have liked to see more of this kind of thing. I feel like the game didn’t have quite as much impact on me as it might have done, and part of the reason is that it hits too hard, too soon, before the player’s had a chance to build up an investment in the world one way or the other. This needn’t have meant more puzzles per se: the author justly observes that it was a challenge coming up with puzzles that could reasonably stop a cloud-like entity with semi-divine powers. But a little more time in forced observation of the world, absorbing its sights and sounds, would I think have made the moments of death more effective, and allowed the player to build up a sense of tension before having to commit each murder.

Tenth Plague comes with a commentary track that you can look at once you’ve played the first time. I really liked this feature. Tenth Plague is short enough and peculiar enough that it wasn’t much of an imposition to play through a second time, and I valued the extra insight I got into why the author did what she did here. Dally mentions that the emotional tone was originally much more heavy-handed, and I’m grateful that she pulled back from that. As mentioned, I think she could have strengthened the writing further by varying the pace and spending a little more time on evocative details between the murders, but I applaud her decision not to push emotions onto the protagonist too much, and allow the horror of the situation to come through the actions and responses of the other characters.

Overall, an interesting concept cleanly executed.

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