IF Comp 2015: The Sueno (Marshal Tenner Winter)

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)

If you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.

CoverThe Sueno is a parser puzzle adventure set mostly within a dreamscape. I played to a winning ending within the two hour period, though I made some use of the walkthrough in order to accomplish that. I don’t think there are other winning endings available. I should add the caveat that the backstory involves a misleading/inaccurate portrayal of a misunderstood mental illness. This is not the main point of the game (and indeed I didn’t run into it until quite late), but it is there.

Marshal Tenner Winter is a prolific author with over a dozen games to his name at this point, including Jesse Stavro’s Doorway in last year’s IF Comp. Though I haven’t played nearly all of his works, the ones I have played often have left me with the sense that his design ambitions went somewhat beyond what he was willing to implement: so for instance Jesse Stavro combines a lot of NPC implementation with some more puzzly physical puzzles, but doesn’t do quite enough to smoothe out the pacing challenges that result. Or The Bibliophile provides the player with a large, sprawling map but then provides pretty linear directions to get you through it, rather than trying to provide a more organic discovery process.

The Sueno is not completely free of such issues, and I did have to hit the walkthrough a few times, sometimes for reasons of direction and sometimes because of implementation patchiness. There were a couple of actions I think I probably would not have thought of attempting by myself, and a couple of others where I had the right idea but was failing to guess the verb.

All that said, though, I think this was my favorite experience with an MTW game to date. Though I needed the walkthrough sometimes, I wasn’t leaning on it nearly as much as in some of his earlier work. The overall design of the game is more cohesive and consistent than Jesse Stavro, and the world is structured well enough to make a lot of it explorable by oneself.

I also had a better time than I would have predicted from the premise. I’m a little burned out on games that are about negotiating a dream space or coma experience in which surreal objects represent aspects of the protagonist’s psychological life. Often these stories are much less interesting than the real world events to which they are supposedly alluding, and they tend to be an excuse for the author to dispense with any kind of logic in the puzzles, or any psychological realism.

Several things make The Sueno better than average here. First, it avoids the pseudo-profound but often just excruciating scenario in which the protagonist encounters objects representing, say, his own inability to love. Our aim in The Sueno is to figure out what is going on, and the mystery concerns things we legitimately don’t know. Second, some of the imagery, especially of the biological clock object, was pretty striking and stuck with me more than these dream objects usually do. And finally, there’s a clear relationship between the dream world and the framing world — we actually wake up a couple of times during the course of the story — and the two scenarios have stakes affecting one another.

The Sueno introduces a DREAM mechanic that is meant to represent your power over the lucid dream world. In theory, it is supposed to allow you to make almost infinite changes to the world in which you find yourself. In practice, it is useful for two puzzles, and fails for everything else: you can’t dream yourself a key to any of the locked doors, say, or a computer when you need one, or any of a number of other items. This is the kind of mechanic that is almost always really hard to pull off. Compare the CREATE powers in Gilded, which also left a lot of players at sea about what they could actually do.

And yet despite that, I did actually feel that it was a very effective moment when I DREAMed a certain object into being in response to finding an accessory for that object. That felt both satisfying and consistent with the dream experience that MTW was attempting to evoke here. I wonder whether it might have been possible to do something more consistent that would make the mechanic work — maybe you can only dream things into being if you have a related prop?

A couple of other thoughts about the ending, after spoiler space.









I do wish the game hadn’t said that Lynch is schizophrenic. This is not what schizophrenia does; for that matter, it’s not a good representation of what dissociative identity disorder does; and it is unhelpful to further stigmatize either of those conditions.

I think the dreamscape could still have worked, and the results have been in fact more effective as a story, had they involved a character whose good and bad actions in life were not siloed into different personalities. Perhaps Lynch is inwardly conflicted; perhaps he is trying to do some good in the world in order to make up for bad done elsewhere; perhaps he is morally bankrupt entirely and just wants to wield power over people and situations, and both his mob involvement and his sleep-lab-running allow him to do this.

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