IF Comp 2015: Ether (Mathbrush)

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.

CoverEther is a short piece of surreal, lightly puzzly IF about being a magic-wielding nautilus creature. I played it to completion, which took me just a little over half an hour; I did not require any notes to play.

The treatment of space in this game is immediately striking. Ether‘s protagonist floats in an atmosphere, rendered in three dimensions, in which it can see landmark objects and phenomena in all directions. The player is interacting not just with object props (of which there are relatively few) but also with the weather. Wind, heat, and air pressure are all modeled and have different effects on the protagonist and the things in their inventory.

It might seem that a three-dimensional model with such directions as “northeastup” might quickly become laborious to navigate and manage. In practice, though, I didn’t find this to be so with Ether. For one thing, it’s not mandatory to use the longer directions; one can get around the grid with simpler directions if one wishes. For another, it’s possible to specify simply that you want to go towards a certain landmark object, which means it’s unnecessary to figure out exactly how that landmark relates to your current position. And finally, once you’ve done enough navigation to familiarize yourself with the situation, Ether introduces several new ways of moving and acquiring things.

The generated text describing different parts of this world is automatically generated and mostly works, though there were just a few moments where I felt that, say, the description of being in the bitter cold conflicted with the description of experiencing a “mild breeze”: surely if the air is that cold, even a low wind velocity would be experienced more sharply than that. There is a command that allows the player to turn on and off a numerical description of all these features as well as reading the text about them, and I found that useful as a way of coming to better grips with the system.

I found Ether least effective when it explicitly went for pathos in the writing, because it was asking me to empathize with a rather abstract being that I mostly hadn’t envisioned as capable of having feelings to start with, and it hadn’t put in the time to build up that empathy. Similarly, the ending reached for an emotional point that it hadn’t done the work to earn, at least for me.

But overall I enjoyed playing, and I appreciated the experimentation with world model and textual representation.

If you enjoyed Ether, you might also like Hoist Sail for the Heliopause and Home. If you’re interested in parser IF that models visibility between rooms or continuous space rather than discrete space, see Endless Sands (distant visible landmarks), Terminator (two-dimensional grid), Shade (room subdivided into areas), Stone Cell (multiple “locations” within a single room).

And if you’re interested in text representations of procedural world model spaces, you might be interested in this article by Carolyn VanEseltine; or, casting the net a bit more widely, one of these projects, ProcJam, or the procedurally generated Twine works of Chrisamaphone.

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