IF Comp 2015: Midnight. Swordfight. (Chandler Groover)

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.

Midnight Swordfight cover Midnight. Swordfight. is a parser game with an experimental world model, many possible outcomes, some puzzly aspects that nonetheless don’t make the game too horribly hard, and really delicious writing. It is the work of Chandler Groover, who has been prolific this year, with Toby’s Nose and Down, the Serpent and Sun and another game in this very competition, not to mention Tailypo in the October lineup of Sub-Q magazine. It took me only about 15-20 minutes to reach one possible outcome for the game, but I didn’t want to stop at that point, and played to others, for a total of about an hour and a half of play time. It is aggressively non-linear.

Note that despite its playfulness, low-difficulty design, and use of animal costumes, this game is not what is generally meant by “suitable for children”. Indeed, it is graphic in ways that some adults may find not their thing. I didn’t feel that these were gratuitous in context, and I wasn’t offended by them; but since I’m about to praise this game and encourage willing folks to play it, I feel like I should hang a bit of a warning up first. Regard the references to sex and violence in the blurb as R/NC-17 level content warnings, not PG-13.

The protagonist is engaged in a duel. It ends badly. But time, fortunately, is fractured, and the protagonist is able to visit the past and the future, moving through them as though they were rooms on a map. Changing the past in some way will reset the conditions for the duel, allowing it to come out in one of twenty-odd different ways. In addition, the whole thing is framed as a play: you can do nothing but the verbs that are written as possibilities on the play script, but your range of action can be tweaked if you wear different costumes.

This may sound both artificial and confusing. It is certainly artificial, but in practice (at least for me) not that hard to follow. It emerges that this is all taking place in a universe significantly different from our own, with savage cherubs like the Weeping Angels, and pigs that fly, and a range of other surprising non-realities; a world with hints of Rococo art and gothic writing. There is an overt borrowing from Masque of the Red Death — the second major appearance this year of that story in IF. There are references to Jabberwocky, and perhaps to the adventures of Baron Munchausen, depending on how you read one of the passages. And despite all this accumulation, it is really distinctively its own piece.

These artificial constraints make for a story you can explore in some detail, without the complexity of a parser game that contained these same events in a linear fashion. All the important points of the evening are present, and you can walk back and forth between them, borrowing an object here and a costume there. Furthermore, the crux of the story is very well constructed as a system. You have a certain set of ways you can alter what happens in the end scene, and the game accounts for all the possible recombinations.

The writing contains lots of striking bits:

There is a jackal in a tailcoat, and a nymph with shellfish in her hair, and an enchantress with gold orbs for eyes, and someone with marzipan skin, and an alpine maiden with a shepherd’s crook, and an antlered baron, and a raven in a judge’s wig, and a sequined succubus, and other masqueraders more fantastic still, but the one thing they all have in common is that their frozen gazes are condemning you: Guilty, they seem to say, guilty.

“Someone with marzipan skin.” What would this look like? What would it taste like? The imagination runs off down a dozen avenues before arriving at the final stinger of the paragraph.

There are entire short stories tucked into the marginalia of this game (make sure you examine the polar bear). And amusing plays on the standard library:

>x heretics
You see nothing special about the heretics burning on the tripods. They’re what you might call “garden variety.” But you’ll be in a similar spot if you can’t finagle some method to outwit the countess soon.

This loosely reminds me of Delightful Wallpaper and Invisible Parties. Delightful Wallpaper because it is also (though in a different way) about constructing and reconstructing a story, sort of from the outside; Invisible Parties because it too uses rooms as slightly artificial tableaux.

But I think all the inventiveness might still have produced something hollow, were it not for the character of Dmitri.

Most of the NPCs are frozen in time, but there are a couple who are not. The chief of these, Dmitri, has a very extensive set of things to say. Dmitri’s conversation gave me a little of the same sense I got from Toby’s Nose, of delving into a deep database of story snippets. What Dmitri has to say is not always overwhelmingly flattering to the protagonist — by the end I was really starting to wonder whether the player character was someone whose skin I wanted to bother with saving. But this conversation hints at a substantial emotional landscape between the various characters, and relationships with realistic problems and complications, even though this takes place in a world where the moon is actually made of cheese.

In any case, I enormously enjoyed this game, and I kept being surprised by the ways it opened out, and the depths it revealed in interaction, and the level of daring in the design. I loved the way the story universe gets weirder and more ridiculous the more you poke at it. I’m sure I didn’t find everything there is to find, either. For my tastes, this is Chandler Groover’s best IF yet, and probably my personal favorite in a competition full of superb work.

7 thoughts on “IF Comp 2015: Midnight. Swordfight. (Chandler Groover)”

  1. Heartily seconded. The writing is wonderful, and Dmitri’s surprising amount of dialogue clinched this as being really special. With the adult content caveats you mentioned, folks really need to try this one.

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