This post is part of an ongoing project to bring more voices to the IF Comp conversation. I have been reaching out to players and authors who aren’t part of the intfiction community, and also to some veteran intfiction denizens who might not have time to cover the whole comp but who are likely to have especially useful feedback in particular areas.
Here Duncan Stevens, one of the prolific reviewers of IF in the late-90s newsgroups, takes a look at Map.
Ade McT’s Map is a puzzler of a competition entry, in every sense other than the literal. The game is built not around puzzles–there are none–but rather around one woman’s memories, which are embodied in a house that she may or may not be moving out of. People come and go throughout that house over the course of the game–or, perhaps, they don’t; perhaps the only things coming and going are the protagonist’s memories of the people. It’s difficult to pin down what’s happening in Map, and at some point you may find yourself giving up, in a sense, on what level of reality is represented at a given time.
The initial premise appears to be that the protagonist is about to move out of the house in which she’s lived for a long time, and in the course of packing up to move, she confronts memories of family members and others, and decisions she made at some point in the past. That much, at least, is reasonably clear. But as she explores the further reaches of her memories, the game presents you a series of choices from her past, and changing those choices changes the present as well. Except it isn’t that straightforward either: the version of the present that you encounter at the beginning of the game is not the same version you are experiencing by the middle of the game, whatever choices you make. And as the game progresses, the house changes in a way that might reflect your meditations on your impending move, or might indicate that your hold on reality is getting tenuous.
The obvious comparison is to Daniel Ravipinto’s Tapestry, another game that dealt with looking back on life choices, but the game uses the device to a different purpose. There, the game had very strong views about how to handle those choices, and there was a wrong and a right way to go about making the choices. Map is much less black and white: your approach to the choices determines a path, but there aren’t, as far as I can tell, a best ending and a suboptimal set of endings. There are some benefits and drawbacks in changing the past and in makig the same choices, and the game presents them without harping on them. The game isn’t, in other words, an elaborate Get the Protagonist’s Life Straightened Out puzzle. It’s not entirely clear what it is, though–at times, it plays as an extended meditation on those choices and how they changed the protagonist, and at times it plays like a descent into madness. Notably, there’s a plant in the house that changes–indeed, it changes the house itself–over the course of the game, in a way that’s either a metaphor for your own autonomy or an illustration of how far behind you’ve left a literal reality. And while I appreciated the game’s lack of Tapestry-style dogmatism, at those times I wanted to know what I was supposed to think. On the plus side, though, as pure story, Map is affecting, particularly when the various decisions are considered alongside each other: choices that might at first have seemed obvious seemed less so when more of the protagonist’s history comes into view, and understanding why she had made the choices she did was my favorite part of the game. (And yet: that aspect of the game, as effective as it was, doesn’t depend on anything interactive about the story. The same device could have been used in static fiction.)
The house itself is at times vividly rendered and at times gets only cursory treatment. One particularly clever device is to describe the rooms as getting larger and larger over the course of the protagonist’s packing, just as a house feels larger as it’s emptied of possessions–and yet the implementation of the house often feels sketchy. Lots of objects get no description at all, when, to my mind, there should be memories affixed to every object and piece of furniture. I suppose you could defend the sketchiness as a product of one’s natural tendency to overlook the very familiar, but in a game where interacting with memory is the central feature, leaving so many objects unimplemented felt like a misfire. The central relationships also felt patchily done–when you get a chance to interact with your various family members, it’s virtually impossible to get anything meaningful out of them, even though there’s no shortage of topics to discuss. Arguably, that’s because the real action is in your own head, but I still wanted more. I did like observing the subtle, often creepy, ways the house changes over the course of the game, and while the significance of the plant could have been clearer, it was highly effective in setting the increasingly fraught and claustrophobic mood.
If it’s a bit difficult to get a grip on what Map is supposed to be, that shouldn’t take away from the real strengths of the story. It’s worth experiencing, even if you won’t necessarily understand, once you’ve finished, exactly what you experienced.
See also: SPAG reviews of Tapestry, including Duncan’s.