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.
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.)
As one might expect of both the author and the venue, Prospero is a typographically attractive piece of work, rendered in white text with red progression links. Links that merely expand the existing text appear in bold white, instead. The distinction between stretchtext links and movement links might be old in literary hypertext terms — I’m not certain — but it’s not consistent in the Twine and Undum world. I find it very useful to know whether the link I’m clicking is going to tell me a little more information or whether it’s going to move the whole story forward.
Prospero is also a beautifully textured piece at the level of prose. Dias has a gift for the specific detail — seen in Mere Anarchy in the variety of magical tools available to the protagonist, or here in Prospero in the scenery and the protagonist’s possessions.
The original Poe story goes like this: there’s a plague in the land, but the prince Prospero has a lot of money, so he walls himself up with his favorite courtiers and various resources, and they try to keep the plague at bay. (In contrast with the religious community in Vespers, he seems untroubled by the implications of shutting out the rest of the world.) During an elaborate party Prospero throws, a creepy masked figure attends, who turns out to be the embodiment of the plague. Despite their decadence and indifference to the world outside, the whole party dies. It is possibly a story about the inevitability of death, or possibly about the comeuppance of the wealthy classes.
Dias’ version keeps a great deal of that structure, but moves the action to something closer to the modern day, with cars and modern architecture and electric lighting. He casts the player as the Red Death, with the ability to choose the final outcome. This feels like a surprising choice, given that Poe’s version is so much about inevitability. And I think it would have been fatal to the concept of the original story to give Prospero any choice about whether he lived or died. As the Red Death, we can move among different parts of Prospero’s party, meet different party-goers, and decide whether to spare them all, or one or two favored exceptions, or no one.
Two of Dias’ previous projects, Mere Anarchy and Terminator Chaser, deal with resistance against wealth and power. Prospero raises some of the same issues, particularly the idea of the rich who imagine that they can remove themselves from the rules that apply to everyone else. In contrast with Mere Anarchy, it is comparatively merciful; it allows you to grant forgiveness, if you’re so moved. But I found that I didn’t entirely want to. Perhaps my own favorite ending was to spare one woman who seemed not to belong to the wealthy decadence around her: this suggested a universe with some moral discrimination.
If you like Prospero, you might also enjoy Peter Nepstad’s adaptation of stories by Lord Dunsany, or Caleb Wilson’s anachronistic gothic Six Gray Rats Crawl Up the Pillow.