Like pretty much everything else Emily Short has done in the field of IF, Alabaster is an experiment. The idea here was to provide a number of testers/co-authors with the ability to extend the dialogue tree: suggestions made within the game were automatically recorded to a file, which they sent back to Short, who incorporated them in the next version that she sent out to the same authors for further suggestions. The game lists eleven authors (including Short herself), and boasts 18 distinct endings (including some obviously unsatisfactory ones).

The story is a revisionist take on Snow White, with the player in the decidedly weird role of the huntsman, commanded by the Queen to murder the heroine at the story’s beginning. In the original story, this is hardly a major character, or even an interesting one. I suppose that if you were to write a story about him, you could play up the emotional conflict, the fear of defying the Queen vs the obvious perfidy of killing a beautiful child, but that’s not a very interesting choice for IF. If you ask the player to make that kind of choice, they’ll usually just immediately choose good over evil. But Alabaster doesn’t make it that easy. This Snow White is creepy, and knowing, and, despite being your prisoner, gives a strong sense of being more in control of the situation than you are. She’s already made a bargain with you to spare her life and lead her to a haven among the dwarrows, but she does nothing to help you feel good about it. You naturally start to wonder if the Queen might have good reasons to want her dead. And so you talk to her — nearly all of the game is spent talking — and although you might be uncomfortable about trusting what she tells you, she’s pretty much your only source of information. Is she a witch? A vampire? A god, even? Possibilities suggest themselves, and are rejected in turn as too obvious.

I’ve seen (and participated in) IF collaborations before, and usually the seams where the authorial voice changes are pretty obvious, but the tone in Alabaster is surprisingly consistent. Short says she edited things “to improve continuity and conversation flow”, which explains this somewhat, but it’s not like the content was all hers. She also says that she was surprised at some of the turns that the plot took. Which, coupled with the consistency of style, makes me wonder: which turns were unexpected?

I’ve seen only a few of the endings so far, but one of the ones I’ve seen solves a mystery that I hadn’t even considered: what happened to the King? From a certain point of view, this ending might be the best one, because reaching that point explains nearly everything and brings the story to a definite resolution. But it isn’t entirely a happy ending. On the basis of what I’ve seen, I doubt there are any completely happy endings in the game.

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