IFComp 2010: The Warbler’s Nest

Jason McIntosh brings us a fairy tale, sort of. Spoilers follow the break.

This is a game that reveals its premise bit by bit, inserting pieces of flashback into the responses to significant actions. As such, you start off not knowing what you’re doing or why. But it doesn’t take long before you have enough pieces to get the picture: this is a story about a changeling, a baby stolen by sprites and replaced with something else, a brood parasite. Or rather, it’s about the possibility that this has happened. Most of the game is spent gathering traditional folkloric materials to test the baby for authenticity.

In the end, the test is inconclusive, but the player still has to make a decision: accept the child for your own, or throw it in the river, the prescribed method for forcing the fairies to return the real baby. And this is where the real evil of the situation lies. As pernicious as a changeling would be, the mere idea of one is worse. The player character is a woman who lives in terror of a fantasy, superstitiously annihilating any mushroom rings near her cottage, seeing something sinister in both noise and silence. Afraid of a baby. It seems her only real reason for doubting that it’s hers is that it cries a lot, and for that, she’s seriously considering throwing it in the river. Even worse, through the art of IF, she makes me consider it too. Even though I knew I could go back and try both branches, I wanted to make the right decision here, and despite everything I’ve said so far, despite the lack of any real evidence that fairies even exist in this gameworld, I had to think about it hard. The story, tense throughout, turned especially so at the end, and any direct action toward a choice was first deferred, the player character taking a moment to reconsider, inviting the player to do likewise. The central thought here: What if I’m wrong? Can I afford to take that risk?

One biggish complaint: there was a point where the story just ground to a stop for a while. The player character, hearing noises in the front yard, refused to go there without a weapon of some sort to defend herself against… whatever might be lurking there. (It turned out to be a stoat.) The back garden had sticks and stones heavy enough to be reassuring, but in order to notice them, you had to examine the garden, something I didn’t think to try for a good fifteen minutes or so. I’d blame my own stupidity here, because the garden is clearly mentioned in the back yard’s description, but at least two other people have reported getting stuck in exactly the same way, so I think it’s fair to say that this is a problem with the game. It needs to draw the player’s attention to the garden better, perhaps by making it a separate location, or alternately provide another weapon source, like some heavy stones on the riverbank. This is a story-game, not a puzzle-game, so anything that gets in the way of the story unfolding is a bad thing.

Rating: 8

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