IFComp 2011: Keepsake

Spoilers follow the break.

All Roads lite: the player character is a temporally-maladjusted killer, and the goal is not so much to reach the game’s ending as to figure out what the heck is really going on.

The game starts in the aftermath of a murder. You’re told that your motive was revenge, but really, the details are so irrelevant that you never even learn the victim’s name. The real meat of the game starts when you’re out on the street and notice a man standing next to his own corpse. I thought for sure that I had hit a bug at that point, and that I wasn’t supposed to be seeing both of those things at once, but the game dispelled this notion pretty quickly by referring to them both in a single sentence. So good job there. It’s all too easy to lose the player’s trust when portraying something weird or surreal, but the author here was smart enough to understand where extra clarification is needed.

Two more duplicated persons appear before you reach home. In all cases, one of them disappears before you leave; which one depends on your actions. You might start to form a theory about what’s going on, but before you can confirm or act on it, the game ends and spells everything out in a lengthy epilogue — one that’s about as long as the game that preceded it, in fact. And now, I’m going to spell everything out too, because it’s difficult to comment on otherwise.

The whole idea is that you’re experiencing the events before the murder in reverse. This isn’t quite the same as time simply running backward; spoken words, for example, are intelligible, if enigmatic. The epilogue shows the same events forward. And it really is the same events: if you perform actions slightly differently, or in a different order (not often possible; the game is pretty linear), this is reflected in the forward version. Hooray for thoroughness of implementation. The duplicated persons represent alternatives. They’re people whose immediate situation could go either of two ways depending on your actions, so until you reach the moment where you perform those actions, both potentialities are present. Mind you, this means that the version of the person remaining after you determine the outcome isn’t either of the alternatives, but rather, the state of the person before you act. If, forward, they started off in an unhappy state, the act of stopping to help them, played backward, will unhelp them, erasing the happy version from the world and leaving just the unhappy one, which seems weirdly callous until you’ve got it all figured out.

I like the conceit here, which has a good riddle quality, but I feel like it has more potential than this game displays. Steve Meretzky managed to make an entire chapter of Spellcasting 101 about time-reversed actions, and he didn’t even have the concept of alternatives to play with. Keepsake is less than a chapter; it’s essentially a proof of concept, and doesn’t explore that concept in a great deal of depth.

4 Comments so far

  1. matt w on 14 Oct 2011

    Does your first sentence mean that you understand what is going on in All Roads? If so, can you explain it?

    Also, were you able to choose which person disappears for anyone but the Fixer? I found myself unable to find a way to make the unhappy old man or unhappy girl disappear.

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 14 Oct 2011

    I understand more or less what was going on in All Roads, although I understood it better ten years ago when it was fresher in my mind. I posted a couple of attempts at explaining it to Usenet at the time:
    basic high-level explanation
    some answers to specific questions

    And yes, I was able to make all of the alternative people real. All you have to do to eliminate the unhappy alternatives is to help them with their problems, bearing in mind that you’re doing it backward. Helping the girl means retrieving the stuck basketball and giving it to her, so doing it backwards means taking the basketball from the unhappy version and putting it up where it’s stuck. The old man’s cane works the same way. However, note that, as described above, when you’re going backwards in time, you’ll only see the outcome of your actions briefly. After that, you’re in the time before you intervened, and the person will be in the state they were in before you helped, which is to say, unhappy. Just as the Fixer goes back to being alive right after you shoot him.

  3. Carl Muckenhoupt on 15 Oct 2011

    Hm. Going over it again, it looks like my description of what happens with the alternatives is wrong. Regardless of whether you help the old man or not, it’s the smiling version that vanishes, even though it would make a little more sense for the angry one to vanish and the smiling one to become angry.

  4. matt w on 16 Oct 2011

    About Keepsake: OK, that’s mostly what I found. I did think that the metaphysics of what happened with the Fixer weren’t entirely consistent with the others. Though in a piece like this the immediate/mid-term impact is probably more important than the fridge-logic metaphysics.

    All Roads: Excellent, thank you. I had intuited the body-hopping bit, but maybe not the traveling through time bit, and I certainly hadn’t worked out how it works (for instance, I thought the PC was a hired assassin who works by possessing people). I’ll have to play again with your first post in mind and see if I can piece it together.

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