IFComp 2011: The Binary

Spoilers follow the break.

Ten years ago, in the 2001 Comp, a game called Vicious Cycles asked its players to find a bomb on a train, using technological whizzery to relive the same moments over and over, using information from one iteration to help you in the next. (When the movie Source Code came out, more than one person commented on the similarity.) More recently, Vicious Cycles was remade in a new HTML-based IF system. Not quite CYOA, it provides always-present hyperlinks for inventory, as well as for any object that has a description. The result is something that plays somewhat like a text adventure, despite only providing a few choices of action at any moment.

The Binary is the second game made under this system (or a slight variant thereof; the arrangement of stuff on the screen is somewhat different), and apparently by the same author (he’s using a pseudonym nowadays). And it has more or less the same premise, making me wonder if there’s something about this engine that makes it a natural fit for this particular story. This time it’s an assassination you’re trying to stop rather than a bombing, but you’re still repeatedly going back in time, gleaning crucial information from attempts that have no chance of succeeding, and trying again with the new information. Significantly, useful information goes into its own special area in your on-screen inventory, so that you can click on it to use it. Thus, you can’t skip the iterations that produce such information, the way you might in a game with a command line.

The details of the assassination, such as the identity of the victim, are kept are obscure, as are the reasons it’s important enough to merit historical alteration. Between sallies, you get to hear some snippets about keeping the timeline pristine, with a somewhat religious tone, as if your purpose is to enforce fate. And when I say “religious”, I mean the creepy sort of religious; agents intervening in history in order to correct it apparently flagellate themselves afterward in atonement for their own unavoidable alterations. In the end, after you’ve accomplished your mission, if you choose to disobey your orders to return to your insertion point, someone else takes control over your body and steers you there, thus correcting your actions and making you conform to what they believe is right.

It seems to me that the story is really all about controlling people, including the player. Even before the ending, your actions are constrained to the few choices offered by the links, and the iteration is all about making you do it over until you do it the right way. At the beginning, there’s a woman who runs out of the hotel where the sniper lies in wait. Her story, which it took me a while to realize wasn’t connected to the assassination plot in any way other than locale, is about trying to escape an unhappy and probably coercive relationship. As you watch, a purse-snatcher nabs her belongings, including a plane ticket to freedom. You can return it to her, but if you do, you lock yourself out of victory for that round. In the end, you’re forced to hide her stuff where she’ll never find it. Otherwise her life might change, and you can’t have that. You are an agent of control — whether you like or not.

My one biggest complaint about the game is that you can miss important clarifications if you’re not in the right place when certain timed events happen. At one point in my first iteration, I got the following text:

The man with the scar on his cheek pulls the blonde woman through the crowd.

The giant tuxedo man towers over you. You can see his teeth and the roof of his mouth as he smiles and laughs. He stares at the empty space above the buildings.

This was the first mention I had seen of either “the man with the scar on his cheek” or “the giant tuxedo man”, as I had been off in an alley when they appeared. Lacking context, I thought at first that they were the same person, and this contributed to my confusion over the two story strands. But then, you’re pretty much supposed to spend your first few iterations lost and confused.

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