IFComp 2011: Sentencing Mr. Liddell

Spoilers follow the break.

Another dream work. I suppose this is another of this Comp’s repeated themes, but it doesn’t stand out as much as all the private eye novelties. I guess it’s closer to what we accept as normal for IF.

It starts in what I assume to be Mr. Liddell’s reality, introducing us to his family and their conflicts so we can recognize their distorted reflections later. An attempt to rescue your infant daughter from drowning takes you underwater, which makes it seem like what follows is more likely a near-death experience than a dream, but it’s followed by emerging into a sewer tunnel with a train running through it, and that’s pure Freud telling us it’s a dream right there. And he’s joined shortly afterward by Lewis Carroll: much of the imagery alludes to Alice in Wonderland, with people from Mr. Liddell’s life filling the roles of the caterpillars and duchesses and so forth.

Much of the game is spent advancing through that train, car by car, in pursuit of your imperiled daughter, your progress blocked in each room until you perform the correct actions. The room descriptions are spare, and in some cases completely empty once the obstacles are gone. That is, there’s plenty of descriptive text around, but it’s in the scripted actions, not in the room descriptions. I have mixed feelings about this. Brevity is the soul of wit, and I certainly don’t want authors to feel obliged to write a paragraph of filler for each room just because it’s traditional, but on the other hand, it feels almost accidental here.

There’s some nice dream-transformations, objects taking on composite roles or sliding from one form to another, like a piece of paper in your inventory that goes from being a train ticket to a writing assignment, eventually turning into court papers for your trial in the locomotive.

It’s on this paper that you write your sentence — as with the Knave of Hearts, it’s sentence first, trial afterward — by bulding it out of important words encountered throughout the game, their importance signified by italics. I had problems with this. The game hands you “we” early on, and then, when you try to write “us”, it informs you that you already have that word in another form. But then it expects you to recognize “life” and “live” as distinct words. Also, the words I had gathered while stuck on that seemed to demand some connective tissue, at the very least a preposition to fit additional words on. This turned out not to be the case, but only because the full sentence is a bit awkward. But my real complaint here is that the game didn’t deal well with my guesses here: things like “WRITE TO” and “WRITE ON” were interpreted as verb phrases missing a noun. I’ve seen games that solve this problem by requiring the object of “WRITE” to be put in quotation marks, but this game doesn’t seem to understand that.

The endnotes reveal that there’s some narrative variation to be had: how you choose to overcome the obstacles can affect the game’s evaluation of your character, and therefore how you perceive certain dream elements. The thing is, I would not have known this if not for the notes. The game content doesn’t make it at all clear that any alternate solutions exist, and even if it did, the associative dream-logic from cause to effect would probably obscure any connection.

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