IFComp 2007: Ferrous ring

A sci-fi piece by Carma Ferris. Spoilers follow the break.

Ferrous Ring is an arthouse game. That’s kind of true of any text adventure produced after 1990, but some games fit the description better than others. This one has a strange mood: it’s set in a world falling apart, starting in a riot and ending near the vast iron shelter where qualifying individuals have gone to abandon the rest of society, but the overwhelming sense by the end is one of purpose, even of faith.

The player character, Erskine Ring 1One of the most cryptic things in the game is the comment “Do I even exist? ‘Erskine Ring’ is just a name. And not even a real one.” Nothing more is ever said about this., doesn’t have much control over what happens, which is pretty much the point. It’s all about being bounced around from event to event by forces beyond your control. Early on, you’re tricked into an errand without being told what it’s really about. Objects get moved into and out of your inventory without you noticing. In the end, Ring knows that he’s where he’s supposed to be, in a place apparently prepared for him by divine providence (although the game never drops the scare quotes around the word “angel”), but he still doesn’t really understand the plan or his significance in it.

Ferrous Ring also experriments with the user interface, providing three distinct input modes (four if you include “walkthrough mode”). You can enter text commands the usual way, or you can enter just nouns, letting the game choose a default action — typically “examine” the first time, then “take” or “go” or “talk to”, depending on what sort of thing it is. I like this; it reminds me of the notion of default verbs in the old Lucasarts games. Verbless commands have been done before, but not enough. Nouns can also be selected from an optional menu on the side. I tried all three of these input methods over the course of play, eventually settling on mostly typing nouns while keeping the menu open to see what my options were.

If you don’t like the menu, the game presents a list of significant objects as part of every room description. This is something most games do, but with the exception of the very old and the very retro, they generally try to present it as halfway believable prose rather than as just a list of objects. Here, the author takes a novel approach, infusing the list format with a point of view by classifying things into “Good” and “Bad” lists and occasionally throwing in intangible sensations. At one point, the “Bad” list briefly includes “my life”, “the world”, and “everything”.

I recently complained about another game that implemented a book as a room, with the result that you could drop items in the book, so I suppose I should mention that the same thing happens here. It’s a little worse here, in fact, because the game thinks it doesn’t allow dropping items at all: it issues the reply “[This game dispenses with ‘dropping’.]”, but the dropping occurs anyway.

Rating: 8

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1. One of the most cryptic things in the game is the comment “Do I even exist? ‘Erskine Ring’ is just a name. And not even a real one.” Nothing more is ever said about this.

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