IFComp 2013: Trapped in Time

And of course right after I make a post complaining about static hypertext in the Comp, the first thing the randomizer picks for me is a PDF file, accompanied by a brief readme that instructs you to print it out and play it genuinely CYOA-style: the text is a series of numbered nodes, each ending in a list of nodes you can go to next. (Asking around, it seems that few people actually bothered to print it out. I myself played it straight from the screen.) Spoilers follow the break.

The instructions also said to have a pen on hand, which made me think at first that maybe this wasn’t going to be static hypertext after all. Sure, printed paper is as static as static can be, but paper containing instructions to write stuff down and refer to it later? That’s close to being a Turing machine. Once a text has the reader’s cooperation in such a scheme, it can execute algorithms using the hardware in the reader’s head instead of an electronic device. But in fact it didn’t contain any such explicit instructions. The pen, which I agree is pretty much a necessity, is for taking notes, and specifically for taking notes about the hidden-link rules that build up over the course of the story. For example, at one point you get an access code for a locked door, and at that point you are told that when you reach the node containing that door, you can enter the code by adding 12 to the node number. Other such rules are applicable in multiple places: when you obtain a weapon, you can threaten any other character with it by adding 30 to the node where you first encounter them. This is a sort of trickery that I don’t think the original Choose Your Own Adventure books ever used, but the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks did. The effect is that you can keep cycling to already-seen nodes but have more things to do on the return visits. In the Fighting Fantasy books, this enhanced the free exploration of dungeon corridors in places where the story wasn’t driving you onward all the time. Trapped in Time is more story-driven, but manages to revisit nodes anyway by means of a time-travel premise and a Groundhog Day-style time loop. Whenever you reach a premature ending, you’re told to turn back to the beginning, this time with new options.

Now, this gradual revealing of options is something that, if it were being done by a computer program that actually displayed additional links on revisiting nodes, it would be clear that it’s not just static hypertext, and that it’s keeping some internal state. But the fact that it’s designed to be read in print form makes me acutely aware that my criticism of static hypertext from my previous post — that all you can really change is which node you’re viewing at any given moment — applies here as well. But that’s nobody’s problem but mine; all it shows is that the distinctions I was trying to draw aren’t really as simple as they seem.

And anyway, I can’t really hate on this piece, because it really is fairly clever. It sort of does for the CYOA format what Slouching Towards Bedlam did for save/load, turning metagame elements into part of the plot. In the winning ending, you gain the ability to travel in time freely, but then are reminded that you actually had this ability all along: that’s what the player character was doing if you ever read nodes out of sequence. Which is something you’ve probably done by that point, because why iterate over the whole cycle when you can jump straight to the point you want to branch from?

In fact, there are story branches that you can’t reach from the trunk at all — things involving dinosaurs and Emperor Nero and suchlike. And you’re bound to notice them in the course of flipping through the pages to find the node you’re looking for — just the word “velociraptor” is eye-catching. I’m not sure if this is deliberate or not, but I can believe that it is, because these glimpses of exotic possibility reinforce the sense of being trapped in the main story. If it is in fact deliberate, it’s a little brilliant. I’ve seen plenty of node-based texts with red herrings before — the printed text passages in Secret of the Silver Blades is a memorable example — but I can’t recall a case where it’s exploited like this, except maybe for Jason Shiga’s Meanwhile.

I do have a couple of technical complaints, which prove that even printed text can have bugs. I mentioned the option of threatening other characters once you acquire a weapon. On your next iteration of the loop, you can successfully execute this option before you have an opportunity to get the weapon in that iteration. Possibly I just imagined the mechanics of the time loop wrong? Also, some of the instructions are ambiguous: when it says “The next time you use the time machine, add 9 to the number of the section”, which section does it mean, the section containing the “To use the time machine, turn to…” link or the section that it links to? It’ll be obvious when you turn to the wrong section, but perhaps not as obvious as intended, due to font issues. All the nodes that you can reach through arithmetic start with a brief confirmation message that, according to the instructions in the text, is supposed to be displayed in cursive, the easier to spot it before actually reading it. Apparently my PDF reader couldn’t display the cursive and defaulted to italics instead, which is far less visually distinct.

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