IFComp 2008: Afflicted

Doug Egan brings us an investigation set in a restaurant in a seedy part of town. Spoilers follow the break.

This is more like it. From the very start, we have a nice juicy role to play: that of health inspector. Once you’ve observed a health code violation, you can use the “note” command to write about it in your notebook for points. This immediately provides an extra motivation to examine everything, and the game frequently rewards this urge: the restaurant is simply crawling with vividly-described filth and vileness. It’s like an inverse treasure hunt. The player perversely comes to look forward to finding descriptions that would be unpleasant in most other contexts, and is disappointed to examine something and find that it isn’t harboring mold or worse. It only takes something like 30 points to condemn the place, but I personally racked up 117.

One of the lessons this game has for us is that even a highly unpleasant environment can be a joy to explore if it’s detailed enough. I can think of any number of games that just tell us that a particular location is a “seedy dive” without going into detail about what that means. This is the first game I can think of that’s actually gone to the trouble of actually making a location feel run-down and unsanitary in depth. It’s kind of like what Hunter, in Darkness did for cave crawls.

So taken was I with this aspect of the game, in fact, that I kept on calmly observing things and taking notes even after I ushered in the second virtual chapter of the game by finding a severed foot in a soup cauldron. (I like to think I was acting in character. I imagine this health inspector as one who takes his job seriously.) There are no formal chapter divisions in this game, but there are several turning points, and this was the first of them for me — not an unexpected turn, given the author’s description of the game and the scrap of newspaper found outside, conveniently mentioning a person who went missing in the area, but a significant development in the plot nonetheless. The second turning point, less expected, was discovering that this is a vampire story, rather than just a mad killer story with hints of cannibalism.

While that’s a progression of events that makes narrative sense, the game actually gives the player a great deal of freedom in how and when the turning points happen. You can discover the vampire side a lot earlier than I did, and can find hints of it even before finding any severed body parts. Alternately, you can find your first body part before even entering the restaurant. There are quite a few alternate endings, as well — only those where you destroy the vampires are considered “winning” by the author, but the non-winning endings are at least actual endings that complete the story. The game overall does a really nice job of balancing interactivity and narrative. Rather than making the story drive the player’s actions, it provides an environment that has a story implicit in it and lets you pursue that story as you will.

Rating: 7

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