IFComp 2020: The Land Down Under

Here we have a lightly-interactive and highly imaginative children’s fantasy, apparently the latest in a whole series about foster children in a magical house, narrated by a magical book (which occasionally interjects its own grumpy opinions). The plot is essentially by-the-numbers portal fantasy: a couple of children wander into a fantastic realm hidden in the basement, the protagonist goes in after to rescue them, and in the process they trigger a revolution before they get out. But even recognizing the formula, it’s a pretty delightful read.

The otherworld here is inhabited by sentient paper cutouts of people, gliding around on tracks with a clockwork perfection that one of the children finds alluring. Humans entering this realm are transformed into paper as well, and deprived of most freedom of movement. It’s a little tempting to read a commentary on choice-based IF into this, but it’s not well-supported. On the other hand, it does play some with the idea that they’re characters in a book, which is missing some pages and has to furnish a flashback towards the end to fill in missing memories. In this way, the humans have always lacked freedom, and always been made of paper. It’s notable, however, that there’s a great deal of story to get immersed in between the few fourth-wall-breaking moments when the book reminds you that it’s a book.

At one point, I went off the rails — literally, but the book reacted as if I had done so figuratively as well. Obviously it’s impossible to actually do anything the author hasn’t planned for, but it’s possible to do a little sequence-breaking in ways that could get you stuck. The game’s solution: Jetpacks, which let you jump back to an earlier choice. You start off with two, and there’s a possibility of obtaining more, but I only found the one place where I needed them at all, despite picking increasingly bold choices as the story went on.

Boldness is a stat tracked in the UI, and apparently affects how the ending proceeds. It’s a little strange, too, because it packs different kinds of boldness together. In the earlier parts of the story, back in the magic house, I was choosing the less “bold” conversation options because they seemed polite and considerate. But once it was about rebelling against tyranny rather than avoiding hurting someone’s feelings, bold was on.

I’ve been griping lately about Twine stories with excessive quantities of forward links to click through. This one is less egregious about it than some, giving a solid amount of text at a time and making substantial choices visually distinct. But it also manages to make the whole thing less irritating in a way I wasn’t expecting: by keeping the entire story text on the page. It seems I’m the sort of reader who keeps glancing back at previous passages to assist comprehension, and part of my problem with the hyperlink-at-the-end-of-a-short-passage style is the constant worry that clicking one will clear the page. Something to think on.

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