IFComp 2010: Sons of the Cherry

Bucking trends and stirring trouble, our next entry is (a) CYOA-style (that is, rather than a text parser, it prompts you to select choices from a list like the old “Choose Your Own Adventure” books) and (b) only playable through the Web. Spoilers follow the break.

Now, I’ve defended CYOA-style adventures before: while the interface certainly allows shallowness of implementation, it doesn’t require it, and CYOA games exist that track state and have the sum of past choices affect things in nontrivial ways. This seems to be the case here, so no complaint in that regard. The Web-only aspect is something worth discouraging, in my opinion. It means that the game can’t be archived in the Archive with the rest of the entries, and after a while, the playable version will very likely disappear without a trace. This has happened before. And frankly, it’s an unnecessary limitation here, the result of a business model rather than any kind of technical necessity. This is a “multiple choice” game hosted at choiceofgames.com, but in fact it seems to be playable in a browser in offline mode once it’s loaded all the necessary Javascript.

“Choice of Games” is a somewhat familiar name to me: Emily Short did a writeup of some of their stuff a little while back. But this is the first piece created in their system that I’ve actually played. So perhaps some of my initial confusion here is a matter of unfamiliarity with the conventions they’ve been developing — something that, goodness knows, newcomers to the kind of IF I’m more familiar with have to contend with. The game starts by describing a situation, but then interrupts it to ask you a bunch of strange and unrelated questions about things like what color shirt you’re wearing, or whether you prefer moss, water, or ink. On replay, it became clear that this was a character-generation stage, and my answers were being used to assign traits to the protagonist that would determine how the story could proceed. But the first time through this bit, it seemed like this was some kind of weird art-game based on pointless questions. It’s not.

It is, instead, a sort of historical fantasy, in which the player is recruited into a secret society of sorcerers in revolutionary America. And when I call it “historical fantasy”, understand that it’s short on the historical and long on the fantasy. George Washington enters the story at the end, but hardly anything is said about him that couldn’t have just as easily been said about Lenin or Spartacus. But I suppose my impression here may be a consequence of my high expectations of historical IF: a game system where you can examine any object, poke into every corner and cranny, and voluntarily spend time observing things off the main track of the plot, is a game system ideally suited to showing off lots of period detail. A CYOA system is less so, at least if you expect every choice to be significant to the development of the plot (which, come to think of it, is an unnecessary limitation). But even bearing that in mind, this game doesn’t spend a lot of time on detail. It doesn’t spend a lot of time on anything. It moves uncomfortably quickly, tossing the player from situation to situation by skipping over large spans of time and asking you to make choices without much grounding.

I don’t know whether to say this state of affairs is made better or worse by the fact that the choices all seem to be fake. Mostly you just get the option of cooperating with your self-appointed mentor-figure or resisting him. When resisting him produces any lasting effect at all, which it doesn’t always, it just seems to lead to unsatisfactory results. The choices that seem to have the greatest effect are the character questions in the beginning, which you initially make in complete ignorance of what they do. Everything else is hardly interactive at all. I’ve complained before about the games that try to imitate Photopia but don’t manage to do whatever it was that made Photopia so powerful, and just wind up as a linear series of vignettes without any sense of player control. This game is takes it to a greater extreme, and the CYOA interface makes it extremely clear just how on-rails it all is. It aims at a bit of a mystery plot, but the lack of agency means that it never feels like I’m the one making discoveries or figuring things out.

On the plus side, this is the first game I’ve played in this Comp that doesn’t seem to have any bugs at all.

Rating: 3

No Comments

Leave a reply