Thursday, October 15, 2009

[IF Competition] Condemned

I am now officially past the half-way mark, since this is the 13th game I review out of 24. I don't think I ever managed to review that many comp games during the comp... and let me tell you, this does have something to do with the fact that we are now allowed to publish reviews during the comp. It makes me want to play everything so I can read what all of you guys are talking about and talk about it as well. :)

That should almost be enough spoiler text, shouldn't it? So we can get on with Condemned, by the mysterious "a delusioned teenager".

Renee Choba writes:
Playing a game that wants me to literally crucify myself is not really my thing.
It will come as no surprise to anyone that playing a game that wants me to literally crucify myself is very much my thing. And indeed, the crucifixion scene impressed me, and I think with some changes (both in the scene itself and in the game in general) it could have been awesome. Just think of a play experience where it slowly dawns on the player that she is participating in the protagonist's own bizarre punishment ritual... powerful stuff, even though I can see it might not be for everyone.

It makes me think of the Goethes Erben song Fleischschuld, which has a similar theme and also goes too far for many people. (While we're on that topic, if you know German, you ought to acquaint yourself with their brilliant song Zimmer 34, also of their album Nichts bleibt wie es war. I don't know whether that video is official or fanmade, and I recommend just listening to the sound, but this video is one of the few things I can legally link to.)

Alternated with the crucifixion scenes are flashback scenes where te protagonist interactis with his little sister, his mother, and his... friends. It becomes clear very quickly that these scenes are leading to a moment when the protagonist does the enormity for which he "deserves" to be crucified, but there are plenty of plot twists here to keep it all from becoming too predictable. And not just plot twists, a lot of real and real-life darkness is contained in this story, and it is exactly what we need to give the crucifixion scenes enough reality. We start believing in it because everything in the protagonist's life is so bleak; and we believe in the fatal plot twist because it does not occur in a world of sunshine, but in a world where people are just waiting for the disaster to strike.

So what we have here is ambition, darkness, a powerful story--a lot of things that I haven't seen much of in this competition, but that I like to see very much.

Unfortunately, the game has some real problems that stop it from being as impactful as it could have been. There is the minor problem of prose, and there are the major problems of gameplay/presentation and surrealism. Let's discuss them in turn.

Again, this game is very ambitious, and it puts a lot of pressure on the stylistic resources of the author. Sometimes, he or she succeeds marvelously. The opening sentences, for instance, are among the best opening sentences of any interactive fiction:
You look up at the bicycles.  Hundreds of them hang from the ceiling.
How real, and yet how weird and threatening! Here in the Netherlands we have a lot of bicylces and a lot of canals, and that means that we also have a lot of bicylces in the canals. These are periodically dredged up, and the pile of rusted, muddy, deformed bikes that lies on the pavement after they've done that is the kind of thing I was imagining here. Good stuff.

However, at other times his/her stylistic resources fail the author, with results that range from the unfortunate:
Your eyes about to unawaringly turn and look, your left hand immediately curves onto the side of  your lowered head, blocking your view.
to the downright bizarre:
You walk a couple steps, stopping at a surprising unexpectation of your mom sitting down in a chair, her head buried in her face.
Although I love "surprising unexpectation", in a way, this kind of thing does detract from the work itself. It is hard to take a story seriously when people sit around burying their head in their face.

More problematic, though, it the general gameplay or presentation of Condemned. It contains very, very long non-interactive or hardly interactive stretches, where all you can do is wait, or talk to someone like nine times in a row. And this problem is exacerbated by the fact that the prose that follows such a "z" command is generally very long. Real infodumps. After a while you begin to wonder why you are playing a game if the author simply wanted you to read twenty pages of output in a row without any meaningful interaction.

See, the crucifixion scenes wouldn't have been as powerful if one read them rather than participating in them; and we all know that not-too interactive scenes leading to an accident can be good stuff to play through (Photopia). But the non-interactivity needs to be brief, and the text we have to read through needs to be relatively short. Otherwise, playing becomes a chore, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who was looking at the walkthrough and groaning when he saw another "talk to sister (9x)" coming along.

The second big problem is with the story itself, and specifically, with how it slowly loses focus and degenerates into symbolic and sometimes frankly incomprehensible scenes. We have doll heads, masked men, punishment cults, decapitating snow balls, burnt souls - but they only serve to confuse, not to make things more interesting or profound.

Question: what is more frightening, a self-multiplying masked man who can come into existence from nothing, or a real-life psychologically absuive (step)father? Answer: the latter.

I think the game would have gained immeasurably from a straight presentation of the accident, the state of the sister, the father's return, and the father's final acts of punishment. It would have made everything more real, it would have distanced the reader less from what was happening (which is crucial, given the artistic aims of Condemned), and it would have been frankly more frightening and more heart-rending.

Final verdict? Look, this is not a perfect game. It can be a very irritating game, as you type "z" again and again, skip through the huge amounts of text that you no longer have enough patience to read, and are finally confronted with a narrative that degenerates into an ineffective symbolism. All the same, this is a brave and ambitious game that has been created with a lot of skill and attention. Maybe not enough skill and attention given the ambitions, but still.

I'm going to give this a high mark.


  1. Good points on the game design. You liked this one more than I did, as it's the wrong kind of horrible for me.

    I will say I tried


    early on, only to find the game didn't have a response for it.

    --But it has lead me to do a lot of pondering: how would you crucify yourself?

    I mean, I can imagine you'd nail your feet down first, and then you could probably nail down your left hand with your right, provided you give it a good strong whack and get the nail through in one shot -- if you don't, I don't think you'd be able to hold it for a second time.

    That's assuming you're right-handed.

    But how do you nail down your last hand? And, supposing you did, with an improvised nailgun or something, how would you get the cross upright?


  2. There was a scene in The Young Ones regarding exactly that. "I hate to break it to you, Rick, but crucifixion is like a really negative way to try to kill yourself. I've tried it a hundred times, and there's just no way to hammer in the last nail."

    Also: "...her head buried in her face"? Wow! I kind of wish I'd managed to play it that far, just to be able to read that sentence. I guess I'll just have to be satisfied with "...she plans out of her mouth."