Tuesday, July 02, 2019

[IF Comp 2018] The broken bottle

After a bit of a hiatus, I'm back posting some of my IF Comp 2018 reviews. They're all quite spoilery, so beware!

The Broken Bottle by Josh Irvin

In Disney’s The Little Mermaid, the mermaid and the prince she so desperately loves end up marrying. In the original Andersen fairy tale, the prince marries a princess and the mermaid’s heart breaks. Disney changed the story in order to make it more… well, the gamut of possible answers ranges from “appropriate for children” through “commercially successful” to “American”, but one thing we can no doubt agree on is that it changes the nature of the entire story in a fundamental way. But what about an interactive version of the story where you could get either ending depending on the choices you make earlier? Would it work? What kind of story would it be?

In essence, these are the questions asked by The Broken Bottle, although the game features an original story instead of rehashing an existing one. But it is a fairy story, seemingly targeted at an age category of approximately 8-12 years old, where you can end up with either a stereotypical Disney ending or a very dark ending indeed, depending on the choices you make. At first, I got the Disney ending, complete with the sickly sweet moral that “there’s nothing more important than friendship” and a final sentence that reads: “No, they would never be alone again, and that was worth all of the treasure in the world.” It was almost more then I could handle. But I’m glad I replayed to check out the other possibilities and found that you can also end up betraying your sibling and even turning him towards evil. This juxtaposition of Disney and despair is what made the game interesting to me.

Of course, it is a fair question whether Disney and despair can be more than juxtaposed; whether they can also be integrated. Now The Broken Bottle certainly attempts to integrate them; I can even imagine that the dichotomy I’ve been spelling out was never on the author’s mind. But the integration doesn’t fully succeed. In reading the story, one is always aware of an uneasy tension between easy moralism and dark realism; between a world in which being nice and loyal always leads to a happy ending and a world in which scarcity of resources and human egotism make the tragic inescapable. Insofar as the game tries to bring these worlds together, it doesn’t succeed. But it is an instructive failure.

I wasn’t blown away by the other aspects of the game. I found the interface rather annoying, not least because it forced me to have very little text on a page even though I was playing the game at a very high resolution. Another weakness of the interface was the absence of Save/restore. On the positive side, the book format does allow the author to put in some stylish images. While the character portraits are merely okay, the pictures of the outside and inside of the tree house are really good and help bring the world to life.

Interactivity is very low: there is a lot of text between the choices, far more than I am comfortable with when reading an interactive work, and most of the choices turn out to be meaningless. (Do you want to buy A or B? Never mind, whatever you choose you’ll get both of them. How do you want to leave the tree house? Don’t bother, the results are identical.) While meaningless choices are a common trick of the trade, one should be wary of them if one’s game has almost no choice points to begin with. Fortunately, this situation improved as the game moved on, where choices become both more numerous and more meaningful.

The truly crucial choice is the one between saving your brother or going along with the evil guy’s offer. I was rather confused by the way this was presented, in several ways. First, I was confused by the situation itself. Given that the evil guy has me in his power, why would he offer me a deal? And why is the content of the deal that he’ll keep my brother, given that just a few pages eariler he has told me that what he really wants is me? I was also confused by the phrasing of the choice. Part of the evil guy’s offer is that he’ll spare my brother, so it seems that saving your brother and accepting the offer are not mutually exclusive; but it turns out that they are. Finally, I was confused that depending on earlier choices, the saving your brother option was interpreted very differently by the game. In the worst circumstances, it is interpreted as not trying to save your brother, but instead taking up the evil guy’s offer. Huh? I think this is a part of the game that might be fruitfully clarified.

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