[IF Comp 2019] Let's Play: Ancient Greek Punishment: The Text Adventure, by Pippin Barr

During the interactive fiction competition, I wrote 48 reviews on the secret author's forum -- exactly as many as last year! I'll be posting them here, but as I do so, I'll often be using the opportunity to update them too. Some games I want to play more; in other cases, I might want to research the context better, or react to other reviews that have been written. Unless you were on the author's forum, you won't notice the difference, of course. But I wanted to put this up front anyway. So without further ado, we go to a heavily changed (indeed totally rewritten) version of my review of...

Let's Play: Ancient Greek Punishment: The Text Adventure, by Pippin Barr, plays like an extended version of a game entered in the 2006 IF Comp, Sisyphus by Theo Koutz. In Sisyphus, you get to play the legendary king Sisyphus after he has died. You're in Hades, faced with a boulder and a slope. The task is to push to boulder up the hill. But of course, when you're almost at the top, the boulder slips from your hands and rolls downhill again. Welcome to eternity.

That the story of Sisyphus can be a serious source of inspiration is of course proven by Albert Camus's brilliant essay The Myth of Sisyphus. "The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy." It's fair to say that that is not where Theo Koutz took us in his 2006 game. You just roll the boulder up the hill. Again. And again. And again. There's a hint at the beginning that you might be able to escape, but as far as I know, this is not in fact possible. And I did reverse engineer the game using Z-tools to check. (There's some weird text in the game file that I don't know how to reach: a repeated string of the phrase "Rockclimbing." But I did not find anything that hints at an actual possibility of escape, though this could have been be hidden beyond my means of detection.) Somewhat unsurprisingly, Sisyphus didn't do well in the competition, and ended 39th out of 43.

Pippin Barr's game is much richer than Koutz's, and did correspondingly better, taking 54th place out of 82 games. Not only is the implementation -- especially of the Sisyphus episode -- less sparse, but it also contains four additional characters whose punishments we can experience. There's Tantalus, forever failing to grasp the food and drink; the Danaids, condemned to fill a leaky tub; Prometheus, chained to a rock where an eagle will eat his liver; and Zeno of Elea, who has to run a distance but fails to reach the end because of one of his own paradoxes of motion. This ensemble of characters is a bit strange. Prometheus was neither dead nor in Hades, while Zeno was a real philosopher rather than a mythological figure. One would rather have expected someone like Ixion in this company. But the thematic connection is clear enough: all five characters are engaged in an infinite and hopeless task.

The game doesn't do much with its theme. Playing through the repetitive and endless vignettes serves to emphasise the nastiness of these mythological punishments – their monotony, their pointlessness, their unescapability; all of it reinforced by the malicious laughter of Zeus that always sounds in the background. Which is fair, but not an especially exciting take on the source material, and not especially Greek either. The game just beats us over the head with what is most obvious about these myths, rather than exploring unexpected facets.

Here and there, things are spiced up a bit with jokes. The default Inform scoring system is abused in amusing ways, as in Zeno's paradox where you come closer and closer to getting a score of 1, but never quite reach it. Prometheus gets a list of verbs that scare off the eagle -- "writhe", for instance -- but in the end he either has to do this for eternity or just submit and let the bird peck him a bit. Still, I can't really disagree with Sam Ashwell's claim that this game "fits into a genre of parser games which function as a bit rather than a game [...] and which you don’t really need to actually play."

There's one caveat to that, though, which is that Let's Play: Ancient Greek Punishment: The Text Adventure is part of a larger project in which Barr implements these same punishments in many different game formats. Some of them are less interesting that this parser version: for instance, the Twine version is just clicking links in an essentially obvious way. Some of them are more interesting, though, such as the chess version, where you can legitimately wonder how these punishments will be interpreted as versions of chess. What is Tantalus chess? Turns out the opponent puts his king next to the board, and you can never reach it. That made me smile more broadly than the competition game ever did. Within the context of this larger project, Let's Play: Ancient Greek Punishment: The Text Adventure gains a little in interest: it functions to some extent as a tool that compares different game formats. Perhaps the problem of using an interactive fiction format is that the implementations of the punishments are bound to be unsurprising: you can just tell the story, after all, and that is exactly what happens. But that is at least a little nugget of insight.

My advice: check out the chess version. Zeno never stands a chance, let me tell you.

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