Simon Deimel


Summary: An exploration of a moment of decision which is too dicatorial

[spoiler]Enigma is an exploration of a moment in which the protagonist faces an important choice (in essence, whether or not to shoot their best friend). The idea is that by either examining objects or thinking about things or ideas, you gradually come to understand what has happened until you are able to make that choice for the PC.

It’s an idea that interests me, but I found the execution unsatisfactory. In part that is because, as other reviewers have mentioned, the writing is sometimes a bit off, not merely as English (forgivable, especially since pains have been taken), but in terms of its tone. In part it’s because of the way that the game comes to resemble a sort of non-geographical maze, where you are trying to seek out the particular object or idea whose further scrutiny will open up new avenues of exploration. But, important though those points are, they were not my main concern. In the end, I had two problems with this.

The first is the difficult gap between what the player knows and what the protagonist knows. This is a common difficulty in IF. Sometimes one would expect the protagonist to know something that the player does not: for instance, the protagonist knows their own name, age, history and so forth before the game ever begins, but the player doesn’t. Some games try to smooth this over by a device that deprives the protagonist of this knowledge (the old amnesia trick). Others work with the knowledge gap, assuming that the player will acquire the necessary information as the game progresses. Conversely, sometimes the player knows something that the protagonist does not. For instance, if you have played a game before, the player may know things that the PC is supposed to be unaware of. Some games try to address that problem over by effectively forcing the player to take the PC through the steps needed to acquire the information “in game”.

I wasn’t clear about what approach Enigma was taking to this. Are EXAMINING and THINKING ways in which the player acquires knowledge that the character already has? Or are they ways in which the PC acquires knowledge “in game”? The set-up really suggests the former. This is not, so far as one can see, an amnesiac character: the PC “knows” at the start of the game everything that the player learns during it, and the process is essentially one of player education.

But if that is so, the set up is awry. Take the most basic thing here: the decision to pull the trigger (or not). There is no logical reason, if the PC already understands the situation when the game starts, why this should not be my first move. I (the player) should be free to make the decision at any time I like, as soon as I think that I have enough information to act on. And yet I can’t. I am not allowed to make the decision when I think I’m ready to do so, but only when the game thinks I’ve “proved” I know enough. That does not work for me. After all, quite apart from making a decision, the conclusion that I have enough information to do so is an important part of the equation, and I’m being deprived of my ability to reason that through for myself. Perhaps there might be different endings depending on when the decision is taken, but I can’t see the justification for forcing the player to go on investigating when, as far as they are concerned, they have enough. If the player actually knows something that the PC also knows, then it’s just tediously disciplinarian to insist that the player jumps through hoops to “learn” it.

And in fact my own experience was that I felt I had enough information much earlier than the game would allow. I mean that in two senses. First, I realised what had happened much earlier than the game was willing to admit. It would have been pretty clever if the game had, in fact, led me to a false conclusion: but there are no red herrings here, and the game is pretty explicit. From pretty early on, I know that there has been “violence” done here, and that my sister is dead, and obviously that my friend killed her. An accidental strangling seems unlikely indeed. Yet the game insisted on forcing me to carry out further redundant inquiries long after I knew the score. That was simply frustrating.

(Additional frustration: you can’t talk to your friend. Of course, that makes sense given the “moment”; but it’s the thing I would most want to do in the circumstances, so I really missed it.)

The second sense in which I had enough information early on is that, for me, it was quite obvious that I didn’t want to shoot my friend even if he had murdered my sister. So I didn’t need more information to help me make that choice: no amount of information was going to lead me to decide to pull the trigger.

However, this brings up the second problem. The range of choice that the game gives (once it is willing to give one) seemed too limited. As Jenni Polodna points out, the rational choice here is not between killing and being killed; it certainly includes effecting some sort of arrest, or at least trying to:

Because it didn’t allow that choice, the game forced me to be something I did not want to be – either absurdly and foolishly wet, or unattractively aggressive.

So the real problem here, for me, was not so much the writing or the situation as the game’s dicatatorial ideas about what I could do and when I could do it. This was distancing, and not in an interesting way. Enigma is impressively deeply implemented in many respects, but if your aim is to explore a moment of decision, getting that right is fundamentally important, and I don’t think Engima managed it.[/spoiler]