Game #1: Afflicted
Author: Doug Egan
Played On: October 1st (1 hour 35 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
This isn’t the safest neighborhood. A young woman was abducted near here only recently. But as a city sanitarian you are obligated to complete your annual inspection of the local dive.
You break mimesis to pay your respects to Will Crowther.
The first game in every IFComp is always the toughest to score and review. My enthusiasm from the prior year has given way to other responsibilities, and (I’m ashamed to admit) I’ve fallen into the bad habit of playing little to no Interactive Fiction in the spanning months. I tend to feel a little out of sorts with the first game, uncertain whether I’m being too critical or not critical enough. This year is even tougher, because I’ve adopted a new rating system that may keep my votes bottom-heavy if I’m too stingy with and protective of the 2’s.
This is demonstrated perfectly by Doug Egan’s Afflicted. The writing is fine. The story is fine. The puzzles are fine (although they don’t extend much further than basic exploration and observation). It’s a technically sound game. But if no aspect of the game is “great,” it can be no higher than a “5” (or a “6” if given the bonus point) by my new scoring system. So, what really merits a categorical 2? Excellence? Or just anything that feels a step above mediocre?
It’s obvious that the game’s core theme is intentionally hidden by the author, and I won’t spoil it here. That it becomes increasingly grim and disturbing should be enough to set the tone. At times, though, what’s probably meant to be macabre seems a little silly. It succeeds most of the time, and does offer up some gruesome imagery, but every once in a while it just seems more odd than shocking. (I’ve never, for instance, encountered any game in which the protagonist can experience the aftertaste of urine.)
Before it goes full-on weird, it does a great job of putting the player in the role of a restaurant health and safety inspector. The premise seemed dull at the outset, but before long I was smirking and happily noting every violation I could come across – and actively seeking them out, no less. This is pretty important, because the story begins to open up as you encounter more violations and as you start to suspect the truth of things.
The story’s biggest flaw is that it seems to rely on the player to carry on with the same sense of duty as the protagonist. That’s fine at first, but it’s hard to believe that any sane and rational-minded human being would carry on with his little notepad to the extent that this protagonist must. If there’s a legitimate reason beyond just an inflated sense of “being thorough,” it doesn’t come across in the story. I was already ready to bail out, yet the game insisted that I hadn’t yet completed my duty. To hell with duty. I’d have bolted to my car the moment the ice in the sink melted.
The story’s second biggest flaw is that certain losing endings should probably go a little differently. In particular, it’s possible to get arrested. But, it’s possible to get arrested while carrying things that should raise a few eyebrows (or at least some kind of explanation in the ending). It’s not so much that the core story is on rails (I don’t mind this in most games), but there are a number of implausible circumstances (why isn’t the PC pursued down the hall, for instance) even discounting the supernatural.
It’s a solid implementation, for the most part. I was pleased (especially early on) that many optional (and non-obvious) actions were anticipated by the author. The game was clearly tested and polished prior to release. I only encountered two sticking points, but they were pretty important sticking points.
In the first, I couldn’t figure out how to make use of something found in a first aid kit. The pressure mounts, and each turn counts, yet I fumbled with the right verb or action to make it work. It turns out that some simple (and even obvious) phrasings work fine, but what I tried wasn’t outrageous or anything. I imagined the PC fumbling around the way I was, so it kind of worked for the story, but probably not as the author intended. In the second case, I tried to reassemble something the wrong way, to no obvious affect. I was missing, hmm… “joining” pieces, so to speak, but was left with the feeling that this just wasn’t something the game supported and I was on the wrong track. Later, thankfully, I tried again with better results. An opportunity was missed there, though, to clue the player and give a little hope for later.
The protagonist can accumulate an inventory of generally useless stuff – things encountered while noting violations, primarily. I hesitate to call them “red herrings” because they may be pieces of alternate puzzle solutions, but in my play-through (and selected re-plays) I never found uses. This leaves them feeling like red herrings, even if that’s not the case.
There is one thing in particular the protagonist must do to advance the story, yet it’s something I suspect most players will try to avoid on subsequent play-throughs (or even UNDO to before it), yet I couldn’t find an alternative. I think there probably is an alternative, but I didn’t find it. Something obvious (using one of the items in inventory) didn’t work for me. And the game didn’t really give a good reason why it wouldn’t.
All in all, I came away with the impression of a good, competently constructed game. I’m scoring it an optimistic “2” on writing – its strongest quality – although I expect even better from some of those I’ve yet to play. All other categories get a solid “1” (including the bonus point, just in case I’m being too tough on this year’s first entry), for a composite score of “7.”
Update: After playing far too many poorly-tested, broken games after this one, I have bumped the implementation score up to “2” for a composite score of “8.”