Game #8: Everybody Dies
Author: Jim Monroe
Played On: October 10th (50 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Glulx)
Ever see a shopping cart in a river? Ever wonder how it got there? And who has to fish it out? In a suburb of Toronto, three grocery store employees discover the answers to these questions… with disastrous consequences.
Magic doesn’t work in the suburbs.
It’s nice to play a game where such a brief title tells you exactly what happens.
The game opens with the F-bomb. I don’t know what it is with me and profanity when it comes to interactive fiction, but it usually seems to bug me. I’m not usually bothered by it in movies, and it’s not like I don’t curse when the need arises. Is it something about seeing it written that rubs me the wrong way? Is it that I think of IF as something that should rise above resorting to “colorful” language? I don’t see why that should be the case, when it fits the story and the characters. Everybody Dies makes no apologies in its frequent use of profanity and lesser cringe-worthy slang.
It works in this game, and that’s an import distinction. If you write about a slacking metalhead and an Indian kid confronted by a mentally unstable racist hate-monger – in a first-person stream of consciousness sort of way, no less – it wouldn’t seem nearly as convincing with sanitized dialogue. Imagine the story with more family-friendly characters, and it just doesn’t seem as interesting.
The game avoids elaborate descriptions in favor of characterization. Instead of spending paragraphs on esthetically pleasing but more character-neutral facts about the location and scenery – the traditional way, if you will – most of the writing in Everybody Dies focuses on how each of the three playable characters reacts to it. I know that a first-person narrative in IF feels like an unnecessary detachment to some players, but here it’s done the right way. It’s not a matter of just changing “you” to “I” and leaving all else the same. The author takes advantage by giving the protagonists feelings and opinions that aren’t nearly as effortless when “you” are the PC.
Take, for instance, this bit:
“I can’t take my eyes away. I tell myself that it would make an amazingly brutal tat or even an album cover but I also feel like I’m gonna hurl. And then I see the little fish, the one inside, open its eye.”
According to one not-so-great Wil Wheaton movie, fish don’t blink, but that’s beside the point. Traditional second-person IF works best when you describe things to the player in a way that gets him to feel or think what you want him to feel or think. The more you tell a player what he’s feeling or thinking, the more he’s likely to fight it. First-person IF, as this game demonstrates, works best when the author does exactly the opposite. First-person IF that thinks it’s second-person IF is the problem. Everybody Dies forces a greater disconnect between the player and the protagonists – that’s true. But here, it works to the game’s advantage.
The writing is flawless, or very near so. The different personalities of the three protagonists come across well in the writing. It’s descriptive enough to paint a mental picture (which is often more a curse than a blessing), but it’s more about the situation than the setting. I came away very impressed with how smoothly the author told an entertaining short story.
Because much of the game is dialogue and internal monologue, fewer “things” present themselves for interaction. It’s implemented quite well, but in retrospect feels almost like a magic trick. The author says plenty that’s important to the story (including flashes of memories), but without introducing many immediate nouns. This reduces puzzles to their simplest form (and I’ll get to that in a moment), but what’s there is given adequate attention to detail. If you see a toilet, for instance, the game does anticipate that you might want to flush it.
This interaction, though, doesn’t push any boundaries. The game has a clever bit where the current PC can interact with one or both previous ones, but it’s only required a couple of times. Even when it’s not required to advance the story, the game still does a great job of supporting optional uses. The puzzles are as tightly integrated into the story as you’re likely to see in a work of IF – exactly as they should be – but with the side effect of making them really easy. Even when progression isn’t just a matter of moving from room to room or WAIT-ing, the puzzles are one-command processes that are usually obvious because it’s exactly what the protagonist would do (or is prompted to do) in that situation. This makes the only two-point category in which I can’t give the top mark. That’s not to say the puzzles should be more complicated or difficult. That clearly wasn’t the author’s goal. Only – hmm. I would have liked more chances in the later segments to make use of the prior PCs, and it all could be a little longer without risking a strain to its novel design.
My only real complaint about the implementation is that with so much of it requiring very short commands, it becomes a mild annoyance when far longer ones are required. I’ve never been a big fan of the “person, do this” directive command style. The game tells you when it becomes necessary the first time (thank you, game), but I had problems typing “graham” consistently. Maybe short names like “Ed” and “Jo” would have done the trick. The endgame also requires lengthier commands, which can be a bit of a pain if you’re figuring it out through trial-and-error.
I haven’t mentioned the game’s artwork yet, but it deserves a paragraph. (In a text-only glulx interpreter, would the “void” scenes show up as an unexplained series of nothing, though? I wonder.) The style is cartoon-like, reminding me of the artwork in Flash-based animation. All three protagonists are represented, as well as a multi-part cartoon about three oddly clever fish. It’s very well done. It fits the game perfectly, and it earns Everybody Dies a kudatory (sorry if that’s a made-up word) bonus point.
But what is it with those fish? Does it symbolize more than just a working-together theme? Is there some unspoken subplot with the fish? It stands to reason that the fish somehow represent the protagonists, but it’s a connection I can’t quite make. I think I’ll go check a few other reviews after this, where somebody has probably already explained it all.
Jim Monroe’s only previous work of IF (according to the IF Wiki) was Punk Points from IFComp 2000, which placed 22nd but was a finalist for the “Best NPCs” XYZZY Award. It’s one I haven’t played. I have no doubt, though, that Everybody Dies will see a much higher finish this year, perhaps even in the top five. It gets a “9” from me.