Game #16: Violet
Author: Jeremy Freese
Played On: October 18th (2 hours 5 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Calm down. All you have to do is write a thousand words and everything will be fine. And you have all day, except it’s already noon.
That time on the sixth floor of the library:
“Violet, that was-- that was–”
“How did you do that?”
“Any sufficiently awesome girlfriend is indistinguishable from magic.”
If this is Jeremy Freese’s first game, he’s a fount of previously untapped brilliance. Violet harnesses the structure of and the talent shown in last year’s one-room IFComp third-place finisher, Lord Bellwater’s Secret. While there are little indications that Freese may in fact be Sam Gordon (how the walkthrough is presented, the game packaged as .zblorb, etc), it’s certainly not decisive evidence. As of this writing, it’s just as likely that Jeremy Freese has knocked the ball out of the proverbial ballpark on his first effort.
And having fifteen beta-testers didn’t hurt his odds.
(Update: Sam has set the record straight by stating that he had nothing to do with Violet and that he’s not Jeremy.)
Violet takes place in a single room: the protagonist’s office. In this kind of design, everything the player needs to complete the adventure is (usually) within reach. The room is given “zones” – by the desk, by the door, in the corner, by the bookshelf – but it’s not necessary to move explicitly from place to place. An element of some puzzles does involve pushing something into these zones, but the game is smart about bringing things back when needed and describing the implicit actions of the protagonist.
That’s just one of the many ways in which Violet is silky smooth. The author has anticipated obvious and non-obvious actions (and he probably owes a debt to a few of his testers for this), making sure that most of the time the game knows the appropriate way to react if the action is tried on any object in the game. I only found a couple very small bugs, and the worst of these were a blank response to >throw square at pen, and some lag in displaying my inventory. That’s it. In nearly every other way, the game is perfectly solid.
If Jeremy Freese isn’t Sam Gordon, the two should become friends. Violet uses exactly the same kind of plot pacing devices. The player isn’t required to read a thousand lines of exposition all at once, about anything and everything, which is what one might expect of a poorly designed one-room game. Instead, the author first gives the basic essentials – the cabinet, the desk, the door, and a little more. Each top-level “thing” is the gateway to second-tier objects and scenery, and so on, for however deep is necessary. The deeper the player digs, the more of the backstory is handed out.
The game even makes assumptions (which are usually accurate) about why the player is attempting certain things, which can be used as subtle clues or as redirection back to more important tasks. Often, this takes the form of a blanket assumption that you’re just trying random stuff to avoid the protagonist’s primary task, but I really had the impression that the author had thought things through to such a large extent that anything I tried was already anticipated. As illusions go, it was a convincing one.
Some of the puzzles seemed to border on impossible, yet everything was solvable right at two hours without the hints or the walkthrough. This is an even more impressive trick. Not only were the puzzles satisfying without being too easy, but two hours was exactly time enough to also poke around the game’s edges looking for flaws, trying things that didn’t even seem to relate to the tasks at hand. I like doing this in interactive fiction, especially when I intend to score the game and write a review. This could be freakish coincidence, but I’d rather think (especially given how well written the entire game is) that Jeremy obsessively tweaked the difficulty to get it just right. For me, it was just right: the pacing, the difficulty, the kinds of puzzles – all of it.
The brilliance of the game’s puzzle design isn’t that they’re new puzzles, or puzzles with clever twists. It’s that the author managed to minimize the potential usefulness of any one thing, while allowing multiple uses where appropriate. The author doesn’t give the player a hammer, and then only implement one single thing you can break with it, denying attempts to break everything else. If it can reasonably be attempted, the game usually lets you attempt it, with perfectly rational explanations as to why it doesn’t work as you had hoped. (Incidentally, there are no hammers in Violet.) This is done by paying attention to the size, shape, and other properties of things. Although it doesn’t feel contrived or intentional at the time, it’s obvious that the construction of these puzzles was most likely a long, thought-out process. Every solution that introduces a new object can potentially mislead the player, or present too easy a solution to some other puzzle, which in itself could be overlooked by the author. Yet here, everything is perfectly placed, and nothing (that I found) was overlooked. The game is consistent and expertly crafted.
Violet also employs a twist on the second person narrative, and the relationship between the narrator and the protagonist. I doubt this is something new, but in my limited experience, no other game I can recall does exactly this. (In my pre-results review draft at intfiction.org, the next paragraph will get the hidden spoiler treatment.)
The narrator is the protagonist’s mental representation of his own girlfriend. He does this seemingly not due to any level of insanity, but because he needs that directive force to accomplish the very task that will drive his actual girlfriend away if it can’t be completed. So, when the game says “you” it’s the protagonist imagining his girlfriend commenting to him (essentially, the whole game), but “I” becomes valid as well, since that’s the make-believe girlfriend commenting about herself. Narrators have been given an identity in second person IF before, but has this narrator ever been the protagonist’s inner voice cast in the role of his own girlfriend? It would be memorable enough even if it didn’t work, but more so because it does. She comes across as sensible and likeable, and the extent to which her patience has been stretched seems completely believable. Her personality is just as developed as the protagonist’s, if not more so.
The story is nothing groundbreaking, but it has emotional moments, funny moments, and various moments of “ah! I get it!” Along the way, the importance of those promised “one thousand words” becomes more and more clear. At the beginning of the game, I found myself trying to do the very thing the protagonist intended to avoid – looking at stuff, trying to move things, listening to the conversation in the hall and checking out the spectacle in the park beyond the window – generally, goofing off and wasting time. I didn’t want to avoid these distractions, because they were fun. Little by little, exactly as required by the story, I began to sympathize. I began to focus my efforts. I began to cheer for the protagonist, hoping that this entire effort would end in his favor. It’s possible that I did this more for the narrator’s benefit than the protagonist’s, but this is one of the few games I’ve felt compelled to complete not just for my benefit (as a player who wants to win), but for these make-believe characters as well.
I think many good things will be said about Violet, and in ways better expressed than this. Just in browsing various blogs for other reviews of the games I’ve already completed, it has been impossible to avoid mentions of this one. I scroll down or avert my eyes to the best of my ability, but couldn’t help getting the preconception that this was going to be a good one. (Really, guys – I think we collectively need to agree on some way of preventing cross-pollination of game chatter next year, at least until the end of the voting period.)
I’m scoring it a “9” (which is perfect in every category), but if it holds its place as my favorite for the rest of the competition, I’m going to add the bonus point and vote it a “10”. Strictly speaking, I logged two hours and five minutes in the game. However, five minutes is a good estimate of how long I spent distracted on other matters (tabbed out for email, answering the phone, or whatever). This could easily turn out to be the winner of IFComp 2008. It’s at least a shoe-in for the top three.
The only real negative I have – saved until the very end – is that the whole “one room” design thing may feel less original if something just like this pops up again next year. That’s not to say it isn’t a good design; only that it could begin to feel more like a gimmick if the trend goes on.
Update: As my favorite of the competition, I did add the bonus point to my vote, for a top score of “10.” And this was the 2008 IFComp winner. Congrats!