Review: Repeat the Ending

(This entry in Spring Thing 2023 deserves its own page. Repeat the Ending - Details (

Quarter-century look back at a flawed game.

→ Our learned co-contributor to Intfiction and writer of the comprehensive IF and Infocom-related blog Gold Machine Drew Cook, also known as @kamineko, has unearthed an interesting work from the early modern ages of Interactive Fiction in the form of one of his own old games. In a considerable labour of IF-related textual archaeology, he has published a Critical Edition of the seriously flawed 1996 Inform 5 game Repeat the Ending. It consists of an edited version of the original source text (i.e. the game itself), supplemented and supported with in-game annotations and a separate Reader’s Companion (referred to together as the paratext.)

This Critical Edition collects a series of essays on a wide range of topics such as the genesis of the original and the edited game, exploration of the themes in the work, the (supposed) development of authorial intent, the evolution of language-use, and the shift to a more player-friendly version of the high Zarfian Cruelty level of the original. The articles found in the Reader’s Companion were contributed by P. Searcy, D. S. Collins, C. A. Smythe, A. H. Montague, and Drew Cook himself. Each imparts their own emphasis on topics viewed from their personal field of interest.

Along with these scholarly texts are included a number of reviews, both contemporary and of later dates. These give a nice insight not only into the reception of the game, but also into the IF-ecosystem at the time of their writing. An interview with the author is also attached, although the vagueness of the answers to pertinent questions means that it hardly contributes more than some amiable atmosphere to the discussion.

Reading the entire Reader’s Companion requires a fair amount of time and focused attention. It is highly recommended for a better understanding though, since its contents give the player a life-line to guide their interpretation of the sometimes obscure storyline and design-choices in the game proper.

More easily accessible are the annotations scattered throughout the game-text. They clarify, raise questions about, or merely point out notable or confusing responses and features the player may encounter, and may then choose to delve into further in the Companion. The footnotes double as much-needed tutorial information for new and experienced IF-players alike, where such guidance for tackling the game is absent from the source text.

In the combined paratext, much attention is directed toward the differences between the 1996 original work and this 2023 edition. The author’s views on a number of topics seem to have, if not radically changed, then certainly noticeably shifted in the two-and-a-half decades since first writing Repeat the Ending in 1996. Interestingly, on many occasions, both in his own words and when paraphrased by the other contributors, the author vehemently denies any such shift has indeed taken place. He claims that this new version is the one he always intended to create, putting aside any real differences as artefacts of his inadequate proficiency in Inform 5 coding at the time. This is hard to believe, to say the least. When studying the essays, and comparing the new edition’s text with a transcript of the original game that was circulated in 2003, it becomes clear that the 2023 “definitive” version is close to a complete remake.

An important caveat, and an in my view critical flaw of this Critical Edition is that the original source material, i.e. the 1996 version, is not included in the package, neither as playable game, nor as source-code. All comparisons between the original and the new versions therefore rely on second-hand references, the word of the author, and the text of the 2003 transcript. The veracity of this last bit of data is problematic to say the least, as all acounts regarding it characterise it as implausible, misleadingly edited at the very least, perhaps even dishonestly doctored in full. The results, statements, and deductions found in the so-called “Critical” Edition’s essays are all built on loose sand because of this omission of the original source text.

→ Apart from analysis and clarification, the paratext serves an important, if secondary, role when viewing the work as a whole, i.e. the totality of game, essays and footnotes. Careful, measured perusal of the analytical asides while playing leads to greater involvement and deeper engagement with the game as the player is experiencing it. The paratext delivers a conceptual framework for attempting to understand the game’s meaning, it opens an intellectual pathway to the strong emotional impact of the game’s story.

Conversely, and at the same time, the scholarly approach provides protective distance from the distressing themes and actions. This certainly applies to the player who can withdraw into a more reflective state of participation when direct experience becomes overwhelming. It is hard not to speculate if the author chose this scholarly approach for the same reason, not to be confronted too directly with the hard themes of the game, but to have a roundabout way of writing about them when immediate handling of them became too painful…

When the paratext messages are disabled in the final chapter of the game, this protective effect becomes very clear. Here, the player has no choice but to experience the unfolding of the story directly, without the option of circumventing, avoiding, or delaying the emotional intensity of the story.

→ And here, now, dear patient reader, I must abandon all pretense of engaging in distanced scholarly debate. For I have to speak of the source itself, the heart of the work, the game: Repeat the Ending.

I am dead serious about the defensive qualities of the scholarly diversions in the paratext. This game hits hard, and is brutally vulnerable at the same time. The protection offered by the distanced paratext seems to work in the other direction too. An intellectual wall shields the sensitive heart of the work. It’s cradled in an analytical nest to keep whatever harm at bay.

The elaborate room descriptions in Repeat the Ending are interspersed with personal comments from the point of view of the protagonist. Interacting with the contents of the locations through the habitual IF-commands quickly runs into a frustrating wall.
Unproductive, unimportant, unsuccessful commands (of which there are many!) are met with plaintive, self-pitying, or even hostile responses.

The author subverts the traditional expectations of who the parser/narrator is speaking to or about, and uses them to blur the lines between the player and the protagonist on different perceived levels of reality.

The dramatic, mentally unstable state of mind of the main character, his lack of control over his life-direction is directed outward, ascribed to unrelenting external forces such as abuse in his childhood or poverty in his current situation. Or it is attributed to uncontrollable internal influences, the driving urges and voices in his mind. The latter is very effectively conveyed through the dissociation in the mental monologue of the character between the narrator and the actor. The ambiguous use of pronouns (we, I, you) points to the in-game confusion and powerless state of the protagonist. However, once the player realises she is controlling the character’s actions through her input of commands, this ambiguousness extends outward to encompass the player at the keyboard. It pulls her into a complicit, even guilty role since she is the one responsible for the protagonist’s decisions.

Throughout the game, there are two seemingly straightforward objectives. The main character must pick up his medications from the pharmacy, and visit his mother in the hospital. However, it soon becomes clear that none of the successful steps in the direction of these objectives raises the player’s score. Indeed, it is only when the method of increasing the score becomes apparent that the true underlying goal of this piece reveals itself. While there is a straight pathway through the story that succeeds in both superficial objectives, real “progress” depends on rebelling against the railroad. Taking actions that go against the narrow definition of success, that take the protagonist outside of his automatic routine often lead to failure and death. However, these actions do signify desperate attempts of the main character to fight back, to regain some measure of control, some small grasp on life.

A telling insight into the dismal state of mind of the protagonist is offered by the confusing, disjointed drawings by Callie Smith. They seem to come straight from a dream or some other, more terrifying subconscious process. Despite their surreal quality, the rough-scribbled outlines, splashes of colour, skewed perspective, and, most touchingly, their choice of details depicted lend an impact surpassing that of any realistic depiction of the scenes.

Repeat the Ending features an innovative magic system that exemplifies some deeper point of the game. Instead of the usual fixation on object-manipulation, this game is about recognising processes, changing states of the surrounding world (and of the mind). The deeper meaning of the work is reflected in this focus of the magic system: pushing against and redirecting the laws of reality to change the circumstances. Finding a way over or through the predetermination of the protagonist’s life.

The multiple endings that can be reached are in line with both the struggle to break free of the railroad, and the depressed and dissociative mental state of the main character. They are a measure not of success, but of steadfastly reaching outside the limits of perceived set-in-stone possibilities while failing.
No matter which way the heartbreaking final scene plays out, the story will end on at best a bittersweet note. The best both player and protagonist can (and should!) hope for is a small sense of regained control, of personal responsibility, of self-knowledge.


A fantastic review of a really wonderful game!


Thanks so much for your review. As a writer, it is incredibly gratifying to see RTE engaged with in such a thoughtful and considered way. It means a lot to me.

Thanks, too, for mentioning the art! I’ll pass your comments along to Callie.


Oh! I meant to mention her by name but I see I forgot. Will fix now.


She was delighted by your comments!

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Having played the 1996 version upon its release, I found the 2003 transcript included with this release as fascinating as it was frustrating: parts of it I remember clearly, while many of those that I do not seem wholly outside the scope of the original game. Yet I also recall pathways through the game varied wildly and early reviews often contradicted one another. Whether or not the second-hand retelling loses some (or most) of itself in translation, Cook has compiled a far less confusing (yet perhaps even more beguiling) version, a far kinder experience for modern players.


I deeply envy you for having experienced the original first-hand. I assume it would be an improbable stretch to ask if you might have any notes lying in the attic from your playthrough of that version?

As I say in my review, there is no way for the player today to compare. I have only played the newer version.

The redirection of fail-states onto a loop that feeds back into the game must make an enormous difference in the player’s experience. So much so that I cannot imagine the Inform 5 game having anywhere near a similar experience of deeper meaning as this Inform 7 remake does.

This is to me (having no material for comparison outside the word of the author and the essayists, or the 2003 transcript) the single most important change from the old to the new version. A change with such far-reaching consequences for the interpretation of the work that even the word “remake” probably falls short.

Living through the fail-states, learning about their consequences, and then being set free in the story-world again is a fundamentally different message. A design-decision with such profound effect on meaning and experience of the work that it is in essence a different game.


I fully agree, but we must remember that each version’s structure feels natural for the time of its release. The original raised eyebrows for some of its more idiosyncratic writing & design choices, but not for its brutal difficulty; nowadays, such a game would be unplayable for all but the most dedicated IF fanatics. I believe the two differing structures allowed players at vastly different moments in IF development to experience the emotion and “message” of the game without undue distraction - I say undue with a grain of salt, as the new version has its paratext and the original had its own quite conspicuous authorial commentary (which, if I remember correctly, was also the subject of heated discussion and criticism).

I wish I had taken better care of my old notes, I would’ve liked to check my score against the new system.


An important point, rightly noted.

The fact that you mention this point in our discussion is in itself an interesting bit of data. Much of the discussion and analysis revolves around a change in player sensibilities and authorial design choices. This certainly fits against a backdrop of evolving standards over the decades of difficulty, narrative content, willingness to restart, and depth (and duration!) of player engagement in the IF medium and community as a whole…

(Thank you for drawing my attention to the erroneous 1995 date. I have corrected it in my original text.)


No problem! I would’ve been two years old in 1995, so I certainly couldn’t have played it then. :slight_smile:


I hadn’t considered this nuance until you pointed it out (bad reviewer! no cookie!), but in the context of the full work, both lack of inclusion and doctored transcript definitely underline the deliberate intention of the artist to rewrite his own history. What a challenging continuum this makes for! On the one hand, the artist is championing breaking free from seeming railroaded destructive paths. On the other, they are actively denying the reality of his younger, arguably trapped mind! At what point does revision stop becoming merely expanded perspective and gentle rebuttal to outright denial? The latter FEELS unhealthy, but is it? Especially given the timeline of original → transcript → Critical Edition, is it perhaps a necessary step to escape the rut and lead to greater understanding?


And it was seeded in the original, bleak version of the game! The author having an answer all along and not realizing it at the time??

Great essay. I am now stuck in the endless opposing mirror reflections of devouring critical discussions of an artwork that features critical discussion as a major conceit. I swear, if we start critically reviewing reviews of RTE I will spiral away and be lost.


An interesting observation, my perceptive friend. One which doubtlessly merits further critical discussion.

I tip my hat to you.


… perhaps a critical dissection of Mirror, the collection of mirror-themed stories by @Eudokimos’ students Lilia Lanonder, Dr John, James, and Mihi might be enlightening. Reflections on portal mirrors, non-reflective mirrors, repelling mirrors, caleidosccopic views,… could provide a new entry into RTE’s world, along with intertextual analysis of the short stories by the students.

Protocol by @30x30 also has some intruiging scenes penetrating the mirror-theme.


You really have no interest at all in freeing me, do you? :sweat_smile:

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I had no idea you were caught in the web of reflecting/-fracting spider-thread.


The best way out is to grab hold of one single strand of webbing, then follow it to the next crossing, then pick another cord at random, then follow that to the next crossing, then pick another at random, then…

Huh. That reminds me of the white spiders in Etiolated Light by Lassiter W. … Maybe you could find some inspiration there too.

You will find the Mirror at the end, if there is such a thing…

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