IF Comp 2015: Midnight. Swordfight.

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is on. Go play the games! And vote. To be a judge and have your votes counted, you only need to (a) not be an author of any game in the IFComp, (b) not vote on any games you might have tested, and (c) submit votes for at least five games. There are, I believe, a record number of games this year; one is very much encouraged to play and vote even if getting through all the games is – as it is for me – a daunting endeavor.

The illustrious Emily Short, as usual, is writing interesting reviews of many of the games. This year, she is also soliciting review swaps to encourage cross-pollenating the review space and interested communities in general. I’m taking part in this exercise; I’ve asked her to review Tales from the Borderlands from Telltale Games, and I previously reviewed Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box, and now I am reviewing Midnight. Swordfight.

My take: A brief and entertaining diversion with a lot of gore and lots of ad absurdum. Stop reading now if you want to play it yourself before reading all my words.

I’m not sure I fully gathered all of the points of plot in the game there are to glean, but the important ones are laid bare right at the start: there is a countess, she has challenged you to a duel, and you die. And die and die and die again, until the game takes pity on you and reveals a verb that was not in your helpful little playscript to begin with.

It isn’t clear if this vignette is intended to be taken seriously – an actual countess, an actual duel – or a play gone horribly wrong, or a drug- and drink-induced hallucination. Once you’ve started down the meat of the play, you wander back and forth in time, interacting with the Red Death (the gory, supernatural one), wearing a butchered pig so you can fly to the moon, and replacing the sword the Countess might have butchered you with a dozen times with a giant kielbasa so that even a swordsperson of no account such as yourself can best her. The whole game tastes like the Lady Boyles’ party scene in Dishonored, mixed with An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.

I have a long-standing weakness for “tweak the setup and see what changes” games. The GROW games by Eyezmaze, for instance, have occupied me for many hours even after I solved them, watching the failure cases with as much interest as the successes. Although Swordfight does not have the same degree of complexity in interaction – at least I could not tease it out – it does have a lot of endings packed into what is essentially a one-move game. One move, plus setting of initial conditions, that is – you only have a moment to act when the swordfight is upon you, but in the timeless void of your own personal Occurrence, the world is your oyster. And your disturbing pastries. And your slain moon monster.

There’s some juicy-looking backstory promised – spats and relationships and old allies won in unusual circumstances. It turns a bit dusty in the mouth, though; so much is taken up with the frozen time and the swordfight that more details about what came before – or in some cases what comes after – are left to the reader’s imagination. In a game like Andrew Plotkin’s masterpiece Hadean Lands, the setting is alien enough for vague evocation to paint a rich landscape; in Swordfight it merely seems like an empty promise, a masquerade costume with a mannequin inside to hold the shape.

Still and all, the variety of deaths and survivals the game provides in its one important move were impressive, varied, and full of entertaining writing.

I had fun, but there wasn’t anything to hold me there or to leave me longing – just wanting.

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