A Rope of Chalk by Ryan Veeder (2020)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

Ryan Veeder? More like Ryan WEEDER if you ask me. Get it? Haha. Yeah, I get that Ryan is actually more into the harder stuff, but I couldn’t find a way to make Ryan CRACKER not sound racist.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

Drug use should never be trivialized. Some of the best people I’ve ever known took trips on episcophacetin and never returned home again.

My Verdict:

To play this game is to step into another, very strange world. I think I finally understand now what Ricky Martin was talking about when he sang about livin’ la Veeder loca.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform (Glulx)

Author Info: Ryan Veeder is one of the best and most intriguing IF writers to emerge on the scene over the past decade. He’s prolific, he has a website, he tweets, and people give him money every month on Patreon just for existing. I assume all the hot AIF action is only accessible to his OnlyFans subscribers which is in my opinion one of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated by capitalism.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2020/Games/A%20Rope%20of%20Chalk/chalk.gblorb

Other Games By This Author: Taco Fiction, Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly Fishing, Reference and Representation: An Approach to First-Order Semantics, and many more!

A Rope of Chalk is a mess, a glorious, chaotic, and entertaining mess. It is a wild, topsy-turvy ride that takes you from the banality of a college art competition to the furthest reaches of the center of the mind. Like a babe in the dark woods who is cruelly plucked from the protection of the crib and abandoned to the whims of the ravenous wolves, the player can do little but react helplessly to the swirling environment that surrounds him or her. The wolves happen to be baby wolves so there’s no real danger, but it’s all pretty goddamn confusing nonetheless. It’s worth diving blindly into the maelstrom primarily because our guide through the pandemonium happens to be one of the best young writers of interactive fiction we have.

This may not be a particularly useful comparison, but I tend to think of Ryan Veeder as being the most Adam Cadre-like of his generation of IF writers. The games aren’t particularly similar, but both fellows tend to do interesting, unique work that challenges our preconceptions of what IF is and should be. They push boundaries, innovate, and take bold risks. Furthermore, they’re both excellent writers who are adept at creating vibrant, complex worlds and vivid, complex characters. They’re two of the funniest guys around when they want to be, too. Perhaps the most infuriating quality that they have in common is that even when their games annoy me I have to temper my criticism with thoughts like, “But that was interesting. That was unique. That made me think. That made me feel. That kept my attention and made me keep playing.” I hate that. If you’re going to be annoying, just be annoying. “Annoying good” and “annoying fascinating” aren’t valid alignments except in highly specialized D&D campaigns.

Ryan Veeder games often start out one way and then twist, turn, and ultimately reveal themselves to be something else or at least something more. So it is with A Rope of Chalk. Even though the game starts out in a very ordinary way and places you in the very ordinary role of a college student who is judging a chalk art competition at her school, there’s a sense that not everything is as it should be. Weird things keep happening. People seem a little off. As you wander the competition, study the chalk art, converse with the artists, and try to settle a dispute between two of the competitors, you’re also waiting for the shoe to drop. The dynamic tension that Charles Atlas once utilized to make himself unreasonably ripped now feels like it is in the air, supercharging the atmosphere and creating an uneasy aura of anticipation. Something is coming. Something is going to happen. You just don’t know what. Yet.

If ARoC was less Veedery, it could very well have been a perfectly reasonable if unremarkable addition to the slice of life genre. I wouldn’t like it nearly as well if it harbored no mystery, but exploring the art show isn’t unpleasant. Thanks to the game’s first unexpected change in perspective, you get to view the event from two different and distinct vantage points as Lane, a judge at the show, and then as Alec, another student who is helping organize and judge the competition. The perspective changes and arty setting make it a little reminiscent of Exhibition, but this game is less dramatic and brooding than Ian Finley’s old chestnut. In both games, the skillful characterizations are the highlight. The brief conversations you have with the artists make you feel like you are really getting to know them, and in so doing you get to know the characters you control as well. My first frustration with this game was the extent to which I found myself locked to the personality of the player characters. You can’t really change their attitudes towards the other characters or the art. For example, there’s one artist that Lane and Alec seem to share a visceral dislike for. Those feelings don’t seem completely unreasonable under the circumstances, but all your interactions with this artist are predetermined by Lane and Alec’s preexisting opinions. The dialogue options you are presented seem to offer ways for Lane to be friendly and Alec to be flirty, but these are phantom choices that the PCs will actually ignore if selected.

To a large extent, you don’t really control Lane or Alec or any of the other characters in whose shoes you will walk. You can’t change them. They are what they are. When their minds are made up about something, you can’t do anything about it even though you’re the one typing and nominally the one guiding the action. There’s good and bad aspects to this. The best thing is that each character is distinct and well-developed, including both the NPCs and the PCs. There’s no character here who is as nebulous and plastic as Shepard from Mass Effect who can to a certain extent be whoever the player wants them to be. These are characters with prior attitudes, personalities, relationships, and life experiences that shape who they are. That can become annoying when you don’t see things quite the same as your characters. In retrospect, I certainly shouldn’t have spent as much time as I did trying to hook Alec up with the badass snake lady or the badass tattoo lady when I knew his heart was already set on another, considerably less badass lady. Screw me for trying to broaden a guy’s horizons and inject some excitement into his life. Was it so wrong to want him to see the possibility that there might be someone out there he could meet who would actually be sure if she liked him or not? That’s a potential drawback to great characterizations, I suppose…Veeder did such a great job developing the characters that I started genuinely caring about them and wanting to run their lives for them. It turns out I would totally play the hell out of a Ryan Veeder college dating sim which gave me some meaningful agency. Maybe next year?

The boldest game design decision in A Rope of Chalk was undoubtedly to make the final sections of the game largely take place in the drug-addled minds of characters exposed to a dangerous hallucinogen. The Veed manages to pull it off without it seeming too ridiculous or disrupting the narrative of the game. That’s no mean feat. One of the game’s main characters, Hina, really only comes to life when we confront the angels and demons that lurk in her mind as she’s tripping balls. The amount of character development and quality writing Veeder manages to stick into a series of hallucinations is nothing short of remarkable. The depiction of drug use in the game is largely playful, but there are unpleasant aspects to the hallucinations as well. The fictional drug in the game, episcophacetin, seems to have insight-yielding qualities similar to LSD, but Hina’s hellish experiences in Cealdhame would likely deter all but the most hardcore of addicts from partaking. There was something about the combination of a pseudo-maze with garbled generic fantasy writing that I found deeply unsettling. Luckily, you don’t need to stay in that fiendish realm for very long.

While the writing and the characterizations in A Rope of Chalk are top-notch, I found the playing experience to be a little too passive for my taste overall. You aren’t given enough freedom to influence the story, and there isn’t enough to do to make you feel like you’re driving the story forward through your own actions. It’s not a completely puzzleless game, but you’re only called on to perform a few basic actions from time to time. As such, it’s easy to feel like an observer watching the story unfold from afar rather than an active participant who is interacting with the story and making things happen. Although this is undoubtedly a good game and one of the best entrants in the 2020 comp, the passivity and limited interactivity keeps it from achieving great game or classic status in my mind.

One interesting thing Ryan Veeder does with some of his games is give them elaborate back stories that seem highly unlikely to be true. For example, A Rope of Chalk is presented as a true recounting of actual events, and there is even a closing section that lets you study documentary material ostensibly collected from the actual participants of the art show that gives you additional information about the events and updates on what the group is up to now. I still don’t really think this game was really based on a true story, but I think this might be the method Ryan uses to make his characters seem more real to him. It’s like an author imagining herself having a conversation with her characters so she can understand them better or Sean Penn literally becoming Spicoli to fully immerse himself in the role. Then again, maybe I’m wrong and it really is all true. Even Nega-Hina. And hey. maybe this review isn’t really even happening at all and we’re both just super high on episcophacetin right now. What up, Skellington?

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating: 31/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 8/10

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 3/10

Parser Responsiveness: 6/10 (The parser is somewhat mediocre by design because there are so few actions allowed by the game. Veeder did do a nice job of providing numerous descriptions throughout, including some you might not expect — take a good look at Faye’s tattoos, for instance. I know Lane sure did!)

Special Ratings For This Game:

Characterizations: 8/10

Alone by Paul Michael Winters (2020)

The Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

TILL NOW I ALWAYS GOT BY ON MY OWN!

The Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

This game is a prayer for a swift ending to all pandemics, present and future. Amen.

My Verdict:

Paul Michael Winters gave us the perfect game for 2020, for better or worse.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform (Glulx)

Author Info: Paul Michael Winters is a new, emerging IF author with an uncertain background and biography and an apparently limited web presence. One of his games is on itch.io if you’re into that sort of thing.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2020/Games/Alone/Alone.gblorb

Other Games By This Author: The House on Sycamore Lane, The Long Nap

“Hope.” That’s the closing line of this game if you get the good ending. I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything by mentioning that here, but that line struck me as the absolute perfect way to end what is a rather grim work about a deadly disease. In 2020 and so far in 2021, hope is exactly what the world has been trying desperately to hold on to as millions have died, tens of millions have been infected, public squares and businesses have been and continue to be closed, and vaccine rollouts have been botched to varying degrees. I’m not sure I personally would have chosen to write a game about a devastating illness in 2020, but I think I understand why Paul Michael Winters made that difficult choice. Alone is art that captures the spirit of the times. It is a mirror that reflects back on us the fear, the desperation, and the uncertainty of the pandemic. As you might expect, it’s not a very pleasant picture for the most part.

When I first played this game, I immediately saw some of its promise, but I set it aside for a couple of months before actually finishing it. Part of me just didn’t want to keep playing a game that uncomfortably reminded me of real life. After all, IF is something that can offer an excellent escape from overbearing reality. I appreciated each and every 2020 IFComp game I played which didn’t make me think about Covid-19 or other current events. Yet IF also has a role it can play in illuminating reality and making us face difficult issues. This probably isn’t the right thing to play if you just attended Grandpa’s funeral via Zoom or have been up all night worrying about why you seem to have all the symptoms…and I do mean ALL of them. If you’re in the right frame of mind to appreciate it, however, Alone can be powerful and resonate strongly. Winters wrote a game which has a bigger emotional impact in 2020 than it would have had any previous non-pandemic year. In 2019, my short review of this game would probably have gone something like, “Haha, deadly pandemic game! Fun fun!” No one’s writing that review in 2020 or 2021. We’re just too close to it to consider the premise dispassionately or mockingly. My review of Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the Atari 2600 wouldn’t have gone, “Haha, chopping up kids game! Fun fun fun!” if thousands of kids were actually being murdered with chainsaws in 1983. (In retrospect, that probably still wasn’t the most socially responsible review I’ve ever written even though chainsaw murders were at a 30 year low at the time.) The topicality of the subject matter combined with Winters’ grim and serious tone commands our attention. It doesn’t feel like just a game. It could be a glimpse of a possible future…perhaps even tomorrow’s reality, unfortunately.

The pandemic in the game is probably even worse than what we’re facing in the real world. It is causing people to drop dead in the streets (and elsewhere) after developing horrific symptoms including black veins in the neck and temporary insanity. Our protagonist — hell, I’ll say it, OUR HERO — is staying alive in a most desperate and daring fashion. Rather than social distancing at home and waiting for inevitable death, he’s taken to the road. He drives aimlessly through a now eerily empty countryside, only stopping when he must to collect gas and other vital supplies. This might not seem like the most Fauci-approved survival strategy, but these are exceptionally bad times. We can safely surmise the main character didn’t feel safe at home. Maybe supplies were dwindling. Maybe there were riots. Maybe Uncle Jim got infected, and you know that guy’s a hugger. Death Ride 2020 isn’t anyone’s first choice for a pandemic lifestyle. Our dude has found a way to survive, but it’s wearing on him and doesn’t seem sustainable. Everything comes to a head when he runs out of gas and must venture out on foot into the darkness. There’s a gas station nearby, but we pretty much know already that it’s not going to be that easy. Not at all.

Paul Michael Winters uses a very spare, austere writing style through much of the game. Alone largely packs its storytelling punch into the introduction and ending sections of the game. The intro is terrific and immediately made me identify with the main character, that lonely, exhausted figure who cannot stop driving ever onwards into the dark and gloomy night. The ending — well, the best ending anyway — provides a satisfying, life-affirming conclusion that makes the journey seem totally worthwhile in the end. It’s the journey itself that tested my motivation to finish at times. When you’re in the puzzle solving and obstacle removing portion of the game (which is the bulk of it), you won’t be getting much exposition or description. The minimalistic style of the writing fits the somber, lonely narrative, but I had questions about the disease and the state of the world I was hoping would be answered as I progressed through the game that weren’t. Part of the problem is my unreasonable expectation that my reward for solving puzzles in a text adventure should be more exposition. Not all games work like that. This game demands some patience and the recognition that answers aren’t always readily available when a pandemic is ravaging the world. There is some background information provided in written materials you find scattered around, but it’s quite limited in scope. The main character seems to know more about the disease than we do, but perhaps not much more. He isn’t investigating the disease’s origin or trying to cure the world — he’s just trying to survive, and that’s quite hard enough under the circumstances.

I know nothing concrete about Paul Michael Winters or his wintery ways, but in my mind he’s a young IF author who is still honing his craft. If it turns out he’s actually 63 and an old hand at text games, then my bad…though I will say that’s still fairly young by IF standards. If you were to play his first game (reviewed by Flack here) and then this one immediately after, it would be obvious to you that he’s improving and growing as an author and a developer. Maybe that alone doesn’t definitively prove the Young Winters Theory, but it does show PMW is pretty serious about this whole IF thing. He clearly put some extra time in for testing and polishing this time around. For the most part, this is a game that just works. It’s a triumph of implementation in its own way. Considering the number of objects you must use to get past a variety of electrical, electronic, and mechanical obstacles, there’s a lot that could’ve potentially gone wrong here that didn’t. As a player, it’s a relief to be able to encounter a gate or a control panel in the game and know it’s going to work as you would expect if you’ve got the right items in tow. I’ve been replaying Vampire: the Masquerade — Bloodlines recently so when I saw an air duct in this game I was both overjoyed and extremely eager to get inside. One of the major differences between video games and real life for me personally is that I’d essentially never voluntarily enter a air duct in real life but I’ll pretty much never pass up a chance for some quality ductin’ time in a video game. As it turns out, the air duct turned out to be totally serviceable though very small. A lot of air ducts have those two qualities, I imagine. The important thing is it worked. Good ductin’, man, good ductin’! The one object I found somewhat fiddly to work with was the drug synthesis machine. Nothing major — it’s just somewhat awkward to use and I blame it for getting me killed when I forgot to do something stupid. In summation, air ducts rule and life-saving, drug-dispensing wondermachines suck.

The worst parsers try to fight you on everything. Even something as simple as going south or opening a door can be an ordeal, let alone a more complex action like entering an air duct to get some good ductin’. The best parsers understand pretty much everything reasonable you throw at them. It’s like the author knew exactly what you were going to type before you typed it! I swear there’s a line in Deadline Marc Blank threw in just for me to find during my fourth playthrough. The parser in Alone is somewhere in between those two extremes. I generally found that if my first attempt at wording a command didn’t work the second would, but your mileage may vary. There are definitely verbs that should’ve been implemented that weren’t. Have you ever noticed that it’s generally the verbs you don’t implement that you find yourself missing the most? On the other hand, the game understood some complex commands I almost didn’t expect it to. I fully expect PMW to keep the cycle of improvement going and for his next game to be even better than this one so I’m sure he’ll focus more on the parser next time. There’ll be more verbs, more synonyms, more accepted alternatives, and hopefully more air ducts. The parser doesn’t ruin this game by any means, but it may test your patience at times.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Alone is the moral choice you must make towards the end of the game. It’s so cleverly implemented that you might never even recognize it as a moral choice or even feel like you have a choice, but it absolutely is. You can “win” the game either way and feel like you did what you needed to do, but one ending is much, much more satisfying than the other. I strongly recommend playing it at least twice so you can see both endings. You’ll actually probably end up playing it three times because xyzzy kills you. The only things I hate more than life-saving, drug-dispensing wondermachines are death-bringing xyzzy implementations, but the game is still good and very much worth playing.

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating:35/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 7/10 (I’d give it an 8 at its best and a 5 or 6 through most of the game. So somehow it ended up being a 7!)

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 8/10 (I’m counting the moral choice as a puzzle with multiple solutions. The other puzzles are generally good as well.)

Parser Responsiveness: 6/10

Captivity by Jim Aikin (2020)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

The duke talks a good game, but I think we all know he’d rather play Pass the Wand with the wizard than ravage an abductee. In the director’s cut of the game, there’s even a scene where Esteban skips down the hall to his lover’s room while singing, “He’s a magic maaaaan.”

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

Rape is never light-hearted or whimsical or funny. It’s awful and horrible. Some things just shouldn’t be joked about.

My Verdict:

Let’s just say it finishes a lot stronger than it starts.

Game Information

Game Type: TADS

Author Info: Jim Aikin is a science fiction author, musician, music technologist, and an experienced creator of interactive fiction. His game A Flustered Duck won Spring Thing 2009, and a number of his other titles are especially highly regarded among enthusiasts of puzzle IF. You can visit his homepage for more information on all things Jim.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2020/Games/Captivity/Captivity.t3

Other Games By This Author: Lydia’s Heart, Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina, Mrs. Pepper’s Nasty Secret, and more!

For a game that overall has a decidedly whimsical bent, Captivity has a downright grim beginning. I very much wish that I could start off this review by talking about all the things I like about this game such as the diverse set of fascinating characters, the quality writing, and the terrific castle setting, but I don’t think I can do that in good conscience. The elephant in the room is massive and attention-grabbing enough that I think we have to address it first. Simply put, this game has the absolute worst introduction I’ve ever encountered in a work of interactive fiction.

The first text you see upon opening Captivity is a content warning. It reads as follows:

First, a word of caution: This story approaches the traumatic and often tragic business of abduction and rape in a tone that can only be described as light-hearted and whimsical. The story is not explicit with respect to the trauma, and in fact your role as the primary character is to escape before anything awful happens. Nonetheless, if you find this topic disturbing, or if you feel it should be treated only in the serious manner that it no doubt deserves, you may wish to reconsider whether to continue.

Wow. Jim Aikin knows exactly what sentences to string together to provide the literary equivalent of a one way ticket direct to Miseryville. When I cranked up the ol’ HTML TADS interpreter on Day 1 of the competition, all I wanted to do was play an amusing text adventure and have some fun. What I got instead was a content warning my mind parsed as RAPE RAPE RAPE QUIT NOW SNOWFLAKE which is not what I would call a pleasant start to a game. There’s a suggestion there that abduction and rape might not always be tragic (“often tragic”), and I found the very idea that rape would be presented in a light-hearted and whimsical manner to be rather nauseating. Don’t get me wrong: I’d be the first person to say there are no lines set in stone when it comes to either art or humor. It’s just generally my experience that when rape shows up in IF it’s going to be depressing and upsetting because rape is fundamentally a depressing and upsetting sort of thing. You can say all you want that your treatment of the subject will be light-hearted and whimsical, but the problem is virtually no one is THAT funny or has leveled up whimsy to that degree. Simply throwing the word rape around inevitably brings to mind negative associations and upsetting memories. I probably have it easier than a lot of other people do because the first things that come to my mind involve Jodie Foster, a bunch of assholes, and a pool table. If you do have a direct, personal experience with rape, just reading that intro could feel like a punch in the gut. I have my doubts that anyone has ever made a genuinely funny or whimsical rape game, and I have no idea why anyone would even want to.

My first instinct was to quit right there as soon as I read the intro. This didn’t seem like it was going to be my sort of game at all. What kept me playing was the second sentence of that dreary introduction. Just what kind of rape game ISN’T explicit and lets you escape, I wondered? If this is neither a porn game which fetishizes rape nor a work of interactive fiction which reflects on the trauma of rape, why is rape part of the game at all? If rape absolutely has to be mentioned, is it even possible to thread the needle so that it isn’t a downright traumatic and upsetting experience for a good portion of the audience? The other thing I felt curious about was just who the target audience for this game was. Is there a person out there who could read the intro and actually feel enthused about playing the game? Encountering a content warning like that is a bit like driving down the highway, intent on reaching your destination and generally minding your own business, and suddenly spotting a sign advertising RAPEAPALOOZA 2020 NEXT RIGHT. Nine out of ten drivers are going to pass right on by and a sizable minority are also going to contact the authorities as they very well should. The one guy of the ten who is going to immediately start veering right is this dude named Lil Dougie who is driving a black Kia he barely can squeeze himself into anymore. He’s someone who knows what he’s into and who generally cares very little about the societal consequences of his actions, but he’s also very hard to please. He hasn’t truly enjoyed any Rapeapalooza since the 1999 event because they just weren’t rapey enough for him. That doesn’t keep him from attending every single year even with Covid-19 going on. Designing your text adventure with the primary intent of pleasing the Lil Dougies of this world seems like a marketing disaster far in excess of anything that might have gone wrong with the New Coke rollout. I just couldn’t understand why anyone not chained to a computer in Lil Dougie’s basement would want to target their work of interactive fiction specifically to that dude and his 8chan buddies.

As it turns out, Captivity isn’t in my view really about rape — it mentions rape, but it doesn’t explicitly depict it and it isn’t the or even a major theme in the game at all. Lil Dougie would honestly hate pretty much everything about it other than the very beginning. The fact that this work has an introduction that forces everyone who plays it to think of rape is a really head-scratching decision on the part of the author. That said, Jim Aikin’s heart was probably in the right place when he wrote the warning. He simply didn’t want anyone to play his game and get upset so he erred on the side of including a warning that would dissuade more people from actually playing it at all. He sacrificed plays for the mental health of the community so you can’t condemn the guy. The problem is a warning like that puts a cloud over the whole game. You’re literally associating your work of interactive fiction with one of the most terrible things one person can do to another and for no good reason at all. Let’s talk a little now about what Captivity is really about, where rape comes into play (I can’t tell you how much it pained me to write that phrase), and how Jim Aikin could’ve easily avoided putting the warning in.

In this game, you play the daughter of high-born but financially strapped parents. You have been kidnapped by the evil Duke Esteban who has imprisoned you in his castle. There is no chance your parents will be able to pay the ransom the duke has demanded so that means Esteban will be settling for his consolation prize: you and your supple, unwashed body. Thus, that’s where the suggestion of rape appears. It has struck me each time I’ve played this game how utterly unnecessary it is for the threat of rape to be made as explicitly as it is. A better text adventure could have made the stakes similarly high by simply describing a lecherous look or revolting leer made by the duke and allowed the player work out the implications in his or her own mind. Arguably, even that wouldn’t be necessary — if you’re imprisoned in a castle, of course you’re going to want to escape. It’s clearly a very bad situation to be in, and I’d be just as motivated to help my character out even if my main fear was that the duke would turn her into Alpo for the sustenance of his pack of ravenous hounds. If anything, the stakes have been made too high and as a result the game makes much less sense as a cohesive whole. If I knew I was facing the imminent threat of rape, I’d be daring, desperate, and dangerous if I wasn’t too traumatized or depressed to do anything at all. I’d do anything to get out of that situation. Unlike the protagonist, I wouldn’t be able to calmly wander around a castle, stopping for friendly, leisurely chats with various characters who are partly responsible for my captivity as I rationally planned my escape. I wouldn’t be able to bottle in the torrent of emotions I’d be feeling at every moment whereas the protagonist remains as cool as a cucumber from beginning to end. In the real world, the story of Captivity is horror, not comedy or adventure. Rape and whimsy fundamentally just don’t go together — it’s a juxtaposition that is doomed to fail. I only found one way to truly enjoy Captivity, and that is to simply pretend the Damocles sword of rape isn’t hovering over my character’s head at every moment. The story simply doesn’t make much sense if you don’t do that because no real person would actually act like the protagonist given the dire set of circumstances presented in the game. The pity of it all is it’s quite a fun game if you can do the mental gymnastics required. The main reason I’ve spent so much time writing about this is because I truly think the rape threat makes the game worse: it makes the plot seem less believable, the characters seem less genuine, and the overall gameplay experience less satisfying. Without it, the game would be more enjoyable and appeal to more people.

I wish I didn’t have to devote those first paragraphs to a topic so unpleasant because I have a number of positive things to say here as well. First of all, the castle setting is terrific and is my single favorite aspect of the game. It is vividly drawn and populated by a host of colorful characters. It also feels BIG and is full of objects, features, and secrets…just what a castle in interactive fiction should be like. As I’ve played and replayed this game, I’ve been repeatedly impressed by Jim Aikin’s care in writing descriptions and his skillful anticipation of the player’s reactions to the surrounding environment and the characters he or she comes across. While using the talk command will give you an initial list of dialogue options for each character, you can also ask characters about a pleasingly wide range of topics. It’s quite fun to just explore the castle and think of new things to talk about with the characters you meet. Every time I play I seem to find something new and unexpected. To give an example, consider the very first scene in the game. You are locked in a small room, but you have a barred window you can look out of. The first thing you see when you look out is the text adventure equivalent of a dramatic cut scene. If you look out the window again, you notice various aspects of the castle grounds: the garden, the spiked wall, the forest, the river, and the hounds. You can look at each thing you see, including even the spikes on the wall! The level of detail is consistently impressive, but the descriptions and the writing in general are never overbearing. In fact, much of the content is optional and might not be encountered in a casual playthrough (or because you’re just trying to get out of the castle ASAP so your character doesn’t get raped…completely understandable!). Aikin understands some people will just want to get on with things and escape while other players will want to sniff the grass and mess around with the embroidering materials. Both groups are accommodated, but I think Louis Armstrong has the right advice here: “Don’t forget to mess around!”

Captivity has a few pleasing puzzles, but Jim Aikin has designed the game so it can be completed by even a novice text adventurer. The game is incredibly forgiving — when you mess something up, you generally get rolled back to a point where you can try again and you might even be rolled forward so you can still finish even if you really mucked things up. No player is left behind here. I wouldn’t want every work of IF to be designed in this fashion since sometimes I want there to be consequences for failure, but we also need games that are newbie-friendly. I liked this feature least when I encountered it towards the end of the game because it wasn’t immediately clear what I had done wrong and I wasn’t given the chance to correct my mistake. Instead, I was just zoomed ahead for the big showdown which I didn’t think I deserved to see just yet. As an IF author, you absolutely do lose people when they get stuck and can’t progress so I understand the appeal of a game design that doesn’t let players fail, but at the same time I think a good deal of the pleasure of playing IF comes via the process of figuring out what you are doing wrong and coming up with new solutions to obstacles. You also tend to notice more details of a game when you have to play sections of it repeatedly. I did go back and find the way to complete the game without triggering the rollforward, and it felt like it was a very small, nonintuitive thing I didn’t do that gummed up the works. I think this type of game design would tend to make puzzles worse in the aggregate because the author won’t be as motivated to come up with something clever if he or she knows many players will end up skipping past the puzzles if they don’t solve them immediately. I’m definitely a bigger fan of the rollbacks than the rollforwards, but I’m above all else grateful that most parser IF still doesn’t make things quite as easy as this one does.

Captivity is a generally well-implemented game, but I did notice a couple of bugs. The first and most serious occurs when you are carrying one box and try to pick up another, different box. “Get box” won’t work because the game acts like you’re referring to the box you’re carrying. If you word your command as “get box from ___” the game crashes abruptly and unceremoniously with a nil object reference error message, but only if you refer to the object of the preposition in the plural as the game does. That sentence might not be as clear as I’d like, but I’m trying to avoid a spoiler here. Let’s assume for the purposes of this discussion that the box you’re trying to pick up is in the pair of lutes hanging above the fireplace (it isn’t and there are no lutes above the fireplace). We know the box is really in only one of the lutes — presumably the one with the secret compartment — but the game refers to the lutes collectively as a pair of lutes and you can’t interact with them singly. In this example, “get box from lutes” would crash the game while “get box from lute” would work. To accomplish the box grabbing feat, you can also put your first box in your reticule or drop it in another room first before attempting to pick up the next box in which case “get box” will work correctly. You can also be more specific about the kind of box you’re picking up: “get lacquered box” would work if you’ve already looked in the lutes…or, rather, it would work if it was actually a lacquered box we were dealing with. I’m giving you people nothing! The other bug is less serious. There is a scroll you need to read that you are clearly supposed to use two objects to decode in order to overcome two separate methods of obfuscation. However, you can actually read the scroll by using only one object if you word the command right. I would also say this is the one moment in the game where I found it a little difficult to make the parser understand what I was trying to do, but that’s mostly because I kept trying to use “look” instead of the more sensible “read.”

One thing I would have liked Jim Aikin to explore further is the idea of developing Captivity as a revenge game. There’s already a strong element of revenge in the game which culminates in your character’s final showdown with the duke. Getting the better of His Evilness is deeply satisfying. As the game progresses, we only learn more about his evil deeds, including the probable murders of previous abductees. In very broad strokes, this game’s arc isn’t so far removed from movies like John Wick and Death Wish. If we strip away the whimsy and lightness, we have a story of a young woman who goes face to face with evil and overcomes it with her willpower, strength, and smarts. The threat of rape the protagonist faces actually makes sense in the context of a revenge story. The only problem with that interpretation is that the bulk of the game involves you being relatively kind and helpful to members of the duke’s retinue who are deeply involved in your kidnapping. Should you be killing the wizard rather than kissing him? That’s something of a moral quandary we can’t settle in an interactive fiction review. There is a subtext that perhaps the duke’s servants and family members aren’t absolutely loyal to him and don’t entirely approve of his actions and as such they perhaps don’t deserve the duke’s fate. At the same time, I’m not at all sure that Porfiru or Thibon wouldn’t abet another psychopath’s crimes given the opportunity.

Simple Rating: 6/10

Complicated Rating: 33/50

Story: 6/10

Writing: 8/10 (The descriptions are high quality throughout and just about everything and everyone is worth looking at and interacting with.)

Playability: 6/10 (You should save often just in case you run into the worst of the bugs, but this is otherwise a mostly polished and smooth playing experience.)

Puzzle Quality: 6/10

Parser Responsiveness: 7/10