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