IF Comp 2013: '9Lives' by Bill Balistreri, Hal Hinderliter, Sean Klabough, Luke Michalski and Morgan Sokol

I'm reviewing the games entered in the 19th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition that I complete within the two-hour time limit for open judging.

Interactive fiction often excels at changing milieu during the course of a game by segmenting the game world into scenes set in different locations and/or times.  The scenes are related to each other thematically, and the player can journeys either at the whim of the plot or deliberately by a magical (or mystical, or surreal) mechanic.  9Lives takes this approach, presenting a dramatic method of travelling across different times and places within the framework of a strong theme.  Although possessing some memorable elements, 9Lives largely fails to give each individual scene an interesting characterization.  The player's experience is dampened by too much handholding, as well as by shallow implementation.

The theme and the primary mechanic of 9lives are based on reincarnation and karma.  Quotations attributed to Buddha appear at the start of the game and at death and ending messages.  The game is moralistic.  The good ending is extolled as a moral and spiritual triumph.  The choices that advance toward the good ending are good deeds, while bad deeds send the player back from the winning condition in a literal and measurable way.  I don't mind the moralizing.  It is offered gently and, for the most part, organically.  However, I can't help but notice the moral cop-out of having bad things immediately happen to the player character in response to a morally bad choice.  Surely the true heroism about self-sacrifice is that sometimes evil really does pay off.

The mystical mechanic succeeds in producing a sense of curiosity and depth the first time it appears.  The frustrating problem with the mechanic is that it has very little to do with solving the game.  There is a hard limit to the number of times the mechanic can be used.  This does make jumping between scenes by using the mechanic more significant, and it is eventually possible to put the game into an unwinable state.  However, moving forward in the direction leading to the good ending turns out to be a lot easier than exploring worlds in the wrong sequence.  The limit on the scene-switching mechanic will probably only be experienced by players going back to see more of the game after having won.

Half of the game's content is tangential.  Not only might the player miss it, but progressing toward the good ending makes it impossible to see the other half of the game without undoing previous progress.  (Retreading the scenes is easy due to the simplicity of the non-puzzly interactions, but it is still tedious.)

This would seems to imply that winning is not the only goal.  The design of the game implies that the extra content is worthwhile, that seeing the hidden parts of the game is a valid secondary goal.  This is very strange, because it contradicts the prevalent moralism.  To see all the unnecessary areas of the game, the player has to be bad, but the karmic premise implies that being good enough to transcend the human condition is the only worthy goal.  At any rate, the game is too shallow to have much of an artistic or exploratory appeal.

The writing is inconsistent.  There are some memorable images, and the room descriptions are generally acceptable.  The dialog coming from the bland NPCs can be cringe-inducing, dropping all-caps commands into the characters' mouths.  The most jarring written element may be the room titles, which are inconsistently capitalized (most of them, weirdly, appearing in all caps).  In one of the early scenes, the room titles are distinctly anachronistic.

All things considered, 9Lives doesn't have much going for it other than its interesting premise.  Still, the way that the premise, theme, and central mechanic are intrinsically related makes the game much more memorable than it would otherwise be.  Although 9Lives doesn't use the medium of parser-IF very effectively, I do appreciate a game driven heavily by theme at the mechanical gameplay level.  I also appreciate the depiction of self-sacrifice.


  1. Hi Paul, and thanks for your thoughtful analysis. I'm Hal, one of the creators of 9Lives. You actually enjoyed the game more than I might have imagined, and your criticisms were completely valid. Creating this game was an assignment for a college English class on Project Management. The goal was to get the five of us to work collaboratively on a creative project, and I'm happy at the level of success we were able to attain towards that goal. Sadly for you, the IF fan, none of us had any previous experience in using Inform or even in playing IFs, so obviously we made a lot of mistakes. We were also under a pretty tight time frame; as I recall, the whole thing was assembled in about 3 weeks. Having given all these excuses as to why we were unable to create a high-quality project, you might wonder why I even entered 9Lives into the IF Comp? The answer is that I thought it would be a good learning experience; not only for those of us on the team, but also for any future classes that our Professor might lead on game authoring in Inform. To that end, your detailed review (and all the great transcripts that are generated during IF Comp play) have been most valuable. Thanks for giving 9Lives a try!


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