IF Comp 2013: 'Moquette' by Alex Warren

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.

Most choice-based IF games leave me unsatisfied due to a lack of simulation and mechanics.  Simply varying the text based on player choice is not enough for me.  I think simple hypertext stories have a place, and I would like to see web-based IF integrated into online short-story publications.  However, when I'm judging the Comp, I'm looking for a different experience. I can't feel satisfied with a game unless it simulates something tangible, whether or not the simulation includes the typical conventions of room-based geography and object-based inventory.

Moquette functions mechanically like many of the hyperlink games entered into this year's Comp, but it incorporates a framework of tangible simulation. Powered by Quest, Moquette features special effects that seem native both to the medium of text and to the browser.

Both parser and choice-based IF are often strongest when the mechanics that create simulation fit naturally into the framework of the narrative premise.  Moquette's simulation simply allows the player to travel around the map.  Although nearly all parser IF takes that kind of simulation for granted, it is exactly the kind of interaction that Moquette needs to tell its story organically.  In this year's Comp, Moquette joins Threediopolis (which I enjoyed but will not be reviewing) in focusing intently on a limited set of simulation mechanics.  The two games are vastly different, Threediopolis having somewhat restricted the standard parser mechanics while Moquette adds to the standard hyperlink mechanics; but both are stronger for their deliberate, selective use of specific simulation mechanics.

The travel mechanic is used to tell the story of a man's commute on London's subway system.  This turns out to be less generically slice-of-life than it sounds at first, due to the unreliability of the narrator and the suggestion of either magical realism or mystery.  The obvious theme for most of the game is the coldness and artificiality of everyday life in our interconnected-yet-isolated society. The emotional beats are drawn from the portrayal of the people riding the subway, ignoring each other. The protagonist's weariness and matter-of-fact angst makes the commuter NPCs out to be moderate jerks. The game creates this mood subtly, without strained narration and without making the protagonist a cynical misanthrope. This natural thematic expression drives most of the narrative interest and bridges the gap to real life -- we're all jerks to each other.

The animated text effects that occur when changing transit lines and at certain other points are much more effective than multimedia would have been. The special effects show off the game's engine without cluttering the aesthetic. The presentation of the text is clean enough and plain enough to please even the staunchest text-based purist. I think the effects do contribute to the atmosphere, although non-critically. The slow fade to and from white on the cover image at the beginning (and the corresponding fade at the end) might feel a little overly dramatic, although it is cool feature.

Although the special effects do not overpower the narrative with multimedia distractions, it does seem like the game relies on the special effects to create mood and interest when the narrative and the gameplay become boring.  The plot becomes weak at the end, where the earlier suggestions remain unsubstantiated while the game undermines the protagonist's competence and some of his sympathy. There is a mysterious figure that could have been interesting if he had been more emphasized during the midgame and if the scene near the end had been stronger.

As simple as the plot is, it actually tries to do too much. Although cliché, the protagonist being unreliable might have worked as the big reveal. The mysterious figure could almost seem like some kind of Doctor Who archetype, a supernatural or alien being operating in secret cubbyhole in the London subway. However, these two suggestions contradict and nullify each other, leaving the ending unsatisfying. The romantic interest is an important element, but that plot point is not integrated with either the unreliable-narrator plot point or the mysterious-figure plot point.

Although its plot is both too eclectic and too unambitious to be interesting, Moquette is designed in a way that captures attention by swiftly moving forward through the masterful use of its particular kind of interactivity. By its nature, Moquette is probably more of a technology piece than a literary piece, but it still manages to evoke the modern social condition. The game is interesting for demonstrating the narrative power of calculated, minimalistic interactive simulation.


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