IF Comp 2013: 'Saving John' by Josephine Tsay

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.

Psychological themes appear to be common in choice-based IF, where choices or links represent the perception of the protagonist.  The psychological narrative of Saving John feels like a well-worn convention among web-based Twine games.  The plot branches are fairly independent from each other but are also interwoven, and the choices made between the branches determine the outcome.  This simple mechanic is implemented well, and the strength of the story's theme makes the game relatively worthwhile.

The choices are usually separated from the text, rather than sprinkled throughout each screen as links.  This avoids the inherent confusion about the relationship of a linked word to the narrative consequence of the choice, which some Twine games probably turn into a feature.  The result here is that there is a strong sense of agency -- more the protagonist's agency than the player's.  It is clear that the choices correspond to deliberate decisions.

The first screen offers four choices, which seem to correspond loosely to four plot threads.  Each screen seems to belong to only one of the threads, each of which is connected to one of four characters.  Except for the final screen indicating the result of the protagonist's decisions, the narrative does not change based on the player's choices.  This sounds like it would produce wooden, mutually-exclusive paths.  Fortunately, the availability of different choices at different times allows the paths to meld into each other and cross freely.  There may be a point of no return when the protagonist has gone too far down one path to veer off of it before the end, but the illusion of being able to change paths holds.

The story is almost as simple as the interaction mechanic.  As in many short stories with a psychological narrative, part of the reader's pleasure is figuring out the correlation between the unreliable narrator and reality.  In this story, the mystery regarding the protagonist's perception is rather transparent.  The details of the protagonist's traumatic past are somewhat more obscure, but even that information is easy to find after playing enough to cover most of the paths.  The protagonist's condition is meant to be understood quickly, almost (but not quite) immediately.  The real plot hook comes with understanding the immediate threat to the protagonist, and how his perception affects it.

The characters are important to the story, but barring a few details, they do not receive significant development.  For three of the characters, this is understandable, given the protagonist's perception.  The other character could probably have used some more depth.  Even so, the lack of character development doesn't feel as damaging as it should.  This is not a character-driven story.  Instead, the story is driven by theme, and the theme comes across clearly.  The prose is readable but not particularly evocative.  The story derives its emotional power from the theme of personal salvation threatened by self-preoccupation.

The relevance of the danger of looking into oneself for fulfillment while ignoring the hand of grace from other people makes the story meaningful.  The bare simplicity of the plot is acceptable in the framework of an interactive game, because games are by nature abstract and tend to generalize.  The story is well told through the medium, and that is why Saving John is basically successful despite lacking innovation.

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