IntroComp 2014: 'The Terrible Doubt of Appearances' by Buster Hudson

Playful but meaningful, The Terrible Doubt of Appearances by Buster Hudson is a fairy tale, a traditional text adventure, and an organic interactive narrative. It manages to pull off all three of those roles in a very natural, seamless way. The result is very strong, creating a smooth experience that reflects on how stuffy conventions hide the "broken parts" that everyone carries.

The game consciously channels both the Victorian coming-of-age fairy tales and the later anti-Modernist fantasies that drew from them. There is an explicit reference to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, although it's hard to tell whether the reference serves as more than a throw-away easter-egg. The ever-present NPC Athena embodies the Greek mythology that Lewis used heavily in his depiction of Narnia. The darkly whimsical fantasy world and the rabbit-hole-like dream metaphor suggest Wonderland.

The imagery is directly creepy. The horror is more a perverse wrongness than the stark terror contrasted with profound beauty from MacDonald's version of Fairy Land in Phantastes. Nothing is idyllic. The Victorian morality is cast in a cynical way. The creepiness reflects a bizarre fetishizing that seems deeply symbolic without being directly allegorical. The darkly playful imagery involving puppets and moustached gentlemen feels authentically 19th-century, evoking Victorian fears regarding automation and the advancement of industry.

The player character is a typical wealthy 19th-century boy-heir -- only American rather than British, as confirmed by references to Congress and to New Jersey. Henry's American heritage felt jarring to me at first, but it actually seems like a good deviation from the stereotype. The conservative Victorian mores are emphasized in an American way by stressing free market capitalism.

It's possible to play through completely without encountering much that would discourage a straight interpretation as a Victorian bildungsroman fantasy. This seems like a perfectly legitimate impression of the game as a whole. After all, following the clear narrative leading leaves out most of the more cynical aspects. However, rightly or wrongly other interpretations can be inferred.

A progressive critique of conservative Victorian mores may be the most obvious reading. The title evokes the artificiality of upper-class lifestyle. The voice of the protagonist constantly reflects his sheltered conditioning while implying that he has been repressed. But there is more. The writing puts thoughtful weight on small details and subtle emphases, such as this description of an untakeable object produced by a more significant interaction:

The brutal remains of the giftbox. There are shreds of paper and ribbon everywhere. You look away, ashamed.

Henry's shame at the sight of the ruined giftbox probably comes from his reserved upbringing, but it also builds into the sense of the bizarre wrongness. By the end, we are by no means certain that Henry's shame is unjustified. The creepy fetishizing of "parts" not only threatens Harry; it is also something that he uses and back-handedly admits that he finds compelling.

Interpreting Henry as a repressed victim is further challenged by the fact that the character strongly evokes Eustace Scrubb from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. With Eustace, C.S. Lewis critiqued progressivism, showing how a boy with fashionable tastes and Modernist ideology would be out of place in a holistic fairy-tale environment. Henry is practically Eustace's secret American twin, the narration noting that, "if there's one thing you never do, it's fall out of fashion."

But this shouldn't be seen as a dichotomy. Henry can be both a victim of repressive conservative mores and as a vain cultural hypocrite. Both reflect the titular moral of false appearances. The writing and story craft may just be deep enough to explore the complicated gray area where the differences between conservatism and progressivism become mere semantics. When the full version of the game is released, we'll be able to decide for ourselves.

The American-Victorian background and Henry's characterization are both delivered largely (but not exclusively) through flashback monologues that interrupt the narration triggered by important commands. Stating it this way sounds as if the narrative must be linear and railroaded, but that is untrue.

Whatever else it is, The Terrible Doubt of Appearances is also a traditional text adventure, with a non-linear midgame. However, there is no extraneous detail -- no wandering around a landscape, no examining every noun in the room descriptions to find hidden objects or important details. There are no challenging puzzles, and yet the interactions remain meaningful. The player is guided into the right actions both implicitly and directly (through Athena's instructions and through optional meta tutorial messages), but the path that the player takes to accomplish the goals actually matters. The narrative flexibly shuffles the critical pieces of text to accommodate the order that the player chooses to visit the small number of locations.

This is most apparent in the dialog, conveyed through one of the best implementations of the advanced ASK/TELL system that I've ever seen. Critical conversation nodes can be accessed from very different conversation angles depending on the player's actions. The topic suggestions appear automatically and blend seamlessly into the narrative.

In fact, the various pieces of narration and description blend so seamlessly that the conventional distinctions between kinds of text passages nearly break down. There is no status line at the top of the screen, and no location titles interrupt the flow of paragraphs. The room descriptions are usually briefer than the narration produced by commands that progress the game or messages describing the journey between rooms.

The automated lists in the game all seem to be context-sensitive. After the player has collected several items, the inventory listing is appended with, "Never mind how you are managing to hold everything at once. It's not a pretty picture, that much is certain." In fact, the "MAP" command (synonymous with the more usual "EXITS") sometimes gives more detailed information than "LOOK," although both responses include exit lists.

That sly self-aware wink appended to the inventory message evokes the fourth-wall-breaking of traditional text adventures. (There is a strong suggestion that fourth-wall-breaking will be centrally important in the full game, using a familiar command in an unusual way.) Combined with the literary imagery, this evokes the hint-giving demon from Curses. However, the way that the narrative pushes forward effortlessly without unnecessary detail or simulation doesn't feel too far off from modern non-parser browser IF. This combination of the traditional style with modern techniques may well be the way forward for parser-based text adventures.

Here lies intellectual depth, vivid creativity, and masterful implementation. I sincerely hope that The Terrible Doubt of Appearances will be finished and released.

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