IntroComp 2014: 'Going Down' by Hanon Ondricek
At face value, Going Down appears to be a typical choice-based interactive story, a web-implemented CYOA-style game. Choices are presented in a list following each story node, and there are no links to click on other than the choices. However, a careful playthrough reveals that the game actually has a more complicated world model hidden beneath its surface, one that draws heavy inspiration from the parser-IF tradition and that could easily support puzzles. The narrative may also be more than it seems.
The fact that the game's true complexity is not immediately apparent speaks to the naturalness of the union between mechanics and narrative. The aesthetic design of the layout and interface is critically related to the form of the narrative. The Inklewriter engine presents each choice node with a page-like look, creating a persistent trail by leaving the previous pages above the later ones. The styling of the text reinforces the book metaphor. (Technical note: not all of the the text styling appears to display correctly in Firefox. It worked better for me in Chrome and Opera.)
The book feel would reinforce the impression of a traditional CYOA, but the implementation actually draws almost as deeply from the parser text adventure paradigm. The choice that the player clicked on to reveal a section of text is always displayed at the top of each "page." These choices aren't always imperative commands, but they often are. The result is a the trail of "pages" scrolling up the browser window that looks like the buffer of a interpreter app for parser IF.
Similarity with parser IF does not end with the "transcript" buffer. The main section of the game features a fairly complex world model. One area -- an interior lobby -- contains important subdivisions that the player can explore by choosing to interact with objects. The subdivisions aren't even completely defined by spatial relationship; a conversation defines one such division at least as much as a sense of moving through the room. The available choices and the descriptions in the squence of "pages" is sensitive to the protagonist's current activity or location in the room. Atmospheric messages are appended to the equivalent of a "room description" after each choice. Objects in the room also have their own "short descriptions" appended to the text, sensitive to the position of the player character in relation to the objects. Also like in parser IF, individual pieces of text are repeated. This compels the reader to scan fairly often, and it could be problematic given that the length of one of Going Down's "pages" often feels significantly longer than a typical scene description from parser IF (room description and subsequent messages). This is where clear typography and clean design prove their worth. Besides the presentation of past choice nodes as different pages, there are no arbitrary groups or headings to interrupt the flow of text. And yet, finding the new narrative development turns out not to be more difficult than in a parser IF. (I imagine is one of the things that non-IF-players might find daunting about the medium, and Going Down is probably not an especially accommodating piece for newcomers.)
Set on New Year's Eve, the narrative evokes the sense of old holiday movies. Despite the use of story connotations evocative of old films and generation-spanning family traditions, the scenario is an alternate present, presumably some fictitious universe where the leading commercial MMORPG is AoA instead of WoW and where A Song of Ice and Fire has King Arthur in it and is being adapted in movies instead of in television.
The tone of the writing evokes nostalgia, and the juxtaposition between the old and the new seems to be one prominent theme. The generational gap between people who have grown up with digital connectedness and the elderly is featured prominently. This could have been more uncomfortable than it ended up being; the elderly characters are not portrayed as incompetent or as patronizingly tolerable. Neither are they shown in a good light; they're part of the background of annoyances that exacerbate the protagonist's frustration. Combined with the sense of holiday nostalgia, this could indicate a cynical outlook on culture, although there is not enough textual evidence to substantiate that.
The protagonist is a young adult male cast in the nominal geek mold that seems broadly relevant to me without the emotionally manipulative feeling that often comes from trying too hard to make a character sympathetic or likable. The protagonist's most distinctive character quirk supplies the main conflict for the introduction. The fact that this conflict is not directly related to the premise of dating (despite being an internal personal conflict) suggests that in the full game romance might be less central to the whole plot than might be assumed. The cliffhanger ending leaves room for the story to develop in several directions, including but not limited to romance. The holiday movie trappings and the nostalgic feel give the impression that magical realism could be a possibility.
Going Down incorporates the interactive techniques that best suit its total holistic design -- technical implementation, visual aesthetic, and narrative presentation. This unified presentation serves storytelling excellently. The reading-playing experience is so natural that I would definitely have continued beyond the introduction despite not being greatly interested in the story genre.