IntroComp 2014: 'The Devil in the Details' by Jerry Ford

IntroComp is long over, and the 20th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition is well underway. Nonetheless, I'm attempting to finish reviewing my backlist of IntroComp entries.

Text adventures must have been the first genre of computer games to incorporate open-word map design. They can do it badly, including extraneous locations and hiding important rooms or objects at obscure points on the map. Still, the best old-school text adventures sectioned off their well-balanced maps and distributed their non-linear puzzles to facilitate discovery and to reward genuine exploration.

Although crippled by many of the pitfalls that traditional text adventures are susceptible to, The Devil in the Details successfully simulates a world that feels much larger and more real than it should, given the number of rooms used to simulate the environment. The game attempts to be both a traditional old school puzzler and a character-driven story, an ambitious proposition that doesn't entirely work here. Still, it manages to present a unified and surprisingly deep theme through the bluntly light emphasis on gameplay characteristic of old-style text adventures.

The methods of evoking scale and detail in the map are sound. The room descriptions are not overly detailed, while false exits yield interesting information about the terrain. Atmospheric messages are used less frequently than they could be. When they are used, mainly to simulate crowds, they are effective.

Unfortunately, the perceived size of the virtual San Francisco generally works against the overall playing experience. "Tempted though you are to site see you decide now is not the time," the parser admonishes in one location when going in a non-implemented direction, "and you suppress the urge to walk down the sidewalk of the crookedest street in the world." Ironically, the game might not have come across so much as a tour guide if it had suppressed its own site-seeing tendency. The detail produced by player actions is welcome. The exposition of San Francisco trivia is more distracting. Theoretically some of it could help establish a narrative voice, but it would need consistent characterization. The tour-guide-style messages convey no particular sense of nostalgia or endearing quirkiness.

The problem of the overly detailed map plays into the larger problem of needlessly complicated implementation. The meticulous detail of the TADS 3 library is applied almost universally across the simulated environment. Individual pockets are implemented separately. Painfully, writing needs to be explicitly read separately from examining the object. This overly detailed object model often feels miscalculated and makes the playing experience more tedious than it should be. However, it actually does serve a thematic purpose. In the scene that probably exemplifies both the worst and best aspects of the implementation, the player character's clothing is featured in excruciating detail, down to specifics of the underwear that differ depending on whether the player chose to call the character male or female. (No, sexuality is not really involved in any way, which makes the gender-differentiated hyper-detail all the more awkward and confusing.)

That scene feels like it has a definite purpose -- it makes the player feel exposed, helpless, dominated. The execution is pretty bad, but the thematic point seems clear. The theme is anchored in the characterization of one NPC, a woman named Lucy who exudes the sense of 60's Hollywood vanity.
The game is not subtle about what Lucy seems to represent. If the title were not obvious enough, the game relishes in all the stereotypical "deal with the Devil" imagery, reference to Puritan New England and all. It turns out that people throughout San Francisco have cut deals with Lucy before, and there's a pervasive sense of fatalism regarding the ultimate outcome of Lucy's favor. Several messages imply that Lucy takes the place of God to the player character and to some of the other characters he or she meets, as with this excellent beat:
The bus is crowded with a melange of people types, from jeans and sweats and hooded sweaters to business suits, with an occasional tourist who didn't get the memo about San Francisco weather shivering in shorts, tank top and flip flops. There but for the grace of Lucy... briefly passes through your mind and you smile at the absurdity of the thought.

Although neither subtle in theme or prose and never particularly in implementation, The Devil in the Details does successfully use the standard parser-IF features to express a theme through complicated interactions, including relatively deep exchanges with NPCs. The hopelessness of careerism comes across strongly without any feeling of preachiness. Even so, this is not a mechanically comfortable text adventure to play.

Arguably, its overly detailed implementation could be another manifestation of the theme of overbearing details. When it comes to the experience of trying to play the game, the devil truly is in the details. Whether a surprisingly subtle design feature or an unintentional irony, the observation holds true.

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