IF Comp 2014: The Contortionist

The Contortionist, by Nicholas Stillman, is a Twine-based parser/choice hybrid thing. The game offers a consistent set of verb-links; these either carry out an action immediately, or lead to small sets of context-dependent nouns.

This is not a conceptually daring approach; it has plenty of precedent in graphic adventures, and it’s the kind of thing that gets brought up a lot in discussions about improving the parser or making action in link-based games more regular. But it’s very good to see it tried, because seeing how the stuff works in the wild is a lot more valuable than hypothetical discussion.



The most immediate complaint I had about this was with that first option: walk. There are a couple of choice-based games with a consistent map in this comp, and they’ve underlined for me how damn good the compass-based, single-letter-command navigation of trad parser IF is, at least for establishing how the map fits together and for quick traversal across already-explored areas. The Contortionist‘s map is really just a straight line with a couple of tiny branches off it, but I still managed to get turned around in it rather too often. (The compass rose in Krypteia is nicer, but because it’s not integrated into the normal mode of play – clicking on links in the body text – I found myself using it less often.)

In other respects, I feel that it would benefit from a little more organisation – maybe splitting out kinds of action. I’d also like to see this done with full scrollback: having every node on a separate page makes the action feel less unified. Overall, though, a more convincing effort to replicate parser-IF-like play than things I’ve seen in the past; that dispensed with, let’s get on to the content.

The protagonist lives in a not-particularly-plausible future dystopia in which 0.2 percent of the population are randomly incarcerated for their cheap labour; they’ve been selected, but possess pliable bones which allow them to squeeze through gaps. The game is about using this ability to escape, squeezing through bars and into uncomfortable spaces.

The cell block is full of weird characters, with a feel more like a stereotypical mental hospital than a cell block: there’s the requisite guy who scribbles equations over the walls, a guy who makes murals with his own shit, a guy with a stage-magician persona. Getting out requires you to exploit some and cooperate with others.

For some reason, every year the comp contains a game or two which combine awkward writing and an adolescent fascination with gross-out content. Human heads in the oven, corpses the sight of which cause the protagonist to vomit everywhere, eyeballs in the gutter. Very occasionally they end up being genuinely entertaining, and even when they’re ridiculously bad they can provide MST3K-ish amusementThe Contortionist is not quite in that zone – but it focuses rather a lot on the ooginess of the protagonist’s condition, and on the work of the dude who finger-paints with his own shit, and on the gross obesity of the guards. This is probably the low point:

You shoot the guard in one of countless fat rolls. He falls unconscious, with that fleeting look in his eyes like a football team will soon rape him.

The worldbuilding doesn’t make a huge amount of sense. As future dystopias go, it’s not obviously worse than the modern US. It’s not clear why regular workers are excited about having their labour value undercut, or why people from demographics with low incarceration rates would be cool with assuming the risk of a totally random system – and, in any case, unskilled convict labour is only cheap if someone else is assuming the costs of incarceration. And I don’t see the poo-smearing guy as a model worker, exactly. With its individual cells, the setup seems modeled on penal incarceration rather than labour camps. So overall, I don’t see a lot of reasons why this particular dystopian setup was chosen: I suppose that the specific thing that this does is to emphasize that the protagonist is extra-specially double-plus innocent, and that the government is bad, but without raising any sensitive political topics. That seems… kind of contrary to the point of dystopian fiction, to me.

I suppose that this:

People don’t care where their free stuff comes from. The masses have always voted for the sweetest deal, both historically and presently in 2080.

might represent a kind of sort of wacky Mitt Romney-ish idea of how socialism works; but if so it’s a version that has had class and income stripped out of it, which is kind of like talking about food webs without acknowledging photosynthesis. The rest of the plot’s political points are too weirdly confused, self-contradictory and violently erratic to try and cobble together any kind of coherent theory out of them, though. It makes as much sense to read the thing as a modernist fantasy, a sort of Kobo Abe / Kafka thing, with an emphasis on revulsion at bodies. On the one hand you have this theme of freedom, freedom so vital that it might be okay to commit mass murder over it:

As for the grabber’s manifesto, you found time to read it. The piece, surprisingly well writen, describes the history of politicians moving underground to prevent assassinations. The grabber advocates the assassination of voters in the fight for freedom. These deaths, he argues philosophically, count as self defense.

You have yet to decide wether to scan the pages and post them online.

And on the other there’s this constant sense of the ooginess of physicality, shit-smears and scarification, crushed organs and fat-rolls and frolics in roast-chicken suits. The relationships hinted at in the game – Bruce and Mira, the protagonist and Mary – aim at a kind of bloodless, self-sacrificing purity. You can’t help feeling that the game’s scattered sense of politics is largely premised on this turmoil. It makes me want to bust out Nussbaum’s Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame and the Law.

The writing could be better. It’s fractured, with odd diction; dialogue is particularly ungainly. Characters don’t really seem to behave in ways that entirely make sense, even when it’s taken into account that incarceration has unhinged most of them. A good deal of the narrative logic seems to be happening in the author’s head, with not all the steps actually making it to the text. It has a strange fascination with the word ‘trinkets.’ The obsessions of the NPCs take them off on big tangents,

As a piece of game design, it’s mixed. Its basic structure seems fundamentally sound: a confined world with a clear long-term challenge (the steel door) and stuff you have to accumulate in order to put together a solution. The timing element is easy enough to work around (at least, if you remember that hitting Back in the browser functions as UNDO), while providing added tension. On the other hand, I felt as though there was a little too much read-author’s-mind, particularly when it came to figuring out which prisoners had stuff that I needed, and what that stuff might be used for; without the walkthrough, you’d need to do a lot of learning-by-dying. The protagonist seemed very clear on why they needed the makeup kit, for instance, but I didn’t figure that out until the walkthrough showed me how to do it. (I relied on the walkthrough almost entirely for the second half of the game.)

I hit at least one significant bug: looking in the mirror took me to a blank page without links.

A lot of this, I think, has to do with relatively minor issues of UI polish. I didn’t use the hint menu much because it seemed not to be contextually helpful enough. I would really have liked the time to be displayed in a status-bar-like way, rather than requiring an action to check it. I would probably have been less likely to overlook items if the interface had encouraged LOOK AT X more; in parser IF it’s automatic to X everything, but here LOOK is kind of blended into the other verbs, and because it’s a two-step action I was less likely to use it. I’m not sure what the answer is there, but I felt as though the game was relying on a parser-like behaviour that it didn’t mechanically encourage enough.

Mechanically worthy: content-wise an off-putting mess.

 Score: 4


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