1958: Dancing With Fear (Victor Ojuel) is an Inform game about Cold War intrigue in an unnamed Spanish-speaking Caribbean nation.
The protagonist is Salomé Vélez, a one-time star performer, now a little past her prime but still able to turn heads. The frame-story involves infiltrating a fancy party in order to steal an intel MacGuffin at the behest of your Soviet handler; as you progress you see flashbacks of how Salomé ended up here.
So there are lots of things that are immediately attractive about this premise. It’s kinda noir-ish, but it’s noir with a female protagonist and in a less-frequented setting than the mid-C20th major-city US. There’s intrigue at parties, a well-defined protagonist whose backstory gets plenty of exploration, and a human-driven story with lots of room for conflict. So I was really hoping that it’d be great.
Alas, its execution falls short of its ambitions on a number of fronts. Most obviously, the prose struggles to sustain the things being asked of it.
“Forget Alcázar,” you tell him as you shake your hips, “you promised you were mine for the night…” The song ends. You two go back to your table to knock a drink. His eyes glint, his mouth looms slowly closer…
The glinting eyes and looming mouth belong to Marcelo, who is meant to be a guy you’re pretty damn keen on; but this is profoundly unsexy writing. Mostly the prose does OK when it doesn’t have this much pressure put on it; but when it veers away from straightforward delivery, the nuts-and-bolts of descriptive parser writing, it tends to wobble. That’s a problem, because this is not intended as a story about anodyne puzzles in uninhabited rooms; it’s about precarious situations, vulnerability, threats veiled and explicit, music, lust, seduction and violence. It needs writing that can deliver that. It’s telling that the dialogue that works best is between Salomé and Lucho – a wry, laid-back friendship without a lot of tension in it.
There are also many small errors and miswordings that seem like the result of imperfectly fluent English. Not terrible stuff, just a steady drip-drip of things like this:
You sigh, shaking your head. Marcelo tries to drink, but you catch his glass in mid-air and drink it yourself.
So ‘in mid-air’ is confusing there – that’s normally what you say about something without solid supports, either flying or floating or hurtling. I did a double-take at this paragraph – did I miss something about him throwing his glass? And I could puzzle it out on the second pass, but it’s still awkward. This is more straightforwardly fixable, though.
There are fairly long sequences in which you mostly need to figure out how to do the next thing to advance the plot, or where it feels like it. At the end it transpired that there are a number of endings, but I found it a little tricky to see where the alternatives were – unless this is reliant on delayed choices from the Marcelo/Alcázar scene.
The thing that this gains from parser is attention to presentation through objects. There is a key scene in which all of your wardrobe options have implications – as signalling, and as tokens of relationship. This is a basically Cool Thing, and thoroughly appropriate to the situation and the game’s themes in general. But it’s a thing that’s tricky to implement fully; even with only two possible outfits and a necklace that could either be worn or not, there were responses that felt out of place. I left the drawing room in the white dress and diamonds; watched the argument between Marcelo and Alcázar; approached Alcázar and gave him the diamonds; spoke briefly to Marcelo, who was irritated by the white dress (a gift from Alcázar) but not about the suddenly-missing diamonds; then I returned to the dressing-room, changed into the stage costume, and gave the dress to Marcelo, who spoke about it as though seeing it for the first time before destroying it.
This is a good example of why it’s difficult to manage open social scenes – the meaning of a social act is deeply dependent on context, in ways that are obvious to most people but are highly complex to model as a program. What looks like a relatively simple equation – four possible combinations of clothing and necklace, before and after a major incident – is really dependent on what has been seen already, who has said what in front of whom, what has changed, who knows and who is seen to know. And this scene is the first time that gameplay really breaks out of the do-the-correct-thing-to-advance-the-plot mode, which made this extra disheartening. I was discouraged from trusting the game and thinking of problems in social terms.
(The other thing about that scene is that it’s a flashback. When you reach it, you already know that Salomé is going to wind up imprisoned. From the player’s perspective there’s not much incentive to play nice with Alcázar, because not only is he a pig, he’s a pig who can’t offer you protection – you’re ending up in jail regardless.)
There’s also handful of more off-the-shelf adventure puzzles – the combination lock with a combination that can be figured out by perusing nearby scenery, for instance – that didn’t entirely feel right for the theme. These sit alongside physical-object clues that are better-conceived: getting a look at the host’s record collection lets you know what his musical tastes might be, which is useful if you want to lure him into dancing.
So, I dunno. This is not boring, and it’s trying ambitious things, and that honestly counts for an awful lot. And it succeeded in giving me some sense of a time and place. I think that’s a 5.