IF Comp 2017: Measureless to Man

measurelessMeasureless to Man (Ivan R) is an Inform game. It’s aiming for a weird-fiction / Lovecraftian horror kind of vibe: a doomed protagonist slouches towards an ominous fate for reasons which never become entirely clear.

It’s a plot which is basically ‘weird spooky otherworldly shit happens for no clear reason’, which… can be made to work, but it relies on a much stronger sense of atmosphere, pacing and purpose than this manages. 

The writing is stiff and ungainly.

You were in the library, your grandfather’s “study” (as he called it). books of every description, from glossy magazines to ancient, decaying tomes lay open on the floor or spilling out of shelves. Grandfather was at his desk, furrowing his gray brow in concentration. He hadn’t looked happy much, lately, nor did he now, but this was surely the next best thing.

So, a couple of things here. First, the scare-quotes on ‘study’ is weird. This is a family home, and in that context I’d consider it pretty normal to call a room a study, and kind of pretentious to call it a library – ‘library’ is a room you’d expect in a big old mansion. But the text here suggests the reverse, that ‘library’ is the natural thing to call it and your grandfather is putting on airs by calling it a ‘study’. This is obviously a quibble – but there’s a lot of things in the text that provoke quibbles, and this adds up to a general sense of not trusting the prose. And secondly, that final line is crying out for some kind of reworking; the sentiment’s fine, but the expression is this a run-on tangle of qualifiers and buts.

There’s a similar kind of awkwardness with how the story is delivered. The plot rotates around a sinister portal-book. You’re meant, I think, to enter it in desperation to avoid the threat of a plane crash – or maybe entering it causes the plane crash? Either of those would have made sense, but it has to be one or the other. But I wasn’t really clear which one it was meant to be – had I jumped the gun by going into the book too early, before the threat that was meant to drive me to it showed up? Or was I meant to have entered the book for no clear reason, in spite of it seeming like a really bad idea?

There are sequences which seem like filler, or at least like very odd pacing; at a couple of points I had to travel a fairly long way through fairly nondescript locations, in a way that modern parser games don’t generally do unless they’re making a big deal out of setting or travel itself. This is by contrast to the conversation scene with your grandfather, which feels clipped, giving very little information but not really making that feel justified. I get that this is a game that wants to push on feelings of Strangeness by being cagey about what’s going on, but I don’t feel that it threaded that needle.

Finally, there are some implementation problems. I ran into a bug that seemed to be a game-killer:

By the slide
The plane looms next to you, a huge monolith of white metal, half-sunk beneath the placid waves. The yellow escape slide is still inflated, but it seems that everyone who got out is gone, now. There’s a raft of suitcases in the distance. The endless ocean stretches out in all directions.

The huge serpent floats here, gasping, ineffectually snapping its slimy fangs. Apparently, the thing can’t breathe outside the aether of the void. It seems like it’s suffocating. Its head is far away, out of reach to nothing.

In that last sentence, I think, ‘nothing’ should be a compass direction – according to the walkthrough, the next step is moving in whatever direction the head lies in. So this looks very much like a game-killing bug.

So while none of the elements of the work stand out as jarringly awful, there’s this consistent feeling of shakiness in all of its elements, and not much to counterbalance it. Possibly it gets into more compelling stuff after the serpent puzzle – I get the sense that the stuff it really wants to go into is the spooky undersea strangeness – but in that case, frontloading all the less-interesting sequences might have been a strategic error. 3.


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