IF Comp 2018: Six Silver Bullets

silverSix Silver Bullets is a parser-based spy game. It’s weird and uncomfortable. It’s an odd duck, difficult to assess. I expect to get at least one game a year completely wrong, and this seems a strong candidate for that.

You awaken.

You know nothing about yourself. If you had memories, they are gone.

So part of the reason why amnesia tends to suck as a device is that it’s often paired with a story that takes a very long time to get going, because the author doesn’t really know what’s going on and therefore doesn’t know how to get to it. This is not the case here: it is impressed on you that you have to start doing shit immediately. There’s limited time. There’s someone knocking at your door right this minute and they might be here to kill you.

This is the rare amnesia game in which it actually feels as though something really bad has happened to your brain. The world… doesn’t lack detail, and indeed it often seems to be going for a lurid Lynchian aesthetic, but it’s described in a cut-down way that gives the impression of tunnel vision. There’s a sense of foreboding and paranoia; your mistrust is often justified, and there’s an overwhelming sense of doom. You constantly need to know things that you don’t know. You are often forbidden to do things because of psychological conditioning.

In the meantime there’s a bunch of spy-vs-spy shit in which you have to guess at who to trust (almost nobody) and who’s going to try to kill you (almost everyone). It verges quite a lot into cliche – more than once I was put in mind of the conspiracy-theory sequence in Psychonauts – in ways that aim to transcend cliche and go right on into epic. The setting is The City; key players include the Enemies of Freedom, the Organisation, the Resistance. Every Agent is identified by a colour codename, and naming them is implied to have power. I found, I think, one real name.

There’s a lot of violence, and it’s pretty brutal, but it feels risky, high-cost: those six bullets make me think of violence as a limited resource, one I wasn’t happy about spending at random. And there’s a lot of randomness in the game. Apart from the inerrant six bullets, combat and sneaking are subject to random chance. Your Mission objectives are different each time, although they form a pattern: kill two random agents, protect another, and perform one further task. At least once I had already killed the agent I was meant to protect before I read the mission briefing. Doing the Mission may not be the correct thing at all. You are expected to replay, a lot. Like if Varicella‘s puzzles were randomised. It’s strongly implied that this recurrence is part of the plot. It is not a game that anybody is likely to make much headway on in two hours.

Houses cluster close, the rain drives them together. Beats against bay windows and peaked roofs. A village was here, before the city took it. Many houses: a victorian, a brownstone, a colonial. Water washes through gutters. No one is out in this. Why are you?

The clipped-down writing lets it pack in quite a lot of detail, and this works well in context. You don’t feel slowed down by the text, and the images it summons up are often striking.

It does quite a lot of things that I’d usually consider bad design. The map layout is unintuitive. Randomness is deployed in ways that are intentionally unfair; sometimes this is made clear, sometimes not. (Your gender is randomised, and this has effects, but this is not immediately obvious.) UNDO is disabled, except immediately after death. Moving to a place often doesn’t automatically LOOK. Exits are often unlisted or described ambiguously. Time matters, a lot, but there’s no easy way to check it. The implementation is decidedly rough in places, in that way that Adrift pieces are often rough – you can go INSIDE and OUTSIDE but not IN or OUT, and referring to “it” in commands often gets the wrong thing. The opening instructions say (Type HELP or CREDITS at any time), but CREDITS doesn’t work; sometimes commands offered to you don’t work, either, particularly in conversation. It all adds up to feeling like a lot of effort to play, and some of this is absolutely intentional, and some of it almost certainly isn’t.

A potent and strange experience. One of the more striking pieces of the Comp, though I’m not precisely sure how to score it.

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