Infidel, Michael Berlyn, Infocom, 1983.
Synopsis: The protagonist succeeds in breaking into an ancient pyramid in order to rob it, but dies at the moment of his glory.
Critical response: "Critics of the game do have a point in that the tragedy of Infidel is not truly interactive in any real sense. From the moment he begins the game, the player is railroaded to his ultimate fate in the burial chamber. The note left by the workers does imply that the player has the option of attempting to strike out for civilization rather than remaining fixated on the pyramid and its treasures, but the game does not actually provide for this choice. Presumably the player could collect all of the treasures and completely explore the pyramid, but turn away from opening the sarcophagus, but this still leaves him stranded in the desert with no food and little water, and again the game never really takes this possibility into account. Still, in bringing the weight of moral judgment to the "points for treasures" model of its predecessors, and in bringing to IF the catharsis of tragedy, Infidel broke new ground." — Jimmy Maher, http://home.grandecom.net/~maher/if-book/if-5.htm, retrieved Sept. 11, 2007.
Varicella, Adam Cadre, 1999. (vgame.z8)
Synopsis: The protagonist is a scheming, blackmailing, deeply unpleasant palace minister trying to gain control of the throne. The only thing in his favor is that he is less evil than all the other palace ministers with whom he is competing — but when the "winning" ending turns out to go badly after all, we are not necessarily sorry to see the man get his comeuppance.
Critical response: "Varicella himself is one of the most intriguing PC's in memory, but also one of the most frustrating. He is fastidious to the point of caricature; the game regularly keeps you from touching or exploring things because the character finds the idea "unseemly." ...The persona that emerges is a sort of C-3PO gone Machiavellian, whose main concern in seizing power is ensuring that there are no bloodstains on the carpets... In fact, though Varicella speaks in the beginning of a "flawless plan," I had the impression that this sort of character would ordinarily fuss over details and never actually dispose of anyone--and that it's the player's intervention that makes him a murderer. If so, it's a disturbing spin on the player-PC relationship...
"Playing through Varicella is quite an experience; as noted, the player must devote himself to thoroughly unwholesome ends, sought for no particularly good reason, which isn't necessarily such a pleasant sensation. Beyond that, though, the game requires that you unearth all sorts of unsavory details about your fellow aspirants to the regency--and the nature of the things you learn is, by and large, unpleasant. Giving the relevant players their comeuppance is superficially satisfying, but it doesn't address or rectify the evils already done--and the ultimate ending reflects that fact. In that sense, the game is thoroughly depressing; there's such a remarkable concentration of evil in the game's world that the walls practically drip with it. (In fact, in a sense, they do.) Yes, it's fiction, but the story told is unremittingly bleak--part of the game's message is that evil inevitably engenders more evil (and, moreover, a purer and more monstrous evil). It's in the nature of IF that telling a story of dirty deeds leaves the player feeling a bit soiled himself." — Duncan Stevens, http://members.cox.net/dns361/varicell.html, retrieved Sept. 11, 2007.
1981, Adam Cadre, 2001. (1981.z5)
Synopsis: The protagonist is John Hinckley, Jr.: the player plays through scenes in which he attempts to deliver some poetry to Jodie Foster, and then, of course, one in which he attempts to assassinate Ronald Reagan. There is no opportunity to divert the course of play.
Critical response: "My first instinct was to simply not write a review on this one, as I found the game so disturbing that at first I didn't finish it...it did produce the greatest emotional response in me of any of the games. Unfortunately, that response was revulsion... There finally came a time when I simply couldn't bring myself to do the action that seemed to be required -- which is where I quit the first time. I was surprised by my reaction, as I've probably done worse in games and not thought a thing about it. In this case, I felt I (the player) was being dragged kicking and screaming (by the PC) in a direction I simply didn't want to go." — Kathleen Fischer, http://www.brasslantern.org/reviews/text/smoochie01fischer.html, retrieved Sept. 11, 2007.
Necrotic Drift, Robb Sherwin, 2004. (download [36mb])
Synopsis: The protagonist manages to survive a series of harrowing adventures, saving himself and some of his friends from monsters at a local shopping mall, only to discover at the end that he has destroyed his relationship with his girlfriend. It's impossible for the player to avoid this. Playing it, I nonetheless felt a sense of guilt that my/the protagonist's obsession with gaming and monsters had distracted me/him from our personal responsibilities; and this is effective because there are moments during the game when the girlfriend character seems to be trying to tell us something. There is always, it seems, some compelling reason why it's reasonable to put off any conversation for later. Even though no option is provided in the game that would have led to a positive resolution of the relationship, I felt guilty because I had not even tried to pursue such an option.
Necrotic Drift is available at http://ifarchive.heanet.ie/if-archive/games/hugo/ndrift.zip — not included because it has sound and pictures, and is a 36MB download.
Shade, Andrew Plotkin, 2001. (shade.z5)
Synopsis: The protagonist is — he thinks — in his apartment; things become increasingly surreal; gradually we realize that his delusions cover a perilous situation. At some point, the protagonist actually seems to start to enjoy breaking through the illusion, embracing the situation he is in; at that moment, his motives converge again with those of the player, since it is in the player's interest to solve the story.
Photopia, Adam Cadre, 1998. (photopia.z5)
Synopsis: The player experiences (out of temporal order) a series of events from the life of a young woman who dies in a car crash; it is only at the end that we find her death has been inevitable from the outset of the game. Part of the point is that there is nothing the player can do to rescue her; no amount of replaying will change the outcome. The player also controls multiple protagonists during the course of the story. Some might argue that this isn't really a tragedy because it describes something that cannot be prevented; and it's true that the player never gets to control the one character (the drunk driver) who might have stopped the outcome. So all the player gets to do is experience the lead-up to the death, and its aftermath.
The Retreat, John Clemens, 2006. (TheRetreat.zblorb)
Synopsis: During an apocalyptic disaster, the protagonist and his friends are trying to take shelter; not all of them survive to do so, and it is not clear that everyone who makes it into the shelter is going to live, either. The effect is somewhat muted and surreal, because the piece is based on one of the author's dreams; but it effectively captures the experience of giving up more and more as we are forced to narrow our hopes because the situation grows more difficult.
In the End, Joe Mason, 1996. (intheend.z5)
Synopsis: The protagonist decides over the course of the work, after various disappointments, to commit suicide. One problem with this is that it's not given enough motivation: while the protagonist's inner monologue is a bit gloomy and full of ideas about how he envies the dead, there's nothing here sufficient to make the player feel as though ending it all would be a good idea.
Critical response: "The funeral was certainly depressing, and I'd had some real disappointments (with Annie, in the convenience store, etc.), but I certainly wasn't contemplating suicide, and the author didn't make me feel the need or desire to." — C. E. Forman, http://www.sparkynet.com/spag/i.html#end, retrieved Sept. 11, 2007.
Rendition, "nespresso", 2007. (rendition.z5)
Synopsis: The protagonist is an investigator trying to extract information from a terrorist via a variety of torture methods.
Critical response: "Perhaps the point of the piece is to make players feel guilty at their complicity in the acts necessary to complete the game (is this what we allow our governments to do on our behalf?), but since the game seems to offer the player no other choice, there can be no real sense of guilt. The player character cannot simply walk away, since the game will not allow this until the suspect has been broken. The player cannot establish any meaningful communication with the suspect, since when Abdul speaks at all it is only to babble incomprehensibly in a foreign tongue. All one can do to avoid complicity is to type QUIT or refuse to play; and this perhaps is where 'Rendition' ultimately falls down for me: not only did it ultimately leave me cold, it succeeded in convincing me that the most appropriate response to it was not to play it, and there would seem to be something ultimately self-defeating about a piece of art that forces you to look away." — Eric Eve, http://members.aol.com/iffyart/reviews7.htm, retrieved Sept. 11, 2007.
"I started playing this game, then when I understood the avenue of interaction avaiable [sic], I chose not to play the game... I don't want to read about violence (as much as it's avoidable, especially fictionalised violence); but moreover, I don't want to be responsible for it... I think this is all very powerful. Even the score-line is threatening (I scored 1 out of 48, and that was enough for me)." — Jon Ingold, http://members.aol.com/iffyart/reviews7.htm, retrieved Sept. 11, 2007.
"The author calls Rendition a 'political art experiment.' In theory, it's an interesting premise: force the interactor to press the limits of the Geneva Conventions while torturing a subject to extract information… the game could have been improved by, say, providing the PC with implements of torture and a list of all the various methods of torture currently being utilized without apparent retribution by countries who have signed the treaties of the Geneva Conventions… While this piece was painful to explore, the concept is particularly well-suited to interactive fiction." — Jacqueline Lott, http://members.aol.com/iffyart/reviews7.htm, retrieved Sept. 11, 2007.
Tapestry, Dan Ravipinto, 1996. (tapestry.z5)
Synopsis: The protagonist dies and is offered the opportunity to relive his life following one of several moral/ethical Paths; none of these is exactly ideal, though one seems to be preferred by the outcome of the game.
Critical response: "It took me three tries to move my hands to the keyboard to type one particular command. You know which one. I don't think I can give the author higher praise than that." — Andrew Plotkin, http://www.eblong.com/zarf/gamerev/comp96.html#1, retrieved Sept. 11, 2007.
Slouching Towards Bedlam, Star Foster and Dan Ravipinto, 2003. (slouch.z5)
Synopsis: The protagonist discovers a horrible truth about a Lovecraftian power that is taking over the minds of humans, and that he is himself "infected" and a vector for this power. He must choose what to do about it; while one of the solutions is (to my mind) obviously best, it is still not exactly a happy outcome, and it entails the player acting in a way that would, from the outside, seem like madness.
"Like Tapestry, STB offers an array of choices while attempting not to prefer any of them over the others, and these choices lead not only to a variety of endings, but to significant differences in the entire third act of the game. Now, I suspect that most of us, having been raised with pulp narratives about saving a threatened humanity, will find ourselves striving towards a particular ending as the "right" one, but STB rather slyly requires some extremely distasteful acts to progress on that particular path, which balances things out somewhat. In the end, I felt that there really were no good choices, and the idea of doing the least harm to the least number still depended distinctly on who was doing the counting. Still, ultimately most of us are likely to be loyal to our own species, and so just as with Tapestry, even though multiple paths were available, there was still one that felt much more right to me than the others." — Paul O'Brian, http://ucsu.colorado.edu/~obrian/03rev3.html#slouch, retrieved Sept. 11, 2007.
Ecdysis, Peter Nepstad, 2007. (ecdysis.gam)
Synopsis: The protagonist's mind is gradually being consumed by some kind of alien life-form, prompting him to want to kill his stepchildren (whom he begins to see, part of the time, as alien larvae). This is by no means the first work of IF about delusional protagonists — see also Bliss (Cameron Wilkin, 1999) and A Broken Man (Geoff Fortytwo, 2006). But Ecdysis allows the player the chance to make a sacrifice to save the children, once he realizes the truth; and because this sacrifice also involves the alien life form and in a sense requires its complicity, there is a kind of narrative beauty about this, in that the enemy/alien becomes the children's co-savior.
The Baron, Victor Gijsbers, 2006. (Baron_EN.z8)
Synopsis: The protagonist struggles with himself, in real life and through psychologically significant fantasies, about his urge to molest his daughter. Most of the interactivity centers on motivation and intention (and outcomes) rather than on actual actions: we may direct the protagonist to take drastic action to prevent the abuse from continuing, but we are also asked a series of questions at the end of the work, about whether we expect the protagonist's choices to be effective.
Critical Response: "So, the one theme which I found interesting was a more subtle question which the game poses, which is basically, what if nothing is resolved by the time you finish the game? Can a story really be a story without resolving the conflict that drives it? What about a story where the characters *don't* learn, where they *don't* grow, where they just keep going like they always have, will it work? That is a theme not commonly posed or dealt with, in what I've come across...
This is where the game actually does something interesting, I think. It uses interactive fiction's very nature to give the player a choice in whether the conflict will have a resolution or not. Thus you can choose: will you have a story in which the character learns and grows, or a story in which there IS no learning, and where everything stays the same and everyone continues to suffer without overcoming it? In giving that choice, even though the choice may seem superficial and arbitrary on the part of the player ('Yeap I conquered my lust, yessir..') it still makes you think, 'why am I choosing this? Is it because I believe it can happen or solely because I want a resolution? Am I cheating myself here?' And in doing so, I think the game ultimately succeeds in what it set out to do, though it took a dry and trying road to get there." — "Tropico", http://www.intfiction.org/forum/viewtopic.php?f=22&t=88&start=20, retrieved Sept. 11, 2007.