Too Much Free Time

Discussion and reviews of games for NES, Intellivision, DOS, and others.

Alabaster

Posted by Tracy Poff on June 15, 2009

Alabaster by John Cater, Rob Dubbin, Eric Eve, Elizabeth Heller, Jayzee, Kazuki Mishima, Sarah Morayati, Mark Musante, Emily Short, Adam Thornton,  and Ziv Wities is an almost-entirely conversation-driven interactive fiction game based on the tale of Snow White.

According to the teaser on the game’s web site: “The Queen has told you to return with her heart in a box. Snow White has made you promise to make other arrangements. Now that you’re alone in the forest, it’s hard to know which of the two women to trust. The Queen is certainly a witch — but her stepdaughter may be something even more horrible…”

As can be seen by the huge list of authors above, Alabaster is a collaborative work. Emily Short wrote the introduction, then the others followed up on this with conversation text, which was all edited together into the final game. In my opinion, it all flows very nicely–you wouldn’t guess that it had so many authors just by playing the game.

As I mentioned, conversation is the primary gameplay mechanic–except for a few actions, the entire game is centered on conversing in order to learn what the truth of the situation is, so you can decide how to act–whether or not to help Snow White, and how to do so. Depending on what you choose to do and how much you know, you will reach one of eighteen different endings.

I think that the gameplay was pretty good–at least the first time or two. As I continued to replay the game to try for other endings, though, it began to feel less immersive–more like I was pressing buttons to have the plot dispensed to me than actually participating in the conversation. I’m not entirely sure why this is–I don’t usually feel that way about games I play repeatedly. I would guess that it’s some combination of the lack of non-conversation actions and the hinting system which suggests topics for conversation (“Perhaps you could ask her about foo.” Fine, do that.). I don’t mean by this that I dislike either of these things–in fact, I was quite grateful to have the hinting system (though I thought it might be hinting a bit too often), since I usually have trouble working out what topics I can or should discuss in IF.

Enough about the mechanics; let’s talk about plot. Spoilers follow, if it isn’t obvious.

I enjoyed the plot, although I certainly anticipated quite a bit of it. For example, Snow White will reveal at some point that the king has disappeared, and this can be followed up by some discussion of how to find the king, and how to restore him. It’s seems pretty likely at this point that the PC is the king, though actually confirming it takes a bit more effort. Depending on your conversation choices, there’s no compelling reason for the PC to suspect he is the king–the player, though, may suspect it for mostly metafictional reasons. So the player knows something the PC doesn’t–a situation I usually don’t like much. It often feels like the PC is being intentionally obtuse in order to force you through whatever series of actions the author had in mind to provide the player with the already-guessed information. I didn’t get that feeling with Alabaster, but I still dislike coming to conclusions for metafictional reasons.

The same issue came up with one of the endings. If you talk enough, Snow White (or, rather, Lilith) will reminisce about Adam, and say that she wants a man who is her equal. There is some fairly heavy-handed hinting here that the PC should offer himself as a companion to Lilith:

“You ask what I want,” she says slowly. “I want what Adam should have been, if he had chosen differently. I want a man who is my match, who is clever and private and wise; one who likes the wasteland and the night-time and the open sea rather than the daylight crowd of Eve’s feckless brood. With such a man, I would be mortal, live my days, and die, not cursed but reconciled.”

You yourself prefer the wasteland and the open places.

Of course, given that Lilith is a demon, has just mentioned that she kills children, and that the PC has mostly been rather terrified of her, it seems a little bit too much to expect the PC to actually want to offer himself to her. But the player knows that this is expected, so the PC will do as the player directs.

I should mention that these things–discerning that the PC is the king or offering yourself to Lilith as a companion–are not actually required. There are endings in which the PC never realizes he is the king, and you can decide that, lonely or not, Lilith is a demon and should be killed. I don’t have any problem with the game offering the player the choice of what to do, I just feel like the game is setting the PC up to do unrealistic things, and actually performing the more likely actions (killing the demon, failing to divine your identity) feel like deliberate obstruction by the player.

Of course, the preceding observations are subjective. It’s quite possible that someone else could play the game and either feel that becoming Lilith’s consort is reasonable or that the game isn’t really pushing too strongly toward that choice. No doubt a part of the reason I feel that way is that I know that the other endings are mostly bad endings.

I have only one further comment regarding endings. There was one ending I hoped to see, but which was not present. If the PC puts the hart’s heart in the box and burns it, Lilith is driven out from Snow White. I had hoped, then, that the PC could, (perhaps out of fear of the queen’s wrath, and hoping to save himself) kill the innocent Snow White. A suitably tragic ending, which isn’t so much darker than the implemented endings. But it was not to be.

These complaints are very minor things, though. I enjoyed Alabaster quite a lot. I found around half of the endings, then consulted the walkthrough so I could see the others. Probability aside, the endings were interesting, as was the game itself. The hinting for the conversation improved the experience for me, and the way Snow White acted and reacted based on the direction the conversation took was interesting itself, providing continuity to the conversation, which are usually rather disjointed in IF.

Alabaster can be had from the blog post linked above, or directly from the Inform site. It’s available bundled with an interpreter for Windows or Mac, or as a standalone story file. The source code, a walkthrough, and a conversation diagram can be had from the inform site, as well. Additionally, Emily Short is looking for feedback on the conversation system, so visit her blog after playing.

Gameplay: 9/10
The hinting for the conversation ensured that the game never devolved into guess-the-keyword, and the thoroughly implemented world was a nice backdrop. It eventually got a little repetitive going through the same conversation repeatedly, but I’m not sure that there’s anything that can be done about that.
Story: 8/10
The story was interesting and fairly engaging, although it loses a couple of points for pushing the player toward improbable actions.
Personal Slant: 9/10
I enjoy ‘fractured fairy tales’, and I enjoy interactive fiction, so Alabaster was a pretty obvious choice. I’ve mostly exhausted the game, so I don’t know if I’ll ever return to it, but it was fun while it lasted.
Total: 8.6/10
Alabaster is a good game, and should be accessible to both experienced and inexperienced players. Playing through to an ending only takes a few minutes, and it’s pretty obvious how to get several different endings, so even someone new to IF should be able to play it a few times and see the story from different perspectives. It’s absolutely worth doing, in my opinion.
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One Response to “Alabaster”

  1. Nice job… you explored more of the game than I did before submitting an entry to Mobygames, that’s for sure! If they’re game for it, I recommend you seek to republish this review in SPAG.

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