Too Much Free Time

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

IFComp 2010: East Grove Hills

Posted by Tracy Poff on October 22, 2010

East Grove Hills by XYZ is an entry in the 2010 interactive fiction competition, billed as “an interactive anecdote” about some events in the life of an antisocial high school student.

(This post contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.)

EGH is rather heavier on the ‘fiction’ than the ‘interactive’. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does require some care to keep the attention of the audience. I don’t think that it really succeeded, unfortunately.

First, the good: the game really feels like it could have been written by and about a high school student. If it wasn’t, that’s pretty impressive. The interactions between the characters and the flow of events was more or less believable, with some exceptions. But then, there’s the other side of the story…

High school students are usually annoying and boring. The game gets that right, too. Plenty of time is spent whining about how socially underdeveloped the PC is, and reminiscing about arguments about who had fewer friends, and so on. A very large chunk of the game (or perhaps it’d be better to say ‘story’) is spent drilling into our heads that the PC is a social outcast that no one likes, and it’s pretty obvious why. Of course, there’s no reason that the PC must be likable, but if he isn’t, then the game has to work harder to keep me interested.

Also, as I mentioned, the game isn’t terribly interactive. Most of the interaction is only in the form of the conversation choices, and even examining things doesn’t usually yield anything interesting. Also, unless you choose the right things to examine, the game will whisk you away to the next scene before you can get the crucial details about the characters. You’ll have other opportunities, but the first scene is the best time to learn these things. Besides the normal criticisms I might give such a non-interactive IF (“Why not write static fiction?” and so on), the lack of interactivity worked against EGH in one important way: by the time I got to the critical scene in the school (the third scene in the game), I was convinced that since it was a memory, I wouldn’t be able to do anything but stay on the rails the game had set me on, so I didn’t try to do anything, and I gather that I missed some important things because of this.

This failure did lead to what I felt was the game’s greatest success, however unintentional I suppose it was. When the PC is hiding out with Yue during the shooting (And wasn’t it a bombing earlier? Never mind.), he pulls her along and then you’re presented with a conversation menu with four options: three variations on “are you okay?” and the ever-present “Say nothing”. It’s reasonable that this is all the PC could think of at the time (and another point in favor of the game’s verisimilitude), but what struck me was that after exhausting the other three options, all you get presented with is the option to say nothing for twelve turns. Twelve awkward turns of the PC being frightened and unable to say anything while hiding from the horror that’s going on so nearby. This felt, to me, like a real triumph of realism–what else could the PC do? How else could he possibly have acted? I really liked it.

Now, I gather that you have the option of acting during that time, when I assumed that you were trapped in the conversation while the events took place, and what I took to be a great indication of the PC’s powerlessness may have been merely a result of a poorly used conversation system and my own misconception about the mutability of the past events. No matter, though–I still liked that moment.

Sadly, that’s pretty much all I really liked about the game. Oh, I thought that the messages about not remembering exactly how things had been were nice, rather than just seeing the standard library messages, but they were really a thin veneer on the shallow implementation. I couldn’t really sympathize with the unlikable PC, so the emotional impact was rather muted. The ending was weak, if realistic, in an “a poorly adjusted teenager might recount events like this” sort of way.

So I rate the game 3/10. I didn’t like the game generally, wasn’t impressed by anything it did, and didn’t feel like it made any important points. It gets a little bonus for the scene I mentioned above, even if I suspect my appreciation of it is somewhat misguided, and for the realism of the writing, but I can’t rate a game I didn’t enjoy very highly.

(One note unrelated to the game: I’ve added a cut before the spoilery text of this review. I usually dislike having to click through to read things, but I guess in the case of comp games it may be warranted. Cuts don’t seem to work like I thought. Still: if you have strong feelings either way, leave a comment and I’ll take it into consideration for future posts.)

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