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Deus Ex Machine
Review by: Sam Kabo Ashwell
Game: Bad Machine
By: Dan Shiovitz

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The first thing you notice about BAD_MACHINE is that everything looks like code. (There's a suggestion, almost certainly intentional, that something's wrong with your game file, a nice touch that also suggests machine-empathy and eases the transition to thinking like a machine a little). The basic outline: you play a robot, Mover #005, whose normal mindless existence as a worker for an entity called the Warehouse is disrupted by an unspecified disaster. The damage caused to him not only disrupts various of his settings and his delivery of code (much of the code appears corrupt) but to achieve... sentience? Motive? Independence? Whatever it may be, it earns him the title of Bad_Machine (fully functional CPUs are referred to as Good_Machine) and brings him under the threat of destruction or reprogramming by minions of the omnipresent Warehouse. It?s a very dark piece, but only you realize it is: 005 is too restricted by his code and immersed in the Warehouse to realize the tragedy and pathos of his story.

BAD_MACHINE would really, really confuse a first-time IF player. And it helps one hell of a lot if you're familiar with writing code of some sort because so much of the important information is in code or uses code-like syntax. This feels, at first, like a blend between wilful anti-verbosity and artistic experiment. Certainly, games have been written that play around with the relationship between player, parser, and protagonist (LASH, Resident) and with freedom-of-robots themes (LASH, Galatea, Delusions) but never, to my knowledge, anything quite this extreme. (In other media, the first things I thought of were the enslaved robots of I, Robot and the machine-mind of RoboRally). There's a definite feel for the medium: unlike much of IF, Bmch would be completely impractical if transferred to literature, film or other narrative media. And I can imagine how much work must have gone into rewriting the basic library to achieve this effect.

The technique has a lot of force at times, and capably turns the weaknesses of IF to its advantage. The robot's confusion at achieving sentience(?) is mirrored by the player's confusion at having to operate in code: the difficulty in moving and examining things add to the apparent inevitability of 005's fate: 005 has only just gained sentience(?), he is (like the player) being pursued in a bizarre place by an omniescent, omnipresent faceless enemy. The irony is that only the player gets the feeling of fear and dread: 005 is unable to express or produce it. This is indicative of the different way the player and 005 see the game: even though we are more unfamiliar with the meaning of the code, we can assess its import.

The disquieting presence of even more enslaved robots than 005 around him, following endlessly repeating loops until they fall apart, is another IF weakness turned to an advantage. The author acknowledges his debt to imagery of group insects, and it shows in the sorts of robots defined: the robots do not repower from plugs but from an Energizer, and other classes of robot (drone, worker, assaulter, queen) show this too. The story thus possibly owes a debt, indirectly, to various works based on ant or bee-based literature (Ursula K. Le Guin's The Compass Rose, the ant sequences in the Once and Future King), as well as to Asimov's Robot stories; though, of course, it's hard to be sure.

The feeling of fear and pursuit was, as I played it, only apparent after starting the game again after losing for the first time (another nice touch: no "You have lost" type message if you get repaired or destroyed, the code says it all): the first time I was captured by other automata, I felt (whether the writer was aware of this or not I don't know) a feeling of hope (I'm going to be repaired, then I can be told my real mission!) combined with an underlying anxiety (no you're not, your head's being bolted back on and back to work you go). Once you've worked out what'll kill you and what'll keep you safe, this fades a little, which is a shame.

In terms of pure pleasure at playing, I must admit that, while there were a few good points, the game was overall quite hard work. Perhaps it's because I principally enjoy IF for the literary aspect: plot, dialogue, description, atmosphere, themes. As far as the first three go, there isn't a great deal (although I think it was Camus who coined the immortal phrase "probabilistic anti-awareness test dumping memory full-on {i:=0;fornext(while(true)attempt clear() clear() clear() opening return;breakput_up*this->self_referential opening() live-syscall()") but there is more of the latter two in Bmch than I would have expected-- and, bucking the trend for IF that plays about with the parser this much, contains no in-joke I could find apart from the obligatory xyzzy, and is in no way self-referential. And, unlike most games which are description-light, I found myself coming back to Bmch.

Machine is also, as far as the essential nature of puzzles is involved, fairly standard: find solution to puzzle, progress to next puzzle. This is made a little more difficult by the alien nature of the robot's modus operandi: to a certain extent, standard IF techniques of play have to be abandoned: while this is a tough process, it gives Machine a powerful individual character, and helps give the player a level of empathy with the way 005 thinks. For example, in terms of getting information, indexing is almost invariably superior to examining. (You can, however, do an interesting variant of VERBOSE by setting your awareness to high: this increases, principally, how much you notice of the communications of other robots. Verbosity/awareness levels are, perhaps, an underused narrative tool; the extent Machine uses this could, potentially, lead to experimental (though perhaps more conventional in other ways than Machine) work with even greater use of varying awareness levels.)

Danger levels are quite high, and you are likely to "die" quite a lot, and often, frustratingly, as the result of previous actions. (Save). And the low verbosity could, possibly, allow you to solve or partially solve puzzles without realizing it (though, all things considered, this is unlikely); in most IF, when you complete a puzzle, you get rewarded by a bit of text informing you of your success-- there can be no slap on the back for the robot and, because of the low level of description, it can be uncertain whether an action is the result of your actions or would have happened anyway; while this adds to the unfamiliar, bizarre effect of the game, it certainly makes it more difficult to play; the fact that objects or machines are only identified by function and only rarely by form can make it difficult to visualize a situation and thus to mentally manipulate it. Whether this is was a concious decision or not, I don't know: it fits the context, but does remove an element of pleasure from gameplay. That said, I'm not sure if Machine is meant to be pleasurable. All that IF needs to be good IF is to elicit a response, and Machine certainly does that, if only by the wierding out at the start.

The game bravely breaks away from the standard IF verbs-you-always-need: though EXAMINE and SEARCH are still there, they are often next to useless: the floor is also taken from under your feet by the uncertanity of the data you see, particuarly with regard to movement. Initially, you're unsure (and does it matter?) whether the data on possible exits is erroneous or if your legs are responding badly to commands, which adds a nice element of existentialist doubt to the already fairly unfamiliar (and thus unnerving) environment. I was almost disappointed when I worked out the significance of the internal compass: the image of a robot stumbling about, knowing what he perceives is faulty and trying hopelessly to correct it, works excellently.

The atmosphere can be broken up a bit, contrarily, by the introduction of things that would be regarded as good practise in normal IF: anything randomized, for example, detracts somewhat from the mind-of-the-machine effect, as in many of the results-of-action statements. "Wait", for example, returns different "Time passes"-type messages. The machine may be broken, but different code replies to identical actions in identical situations, and, for a machine, this feels incongruous.

As soon as you get a purpose of any sort and start puzzlesolving, at what ever level, the atmosphere changes a bit, whether intentionally or not: you're no longer a little confused robot menaced by a gigantic evil machine, and you start to question motive a bit: what exactly are you trying to do and why? (This makes puzzlesolving difficult: what are you trying to achieve, exactly?)

According to the release notes, the game might not work on some MaxTADS, HTML-TADS or Mac interpreters. It worked fine on my Mac HTML-TADS, though with a few "undo" bugs, but don't take my word for it.

Time limits: the trickiest question in IF. The timing in Bmch can seem punitive early on, when you're not sure what's causing the drones to attack you; while this adds to the sinister efficient-machine image, it can be a bit frustrating until you work out how to dodge the little buggers. Once that's done, urgency is also imposed by the need for energy: once you've refilled once, though, you're unlikely to need it again, which is a mercy (it'd get irritating if you had to chase down the energizer every twenty turns or so).

There's some very nice, subtle humour undercurrent, such as when you attempt to take debris: "Debris is debris. If (debris.use > 0), debris != debris." The humour is, however, both quite sparse and solely percieved by the audience, not 005, and thus does not really break up the sinister, inhuman atmosphere of Bmch.

Finishing Bad Machine is tough. Wisely, the author has included sections of factory that are physically accessible but which are guarded; this suggests the implied vast size of the Warehouse well, but can also lead to red herrings. The solution is deceptively easy, at the end, and the success message is beautifully understated. Which cuts two ways: it accurately reflects 005's continuing incomprehension, but is very anticlimatic; the power of anticlimax should not be underestimated, however.

The most powerful image, though, is that of the sinister, faceless Machine/Warehouse. The failure message is beautifully sinister. Beautifully sinister. So sinister, in fact, that it feels a great deal preferable to be hammered to death by a lifter. It's nicely ironic that Mover 005 is Bad, while all the mindless automata around it are Good; Bad Machine is, intentionally or not, reminiscent of oppressive regimes, transforming the Fixer into a sinister Re-Education phychiatrist, the drones to gulag guards. 005's complete inability to disobey or fight against them (unWAREHOUSE) is both a realistic rationale for not being able to actions that would appear physically possible, and a pointer, via other IF, to ourselves: how different is 005's "unWAREHOUSE" or "action IS futile/stupid" to Varicella's various hangups, Lisa Flint's refusal to kill, or "Real adventurers don't use such language"-- Which, since these are all realstic reasons for human inability to act, points the finger on to reality, and the questions of compulsion, free will and liberty of spontenaity-- are we masters of our own minds, or as much a repressed, trapped product of society as 005 is of the Warehouse? As with life, Bad_Machine seems to have no apparent motive: the only alternative to producing Product (unidentified, which is a superb touch: (action IS futile/stupid) comes to mind) is subversiveness, deception and destructiveness.

Overall, Bad Machine is excellent, most so not for the code-speak, the puzzles, or the plot (such as it is) but for it's message: 005's escape is purely symbolic, (after all, it's going to run out of power soon enough) but this does not detract from the power of the piece. The ending is satisfying without feelgood shmaltz, but, for me at least, its true strength lay in its suggestion of dark, oppressive control, and in the futile but necessary struggle against it.

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