The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
Game: Spider and Web
By: Andrew Plotkin
People have talked about this game because of how it handles conveying information to the player, providing only gradually the things that the player character must already be well aware of; about how it restricts and controls interaction with the non-player characters, managing characterization in other ways; about how it filters in the necessary hints gradually, coaching you when you get things wrong. The central conceit of the game -- that you are recounting an experience to an interrogator, and that all your actions already lie in the past -- makes all of these things possible and seamless. And there is also the technical cleverness of the gadgets: the protagonist is given a large selection of entertaining toys to play with, which, like good IF toys, need to be figured out and then reapplied in a variety of different ways.
But there are also aspects of this game's success that have nothing to do with the elegance of the design as a design, however. Indeed, I think they tend to go underexplored for the simple reason that the design is so very good.
Part of it is the setting. The interrogation chamber, the technological gadgets, the cold-war-esque tension between two superpowers of escalating genius and desperation: these are elements of the science fiction that colored my childhood. In the 80s I was perennially conscious of the possibility that we would find ourselves at war at any time: a war which might take the form of nuclear disaster but might also somehow involve me personally in a situation of hideous choice. In retrospect this was half because I was young enough to think the world revolved around me, and half because of my reading matter. Sylvia Louise Engdahl's _The Far Side of Evil_, which featured a prolonged sequence of inprisonment and interrogation, made a particularly strong impression on me. (It also fed into my existing sense of persecution by my schoolmates, who had a habit of snatching the book from my hands when I tried to read at recess and turning it upside down. When I proceeded to read the book upside down the trick lost interest for them, apparently.)
Spider and Web touches on the same trope: the great struggle for the fate of the world becomes embodied in a struggle of wills between two extraordinary people, the captured spy and the interrogating enemy. Whether it would have the same effect for someone born ten years after me, I don't know; the world has changed, obviously. That stark alignment of the universe certainly no longer seems to apply to real life, and I am much more frightened of what might happen in some small, unregarded country; danger now seems to come from the unexpected fanatic, not the ancient and inevitable enemy who is our equal in strength.
The opening text of the game sets the stage for this very nicely, putting the protagonist in a country that feels like eastern Europe viewed through American eyes:
On the whole, it was worth the trip. The plains really were broad and grain-gold, if scarred with fences and agricultural crawlers. The mountains were overwhelming. And however much of the capital city is crusted with squat brick and faceless concrete hulks, there are still flashes of its historic charm. You've seen spires above the streets -- tiny green parks below tenements -- hidden jewels of fountains beyond walls. Any bland alley can concealbalconies wrought into iron gardens, fiery mosaics, a tree or bed of flowers nurtured by who knows who.
Here is the sense of the grandeur of the countryside and the startling beauty of a place that has been around for hundreds of years. My parents live in a suburb that didn't really exist fifty years ago, where the local Historical Monument is a log house some guy built in the late 19th century. There's also a pretty famous house from the 1920s. Going from that to, e.g., Prague leaves one with the impression that the universe has just expanded in a totally unexpected direction.
Also embedded in the description, though, is a foreshadowing of the theme of concealment that pervades everything to come: this is a landscape of secrets, even outside the interrogation chamber. Partly this is because in a totalitarian regime (and we are invited to see the enemy as such), any scrap of individuality must be privately guarded -- but the game reminds us again and again that the individuality exists, even (or perhaps especially) in the PC's captor.
As the narrative proceeds -- and I won't describe it here -- the topics of cold-war discourse play themselves out: how much power belongs in anyone's hands? Are We really very different from Them? What of our common humanity do we sacrifice if we identify ourselves too eagerly with one side or the other? None of these are precisely new questions, but they work here, I think, because they are consistently brought to your attention through the personal relationship of captor and captured. And the choices that you have to make become charged with ideological significance.
Despite the linearity of the game, its ultimate meaning is entirely in your hands. Or perhaps entirely in your mind. There are a couple of endgame options -- *important* options, things that sum up the whole meaning of the story -- but you're not told how they play out, one way or the other. You get to choose, but you don't get to know all the final ramifications. People have found this unsatisfying, and griped. I myself found it unsatisfying, and griped. There's something about it that is nonetheless true to morality in real life: not only do we often have to make our decisions blindly, but we cannot always know for certain even after the fact what the outcomes were or would have been. The difficult ending shifts the onus of decision entirely on you: you pick one way or another because that's what seems right to you. The author will not afford you the kindness of telling you what you should have done.