The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
By: Jon Ingold
Bzzt. Crackle. *Static*
Suddenly, a voice is pleading for help. This is the first hint we have of FailSafe's subject matter: the title screen, and even the author's original announcement of the game, remain carefully silent regarding anything more than the author and betatesters. Then abruptly we are dropped into a broken, poorly-transmitted radio conversation with an unknown NPC and left to fend for ourselves.
This conversation, as it turns out, comprises the entire game. During the brief introduction, we discover that the voice on the other end is the sole survivor of some terrible disaster, and is now trapped on board a crippled spaceship falling towards the moon. The interaction in these first few exchanges feels very natural (except for one minor programming issue), such that it's actually slightly disconcerting to realise that the conversation has turned into the game without you noticing.
Essentially, you can order the unseen survivor around the wreck of the spacecraft very much like playing a conventional IF game. The style of the descriptions in the first person is reminiscent of LASH, and, to an extent, older, more conventional first-person games, but FailSafe is much more adventurous as regards conversation between the player and the protagonist. At points, the unseen NPC will ask questions, such as "shall I read the display to you?" -- personally, I felt that this did a lot to make the dialogue seem more realistic and less like a conventional IF game (and, thankfully, such questions can be ignored entirely if you so desire). There are points, however, where the voice will come back with the same, sometimes quite lengthy, chunk of text in response to repeated actions, or even attempt obviously dangerous actions again in response to your command, with the same response. However, I found myself succumbing to an effect I've noticed before (something I seem to recall Emily Short saying she hoped players would do when playing Galatea): namely, once it became obvious that repeating actions gave rise to mimesis-breaking responses, I started avoiding doing it, because by this point, I was getting absorbed in the game. Maybe this was partly due to the air of mystery that accompanied the announcement but, as the protagonist explores the wreckage of the ship, there are subtle clues that something is not quite right.
In addition to talking the survivor through trying to save what's left of the ship and/or escaping from it, there's a secondary dialogue of a sort going on with some kind of computer program in response to the incoming information. As well as giving background information, this helps us see the PC's role a little more clearly, and the incoming battle reports give a sense of the wider background.
FailSafe is not a difficult game -- there aren't really any puzzles to speak of in the traditional sense, meaning that it's not hard to reach the end of the game with a little patience. However, there's the ongoing puzzle-like element of trying to piece together a coherent vision of the environment from the fractured descriptions given by the NPC. It's not so easy to work out exactly what is where within the rooms of the ship, although this problem seems more forgivable in light of FailSafe's context than it does in other, more traditional games. One thing it's a shame to see missing is that the protagonist never varies his or her phrasing when redescribing rooms, which would be useful to the player as well as strengthening mimesis.
One complaint a lot of people had about this game was the fact that, presumably in an attempt to increase immersion, almost all the standard meta verbs are disabled; in particular, it's impossible to save and restore. The relative shortness goes some way towards alleviating this, but there are multiple possible outcomes, and investigating all of them would be tedious on an interpreter which doesn't allow you to save your commands and feed them back in. Additionally, some commands, notably movement, can't be shortened as much as usual, but there's not a great amount of moving around involved here in any case, so it seemed to me as though this particular change served mainly to reinforce the fact that the player is giving orders to another than mentally ordering herself around, by forcing the command to be phrased as such (`GO UP'). However, I can well imagine others disagreeing on this score. Happily, `X', `L' and `Z' still work with their usual meanings.
Maybe it was because of the illusion of talking to a person rather than a parser, but I found myself spelling out commands in longhand much more frequently anyway: LOOK AT THE CONSOLE rather than X CONSOLE and similar (although I've noticed myself doing that anyway in the past, often when I suddenly get the feeling that an invisible presence is watching me type. Maybe I'm paranoid, but I digress).
FailSafe is not a conventional work of IF, although I'd hesitate to label it as `experimental.' It's not an experiment -- the departures it makes from the `standard' model of IF are all carefully chosen for their effect in presenting the story, such that it is the story and the world behind it, rather than any kind of `gimmick', which dominate at least my memories of the game. I'm hoping it's also an example for authors of how the effort involved in doing something differently to the way most IF authoring systems expect is really worth doing if that's how you think the story is best told.