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Memorable Shards
Review by: Emily Short
Game: Dead Reckoning
By: Andreés Viedma Peláez

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"Dead Reckoning" is Nick Montfort's recent translation of "Olvido Mortal", a game originally written in Spanish, which garnered several prizes when it was released in that language. There was also an earlier English translation, "Shattered Memory," which was entered in IF Comp 2001, but was disqualified for not being entirely original. The story begins with the player in a surreal setting with no memory of his past, and it proceeds from there, obviously, to some revelations about the past; I will try to avoid commenting too much on the premise, because it would be more than usually spoilery to do so.

When I played "Shattered Memory" in 2001, I didn't stick with it very long. I found it too difficult to figure out what was going on. The writing had a stilted quality, presumably due to having been translated into English by someone who is not a native speaker. Although that person did a much, much better job of translating into English than I could do at translating one of my games into another language, there is still a definite foreign quality to the prose. I find that playing an IF game that has been imperfectly translated is much more difficult than reading imperfectly-translated prose.

In this respect, "Dead Reckoning" is noticeably superior to "Shattered Memory". I was able to make progress on my own, whereas previously I had not been able to get anywhere at all; moreover, the atmosphere, which is such an important part of this game, is much better conveyed by the more competent translation. Most significantly, the improved prose engaged me enough that I was interested in finding out what had actually happened to my character.

Finishing the game was still not something I could do without help, however; I had recourse to the hint file that was originally developed for "Shattered Memory" (z5 file on IF-Archive). To a large extent, this is because the game relies on a number of actions that aren't within the range of what's normally implemented in IF. They are perfectly reasonable and sensible actions in context, but they require complicated commands that I wouldn't have expected the parser to recognize. In this respect, my IF-playing habits worked against me. Where I tried to phrase things in IF-ese (TELL PERSON ABOUT PARK), the game often failed to understand me. When I gave up and, without any great expectation of success, phrased my command in fuller natural language (SAY I AM GOING TO THE PARK TO THE PERSON), I was surprised to find that it was understood. (Examples changed to protect the spoilerable.)

This is an interesting effect, and I'm quite impressed that the game is able to understand some of the commands it does understand. I wish that it were also a bit more friendly to those of us who have been trained into using IF-ese, however. Much of what the player does in the game is converse with other characters, and there are three different modes of conversation: TALK TO (which leads to menus); ASK PERSON ABOUT (which leads to specific snippets of conversation, usually ones that do not appear on any menu as options -- this is obviously to force the player to figure out some things before being allowed to ask about them); and SAY TO PERSON, which was the most problematic of all, to my mind. I was not always certain when one of these methods would work and when I should try another, and the SAY command flew in the face of my IF-playing expectations, most of all when it actually worked. Sometimes it didn't; I tried >SAY I AM ANGRY TO WOMAN and the game responded as though I had just introduced myself (as a guy named "Angry", I suppose). Faking natural-language understanding sometimes causes problems. I had similar difficulties with Jon Ingold's "Insight".

Possibly the ambitious and unusual structure of commands is due to "Olvido Mortal" being produced in a different community. What few translations I've played of Spanish and Italian IF have relied heavily on actions I would not have thought of, in phrasings that verged on guess-the-verb. When I commented about this on the English translation of the Italian game Natalie, some people responded as though I meant this as a criticism. Not exactly; it's more of an observation about different expectations in different communities. The English-speaking IF community has developed a set of standard verbs and expected actions, along with some techniques for introducing new verbs and actions to the player for special purposes within the game. As a rule, these things make new games more accessible to experienced players, and easier for authors to write. (Whether the conventional interface makes things easier or harder for a new player is another question, and has been debated several times before; but that is too long a digression to make here.)

Trying to play a game written outside of those conventions makes for an interesting challenge, but that hardly means that the alternative culture is in some respect inferior. On the contrary, once I began to get used to it, being allowed (encouraged? forced?) to use unusually complicated commands for "Dead Reckoning" gave a different quality to the playing experience: it felt more literary and less game-like, with a greater equality between player and author. (Since I know that narrowing the gap between author and player is a topic of special interest to Nick Montfort, it should perhaps not be surprising that he is the translator of this game.)

Several other aspects of "Dead Reckoning" also made it feel more literary and less game-like than the average work of IF (if there is such a thing): vaguer, or at least less visual, descriptions; emphasis on emotions and memories rather than on physical objects; a shying away from the compass-based map; less manipulation of items and more conversation with characters. Often several exchanges of conversation are presented in a row, and the PC is not allowed to intervene again until a mini-scene has elapsed.

The backstory revealed in this way felt a bit distant and formulaic to me: once one discovers what happened, it is a story mostly constructed of fairly conventional elements. Characterization is not deep or complex. The most interesting aspect is the dread and confusion produced in the player along the way; in this respect, "Dead Reckoning" reminded me a bit of Kathleen Fischer's "Redemption" -- or of an episode of "The Twilight Zone".

Is "Dead Reckoning" good? I suspect it is one of those works that some people will like and some will loathe. It accomplishes something novel, at least in my own experience of IF; it has some memorable moments; it was frustrating as game, and somewhat more interesting as literature. If I judge it as story rather than as game -- expect less puzzly enjoyment from it, and more nuance -- I am still a little disappointed. There are some elements that might have evoked a stronger emotional reaction if I had had more time to become invested in them, if the characters had been sketched with more complexity, if the backstory had been delineated in less exaggerated strokes. At times, I was also frustrated because I had figured out more than my PC yet seemed to understand, and I was not allowed to act on that understanding until I had performed all the necessary steps of "figuring out" what was going on. (This is often a problem with IF that turns on PC ignorance; I had similar frustrations about Delusions.) I did like the very end of the game, though, and the atmosphere was nicely controlled throughout.

All in all, this is a piece worth trying for those interested in plot-driven IF, and Nick's new translation goes a long way towards revealing why the Spanish original was so highly regarded in its own community. Those who found "Shattered Memory" too confusing to play may want to have a look at "Dead Reckoning."

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