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Healthy Paranoia
Review by: Greg Boettcher
Game: The Cabal
By: Stephen Bond

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Info at Baf's guide

1. Introduction

I hope that I am not putting my life at risk by writing this review, but the truth must be told. The Cabal is a hilarious and highly polished game, one that should be played by anybody who has more than a passing interest in interactive fiction.

The Cabal is based on events in the interactive fiction community, and based in particular on the supposed secret society called the Cabal. If you know what that means, you can probably skip the next section.

2. What is the r.a.i-f Cabal?

As many of you know, the newsgroups rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction are the prime discussion place for the interactive fiction community. And what do you do when everybody in the newsgroups seems to have opinions that you don't like? Naturally, you blame it on a secret society spreading its dark influence. You blame the Cabal. The Cabal is blamed for subjugating puzzle-based IF in favor of story-based IF, for propagating a snobbish attitude towards games not written in Inform or TADS, etc... you get the idea.

Before I move on, some links of interest:

There. Now we can disregard the warning at Stephen Bond's web site: "you probably need to have at least a passing familiarity with the IF newsgroups to get the most out of it [The Cabal]." Now you have a passing familiarity, and you can enjoy the game.

Hopefully by writing this I have broadened the audience of the game a little bit.

3. About the game

The game opens in Miami Beach, where you have been investigating the Bermuda Triangle, when suddenly a bum comes up to you. He turns out to be Mike Berlyn, author of Infidel and Suspended, now homeless and penniless, and all because of the Cabal. After a few minutes of talking to him, you resolve to investigate. From there you fly off on a journey that takes you to three different continents, getting into trouble and meeting some of the world's greatest IF authors along the way.

This is a silly comic idea, and a lesser writer wouldn't have been able to pull it off. But Stephen Bond does the job with great panache. Some of the jokes made me laugh; others made me smile; but there were none that made me groan or roll my eyes. I had great fun playing this.

The Cabal is very well written. Nowhere in the game did I find myself thinking, "I could have written this better." The dialogue, in particular, is handled with extraordinary deftness. For instance, in the following passage, the characters respond to each other in just the right way:

"But you're a secret society! That's not democratic!"
Maybe not the best argument to use here -- most Europeans don't even believe in democracy.
"We are not so much secret as private," Volker says, resting his hand on an ornamental globe, "and surely there is nothing wrong with a private gathering of friends? . . . We choose new entrants carefully: they have to fit in with the existing feel of the group; they have to be, in a sense, 'Cabal People.' I hope you understand why we cannot just invite anyone."
Yup. No respect for democracy at all.

There are also some interesting surprises, even Easter eggs, believe it or not, in this highly linear game. Try replaying the scene where you slip and fall on an object at the restaurant; it's different each time. Also, ask about copyright. It's not required, but it's funny.

Was the interactive aspect of The Cabal successful? This is debatable.

First of all, some people might say, what interactive aspect? Indeed, there are times in this game when there are unusual restrictions on what you can do. You begin seated at a table, but the game won't let you stand up. A man offers you a cigar, but you're not allowed to accept it. Furthermore, there are times when the game forces the plot along, regardless of whether you cooperate. (It's not like Bond's previous game Rameses, where you literally cannot fail to win, but still.) Finally, there are conversation menus. You'll spend a lot of time in conversation menus, so if you don't like that, you're out of luck.

So odd restrictions, compulsory plot advancement, conversation menus. This all adds up to a low level of interactivity. Is that a bad thing? I don't think so. Actually, the game has a lot in common with Being Andrew Plotkin by J. Robinson Wheeler, another successful game of IF in-jokes. Both games used conversation menus, and both games were largely puzzleless. (I should also mention Adam Thornton's Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country, although it's not quite so puzzleless.) All these games used this strategy for the same reason. When you have a nearly puzzleless plot and effortless NPC interaction, it's easier to get the comedic timing just right. The game becomes less of a chess game and more of an amusement park ride, which is a lot of fun. But even if satisfying puzzles and a strong feeling of freedom were things I always looked for in IF games, I still wouldn't advise changing this aspect of The Cabal. The low-level interactivity is bound up with the game as a whole, or that's how it feels to me. If you tried to change it, the whole tapestry would unravel.

Just about the only flaws in the game are the repetitious elevator segment and the unnecessarily male chauvinist segment that goes with it. I also found a very few typos, which I have sent to the author in case he decides to release a Version 3.

Anyway, in short, play this game! What are you waiting for? It only takes an hour or so to play, not much longer than reading this wordy review.

4. Conclusions

Now, on a more serious note, what, finally, do we make of The Cabal? It is easy to dismiss it a hilarious and highly successful in-joke game, ignoring the darker interpretations. But consider this:

  • In his original announcement on rec.games.int-fiction, Stephen Bond (posting under a pseudonym, understandably) warned us that his game would be mysteriously moved from the if-archive/unprocessed directory. Some might have scoffed at this seemingly paranoid prediction, but it came true!
  • In the credits, Stephen Bond says that The Cabal was originally slated for release in IF Comp 2003, but that this effort was inexplicably "aborted." This is highly suspicious, even alarming.
  • Seven months have passed since The Cabal's release, and until now no one has posted a review of it on either SPAG or IF-Review. Isn't that eerie?

Therefore, it seems likely that there really is a sinister force in control of the IF community! And if such a thing is even possible, how can you afford not to play The Cabal? Your life, your freedom may depend on it!

On the other hand, some poor naive fools may actually believe the continually repeated false dogma, "There is no Cabal." Well, fine. This is not the place to discuss it. But even the most naive folks will certainly want to play this game anyway. For them, it will appear to be a silly in-joke farce. But it is a very funny and well polished in-joke farce, providing an hour or two of great fun.

5. Postscript

If this review disappears, it's not an accident! It's the Cabal! (On the other hand, if it doesn't disappear, that's not an accident either. As Stephen Bond warns us, "It's not the nature of the Cabal to be too obvious.")

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