Sunday Afternoon is a short, parser-based puzzle game set in Victorian England. As usual, the jump will be followed by non-spoilery comments; then if I have anything spoilery to say, there will be spoiler space.
In a comp yielding a surprising variety of work, Sunday Afternoon feels retrospective in both form and content. The story concerns a boy in late Victorian England, trying to escape a stuffy aunt who wants to read sermons when he’d rather be playing outside. The solution to this problem involves a series of classic IF puzzles that are nonetheless well clued and polished, that unfold new information just as they open new doors and spaces. They are supported by a solid hint system.
Except for the fact that it’s an Inform 7 game that plays in a browser, and a few of its most anachronistic references, Sunday Afternoon could plausibly belong to any comp year all the way back to ’95.
This is not exactly a complaint. I enjoyed it quite a bit. And specifically, I enjoyed it in much the way I remember enjoying Christminster or The Meteor, The Stone, and A Long Glass of Sherbet. I felt free to take pleasure in an experience that was well-crafted and self-assured, that was very unlikely to break or go buggy, that was going to keep me guessing just a little while before the solution became clear. (Okay, not all of the puzzles in Christminster were quick to solve. But some were.)
Sunday Afternoon is a throw-back to IF of what some people would call the Middle School — puzzle-dominated but with an increasingly important narrative arc, slightly more attention to NPC characterization, and greater concern about being fair to the player. Scenes that turn on single set-piece puzzles are common. It’s the style of IF that was considered the height of good craft from ca 1994 to late 1998, when Photopia’s linear story-telling, near puzzlelessness, and relative realism popularized the tropes of New School IF. (This periodization itself dates to 2000 or so, which may tell you something: people only go calling something “the new X” when the worldwide supply of Xes is very small. See also: Pont Neuf, New College.)
So “New School” is a bit of a retro category, and “Middle School” refers to the one that came before that. Arguably Plundered Hearts previewed a lot of Middle School features as early as 1987. Sunday is not puzzleless or experimental, it’s not inclined to part with the fundamental business of taking objects and using them on other objects, and it drops in several in-joke references to Adventure and Trinity. At the same time, it is fairer, tighter, more narratively structured, and more interested in the lives of its characters than Zork or Enchanter.
The principal feeling of the content, too, is of retrospective sentiment, that sensation of looking back at a gilded childhood that never was. It is sprinkled with references to English children’s literature — The Owl Service, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Alice, Harry Potter. But it doesn’t stop there, as it seems that Aunt Emma also owns both the Maltese Falcon and the Holy Grail. “Absolutely everything has some sort of sentimental value. It boggles the mind how any one person can have this much sentiment.”
Indeed the whole time period in which the story takes place is a kind of fantasyland drawing its tropes more from Trollope and John Constable than from Dickens or Hardy, Eliot or Gaskell. If there’s a reference to a chimney-sweep, it’s glancing and comical and not especially designed to make you think about abusive child labor practices. And the servants are absent. When you venture into their domain, it’s described in determinedly cozy terms; the parser insistently prevents you from going up or down the servants’ staircase with a reminder that it’s not your place.
Then there is a mid-game flash-forward to the protagonist as an officer in World War I, the event that defines the loss of the innocence of England, at least according to certain very common mythologies of English history. The revelation that the whole game is a tale told by an adult officer both offers an excuse for some of the NPCs’ more automated-seeming behavior and provides a contrast to the young protagonist’s eagerness for war-time adventure: in other words, it frames both the middle-school-ness of the game as a work of IF, and the naïveté of the main character.
So is there more to it than an entertaining puzzle and a big warm bath of nostalgia?
Wade Clarke complained about the fiddliness of the puzzle with the letter, in which you have to pick which page of a three-page exchange is likely to make Aunt Emma angry with Uncle Stephen, and place that letter into the folder.
I actually thought that was an interesting puzzle, because of what it reveals about both characters and what it asks you to understand about them. It’s pretty clear from the description that page 3, concerning another man’s wife, has unduly interested Uncle Stephen, and may indicate romantic feelings that he suppresses. But Aunt Emma isn’t in the least bothered by this page, should you show it to her; what she cares about are the financial transactions on page 2, as you discover if you first solve the puzzle wrong and then correctly. That transaction — get it wrong, then get it right the next time around — points up a disparity between the 21st-century readerly expectations and the characterization of the actual Victorians in the story. We might expect Emma to be concerned about propriety or morality, but in practice she’s mainly interested in what Stephen is doing with his money.
The game is full of markers of longing for cultural conservatism of a certain kind, for the comfort and the sense of place provided by a very conventional, homogeneous society, but at the same time it’s hinting at these sorts of cracks in the façade, sometimes obliquely and sometimes not at all. Take the description of Victoria’s portrait, right at the start:
Mother has a portrait just like this back home, hung in exactly the same place over the parlour fireplace. Everybody you know has the same. You figure that anyone who doesn’t must be a spy, a heretic, a foreigner, or worse.
The protagonist may never encounter the discomfort of servants or comprehend the xenophobia of his society, but the player is expected to note such things.
And the game refers to the trenches of World War I as twisty little passages! It is grotesque and bizarre, using an IF in-joke to refer to something so hellish: so inappropriate that it becomes meta-commentary, a joke about jokes, a critique of the shibboleth-strewn writing of the early IF community. (Even now, there are those who use the presence of a XYZZY response as some sort of litmus test for whether the author did his homework. Sunday Afternoon has one, of course.)
The story ends by telling you (a) within the 1890s story that you’ve obtained freedom, and (b) within the 1916 frame that it’s time for the men to move out. That return to the WWI frame is exceedingly short, but if you think about what it means — about the fact that going over the top was often instantly fatal to all concerned — then it casts the shadow of futile death across all the rest.
Now, I don’t think, in fact, that that ending is played up quite enough to have a major framing impact on the rest of what the player has experienced; there’s nothing like the punch of, say, the final episode of Blackadder. If that particular contrast was one of the author’s main goals for the game, it should have been intensified a bit more.
But as a whole, Sunday Afternoon is about the backward glance and the remembered past: for lost loves, for homelands recollected on the night one dies in a foreign field; and also, in a curious juxtaposition, for the IF community as it used to be; for things we can’t go back to because they never existed to start with, and because even in their idealized form they had all sorts of problems. In a way, it’s about the problem with defining yourself overmuch in terms of nostalgia and memory — an affliction the IF community has sometimes suffered very badly, and from which I hope we are awakening.
Aunt Emma, after all, is a maiden aunt who, having missed her own chance at love and family, now sits around studying sermons on who was born to whom in Biblical times.