IF Competition Discussion: Ferrous Ring

Next up, “Ferrous Ring.”

There is a fair amount, in a technical sense, to admire here. The author has, rather ambitiously, implemented multiple input modes, and in doing so, explored some ideas that people have been bouncing around on rec.arts.int-fiction for years. I don’t know whether that was intentional or not — I mean, I’m not sure whether the author got this idea from the periodic discussion threads on why the IF parser should be simplified into menus, or whether it was a separate inspiration. Either way, it’s interesting to have a test case for these arguments. In Ferrous Ring, you’re allowed to use a normal IF command interface, or, alternatively, a menu that lists all the currently available items. If you click one of these items, the player uses that item in whatever is the most obvious way. (You can also type names of objects at the command line, for the same effect.) There is even a walkthrough mode, where the game provides the commands for you and all you have to do is to keep pressing return.

I tried all three of these modes, and I find I play quite a lot differently when my interactive world is reduced to an explicit menu of things to use: I become less curious about my environment, more narrowly focused on my mission. I lose immersion in the surroundings. Plot takes over more completely from setting, but I become less invested in both.

To some extent that distancing would have happened anyway, because this game has a telegraphic approach to describing your surroundings. In each room you get a list of things there that are “good” and a list that are “bad”. Good things in a location could include props that your character was looking for, a friend, a pleasant atmosphere; they don’t all have to be tangible. Bad things are dilapidated buildings, refugees, dangers, enemies. The description works against visualization. Toward the end of the game, it becomes evident that the setting is England, but I didn’t realize that for a while; the names didn’t seem particularly English, and nothing about the descriptions suggested it to me. I might have missed something, but my feeling was that this could have been anywhere, any proto-apocalyptic city.

The plot and main character are similarly strange. The protagonist frequently talks about the things that the player has no way of understanding; works on projects the player doesn’t know about; has poignant farewells with old friends the player has never heard of. There’s not really any attempt to bridge this gap; the player must keep up as well as he can. At the end of the game, I felt I understood, roughly, what the beginning had been about, who the people had been, and so on. But that understanding had not caught up far enough for me to comprehend the conclusion.

There were a few evocative moments, and the work is solidly constructed and (as far as I could tell) bug-free, but it reminded me from time to time of Kazuo Ishiguro’s _Never Let Me Go_: a story about a dystopic future that constantly hints at mysteries to be revealed without ever delivering on the promise as fully as one hopes.

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I don’t know what to make of this one. I stumbled through a few scenes in the normal IF mode, using normal IF commands, not ever really quite sure what was going on but able to pick up just enough to steer my character. But then, about the time that I was looking for gangsters in an abandoned cityscape, I lost it: the puzzles got harder and less evidently clued, I couldn’t cope with the IF interface any more, and I turned to the menu of use items. Soon even that got too confusing for me, and I moved on to walkthrough mode, letting the game play itself while I tabbed along. That wasn’t very satisfying (unsurprisingly), but without it, I don’t think I would have gone along to the end of the game.

In that respect, the different input modes felt a bit like a crutch: as though the author was saying, “okay, some of these puzzles are too hard for you to guess on your own, but I’ll set up these other modes where the game will partially or fully solve them for you; maybe you can get through that way?” And I *did* get through that way, but I found that I didn’t care so much about the solution when I hadn’t worked it out in any sense on my own.

There’s also the curious plot and its curious ending. Was the “angel” really an angel in the religious sense? Or is there something else going on, mind control or telepathy or something along those lines? If the problem is (as I think we’re supposed to understand) that global warming and/or nuclear war has rendered the planet unlivable, then what is the big scheme for everyone to survive underground? How is that going to work? I had a hard time even envisioning the house, at the end; and what are we supposed to conclude that it’s for? There’s no resolution here, just more questions.

Despite all that, in retrospect it was more effective than my analysis would suggest. I’m not sure it all really works or that I would recommend it widely, but I have thought back to the game a few times during the day since I played it.

There is also a line near the end where — perhaps only if you take the “wrong” path of two — the game tells you that your plan doesn’t work out and railroads you into the preferred plot branch, with a kind of aside about how one’s life is always determined by external factors, never a matter of free will; and this might almost be taken as a comment on recent discussions about player choice vs. authorial determination in IF. But maybe it wasn’t meant that way at all. It works perfectly well in the context of the game story, anyway.

2 thoughts on “IF Competition Discussion: Ferrous Ring

  1. No reader comments yet on this one, eh?

    I finished Ferrous Ring this morning, and just posted my review (which turned out to be insanely long). It sounds like I had about the same experience you did, although I was able to get through some rough bits with single hints (without resorting fully to the walkthrough mode).

    I’m now snooping around for reviews. I wonder if (A) anybody solved the book look-up puzzle unassisted (and without having already seen it elsewhere, assuming it’s been done elsewhere), and (B) anybody has a more enlightening take on the ending, and on “what it was all about.”

  2. I can think of a couple of possible explanations.

    One is that the protagonist is mentally ill, and the good/bad division of things corresponds to a somewhat nonstandard way of parsing reality, and all his hopes for the future are delusional. Perhaps the house’s previous occupant was also delusional, or perhaps the house is not real and the whole ending is his way of refitting some less palatable reality with imagery and ideas that he can accept. I didn’t really quite feel that the game gave enough indications, though, if we are supposed to understand it this way. This is always a trick with unreliable narrators: you need a way to signal to the player which parts they’re being unreliable about. Shade manages to do this — more or less — but that’s because its essential premise is one that is comprehensible in terms of our own world, so we can apply some logic to the game (possibly only after playing) in order to re-interpret the story we’ve been told into a “what actually happened” version. Ferrous Ring, on the other hand, takes place in a world that is essentially alien and whose rules are never fully explained to the player, so it is hard to tell when strange things happen whether those things are from the narrator’s imagination or simply part of the alternative reality portrayed in the story.

    A second interpretation — which I actually suspect is closer to the author’s intention — is that this is a game partly about hoping against the odds, or perhaps even something approximating faith: that the world is in chaos and is disintegrating, but that the house is real and that it represents a sort of messianic promise that somehow, someday, by means unknown, the current disastrous set of effects will be reversed. Whether this is due to supernatural intervention or to some group of humans is not entirely obvious. Either way, the protagonist has some role to play in it, and must wait for the opportunity to fulfill that role.

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