IF Competition: Nightfall

Another IF Comp review, following my format for this comp. There is a cut, then any spoiler-free comments I have, and then spoiler space, and then more detailed feedback that assumes the reader has tried the game.

But first, we have some obligatory filler to try to make sure that the RSS summary does not accidentally contain any review. Filler, filler, la la la…

Okay. Here we go.

It should not surprise anyone that a game by Eric Eve is meticulously tested and player-friendly — or that it allows a wide range of options in a spacious environment — or that it features Biblical references and an elusive, unsettling female character.

I think Nightfall works better than Elysium Enigma, though: the atmosphere is more consistent, the puzzle elements more plausibly suited to their setting, the story is ultimately more thematically coherent and focused more deeply on personalities. It is certainly the most frightening of the stories I’ve played so far: the essential premise is hauntingly tied to things actually happening in the world, and the abandoned spaces feel plausibly chilling.

I do wish I’d had more time. Nightfall can certainly be played once within the two-hour time limit — but you’ll most likely want to play it more than once, and I doubt it’s possible to get to optimal endings or anything like a full exploration of the game within the two hours unless you’re willing to resort to the walkthrough. Which I did, after my first playthrough, though with a bit of disappointment. My desire to judge the game on its full content won out over my desire to find more of that content by myself. I’m not sure that was the wrong choice, but people who have the luxury of playing the game after the competition (or just people who are a little less obsessive-compulsive about their judging) may prefer to take a bit more time over the game.

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There’s a host of stuff to say about the implementation strengths here. Eric has put to good use his implicit actions extension, and just about every command behaves sensibly and smoothly. This is the kind of thing that really (to my mind) marks out the work of an experienced IF author; but maybe I’m just still feeling burned from my guess-the-verb struggles with a certain other game I recently tried.

Lots of items that are often implemented badly in IF are here done well. Telephones, the cassette player, the google-enabled terminal, the conversation — this is all stuff that can easily be clumsy, and Eric gets it all right.

Other strengths: the THINK command. I really liked how this worked here; it felt natural as a way to organize my character’s concerns, and got me more in tune with his ways of thinking.

The environment is big. I typically dislike games where there is this much geography relative to the amount of plot/puzzle, but here it works and indeed is even necessary: the sense of time running out is compounded by the need to run back and forth over a large cityscape. But — because the territory is territory that the player character knows well — movement is automated with GO TO commands: there is no burden on the player to find things. The large landscape has its narrative effect without putting too much strain on the gameplay.

But enough about these aspects. They’re terrific, and people interested in improving their IF-implementing skills should study how “Nightfall” behaves, but technical competence is no surprise from this author.

The design, on the other hand, is stronger than that of some of his earlier work. Some of that has to do with sleight-of-hand that only becomes apparent on the second or subsequent playing. It feels, the first time you play, as though you have the freedom to wander ‘most anywhere and do almost anything. In fact, there are all kinds of careful roadblocks in place to guarantee that you see things in the right order: you can’t wander too far afield during the opening stages of the game, you can’t pass the CCTV camera until you’ve picked up a stone (so you have to have gone to Gladstone Terrace first, and seen that she wasn’t home); once you have done that, you can go to her office, and only then return to Gladstone Terrace to have a better look, but by this time you’ve received the Russian’s phone call and should be getting a few second thoughts about her

But it’s not all a matter of the game design forcing the player down the desired paths; the same design also gives us lots of positive reasons to follow those paths, and follow them urgently, since there’s a growing sense that the whole place is going to go up in a bright glare at any moment.

Which of course it won’t, because the final demand to meet her won’t come until we’ve found enough information.

It’s a classic set of techniques, stuff you can find in other story-oriented games back to Infocom — not innovation as such, but here executed so well that the player is barely conscious of being manipulated by it. What Eric accomplishes is a game with the appearance (and some of the reality) of freedom, which nonetheless produces a well-paced and suspenseful story. This is not easy. It is hard to maintain a sense of genuine urgency in IF when the player is at liberty to go off on tangents exploring random things, without, on the other hand, setting a hard time limit that penalizes players who go too slowly. (I gather from the ABOUT text that the game does end around dawn at the latest, so I suppose there may be a hard time limit of sorts after all, but I didn’t encounter it — instead I rushed along in my first playthrough and ran headlong into trouble.)

So — a polished, well-constructed game, in which the physical fear of the unknown Enemy is gradually supplanted by a much deeper unease, the horror that the one person in the world that has mattered to you most (in an orderly and perhaps somewhat uneventful life) was unworthy of your love. When you’re finally offered the chance of an outcome you’ve wished for since childhood, it is tainted beyond recall.

I’m still chewing over what I think of that story. Her madness is certainly creepy; your infatuation with her, sad but perhaps explicable given her astonishing surface qualities. And poor Kate!

At the same time, it’s so over the top: it’s like looking at a picture with the saturation cranked to maximum. It’s not enough that Emma should be attractive, clever, and charismatic: she has to be academically first-class, a beauty queen, a small business owner, a tennis player, a painter, an opera singer, and a would-be politician, as well as, apparently, a con artist and murderer with the skills to arrange an illegal arms deal. (Can she also field-dress a moose?)

Against that, of course, our protagonist is dialed back to the most medium of medium grays. We know from hints here and there that he has legal work, but for the most part his life is a blank slate except for her, and a handful of encounters with Kate in which he wasn’t really paying attention to what was in front of him. (It’s telling that while we get to explore her apartment in detail, the protagonist’s is situated conveniently outside of town, so we never get to see his personal space — which I have to suspect would be betrayingly empty.) David’s reluctance to do anything destructive or antisocial is well-handled in the game, a persuasive bit of characterization, and a good foil to Emma. I got the sense that he’s meant to be an over-socialized and somewhat repressed character; someone more consciously romantic than sexual, but determined to keep either kind of passion in tight check. There’s nothing wrong with that — some great characters match that description (try Turgenev, or Ishiguro, or Forster) — but the game mostly shows David more as a bland figure than one who holds himself in tension.

Their relationship is similarly high-contrast. I would have been more affected if she had a few genuinely altruistic or kind moments in her mostly-evil past; if the protagonist had at some point at least considered trying to get over her; if there were some points of genuine connection between them, even if mostly she was using him as a prop to her ego. Even the most unhealthy relationships usually contain some redeeming characteristics.

In sum: more nuance in the individuals or in the way they related might have made them seem more human, and that could only have strengthened the sad horror of this story, which is less about bombs than about the ghastliness of wasting your heart on someone who doesn’t deserve it.

As so often, though, I find I’ve written one of my lengthiest and most nitpicking critiques about a game I really liked. This is the most cohesive and effective Eric Eve work I’ve played to date, and likely to be (though I haven’t played them all yet) one of the best games in the competition.

(Incidentally, I wonder whether I am the only person to be distracted by the fact that Adam Dalgliesh, of the P. D. James mysteries, ignores the long-harbored affection of his associate Kate only to eventually wind up with a woman named Emma. Just a coincidence, I’m sure. Back to your regularly scheduled programming.)

6 thoughts on “IF Competition: Nightfall

  1. You’re right that the horror of this story is not about Enemies or bombs (even though the urgency that everything might go up in flames at any moment is definitely felt).

    The *real* scary part is watching this man replaying the memories of his sad, sad, life. As a guy, I saw bits of myself in a few of those vignettes and I was subsequently profoundly grateful that as a young man every once in a while I did manage to pluck up enough courage not to end up like this guy did… while at the same time feeling very creeped out at the whole thing.

    I have to say I ended up with a healthy dislike of all the characters in the end, but also with a reluctant respect for the obviously excellent programming and design. The game itself will get high marks from me.

  2. Thank you for your very full review. You make a number of interesting points I’d like to respond to here, but obviously cannot post until after the judging period. I’ll try to come back after the judging period and post then. (Emily and I have already corresponded on this privately, so this is just a marker for anyone else who may be interested).

  3. Pingback: IF Competition: General Reflections and Favorites « Emily Short’s Interactive Fiction

  4. “she had a few genuinely altruistic or kind moments in her mostly-evil past”

    Well, there is the one time he was almost booked for drunk-driving.

  5. Commenting on a years old post because I just finished playing, off of Emily’s Play This Thing review, The Warbler’s Nest, and it made me think of Nightfall, and a trick that it pulls that has always stuck with me. Some spoilers follow.

    Nightfall is about a man discovering that the woman he is desperately, painfully, delusionally in love with is dangerous and manipulative. The protagonist’s thoughts fawn over her. When he enters her apartment while searching for her, he sees a card he sent her displayed on the mantle, and is deeply touched. All of this is expressed through flavor text – it doesn’t really affect the actions you can perform, but it’s still annoying that you’re playing as someone so gullible.

    Your first time through the game, anyway.

    The second time, at least for me, was a more cautious investigation. I knew this woman was dangerous, and so I investigated her much more closely, searching locations more thoroughly, finding more clues about the antagonist’s actions and motivations. And a wonderful thing happened – the more I investigated, the more dirt I revealed, the more suspicious the main character’s narration got. Passages that had been full of adoration were replaced by ones expressing suspicion. The card on the mantle was dismissed as an attempt at manipulation. The more I uncovered about my enemy, the more the character’s perception of her changed.

    I actually e-mailed the game’s author, Eric Eve, about this back when I first played the game, and he confirmed that the game tracks the character’s attitude based on how much information he has at hand, and changes the dialogue in the memories and asides to reflect that. Mechanistically it doesn’t seem super-complex, but it caught me completely off guard and made me feel a weird kind of pride in my protagonist that made the character much more real for me. Great stuff.

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