IF Comp 2011: The Binary

The Binary is a time-travel science fiction thriller from the same universe as Vicious Cycles, a story implemented first in Inform (2001) and then in a customized web engine as demonstrated at the IF Demo Fair (2011). The Binary appears in an improved version (as I understand it) of that same customized web engine. Consequently, this review talks both about the game itself and about the engine for which it is an early representative.

Simon Mark’s Blink system presents itself as a kind of intermediate between pure CYOA options such as Undum and ChoiceScript on the one hand, and web-based interpreters for parsed IF such as Quest, Parchment, and Quixe on the other. Blink has a concept of inventory (used here for both physical objects and thoughts) and appears also to model rooms or spaces, but it uses this information to create menus and in-text hyperlink, not to invite typed input. The current version of the system also preserves scrollback, thereby alleviating the sense of discontinuity and jumpiness that I (and possibly other players) found distracting in the Demo Fair version of Vicious Cycles. I still wish it weren’t necessary explicitly to hit a “back” button after viewing an item description (back to what, exactly? why not just add the item description smoothly to scrollback, as Undum would?) — but overall I feel this is a definite improvement on what we saw back in March.

The experience is pretty slick: the large type on spare, white screens is not what I would choose for all IF games, but it works well in the context of the dystopian science fiction Mark is writing. I don’t know anything about what kind of programming capabilities lie behind the screen, but I could easily imagine a number of other works lending themselves to this kind of presentation.

Now for the game itself. It’s not a deep piece, but it’s atmospheric, challenging, and fair. There are a number of time-loop or time-travel stories in the IF-verse (see the original Vicious Cycles, All Things Devours, and Möbius for some of the best); this one works because it’s gradually layering on knowledge, building up the player’s understanding of what’s happened based on all the previous lives. You can’t hold onto objects during a time jump, but you can hold onto ideas and memories.

More personal reactions follow.

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I got through the puzzles with moderate use of the hints; enjoyed the surreal environment in which it takes place, especially the parade cars that project holographic images of dignitaries into the sky; and tried out both of the endings that seemed to be recommended by the hint guidance.

I can’t help the nagging sensation, though, that there’s more to it, and that I missed something. Flashbacks and thoughts throughout the game suggest that there are ways my character could possibly escape what is evidently a pretty hellish sort of life. But I didn’t see any way of directly acting on those premonitions, and I eventually gave up.

Had this been conventional IF, I suspect I would have stuck around longer, pressing the boundaries of the world simulation, playing with the parser, hoping to open some crack in the world model that would let the protagonist out. And I’m still not sure whether that would have been the better thing to do. It seemed that Father’s little homily was meant to say that you could jump two people at the same time and have one of them go undetected — but was there ever an opportunity for me to do that? Did anyone else find a way?

4 thoughts on “IF Comp 2011: The Binary

  1. I got the nagging sensation as well, and I didn’t find a way, but I wasn’t all that thorough. I played it right after Vicious Cycles 2011, which niggled at me the same way, and if there were secrets hidden in that, they weren’t where I was looking. I was even intrigued enough to start Vicious Cycles 2001 to see what had been lost in translation, but not enough to get far with it right after finishing the remake and the sequel.

    Maybe there will be more stories in the same series, and that’s why it feels like someone’s nicked a piece of the jigsaw?

    • Maybe. The author does talk about wanting to do several more small vignettes and another game of this same size, and maybe that would wrap things up? But I felt rather tantalized.

  2. To follow up: on private communication from the author, I replayed and this is all much clearer to me now. My understanding, spoiler protected, of what happened:

    Gur purs jub fnirf gur jbzna vf npghnyyl n frpbaq vafgnagvngvba bs lbh, tbar onpx va gvzr nabgure gvzr — vs lbh arrq gb frr guvf, ercynl gur raqvat jurer lbh gel gb fnir gur jbzna, naq bofreir pybfryl jung ur qbrf naq fnlf.

    So yeah. Nothing missing from the game, no loose ends. It makes sense now.

  3. Pingback: IF Comp 2011: Overview | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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