IF Comp 2012: Living Will (Mark Marino)

Living Will concerns a will that changes dynamically in response to the reader, with the possibility that taking different paths through the will may result in different legacies and messages from the deceased.

Per tradition with my IF Comp reviews, I will have some non-spoilery content after the jump; then if there’s anything spoilery I wish to discuss, it will be separated from the rest of the review with spoiler space.

Disclaimer: I saw this game originally in an unreleased version prior to the comp, at which time I gave some feedback on it. I didn’t bang on it long or hard enough to really claim the title of beta-tester, but nonetheless my comments should be read in light of this favorable predisposition.

Immediately on trying Living Will, I felt some affinity for it: it is an Undum piece that explores a malleable text and asks its reader to interact with the written language in order to achieve its results, and I first saw Living Will not long after I had finished some work in a similar line myself.

Undum is a good platform for this, because it allows for text that changes and rewrites itself; text can be erased, expanded, and replaced dynamically, rather than merely appended to the end of a developing story. Of the tools I know about for interactive text, most do not allow this: ChoiceScript, StoryNexus, Varytale, and inklewriter do not offer this facility, or offer it only very weakly, and it’s not a direction that most parsed IF has explored at all either. It is theoretically possible with Vorple as a front end over Inform or another system, but I don’t know of any cases yet where a Vorple piece makes extensive use of this feature as a game mechanic.

In any case, parsed IF tends to require and depend on an underlying world model: because the simulator always is in some specific state, there must always be a “now” against which any typed commands are interpreted; and this makes it more difficult, though not completely impossible, to support an interactive text in which the player can meaningfully alter the past as well as the present.

On these grounds alone — exploring an unusual format of interactive story — I would recommend Living Will to people interested in IF. It has other merits as well: the prose is on the florid side for my taste, and contains the occasional typo or misspelling as well, but the floridness, at least, is very much intentional, and suggests the self-conscious grandiosity of the man who is supposed to have written the thing.

As for content and interactive experience, I’ll talk more about these after the jump, but I expect this piece to be a bit divisive: people coming to it looking for a really game-like experience are likely to be disappointed and frustrated, while those approaching it as an interactive story may be more satisfied.

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Living Will is about communication: the communication of a not-quite-dead man with one of his several living heirs, in which there is something he wants and something he has to give.

It opens with a passage in which the reader may choose to explore the backstory; or, to view this another way, to interrogate the nearly-deceased about his past and his intentions. His narration about the past is sometimes vague and evasive, but it becomes clear that he has not led anything like a blameless life; and quite possibly your character, the character projected to be reading the will, has not either. The old man made his fortune mining conflict minerals in the Congo, among other things; his potential heirs have all benefited (though in some cases also suffered) from that decision.

Living Will suggests, at least in some branches of the text, the real-world reader’s actual complicity in this type of situation, by pointing out the prevalence of coltan in the devices most of us use daily and are in fact using now in order to read this piece. His perhaps mentally ill daughter, for instance, appears to have some crises of conscience concerning her father’s line of work, but apparently no efficacy in doing anything about it. Living Will doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring or explaining these points, so that they may actually be mildly confusing to people not already aware of the issue; but it’s a character piece and not primarily a persuasive game on the topic.

After exploring the backstory in whatever direction she wishes — and I think it is not possible to see the whole of it in a single playthrough, because of the way the branching proceeds — the player is then read the terms of the will, but given the opportunity to forcibly acquire other people’s inheritances as well. She may also decide whether to undergo a voluntary medical procedure to help revive the will’s author, who, it seems, is not dead, but in some medically vague comatose state.

This final turn allows a space for the player/reader to pronounce a moral and emotional judgment on all of the characters. Is the old man worth saving? Does his son deserve a dominating share of his company? Is his daughter mentally well yet? This structure reminded me a little of The Baron or Floatpoint, each of which sets up a moral conundrum. Like those, Living Will describes some aftermath from the decisions you make, but doesn’t attempt to tell you whether you’ve made a “right” decision or not. It’s not clear that it could meaningfully do so.

Unlike those other pieces, though, Living Will doesn’t explicitly frame its final decision as a moral one; the player is also free to pick a “best ending” that is entirely opportunistically greedy (game optimization), or that expresses what the player thinks his character would be most likely to do (story optimization).

Unfortunately, Living Will does a great job of misdirecting the player from its own merits. Throughout the piece, you can see a box full of stats reflecting how much you’ve inherited so far and the medical and legal fees that will result from your decisions, as well as references to taxes and other concerns. It is very difficult to predict how your actions are likely to move these numbers, but because they seem important, they draw the player’s attention and suggest that the best approach is a game-like engagement. Since the piece communicates very badly about what these numbers mean, trying to learn to control them is a frustrating exercise. (It seems that I am not alone in this assessment.)

Now, I suppose it’s conceivable that this was itself intended by the author: that the point is something about being drawn into a preoccupation with optimizing financial outcomes but discovering that in the long run it is more satisfying to ignore these and focus on the more qualitative effects. Or maybe the idea is to make a Bleak-House-esque side point about the opacity and wastefulness of the legal system. But misleading your reader about how to read your piece most effectively is always an exceptionally difficult tight-rope walk, since there’s a strong likelihood they’ll decide the whole thing is just broken, instead.

3 thoughts on “IF Comp 2012: Living Will (Mark Marino)

  1. Pingback: IF Comp 2012 Final Roundup and Thoughts | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  2. Pingback: GDC: Me at Indie Soapbox, Ranting about Text | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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