IF Comp ’10: East Grove Hills

East Grove Hills by XYZ

Blurb: None given.

Expectations: Uh… there’s not much to go off here. The title could mean anything. I guess my expectations are slightly lowered due to the uninspired pseudonym. But who knows, maybe XYZ has gone by XYZ on the internet since forever. Alright, Zeckszee, let’s see what you got.

A word about spoilers: I’m of the opinion that to properly review a game there needs to be an open discourse. You can’t get to the heart of a game if you limit yourself to only talking about certain parts of it. Spoilers, I got ‘em! I can and will gleefully spoil all aspects of the game: from plot points to puzzle solutions to endings; I won’t hold back. Of course, I won’t do so needlessly. I’m not going to spoil a big twist just ’cause. But if it’s pertinent to my review I won’t kowtow away from it. You have been warned.

East Grove Hills bills itself as an interactive anecdote. Intriguing. Sadly, it’s neither. It’s about as far from interactive as a text adventure as I’ve ever played, and an anecdote is, by definition, about a true event. Okay, I’m being facetious, but I feel it’s warranted. East Grove Hills started with so much potential and then squandered it. So squandered. Squandered the whole day long.

I was initially impressed with how the game was written in the past tense.

Jenny, Yue, and I were giving a presentation on something vaguely related to literature. No, wait, it was the social issue presentation. No, wait, I think it actually was a presentation on some book or another. I completely forgot.

I liked how the speaker had forgotten specific details, and how he hinted at some horrible future event that might be a literal explosion or just a bad report. This really is an anecdote, I thought. I was enthusiastic about all the places the game could go. The the bomb exploded and the whole thing fell apart.

East Grove Hills follows Thomas Wu, high school senior, as he deals with the emotional aftermath of a school shooting. The narrative jumps around in time with the day of the shooting told in 2nd person. Not a bad idea, but XYZ doesn’t provide likable characters or the emotional core needed for the story to work. Thomas himself is a special kind of obnoxious, forever going on about how socially awkward and shy he is. No wonder he doesn’t have any friends. At least he has a personality. The other characters are simply tools to manipulate our emotions. XYZ, if you want me lament a character’s death I’ve got to care about what happens to them first. You told me a lot about Jenny and Yue but I didn’t know them at all. For example, you kept saying that Thomas and Jenny shared this deep connection, but not once did you show them together communing. And when it came time for that tearful goodbye, well… it was just another stop on the way to the ending.

And it’s a hell of an ending. Abrupt, nonsensical, anti-climatic, and, most of all, limp. It’s the most arbitrary of points to stop the story. There’s an implication that the point of the story was Thomas’ connection to a person outside his family, but that narrative thread was so weak, and the outcome so inane (kids survive shooting and start elitist philosophy club) that I have suspicions this was less the intended ending and more “I don’t feel like working on this game anymore so I’m going to end it here.”

“So let’s get to work or something.”
And we did. It wasn’t too bad, more mediocre than anything else. Yue put the most work into it, and I tried to make an interactive fiction game. Inform 7 was harder to work with than I thought. Still, I managed to get a basic framework done. Despite being failtasticly bad, it was barely playable, and had a semblance of a plot which had nothing to do with the book. I never did finish it in time for the presentation. After what happened, I turned back to my failure of a game. Jenny and Yue were going to be in it. I was going to be in it, too. It’s the game you’re playing now.
Well obviously not THE game I’m playing now, unless a horrible school shooting with over 200 people dead escaped my attention. I do have to wonder if this game started as a school project. This passage strikes me as more that just a pithy little joke. It has the ring of truth. Yes, XYZ, Inform 7 IS hard. Harder than it lets on (all I got to say is thank goodness for Aaron Reed). But just because the scope of your game is larger than your commitment to it doesn’t mean you can just slap on a “The End” and call it a day.
The extreme linearity of East Grove Hills might be explained by this theory too. If the goal was first to make a text adventure and then, as the project soured, simply something salvageable it would be understandable as to why no details but the necessary ones are implemented and why no action but the one that moves the story forward is allowed.
Olson park
I used to come here on walks with my parents (and my… never mind) on a regularity that would disturb my peers. When I went here with my parents, I always tried to hide myself, just in case there was someone I knew here. The high school’s baseball team practices in the diamonds to the east, and the soccer kids play in the fields to the north. Northwest is the trail through the little forest and wetlands. To the west is the playground.
This is the first time I’ve been back here since… before? Nothing’s really changed. Except, the park was never this quiet. Maybe it’s my imagination again.
She’s probably over by the playground. I’m getting nervous. This is the first time that I actually wanted to meet someone here (who wasn’t a relative), instead of avoiding all contact.
I either can’t go that way or I don’t want to.
I either can’t go that way or I don’t want to.
I either can’t go that way or I don’t want to.
There’s nothing in here to justify this story as an interactive game rather than a short story. It’s not like Ramesses, where the lack of freedom gave insight into the character. Here there’s no justification beyond simple laziness.
“Well, that’s nice for you. I’m not fine at all.” She’s not fine. What a surprise.
Now is when things start getting really awkward. My skill in small talk is not one of my assets.
[1] “Um, so why did you call me?”
[2] Say nothing
I don’t say anything. The silence is somewhat awkward.
“Hey, aren’t you going to talk to me or something?”
[1] “Um, so why did you call me?”
[2] Say nothing
Then why even give me the choice? Why not just write the whole dialog you intended and give up the pretense of interactivity? In fact, offering the “Say nothing” choice hurts the immersion significantly at a crucial moment.
Front Desk
I was in relative safety. The front desk was a brick hexagon with one side open, and that side was covered by a chair and a few posters. Just to be safer, I put Yue underneath the side of the desk that I thought was least visible. I can’t see anything from here. I can’t see the shooters, but I know they’re here. One of them is somewhere around the commons and the other one is outside.
[1] Say nothing
[2] “Are you okay?”
[3] “Does it hurt?”
[4] “Are you going to be fine?”
The rate of gunshots was lower, I thought. Maybe everyone was already dead. I hear a door opening. The outside shooter was probably coming in.
I don’t say anything. The silence is somewhat awkward.
Time passed.
[1] Say nothing
[2] “Are you okay?”
[3] “Does it hurt?”
[4] “Are you going to be fine?”
Right, ’cause I wouldn’t want to make a social faux pas by staying quiet when there’s a killer gunman about.
Like I said, squandered. The past tense narrative voice, the premise, the very nature of interactive fiction: all thrown away. East Grove Hills could have worked, if only XYZ had committed to his or her story and tried a little harder to make their game a, you know, game.

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