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IFCOMP 2007 - In The Mind Of The Master

Game #7: In The Mind Of The Master
By David Whyld
Played On: October 11th (2 hours 25 minutes)
Platform: Adrift (Version 4)
Merkís Score: 8-

     "Xyzzy," said the Master.
     At once, an item was added to his inventory.

     The Master was carrying:
        _the Master's garments {worn}
        _a purple pingabalong

     "Xyzzy," said the Master.
     At once, an item was removed from his inventory.

     "Xyzzy," said the Master.
     At once... nothing happened.

     I have to wonder if David Whyld does anything other than write Interactive Fiction. It would be an easy notion to dismiss if his games were generic and churned out over the course of an otherwise uneventful weekend, but theyíre not. In The Mind Of The Master is another fine example of what David can do with his platform of choice (Adrift), and itís a worthy addition to his ever-growing list of authored titles.

     In The Mind Of The Master begins with a hasty escape. A mystery surrounds the identity of the titular PC, and itís played up as the main focus of the story. He makes his getaway disguised as one of three characters, as chosen by the player. This hints at who the Master might be. As more than just an amateur impressionist, The Master dons the selected costume and assumes the persona of the chosen character. Stage actor? Professional magician? Criminal fugitive? Discovering the truth is the hook.

     The middle parts begin to hint at possibilities that can only be explained by the supernatural or metaphysical. More than once, he is mistaken for someone else. It could be that these people just see through his disguise, but even The Master himself begins to doubt that itís quite as simple as that. Itís as though he lacks all the facts about his own identity. I was reminded of the scene in Fight Club where ďJackĒ follows a trail of clues to a bar where his cohort Tyler Durden had been the night before. The bartender is somber and respectful, somehow mistaking Jack for Tyler. Disguise and impersonation just arenít enough to explain it away.

     With that kind of build-up, itís easy to expect a big payoff at the end. But -- and I donít know quite how to describe this without blatant spoilers -- thereís sort of a catch-22. To win, you must take a specific action in the final scene (David even warns of this, in the introductory text). If you havenít figured out what The Master is capable of, hoping it will be revealed near the ending, then you donít know what winning action is necessary. So you canít win. But if you have figured it out, then there is no twist or revelation at all. You must have already known it in order to win. I had to get it from the hints, because I just hadnít figured it out. Itís hinted near the beginning, but (a) itís not something every player is guaranteed to see, (b) itís near hints to many other possibilities as well, which come during that first scene, and (c) is distanced enough from the end that even if you take notice of it, it might not trigger whatever spark of imagination allows a player to extrapolate actions from clues.

     I had expected a different construction entirely, that late in the game. Because there are three initial disguises, and because there is some sort of specific action at the end, and because some sort of repetitive, do-over theme was present and foreshadowed, I convinced myself that the trick was to play twice more (once as each of the other two characters). After one time through, it doesnít feel like a very long game, so this kind of thing made sense. I think you can learn a little more by playing again with different options, but itís not necessary that you do. All paths lead back to the same scenes. It seems constructed this way not to necessitate re-plays as a means of solving that final puzzle, but simply to give players a wider range of choices and to make re-plays worth the effort.

     What I thought was going on -- and what would probably make an interesting short game in its own right -- was that some import clue from a three-piece puzzle would be identified by playing once as each of the available characters. It would be necessary for the player to combine the one thing learned from each in order to deduce that final action. The order of play wouldnít matter, and a complete re-start (as opposed to having the game ďputĒ you back at the beginning) wouldnít hurt things. Once you reached the end for the third time, you would simply know what to do.

     Perhaps because it didnít work that way, or perhaps because there remains a mystery behind The Masterís true identity even at the end, I wasnít completely satisfied by the story. I really bought into the premise, though, and they say the journey is its own reward. I had fun, even though I wish David hadnít opted to leave it open for theories. I would have liked to know for sure just what was going on in The Masterís past.

     Then, a few things that never made it fully into the game (more detailed notes available at the gameís end explain this) added to the mystery without ever sharing in the conclusion. For instance, the guy who picks up The Master (in the guise of a Gentleman) in a limo was intended to be part of another sub-plot. Who runs the Chamber, and whatís their agenda? Until I read the walkthrough, I hadnít even realized the Chamber and the Montalban were related (I thought I had been taken elsewhere). This was supposed to be a bigger, more epic game. Itís probably good that the point is explained in the authorís notes, otherwise it would be easy for a player to think he or she simply missed finding those answers during the course of the game.

     The story is written in third person past tense. In other words, ďyou see a treeĒ is expressed as ďhe saw a tree.Ē Maybe itís to force a disconnection between player and PC. Maybe itís to support that these are events that have already happened. Or, maybe itís just to set the game apart from its peers. Whatever the reason, Iím not sure it was necessary. While it affords the author an ability to cast emotions and memories onto the PC which the player may not share, it suffers from a few unintentional lapses into the more traditional present tense.

     The writing has a few other minor problems (misspellings, odd and obvious typos, etc.) in a few random spots. I noticed very minor bugs and implementation issues too, but nothing substantial enough to dwell upon. It really moves along at a nice pace overall, avoiding many of the parsing and implementation problems that are the bane of other Adrift games.

     Part of this is certainly the authorís skill with so many games under his belt, but on reflection, itís more than that. At times, the story felt as though it was on rails. It usually wasnít (at least, not to the degree one might expect from the term ďon railsĒ), but almost any stray action will redirect the player back, making it clear that this other location or this specific distraction doesnít merit further attention. Beyond that, the text is written in a way that somehow provides vivid enough mental images without offering an abundance of ďstuffĒ to interact with. So, thereís less for the author to have to implement, and less for the player to concern himself or herself with.

     The puzzles are pretty light fare, except for one particular sticking point outside the Montalban (in disguise as a thief), and of course at the very end. Most of the puzzles are probably just plot-pacing devices. The more difficult sequences to manage -- conversations -- are done through multiple-choice dialogue menus.

     In The Mind Of The Master is a pretty strong entry. Its weakest point, however, is that it poses too many questions that remain unanswered and left up to the playerís imagination at the end. In a story-centric game, I think players deserve a little more. Unless itís the lead-in for a sequel, it should probably be a lot more. Otherwise, the entire premise -- the driving question that propels a player to take such interest in discovering an answer -- seems like an unfulfilled promise.

     At two hours, I rated the game an ď8Ē. Thatís also the score Iíve kept for the review, although it gets an unfortunate ďminusĒ for building a mystery that isnít quite resolved. It could use a little more polish, but itís still a deserving and recommendable entry.

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