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Thursday, October 3, 2013

Review - Who Among Us

What a title, amirite? Who Among Us hasn't stared forlornly at the blank computer screen waiting for the muses to will a perfect title into our heads and onto the page? Who Among Us hasn't had trepidation over doing another Web based game and hoped against hope that it won't be another hypertext choose your own adventure story? Who Among Us didn't love those books when we were kids, spending hours in the library flipping from one page to the other, trying not to die countless horrible deaths over and over again, and Who Among Us didn't outgrow that phase and start playing Interactive Fiction because of the word "Interactive"? Who Among Us doesn't love a rhetorical a question? Anyway, let's hope my fears will be allayed and this will be awesome. Fingers crossed!!

Quick Take Review: Basically an interactive version of And Then There Were None... or wait, I mean a NON-interactive version.

Okay, another one I didn't finish. I didn't finish with this one because I just kept getting mad. And madder and madder.

The story is promising: you and a bunch of other suspicious eccentrics are summoned (or lured) to an abandoned laboratory in a remote Russian village for unexplained reasons. It's a motley crew including a beautiful journalist, a sketchy doctor, a put-upon repair man, a pair of self-obsessed celebrities, and remarkably the warden of the prison you escaped from. Add a pair of suspicious police officers and cue the murder parade! Contrived? Yes. Been-There-Done-That? Yes. But I'm a sucker for these kind of stories and it's a testament to my love of this genre that I read for as long as I did.

Please note the verb choice. I read. And read. And read. I did not make any decisions. I didn't choose to go on any multiple or branching paths. The only options I was ever presented with (and those being EXTREMELY rare instances) was the very occasional opportunity to choose in which order I wanted to examine things. Regardless of the choice I made, all would be examined. This was not a game. This was not even a branching narrative. This was a short story written in the second person that I read paragraph by paragraph, selecting the only option available to me: "continue."
Who Among Us had all the interactivity of one of these.

My fondness for this kind of (admittedly dopey) story kept egging me on, kept me reading to see if it would ever turn into anything approaching an interactive narrative. It did not. And the reason I started getting upset, is that I know from my own experience how taxing and challenging it is to write ACTUAL Interactive Fiction. The kind that gives the player (note I didn't use the word "reader") options. The ability to look at objects and examine them more closely. The ability to move where you wish. The chance to fiddle with things, push and pick things up. Interact with your fellow non-character players. That takes a lot of work. What doesn't take near as much work is regular prose. Part of the pain of writing interactive fiction is knowing that maybe 90% of what you write isn't going to be seen by the average player. But you write and code all of that extra work so that regardless of who's playing and what choices they make, you never break the illusion of seamlessness. Of potential. That their choices matter and that they can make those choices their OWN.

I didn't finish this piece. By the time I hung up my hat four of the guests had already been brutally murdered. Perhaps if the text had been written in a more engrossing manner I would have kept at it, but, while not dreadful, the style of writing could be best described as perfunctory. Not enough to warrant the fact that the author decided to enter a piece of NON-Interactive Fiction into a contest specifically written for pieces that encourage and reward and respond to readers attempts to interface with them. Man, if all the web based games turn out like this, I may have to skip this platform all together. We shall see.


  1. So I'm commenting here actually partly because of your other review in which you mention our conflicting views about this one. For what it's worth, I don't disagree with you that Who Among Us is pretty linear. But in my experience, interactivity in interactive fiction does not have to be for the purpose of letting the player solve challenges, change the outcome of the story, or even pace the exposition. Those are all cool things interactivity *can* do, but they're not the limit of what's possible; an interactive linear fiction can still be interactive fiction in a meaningful way. And for me, the interaction in Who Among Us was about heightening the suspense and strengthening the player-protagonist bond.

    I would imagine that if I had read the text of Who Among Us written down as a non-interactive story, I would not have liked it much. The lead character is fairly unsympathetic, most of the other characters are basically impossible to know, and the plot concept is one I've seen before.

    The interaction, however, made it an actively better experience for me. It made me more nervous for the protagonist, more concerned about exploring the basement, more committed to the story. (For what it's worth, there are also some choices you can make at the very end that *do* affect the outcome of the story -- it just takes some while to get there.)

    That said, my experience was still subjective, and it doesn't make you *wrong.*

  2. Wow. Thanks so much for commenting Emily! I've been a huge fan and follower of your blog for ages. The work you've done in the IF community is legendary!

    I understand what you mean, in some respect, and as you mentioned in your own review, the limiting of options allows for heightened characterization of the player. However there ARE ways to prod the player in regular IF and just because there were a multiple outcomes at the end doesn't excuse the lack of the interaction in the beginning. At least not for me.

    Anyway, I'm just rambling because... wow. I feel sort of like I'm talking to royalty! Thanks so much Emily!