Reiko's Ramblings and Writings

What I'm reading and writing about lately.

IFComp 2015 Review: Life On Mars?

Posted by Reiko on November 26, 2015

This is a review of a game from the 2015 Interactive Fiction Competition. Scoring criteria can be found here.

Life On Mars?
Author: Hugo Labrande
Format: Z-code

Wow, the first word that popped into my head when I thought about describing this piece was “realistic.” The psychological and political ramifications of the catastrophic crash of the first manned mission to Mars are explored in great and realistic detail through the email archives of Charlotte, the sole survivor of that crash. What really struck me partway through is the way that the bland formality of the official messages (“I can only begin to imagine the hardships you may have gone through…”) started to elicit that totally realistic “blah blah blah corporatespeak” reaction. Of course nobody can imagine what it was actually like to survive the crash! They weren’t there!

And Charlotte is legitimately pissed off at the patronizing messages. “Oh, we’re so sorry about this, how about we give you a raise and a nice retirement package?” (If you ever return to Earth to spend it, of course.) Oh, it’s so tough to live in such conditions, so have a medal for your courage. (What do they expect her to do, kill herself instead of dealing with it?) The food supplies went up in flames? Well, you’ll just have to live off the minimal garden that’s already there for five months until we can send you some more. (Practical, but how about a cookbook?) Are you traumatized? Here’s a psychologist who’s mostly going to insult your intelligence while she tries to help you.

All this is brilliantly executed by showing the text of the selected email appearing at reading speed, with Charlotte’s thoughts in response to the contents appearing in parallel. It’s not clear early on just how traumatized she really is, but later, based on her refusal to do any analysis or even sleep in the crew quarters, she’s clearly very traumatized. I actually thought she was a little less sympathetic at that point, but maybe I just can’t empathize with that level of trauma.

Unfortunately, after a lot of backstory, there isn’t much action available, and hardly any ending. She’s clearly jumping at shadows (and why doesn’t she have any sort of decent flashlight at least, given that parts of the base seem to be dark?), but there’s also evidence that something strange is going on. But she’s so traumatized that she can’t investigate properly and the game ends without explaining what’s actually going on. That’s awfully disappointing after the great start. I normally only score a game downward for shortness if it takes me a half hour or less to finish (approximately; it’s not a hard rule), but while I spent at least that just reading all the emails, the actions to complete the game probably only require 10-15 minutes, so that’s a negative factor, as is the lack of a resolution to the mystery. This could have scored a 9, given more to do and a better ending.

Time: 45 min (30 reading emails)
Score: base 7, +1 for detailed email backstory, +1 for real-time email unspooling, -1 for lack of resolution, -1 for shortness
Score: 7

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