The One that Got Away

By Leon Lin, August 1995 (TADS).
Review: Gareth Rees.

My favourite entry in the 1995 interactive fiction competition. The puzzles aren't up to much, but who cares? The writing is superb, atmospheric, and very funny. I usually find myself impatient with long sequences of text in adventure games, but even though The One that Got Away was brimful with text, I enjoyed it immensely. I must have spent ten times as long thinking of things to say to Bob as I did trying to catch any fish. I suppose I have a soft spot for this kind of mock American pioneer folklore.

I laughed out loud at some of the more purple passages, especially the example game sequence in the pamphlet, which is an accurate pastiche of the Infocom style of sample transcripts and at the same time a hilarious take on Moby Dick:

Curse you, Doby the Mackrel, curse you! Pete exclaims, shaking his fist at the sea. From Hell's heart I stab at thee.

I have a nitpick about an inconsistency in the text: if you type kiss bob, then Bob replies, I've been lonely since the missus died, but according to his other speeches, he has been mourning his first love Nellie all his life and has never married: I always thought Nellie might come back, and I've waited, just minding this store, but I guess it'll never be.

However, I think it's a good sign when characters have enough background that I can worry about consistency like this. No other game in the competition had anything like this level of backstory.

Carl Muckenhoupt (<>) wrote the following in the newsgroup

I'd put [The One that Got Away] in the category of 'could have been written in AGT with no appreciable decline in quality' [...] I like detail. I like background objects that are fully fleshed-out. I like doodads with lots of parts that can be poked at individually. I like characters that do more that just stand there, waiting to respond to your actions. These are all things that AGT handles clumsily, if at all. Neither Toonesia nor The One gave us much beyond Rooms containing Objects.

I think this criticism is unfair. The complexity of implementation of a game should be just as complex as required by the story and characterisation, and no more. Just because it is possible to write a sliding-block puzzle in Inform or TADS, doesn't mean that every game should have some similar piece of complex machinery. Similarly, just because computers are large enough to store hundreds of thousands of words of prose, doesn't mean that every game should have pages and pages of irrelevant descriptive text (which is very hard to write vividly). It's kinder on the player to just say that's not important than to produce a dull description that nonetheless has to be read carefully for clues.

When I play Adventure today, I don't think, This game would have been much improved if the lamp had a wick that had to be cut and adjusted every 100 turns, or if the nasty little dwarves had Eliza-style natural language parsers so that dwarf, why do you throw knives at me would produce the response Is the fact that I throw knives at you the reason why you are unhappy?.

If a story can be told well using only objects and rooms, then why not tell it that way? The One that Got Away was a very effective piece of fiction because it was concerned with people and their feelings and motivations, rather than mechanical puzzles. I agree that it doesn't expand the boundaries of what is possible with interactive fiction, but other entries in the competition (notably Undertow) demonstrated that it's extremely difficult to expand these boundaries without losing a lot of valuable qualities that The One that Got Away had. To put it another way, a genre has boundaries to explore because there's a solid core of technically routine but artistically successful work to react against.

I hope that Lin writes more interactive fiction, and that he continues to orient his work towards strong characters. Other peoples' comments in the newsgroup suggest that he should work on the structure of the game - The One was too easy to finish without ever having to quiz Bob about the history behind the game; instead, the puzzles should have been an inducement to explore the background - and on the quality and number of the puzzles.

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Andrew Clover