The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
Game: Time Bastard
By: Matt Fendahleen
I'm often amazed at the quality of writing within the IF community, as contrasted to the other internet-based writing communities. Perhaps it's because the process of coding requires a certain amount of persistence; perhaps the time required to code everything allows writers more time in which to critically edit their prose; undoubtedly the betatesting process improves the overall standard of writing. Unfortunately, none of these apply when the piece in question happens to be a transcript. Maybe it's because the community's insularity scares the dull elves off... but anyway, the review.
I read Time Bastard last of all the walkthroughcomp entries, by chance as much as anything. Having seen the other entries, I wasn't expecting wonders. The first paragraph, therefore, blew me away: here, I realised, is some great writing. Maybe it's because I'm at that stage in my mental development where a) antiestablishment rants = the pinnacle of morality, b) revolting = funny, and c) packed with references = sophistication but, nonetheless, I was surprised at how little reaction to it there was. The reason is, most probably, the fact that it's just a transcript.
The characterisation is excellent, with regard to both the protagonist and of most of the other NPCs. In fact, it's far and away the strong point of the piece. Now, in a character, I like flaws. A character without flaws is dull, boring, and devoid of personality. Vincent Dobbs, the eponymous Time Bastard, appears to be entirely composed of character flaws. He considers dried human skin as a writing material 'a neat effect', hurls his own phlegm to solve puzzles, and hands his friends napalm on the pretext that it's Turkish Delight. In short, he is a self-admitted criminally insane sociopath. Naturally, this doesn't make him any the less endearing; the best comic characters are the evil ones; Dobbs would be the best PC of the year if he had actually been coded. (Given what he actually is, this is just a little ironic). To add to the characterisation, everything is delivered in the irreverent style of the PC, usually amused (alternating with bipolar rapidity between laconic and exuberant) but occasionally bubbling over into chain-reaction rage, and occasionally (heaven forbid!) even quasi-seriousness. Given the second-person perspective of the vast majority of IF, the definition of the PC by his description of his environment is a largely underused technique, especially to the extent to which it is taken by TB; there is not a puzzle (except, perhaps, in the final scene) that's resolved without, er... the phrase 'hilarity ensues' can actually be used with genuine meaning here. The humour, however dark it gets, is light-hearted in the most inappropriate contexts (see 'those kyoot Chinese kids they got working down in the Hazardous Materials refinery'); Vincent, in short, completely imposes himself upon the story at every level. And a good thing too.
As for the NPCs, I particularly loved Abdul. Much of the NPCs' actions reflect as much on the protagonist as on themselves, and there are some excellent touches here: for example, Abdul is reluctant to eat half of a 'undulating cube of living unpleasantness' offered to him by Vincent, on the principle that it might be something unpleasant again, but on realising that it's merely the remnants of a tentacled experiment in occult eugenics, that only a second ago was screeching at him from the ceiling, his response is "Ooo! Calamari!" Essentially, Abdul is just Vincent with a superiority complex and a reverence of Cthulhu. He appears, unlike Dobbs, to know what he's doing (this is undermined later on): this is pretty essential, since Abdul initiates most of the plot developments (one feels Vincent, left to his own devices, would never have done anything but hit people). Abdul's more remote bastardliness gives a different comic perspective on the Time Bastard theme; his brand of insanity is contrasted nicely with Vincent's, even when he's only demonstrating the finer details of Tourette's in the background.
Given that the main strength of the piece lies in well-developed unpleasant characters, it comes as a strong and ironic contrast that the, er, villain is so completely tedious. Abdul and Vincent may be disgusting, but Purity is far worse: she's bland (and intentionally so). Not only does she appear to be a graduate from the So, Mr Bond College of Unbelievable Bad Guys, (tell your enemies the intimate details of your evil masterplan, devise intricately horrible fates for them, let them escape) but she has no taste at all:
Eww, they're all sappy Larry Elmore-eque [sic] paintings of dragons! You can already feel your gorge beginning to rise.
As a symbol of homogenised corporate culture and a clichéd authority figure, she forms the ideal foil to Vincent; so much so that it's a little unbelievable that the latter would be able to divert himself to puzzle-solving in her presence instead of attempting grievous bodily harm. (The general anti-authority theme is well developed and, though parodied by exaggeration as often as anything else in the piece (see the It's Long Overdue rant) gives an impression of being essentially heartfelt). Apart from her role as a bad-guy parody, the humour fades and the tone becomes more serious as she becomes more prominent; Dobbs' previously explosive anti-authoritarian tone becomes almost subdued, which forms the dual role of allowing critical information to be imparted to the reader in a vaguely serious tone, and of developing a great deal of resentment: we want our interesting psycho back! What's this tedious apricot woman doing dominating the narrative and making the prose all pedestrian? Where's the mucus?
The basic plot, in Matt's own words, is Asshole Running Amok Through Time; this theme seems to be both separate from and (initially) stronger than the frame story and the plot; for a linear game, TB initially seems almost plotless. In fact, it seems to subvert all pretence of the game making sense to the development of the Bastard through Time idea; since it's basically an intriguing idea, it carries it off for long enough to keep the reader's attention to the final scene (though whether it could carry this off as walkthroughless IF is questionable; for example, in the penultimate Cromwell scene, not the strongest of the piece, the interest wanes; TB is essentially a rapid series of very powerful hooks, and the Cromwell scene doesn't have any). Rather than using the walkthroughcomp restraints as a starting point, the game feels as if the author took an idea and then hammered it into shape around the walkthrough. This turns out to be more or less the case; Matt says that the idea's about six years old.
The plot structure works well, although you don't notice this until you've re-read it at least once, and it leaves most of the details for the reader to work out. The final resolution puts into context all the miscellaneous unexplained weirdness and seeming irrationality of earlier scenes, and to a large extent justifies it; re-reading and explaining events in the light of the ending is as much fun as reading it for the first time. In the light of the ending, things which at first appeared to be simply jokes on the nature of parser interaction, on the confines of the walkthroughcomp, and at the expense of IF generally can be interpreted as plot hints, and things which initially seemed completely pointless or irrational turn out to be jokes on the walkthroughcomp confines. Since TB doesn't go out of its way to explain its every last detail, I found myself going through the piece with a fine-toothed comb and working out retrospective rationalisations. (A good technique; if you can get your readers cross-examining your writing, everything in that writing grows in significance). It even, potentially, explains why hard-man psychopath Dobbs is so intimately familiar with the details of geek subjects (IF, RPGs, use of the phrase w00t).
For example, the sort of IF in which you don't know why you're trying to solve a puzzle until you've solved it, and possibly a couple more puzzles down the line. (I'm thinking of the Gold Boat puzzle in Heroine's Mantle here). Time Bastard is very much that sort of IF, but constantly refers to the fact that this is the case (see the unreservedly superb Treasure Frenzy! conversation; initially, this appears to be solely genre satire (and there's plenty in here that was probably intended only as genre parody) but this is rationalised by the ending. The plot, which up until the ending (and second reading) strikes one as a weak frame for a lot of injokes, character development and comp restraints, is suddenly justified in its own right; this sleight of hand gives it perhaps more apparent weight than it deserves in its own right. Another very nice technique, and the appreciation of good technique always adds to the enjoyment of a piece.
If TB had been a fully-coded game, I would have said it had a good level of verbosity; since it's a transcript, this would have been easier to achieve, and had it been actually interactive and without walkthrough, several commands (especially towards the end) would have been all but impossible to complete, but nonetheless: this is the density and quality of writing that makes the difference between text-based adventure and interactive literature. The same argument and qualifiers apply to the game's (?) length. Similarly, it's been pointed out that it had something of an advantage over the other transcript walkthroughcomp entrants in that it makes abundant use of non-essential commands which are, in fact, essential to have any idea about what's going on, if not to actually complete the game it represents. It's a reasonable point, but can't really detract from TB's value as a piece in its own right.
TB is just a little bit injokey. If you don't follow rec.arts.int-fiction flame wars, one scene in particular makes no sense at all, but is hilarious otherwise. There are throwaway and considerably-less-than-throwaway references to a host of other works of IF, which, are, as injokes tend to be, amusing if you get 'em and confusing if you don't. Apart from that, it draws heavily (again, with knowing amusement) on the Cthulhu genre and on The Matrix. (Except that it takes steps the Matrix was too chicken to make; for example, the protagonist is part of nTopia rather than a human trapped in it, and the lead villain is much more closely identified with corporate megalomania and intrinsic human evil). And, yes, apparently that title is a corruption of the Terry Gilliam vehicle Time Bandits. As heavily and frequently as TB draws on genre and even cliché, it always does so, as with everything else, in gleefully self-aware style; the Pretentious Nazi Occultist Literature section is perhaps the most obvious example.
TB is well-written, acutely self-aware, and so funny that it made me laugh out loud at least once; it's a demonstration of what a well-conceived comp can achieve, an example of how very raw good ideas can be nailed down to some sort of structure, and extremely enjoyable to read. In short, in my humble opinion, this would be an excellent example of how IF should be done, if it were actually IF. Curse.
Who's_y0ur_d4ddy, indeed. If this doesn't get turned into full-blown IF, Matt had better be prepared to be woken up one morning by the Yith breaking down his door.