Catapole is a cut above the other two games in the competition, and among the best games I’ve played this year. It is not necessarily a long game, but it does some serious world building. The main character, Jenker Harmlot, is a chimney sweep — apparently, one of the best, as he’s the employee of the month. He has one more chimney to clean before turning in for the evening, so he sets out on his task. Along the way, we learn a lot about him, and the society in which he lives.
Over the course of the game, we learn of some class divisions in society. There’s an above ground society, which is less and less known to the successive generations of underground workers who labor to produce power and materials for their upstairs cousins.
His assignment doesn’t go very well. His chimney sweeping partner, they guy who stays up top and lowers him down, is thrown into the chimney and sliced to pieces by fan blades. Apparently, these aren’t so much your Santa Claus type chimneys, but more the industrial kind. Who did it? Those who are intent on bringing down the class structure. They’ve specifically targeted overachieving Jenker as a message to the other workers.
After the somewhat gruesome (see, there really are grues) death of Jenker’s buddy, Markus, the game can take several courses depending on what Jenker does. The multiple endings are seamlessly integrated, and give the player a great deal of freedom is deciding what happens. Jenker can fight the resistance, he can run away, or he could even break with his mundane life, join the resistance, and end the game on the surface. Each of these is a well-written ending, although the last one feels the most satisfying.
Points are not easy to come by in this game, and I don’t think I found them all. The voice is consistent, with excellent bits of humor. Any item that is implemented is given a thorough description, although some items that are mentioned in passing are not implemented. Aside from that one criticism, though, this game gets full marks, so a nine. I think this game would have ranked amongst the top entries in the IF Comp 2009, language barrier aside.
One observation about both this game and La Chambre de Syrion: the games have some non-interactive elements, where text is revealed paragraph by paragraph, with each tap on the space bar. I remember this being very annoying in Condemned this year, but it was almost transparent in these games. I did not feel a lack of agency, even though these were essentially cut scenes. I think the difference is that the blocks of text were short: one or two lines, and not a giant text bomb. Also, this method lends itself to both establishing a sense of timing and revealing twisting plot little by little. You literally don’t see what’s coming next until you hit the space bar.
[note added in proof — originally, I had mentioned that this takes place in a society of Elves. I had written these reviews up about a week after playing all three games, and although I had my notes in front of me, I mangled it. Elves were part of Chambre de Syrion, not Catapole. I guess I had Elves on the brain, though. For some reason, I found it easy to imagine Jenker as a dark elf, like a drow. It didn’t help that I was editing Rover’s Day Out for the post-comp-comp and Hoosegow for the JiG competition at the same time. Sometimes multitasking is not a good thing. Anyhow, this was a fun game — and it won the French IF Competition for 2009. Hope to see more from all three authors next year! – Jack]