Review: Alice Aforethought

Alice Aforethought is a hypertext IF that leverages characters and some of the otherworldly mechanics of Wonderland. According to the splash screen, it is written in AXMA Story Maker, a system unfamiliar to me, but one that seems promising in terms of capabilities. The core of the story is told in prose, with highlighted hyperlinks either leading to other pages or bringing up floating text boxes in front of other text. To the side of the screen, there are other areas with clickable text, for example, inventory.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

Based on the blurb, I was keen to play this game: Time had stopped, and I assumed that I would need to employ Wonderland’s bent logic to set things right again. That assumption was rewarded: the game has a mechanism to move not only in the usual real world dimensions but some imaginary ones as well, forward and backward in time. I suppose this is the first game where I might describe the character’s position as a complex number.

This is a creative, powerful ability, and one that must be frightening to write because the number outcomes begins to explode and loop back on themselves. Additionally, the character can be either in our world or the mirror universe, which has different laws and expectations. I have to give the author a lot of credit for this set up, and for devising goals that require the player to jump back and forth between universes and timeframes.

From a theoretical standpoint, this is an outstanding game. Some of the writing and humor is also on the mark. Standard IF puzzles such as looking under rugs and pushing a key out of a keyhole are given a justifiable ribbing.

However, something in this game did not work for me. I found myself staring at the interface, a little overwhelmed, but also unsure how to get things done. For all the times that I have ever complained about Twine stories with a couple options at the bottom of each screen, I take it back. Having the options in a consistent place makes navigation easier. I think I was done in by just how flexible this AXMA system is. That plus the mind-bending nature of this game fried my brain.

The repetitive nature of some game elements also got to me. The puzzle about making the keyhole laugh is a clever one, but without recourse to the walkthrough, it would not have occurred to me that I needed to barrage the keyhole with every Raven riddle. Similarly, I found the falling scene strained – on one hand because the player’s interaction is not required and text flashed by, but also because of how long it took. It is a brave, brave author who gives the player the option of clicking “I’m bored” over and over to make a scene go by faster.

And yet, I know that having the scene take a long time and having text flash by is a directorial choice by the author. It does convey that the fall was a very long one, exactly as a movie might. The player does have some agency in this: to speed or slow the descent. The very fact that these effects can be rendered in a hypertext game is impressive, and for full disclosure, I have to admit to doing something very similar in my first story, Nine-Tenths of the Law. I had written that story while learning Inform6 and the fall down a rabbit hole was a chance for me to play with the ability to place characters on the screen in absolute position, creating text that snaked its way down the screen. In retrospect, this was an okay effect, but did it need to go on for a few screens? Similarly, I feel that this story would have benefitted from less demonstration of AXMA’s capabilities, and more focus on game play.

After a while of playing, I fell back to the walkthrough to make sure I was on the right track. I glazed over a little in reading through the manual, and decided to shelf the game. I felt that after struggling up to that point, I wasn’t mentally awake enough to keep going. There’s no sense in approaching this game unless you thinking cap is on and functional, so my intention is to come back to it and take it again from the top with fresh eyes. In terms of IFcomp rating, though, I have to base it on the first play through.

Evaluation

Story: 7

Voice: 9

Play: 4

Polish: 9

Technical: 8

JNSQ: 0

Preliminary Score: 7.4

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