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Spider and Web

by Andrew Plotkin profile

Science Fiction/Espionage
1998

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Number of Reviews: 15
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A mid-length sci-if puzzle game with two outstanding ideas, February 3, 2016
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours
Spider and Web is one of the most famous interactive fiction games, appearing at or near the top of several lists of Best IF. While I personally have enjoyed some other games more, Spider and Web is still in my top 10. I believe that part of its fame is its ability to draw in every kind of gamer; the story is interesting, the puzzles are hard but get easier with each failure, and those that don't know what to do after the transition mentioned in the game's ABOUT text can still feel great about their accomplishments.

In this science fiction game, you encounter a wide variety of technological devices. You must learn how they work. It' shard to be more specific without giving away plot details.

The game has two brilliant innovations. One is the puzzle it is most famous for, which causes the big transition I mentioned above. Most walkthrough said refuse to give the solution to this puzzle, as a gift to first time players. It took me a day to get over the shock of solving it.

The second innovation is the narrative structure. It frames the game in a way that no one had done as successfully before, and provides an interesting mechanic for hints.

Everyone should play it at least once. I played it the first week I started IF five years ago, and I played it last month, and it was great both times.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Perfect, stripped down execution of the concept, February 25, 2015
by Matt W (San Diego, CA)
Spider and Web is the perfect distillation of an IF story that is designed entirely around a particular conceit. I'd say there's no way this story could be told in another medium, but (Spoiler - click to show) The Usual Suspects has a very similar structure, though it involves the viewer as dupe rather than Spider and Web's very clever involvement of the reader as the creator of the deception. I enjoyed Spider and Web very much; it's a reasonably short, well contained experience that shouldn't be missed by anyone interested in how interactivity can work in novel ways.

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A masterpiece, February 12, 2014
by Simon Deimel (Germany)
So, as this game seems to be praised by everyone, I finally decided to check it out. It is hard to give a review about this game without spoilers, so read with care. It starts with a scene that let's you think you are a tourist, but the player will very soon be taught better.

In the first part of the game two kinds of scenes take turn -- the protagonist tries to retrace what he previously did, and if there is something deviant from the actions that happened before the actual gameplay, the gameplay will move to an interrogation room where the player is told why it cannot have happened like he tried it. These interludes are helpful, they give hints what to do. The player has to work with certain gadgets found in the inventory. It is fine to experiment with them -- if something is not correct, the game will switch to the interrogation, and the situation can be replayed. The conversational system is quite simplified and reminds of a platonic dialogue: the player can only confirm or negate the questions of the interrogator. It is easy, but sufficient.
It all changed for me when the protagonist's life was at stake for the first time. I had read some comments before, it had been inevitable; and there had been remarks that the game contains one outstanding puzzle -- and there it was. Thinking about actions that might have effect -- no matter how likely they would succeed -- I tried something, and then something happened that changed my whole point of view about the situation. Yes, the voices had been right. This puzzle is one of the best I have ever encountered. It is perfectly integrated into the storyline.
It is advisable to save the game frequently during the second part, especially in the end game. There are tough situations and the player has a hard time not making a mistake. These moments come very close to what we call stealth action, in a text-based version -- it is excellently managed to convey a feeling of being pursued and trying to evade from the scene. The second part may be a bit tedious, because the puzzle conjoining the parts has too much of an actual climax. But it still fits the frame.

So, what is the conclusion? The game may be a bit too tough for beginners, but everyone who likes interactive fiction has to play it sooner or later. This is a masterpiece.

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A good magic trick of a game, June 8, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: andrew plotkin, zarf
Play it if: you want a short, sweet line of puzzles with a couple of good twists.

Don't play it if: you want a less linear, more open game that lets you take your time and explore, or a spy story that focuses less on plot and more on theme.

At least at the time of its release, Spider and Web was obviously a novel concept for IF, if not so much for storytelling in general (connections to Rashomon have already been pointed out, but let's not forget The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; and The Usual Suspects, which had hit the theaters in 1995). Me, I came to IF relatively recently barring Zork I, so the historical impact of the game is lost on me. But does it hold up by itself?

Yes. Putting aside the then experimental nature of the game, this is still an appreciably good bit of IF. One thing I've always liked about the medium is that, aside from the really early history, IF can age extremely well, and this is one work which feels like it could have been written yesterday.

Aside from a couple of people who seem not to have finished the game, there's not much other than high praise for Spider and Web here. Most of the positive aspects of the game have already been outlined. So I'll mostly skip that, except to say that I really love games like this and Sean Barrett's The Weapon, where you have to discover and solve at the same time, and do it under observation (it really adds a sense of urgency and pizzazz to the puzzle-solving process). Instead I'll take the time to address some of its flaws.

This is necessarily spoiler-heavy, so...

(Spoiler - click to show)In terms of gameplay before the big reveal, there are one or two moments which feel somewhat underclued. The lockpick distraction method doesn't entirely make sense to me, not least because the lockpick strikes me as the tool a master infiltrator would be least likely to part with. I might as well have just thrown the minilamp, surely? It didn't also make much sense to me that the functions of each dial on the timer weren't explained in the descriptions of the dials; pretty much everything that wasn't intuitive for the other tools was explained upon examination, so why not the timer?

The game does lose a lot of my interest after the big reveal, and I think it's because the climactic sequence is longer than it really needs to be. In a longer game with more varied puzzles I would have found it acceptable, but choreographing your efforts to complete the game takes up enough of the gameplay time that it feels like another game tacked on. It doesn't help that the puzzles bear little relation to what you've been doing up until that point, with the exception of the common geography.

I accept that it might have been difficult to squeeze the post-escape sequence into just a few paragraphs of exposition, and there's no honest middle ground between the two options...but then I simply have to chalk it up to the story being written into a corner, albeit an enjoyable one. The Usual Suspects, in contrast, basically ends with that analogous twist and, regardless of whether or not you appreciated the plot that came before, I think it's fairly obvious that setting the film's climax after that reveal would have been a lot less punchy and a lot more tedious.

I also have mixed feelings about the discussion of moral concepts in the story. Don't get me wrong, I'm a sucker for Cold War narratives and the murky worlds of arms escalation and espionage, but in order for such narratives to work you need the other side to give you something to work with, and while the interrogator has a good deal of personality the PC has almost none (aside from a few flashes of attitude in the first couple of turns). While the conceit of having the PC know more than the player is well-done, it would have worked even better had it been connected with the moral dimension of the story. If the PC actually responded to the interrogator with opinions and ideas, it would have added an extra layer to the intrigue: is what you're saying part of the patter to get him to accept your story, or is it actually what you believe? Or is it even both? The ambiguity in the game is purely external - by which I mean it affects the plot, not the actual stances and opinions of the player character.


In the end, this is still a very good game, and I would argue, worth your time. It's not really a masterpiece, though. A generally well-done employment of one or two neat tricks in a story short enough for them not to outstay their welcome.

Pretty rad, April 2, 2012
I quite enjoyed this game - once I figured it out. I found myself trapped for some time, but once I got past that, the game got awesome. I love the ending(s). All great.(Spoiler - click to show) My favorite is, of course, the part where you use the acid to escape. I love that former knowledge and understanding of all the tools at your disposal give you the answer to the puzzle. And the answer is very simple. of course, the whole fact that the player starts knowing nothing is slightly frustrating, it also leads to an excellent result :) certainly one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I have played so far. Good stuff! I look forward to readig more of your work.

2 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Cool idea but a little too narrow, September 5, 2011
by Deboriole (San Diego, CA)
Related reviews: Espionage, gadgets, spy
I have to honest. I did not make it through this game. I was full of excitement when I started to play, but as soon as I typed 'i' and was carrying nothing of importance -- and later discovered this wasn't entirely true -- I became a little annoyed. I understand the reasoning behind this (because the player knows nothing at the start) but I found the handicap of this sort of play to be more bothersome than cool. The last straw for me was... (Spoiler - click to show)hiding from the guards. I knew I had to distract them with a noise and spent more than an hour trying to put together different pieces of spy equipment (voice transmitter, etc.) to throw them off. When I finally looked up the answer and saw all I had to do was throw a metal object, I decided to stop playing. In other words, there seemed to be endless combinations of how I could distract the guards, yet none of them worked -- which disappointed me.

I would recommend this game to anyone who loves tinkering with gadgets and doesn't mind a somewhat forced-control sort of environment. This just wasn't the right game for me.

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Intricate, February 1, 2011
This game channels the player towards a pivotal, brilliant, "gestalt" puzzle which requires the player to piece together a couple of different patterns that the narrative created through its repetition of the backstory. The fact that the puzzle works so well is impressive all by itself, but "Spider and Web" also features clipped, stylish prose that creates a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere and describes a sinister, memorable NPC.

2 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Amazing game, what most IF can only hope to achieve, December 5, 2010
This game is so good it hurts.

Really really good use of the medium. I have attempted to tell so many people about this game that my friends are bored. This is the memory of playing that I pull out when I am trying to explain to a non-IF player what the genre is all about and how exciting and mind-bending it can be.

Not really a spoiler, but marked for the especially sensitive:
(Spoiler - click to show)There is a part in the game in which I realized that what I was doing as the PC (in a flashback) was not what I had really done.

It created this weird moment when I realized that the author and I had entered into a strange conspiracy to tell the computer lies. In other words, the game state was not merely contained within some data structure in software, but existed in the mind of the player and the author. Weird.

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
What else is there to tell?, November 27, 2010
by The Year Is Yesterday (California)
Spider and Web is all about trial and error. Yet it somehow manages to make those trials and errors fun, intriguing, and occasionally illuminating. A too heavy-handed description of the story, or even the gameplay, would ruin the several "a-ha!" moments that Plotkin has set up for you. Play for a few minutes and you'll see the first. The second is nested much deeper.... While the game provides enough hints to keep things moving along, I was occasionally overwhelmed by the multitude of items in my possession, and the occasionally maze-like layout of the setting. However, there's a cognitively dissonant moment near the end - you'll know it when you see it - that could only be pulled off in IF, and only by somebody like Plotkin. It's when - no, I'll never tell.

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
A clever take on Rashomon, May 14, 2010
by TempestDash (Cincinnati, Ohio)
This was my third Plotkin-written game (discounting the Plotkin-starring game I played first, ‘Being Andrew Plotkin’) and I think it’s my favorite thus far. “So Far” was somewhat standard adventure hunt and puzzle faire (at least from a modern perspective, maybe in 1996 it was evolutionary), which was well written but wasn’t very fun for me. Then “Shade” was surreal and technically accomplished but left me feeling very unsatisfying because, ultimately, dream logic is really the absence of logic and Interactive Fiction games suffer horribly if you can’t figure out what the author was thinking.

Finally, “Spider and Web” has helped me understand why zarf is such a popular figure in IFdom. Spider and Web starts with a somewhat conservative opening, a man standing in an alley in front of a door he can’t open. But just as you are about to get bored (which the game figures out by you either standing around doing nothing or simply walking away from the door) you are suddenly blinded by light and find the curtain of the world torn away.

It turns out you have been captured by an organization and have been strapped to a chair to be interrogated. The interrogation is taking place in a unique manner, however. You’ve been connected to a computer which is allowing you to step into places you know from your memory and re-enact the events that led to your capture while your interrogator watches the play from his console. Ostensibly, the ‘game’ is about trying to figure out what you had done the first time around so you can show your interrogator and prevent him from killing you in frustration. The simulation you’re placed in allows you some freedom in that goal, but any time you do something that contradicts the evidence your interrogator has gathered, you are stopped and forced to restart the simulation after being told why what you did doesn’t match the evidence gathered.

Even if that was the entirety of the game, it would be fun and certainly out of the ordinary for the IF games I’ve played. But, naturally, that’s not all that’s going on. (Spoiler - click to show)And about three quarters of the way through the game something happens that changes your perspective on what you’ve been experiencing, bringing some doubt to whether you've been fully honest in your telling of events. Of course, the truth has been cleverly hinted at all the way through the game as well, with clever parser responses to actions that should be standard. For instance, very early in the game you obtain a ‘wrapped package’, but all attempts to open or unwrap the package receive the cryptic response “Not yet.” This does an excellent job of adding mystery to what is going on and make the reveal towards the end so much more satisfying.

The writing in this game is excellent, as is to be expected from Plotkin, so there is little more to say.

The gameplay, while ingenious at times, is a little cumbersome at times too. Much of the game involves meandering around doing things until something triggers your interrogator to intervene and reset the simulation because it didn’t match the facts. Then your challenge is to figure out how what the interrogator said you didn’t do alludes to what you DID do, and then do that.

Okay, that was a confusing way of putting it. Ultimately, it’s trial and error. You do something, like open a door, and then the interrogator yanks you out of the simulation and says something like “No, that door wasn’t opened until after you cut power to the security systems, otherwise the alarms would have gone off.” Then you are thrust back into the game and need to figure out where the security systems are to shut them off. This isn’t an actual scenario from the game, but it gives you an idea of what’s expected of you.

Unfortunately, what the interrogator implies is not always straightforward and I spent quite a bit of time fumbling around trying to figure out what was next. This is exacerbated near the end of the game when the guiding words of the interrogator are absent for a plot-related reason. Also, the end goal of the game, which is to obtain a MacGuffin of some sort, requires a bit of reading between the lines to figure out what exactly it is and what you should do with it when you get it. Unfortunately, I needed a walkthrough in the end to fully figure out what to do in the final few minutes of the game.

Overall, this game is excellent, and does a great job of allowing you to play a very, very intelligent protagonist without feeling as though you’re breaking his character. The story twist is superb, and launches an otherwise average spy story into new heights. Fully recommended.


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