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About the StoryThe curtain lifts to a torrent of applause, as the city's gents and ladies lose their decorum for a just few moments in anticipation of something magical. The spotlights drown the glitter of sequins and pearls, the metal cane-tops and the shining buttons on the waistcoats. From where you are, centre of the boards, behind nothing but a baize table with nothing but the clothes you stand in, you are quite alone in the blinding white light.
The Act of Misdirection is a short horror story about magic both fake and real, on the stage of Victorian England. It was nominated for a XYZZY for Best Story of 2004.
Nominee, Best Story - 2004 XYZZY Awards
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This piece feels narrated. It begins with a riveting set piece scene; then it jumps back in time to explain how you got to this point; then it revisits the present, giving the same events new meaning; then -- but I'll avoid the spoilers. The result is quite effective: It's hard to imagine this story told in any other order.
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Number of Reviews: 8
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Related reviews: callico harrison, fantasy
Don't play this game if: you're easily put off by linear and nearly puzzle-free gameplay.
The Act of Misdirection opens with a wonderful scene in which the player must perform a magic act without knowing the choreography beforehand. Fortunately, the protagonist does know, which puts the player in the interesting position of being one step ahead of the audience (as the narrative voice provides clues to the tricks) and one step behind the protagonist. The writing is very strong here, and the game effectively builds the player's sense of entertainment and anticipation as the player does the same thing to the in-game audience. It's thrilling stuff, the kind of set-piece which would make for an excellent Inform tutorial.
The rest of the game pales a little in comparison. This is not to denigrate Harrison's achievements: from a purely technical standpoint there's still a fair amount to appreciate, such as some solid NPC interactions and a setting that has the population density of character and detail just right. But the writing and atmosphere just don't harmonize with these aspects of the game the way they do in the first act (no wordplay intended?).
Beyond the opening scene, the writing is probably the chief attraction. Harrison isn't afraid to use some flowery prose, but more importantly establishes a good couple of narrative voices. (Spoiler - click to show)The contrast between the narrator's voice for the magic act and the rest of the game is a good touch, with the dramatic and confident narration in the beginning emphasizing Meldellevo's power and skill, and the following imagined diatribes from Sally highlighting how insecure a character Sarah really is. This adds somewhat to the Faustian conflict at play. The settings are easy to picture as a result of the good descriptive text, rendering progress that much more comfortable, and some tense moments have genuine punch. (Spoiler - click to show)Consider the excellent use of the single-sentence paragraph at the climax of the magic routine, as well as the "normal" ending's final sentence. There are, however, some rough patches - syntax and word usage errors not due to technical issues. They aren't really numerous enough to destroy your enjoyment of the game or anything, but together with a sense that a premise this creative could have supported a bigger story, they add to the feeling of the whole package as a little unpolished.
This is also one of the more linear stories I've encountered in IF - as the author notes, it's impossible to put the game into an unwinnable state. However, the alternate ending - and yes, there is one - relies on a sufficiently unfair puzzle that getting it is more of an exercise for a second playthrough than a genuine opportunity for the first-time player. It also means that the nearly puzzle-less environment consists largely of "guess the verb" mini-games, though these aren't particularly unfair.
Overall, this is a story with strong promise - and even as a diamond in the rough (emphasizing the "diamond"), it's worth your time. Were Ms Harrison to expand this into a larger narrative - which I would argue, is a worthwhile pursuit - I'd suggest maintaining (where possible) the information asymmetry between player and protagonist, as well as getting one (or maybe one more) friendly eye to proofread and test-play.
When I first played, I found the pacing broke down a bit in the later scenes, and the writing became more overwrought. Replaying later, I found the later pieces of the game much more successful. I'm not sure whether this is because I was playing a later version of the game (these notes are based on version 6) or whether I was just luckier with my subsequent play-through. But on review, this piece impressed me quite a bit more than it did the first time around.
Don't be put off trying it by the critical reviews. Bad IF rarely receives actual reviews, and I suspect most authors criticize parts of this piece because it is very, very good.
I am unaware of anything else Harrison has written, which is a shame. I do hope that this author creates more interactive fiction at some point.
> An original story with an interesting twist.
> Many well-written characters and dialogue.
> An alternate ending which you are incredibly unlikely to get on a first play-through.
> Freedom and choice in the first half, although, with many constraints.
> Linear story (This isn't a contradiction--the story is linear, even railroading you into actions and choices, but you have a surprising degree of freedom in how you make those actions, which allows for a very fun early game on your second play)
> An alternate ending which you receive no clues or suggestions to achieve. I suspect most if not all players would not realize that an alternate was possible if not for the author informing them.
> Several minor typos.
> The occasional "purple prose" example.
> Some strange action/verb choices.
> No follow-up work from Harrison, which is a shame.
All in all, I enjoyed this game immensely. Very fun and very well-written.
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