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12th Place - 8th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2002)
At other points, it slips into the ludicrous and/or preachy, relies on some tired cliches of science fiction morality and What Man Was Not Meant To Know, and ultimately forces an ending that is not entirely satisfactory.
-- Emily Short
>VERBOSE -- Paul O'Brian's Interactive Fiction Page
And so the legacy of Photopia continues. Here we have a linear, puzzleless narrative, told in small portions out of chronological order, each of which is preceded by a blank screen with one word in the center. Sound familiar? Of course, there are differences: all segments are told from the same point of view, and rather than being a vision of tragedy, Unraveling God is more of a morality tale in the familiar Things Man Was Not Meant To Know tradition. I also don't mean to suggest that UG is some sort of lame rip-off. It isn't. I don't think this game is trying to be Photopia, but is using many of the tools that Photopia used first in order to tell its story. What we may in fact be seeing is the development of a new subgenre of IF; maybe fragmentation is such an effective way to tell a puzzleless IF story that it's bound to become a time-honored technique in story-heavy games. The story and the writing are certainly the feature attraction in this game.
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That being said, I admit that Unraveling God's religious themes initially made me (an atheist) hesitant to give it a play. I expected it to be preachy and poorly-written, with foregone conclusions, as in some other religious IF I have attempted to tackle. That is not to say that religious IF can't be done right, but I hadn't seen one in the ADRIFT community capable of grabbing my interest. Still, Unraveling God has a high star rating, it placed well in 2002's IFComp, and it's been on several lists of recommended ADRIFT games... so I had to be wrong, right? Well... mostly, yes.
The specificity in setting pulled me in, especially being at a university. The writing is well done, and I finished the game with a feeling like, “Hm. Yeah. That was good.” In particular its protagonist, Gabriel Markson, a distinct character voice and style. This especially comes through even early on, after reading a fluff piece he's written about his experiments (in which he necessarily sounds upbeat), followed immediately by intensely cynical-- even sinister-- internal dialog. From the first few interactions I saw him in, I already got the sense that the protagonist was a ruthless cynic and a power-hungry jerk-- Varicella with less flair and more tenure. Especially in an ADRIFT game, a character of this style-- and this strongly written-- is a rarity. I had to play on.
Lots and lots of little things kept chipping away at my will to see the game through, I admit. A couple spelling or grammatical slip-ups I was willing to abide, but mostly I don't think the game's design has aged well. In particular, the granularity of the actions the game is willing to accept is super annoying. One must stand from a chair before looking at a bookshelf, you have to explicitly open doors before going through them, have to open a folder before reading an article, have to be holding the folder to open it, have to look at the desk to see the folder so you can pick it up first... these things really grated on me more than I suspect they might have a decade ago. At the very least, though, this character still intrigued me enough that I wanted to see his story to its end, so I persevered.
Then we hit the game's dialog. Again, these sections are all linear-- you can express Prof. Markson however you like, but you'll get the same outcomes anyway. The writing is believable to an extent. The supporting character, Claudia, is a stock religious alarmist character, questioning whether or not the advances of the professor's experiments should move forward. But she's also supposedly a science grad student, so I don't buy her dialog when, for example, she calls Galileo's notions “obscene.” (Really? So she believes in a geocentric universe?)
Admittedly, Mr. Watson likely had some difficulty putting himself into the shoes of a Christian believer in writing this dialog (he mentions his own leanings in an afterword), but it doesn't come out sounding incredibly natural. The dialog choices for Markson do feel more natural, especially given his character, but that feeling is damaged a bit by the fatalistically linear structure of the game.
Unlike Photopia, the writing lacks the subtlety and sympathy necessary to make me want to explore my expression of this character. I might have felt it mattered a little more had I interacted with Markson as another character, the way players jump between characters in Photopia, but this never happens. While the flexibility of the dialog does make me (as the player) feel the author has considered his audience rather than just feeding them all of the plot while they're tied to a chair, as a player I felt more concerned with just seeing what Professor Markson would do and what would happen to him.
Although Unraveling God is structured in such a way that it offers players an either/or moral choice at the end, the value of these choices is so clearly telegraphed-- and the quality of those endings varies so drastically-- that it can't really be imagined as a choice. The game's events, its cosmology, everything points at one answer and says, “Choose this because it's right.”
By contrast, (I guess this is a spoiler unless you've already played Photopia and have an idea what's coming) (Spoiler - click to show)Markson makes a drastic moral choice on his own in the climax of the story which the player is powerless to stop. Instead, it's more like we're an absent conscience watching, but unable to inform. In terms of affect, this moral decision by the player character is the more powerful than the one taken by the player in the ending.
On the whole, I think this might have been a 4 star game back in 2002-- even a 5 star game amongst the ADRIFT community-- but I'm just not sure it holds up as well today. It's still definitely worth a look, especially for those who like strongly characterized player characters, but do I judge it according to its importance and uniqueness from 2002 or against the relative quality of just other ADRIFT games or do I judge it on how it stands amidst a wider, evolving field of IF today? This seems more like a choice with no clearly right answer to me. I think the answer for me is to fall back on my own personal IFDB rating system: 3 stars-- I enjoyed it, but your mileage may vary.
In the game, you discover the true implications of suspended animation, and what it meas for you, for God, and so on.
The game has some sensuality and participatory violence, which are both portrayed in a negative light.
The game is short, and has large text dumps.
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