Hello! Dusting this thing off for some IF Comp 2015 reviews, starting with–
Midnight. Swordfight. is a parser-based story and puzzle game. I should say right away that this is a game designed to cater to about 70% of my IF-playing whims–vaguely half-Renaissance half-Georgian setting, gender ambiguity, multiple endings meant for replay, surrealism, time–in a way that most games are not. I love masques. I love duels. I love messing with reality. Midnight. Swordfight. is necessarily my cup of tea. The question is more whether the execution lives up to all the elements of the premise.
General: Midnight. Swordfight. is a short, light puzzle game from the perspective of a professional fool who is plunged into a duel to the death with a beautiful, dangerous countess with whom, they find, they are in love. The duel, initially, is doomed. Actions are limited by a short “playscript” that updates with every room and enumerates what verbs the player can use. None of these things can avert the inevitable end of the midnight duel. But the player quickly discovers that they can “wake up” into an entirely different world–the world before midnight. By navigating both time and space in an absurdist series of Restoration-esque rooms populated by people (and un-people) both frozen and unfrozen in time, the player can choose to change their fate as well as the countess’s. A mouthful! Basically what this comes down to is: you rearrange things in the world outside the duel so that when you come back to it, things can go differently as you wish.
Story: The story handicaps itself a bit by making itself hard to invest in: because it’s absurd. Not only does it take place in a setting of surpassing dreamlike weirdness–a place where you put on a hollowed-out pig carcass and fly to the moon–but the gameplay involves a certain amount of acting behind the scenes, so to speak. It sacrifices a sense of urgency for a sense of existentialist distance reminiscent of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; you’re the only player with access to the backstage. This is all deliberate on Groover’s part, for certain, but it is a risk. Metafiction is nothing new to IF and it can get tiresome: it’s just not as naturally immersive as a story told without layers of irony and remove. This isn’t a criticism of Midnight. Swordfight., just an observation of one of its struggles in telling a compelling story.
That being said, this is a piece of very competent work. A setting that could run to cliche instead feels like freshly weird material–from the ruptured banquet table to the memorably bizarre setpiece of the moon and the slaughtered moon-monster. Sometimes the setting is genuinely unnerving, such as what happens when you try to take the hands off the grandfather clock in the red salon. Characters, too, are more engaging than they absolutely need to be, which is my benchmark for good IF NPCs: Dmitri and the Red Death stand out, but the countess’s characterization in absentia is solid as well, as are less-present characters like Ferdinand and Onegin. Dmitri as a conversational NPC has the most personality to offer, and while he’s more or less the person you would expect him to be–flip, uncaring, hedonistic–that person is well-sketched. That’s a fairly good metaphor for the story content on Midnight. Swordfight. altogether: the pieces are all in the places where you’d expect them to be, but they’re well-turned-out.
The writing is very sharp–it’s what stands out the most about the story on the first few playthroughs. It ranges from whimsical to creepy to baroque to whatever the hell the moon sequence is, without depending excessively on long passages and text dumps: a sign of good, snappy IF writing. This is a game that has to describe your unsuccessful attempts at flying while wearing a dead pig–and code in oinking–as well as the bloody progress of the Red Death. Her shrieks are in the wind. Around the garden cypresses rustle and the fountain plashes as both seconds fall, bleeding with her. It is a comprehensive plague. In addition, the game is very sexually explicit, in particular when describing Onegin and Dmitri’s frozen liaison. This didn’t bother me or take me out of the narrative: I thought it was in keeping with the jarring oddness of the rest of the writing. Still, I can see how it would jar someone else in a bad way.
Design: What all this surrealism means, essentially, is that time is another direction defined in space. You can travel clockwise/counterclockwise and future/past, and there’s not much more to it than that. It means when making a small map of the gameworld, you have to assign arbitrary directions to the past and the future. For the game’s chiefest mechanic, though, it’s very simple. I’m not sure if I was expecting more complexity and confusion out of the time-travel aspect of the game, but I found myself a little disappointed by how easily I could navigate it–and how well time mapped onto physical directions in the game. It’s possible that I didn’t discover another dimension to the game in my time playing it.
The playscript mechanic, on the other hand, was enjoyable and useful, both as a verb tracker and a genuine hint function. As the game is not intended to be difficult on a puzzle level, the existence of the playscript mechanic prevents a lot of frustration and pointless verb hunting in favor of focusing on what you need in order to modify the gameworld.
If I’m blanking on things to say about the design of Midnight. Swordfight., it’s because it was generally invisible and well-oiled and easy, just as it was intended. That being said, I still managed to get lost in the map at least once.
Overall: a fun, weird little jaunt into the expected and unexpected, with a great deal of professional polish.