Next up is The Play, an Undum piece by Deirdre Kiai, an indie game developer.  This is the first CYOA-style game I’ve played this Comp, and I must say that the Undum framework — at least the way she’s got it set up — is very, very nice-looking.  The Play apparently deals with a down-on-her-luck theater director trying to put together a shoestring performance of “All’s Fair in Love, War, and Art”, with a cast and crew that are going to require something more than a standard rehearsal to make the performance a success.  Sounds fun!

Spoilers after the break…

And it is fun — a whole lot of fun!  It’s short — 15-20 minutes to get through it on the first pass — but you’re going to want to go through it several times.  In fact, you expose more of the backstory by losing than you do by winning.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself.  Let’s talk about the game itself.  You’ve got four people to worry about:  three actors (Karl, Erica, and Brock) and your faithful stagehand Henrietta.  They all start off with a mood level of “tired”, which immediately gives the game points for realism in my book.  As the rehearsal progresses, you’re given options, selectable as hyperlinks in the text.  These options do one of two things — either reveal information about the cast and crew and the situation your director PC is in, or progress the plot by making a decision as to how to react to something that’s going on.

This leads to a very slight, minor annoyance.  It took me a while to figure out that there were two types of hyperlinks.  At first I was gun-shy about clicking links for fear of making an unintended decision.  Once you realize that only hyperlinks that are clearly labeled as actions are really state-changing decisions, you have more freedom to explore what’s going on.

When you do make a decision, the results are manifested in some additional text, and possibly a mood change for one or more of the four people.  From the default “tired” state, NPCs can drop to “flustered”, “irritable”, and finally “exasperated” if they get really ticked off at your decisions, while on the upside they can become “relaxed”, “eager”, and even “enthusiastic”.  The mood levels, in turn, affect how the characters behave as the rehearsal proceeds.

It’s a reasonably simple setup, but the outstanding character writing really makes it work.  The NPCs are strongly drawn, with natural voices and a wide variety of creative interactions that give the game the appearance of much more complex state-keeping than it can possibly have under the hood.  It’s a lot of fun to try different things and see how they affect the way the rehearsal plays out.

At the end of the rehearsal, you go through an ending sequence where all the actors leave, giving you farewell text that reflects their final state.  After that, you get a newspaper review of how your play actually came off, which is a nice finishing touch.

But the one element of the game that clearly elevates it over the run-of-the-mill CYOA is the hidden backstory.  Your PC has some history in the business, history that’s alluded to in the more successful endings, but which is dealt with more fully in the “losing” branches.  If you find yourself tantalized by these hints of Ainsley’s past, The Play becomes a meta-game — an attempt to find as many of the nuggets of information about events from Ainsley’s past career as you can unearth.  In the process, you get to read more of Deirdra’s excellent prose, so it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor.

This is another hard game for me to rate.  There are no puzzles here, and I suspect the difficulty level of coding something like this is pretty low.  Testing would have been trivial compared with testing something like Escape From Santaland.  On the other hand, this work is very well adapted for this form, and I don’t really want to penalize Deirdra for using the right tool for the job.  It’s short, but not over-short.  It has a point, and the way the content is structured encourages deeper interaction with the work.  It’s certainly a solid 8, but does it possibly rate a 9?  I think so.  The writing, the production values, and the clever way the story is threaded through the different outcomes all combine to make this a credible top-tier game.  Deirdra, if she chooses to continue with writing IF, is definitely someone to watch.