Everybody Dies is a short, sharp interactive story -- with illustrations. It's got lots going for it, and it just took third place in the yearly interactive fiction competition. You should definitely play. But what I want to talk about here is its departure from the usual form.
Everybody Dies is not, of course, the first IF game to use pictures: games back to the commercial era have featured drawings or photographs (more or less skillful) of major locations. More recent hobbyist IF has branched out from the idea that illustrated IF should be equivalent to a point-and-click adventure with words, as well. Robb Sherwin's Fallacy of Dawn and Necrotic Drift use photographs of actors (well, Sherwin's friends and family, I think) to portray major characters, whose dialogue and actions are the strong points of his work already. Stephen Granade's Arrival is illustrated with charming, child-like pictures and diagrams that suit the perspective of the game's young protagonist. Neil K. Guy's Six Stories presents beautiful photos of objects interspersed with the game's text; they are often isolated on white so that it looks as though they're lying on the surface of the screen. The effect is elegant and contemplative, and heightens the sense (already present in the model and presentation of much IF) that individual things have potent significance. Ekphrasis, an underplayed French game by JB, is all about art, and intrigue, and it uses its illustrations to show the player the paintings in question, together with characters and some important objects. Images layer on top of one another as the player learns more, creating dynamic collages very appropriate to the layering of plots and counterplots.
Everybody Dies does none of those things. Most of the illustrations (stylized drawings, by the excellent Michael Cho) replace the text during certain dreamlike sequences. They accomplish something that text could not. They present metaphor, rather than exposition. They hint at something elusive, subjective, even spiritual, without being treacly or heavyhanded. They make the shape of the narrative clearer, because their internal logic tells the player when the story is still unfolding and when things are drawing towards an end. It is impossible to imagine the same story being nearly so effective without them -- and they could not have been recast as words.
I find this fascinating. I have been thinking for a while that IF needs to explore ways to change registers in order to achieve its full potential as a medium. Many other media alternate between low-intensity, "normal" ways of presenting information (the dialogue in a musical, e.g.) and high-intensity, stylized, subjective ways (the song and dance numbers). Cinema has a broad range of effects -- tricks of lighting, uses of music, rapid cutting, unusual lenses, handheld camera work -- to hint at the subjective experience of the onlooker instead of an objective reality. Interactive media struggle a little bit to do this, though. One way to change the flow is the cut-scene, which in interactive fiction is just a long block of pre-composed, uninteractive text, but it tends to alienate players and lose power by excluding participation just at the moments when the story becomes most personal or most powerful. This is not a new problem.
Most of my thinking on this topic has involved shifting to a different way of using the text, and perhaps changing the interface a little to make it suitable to different content. Maybe interactive interior monologue implemented like NPC conversation, only with oneself as the interlocutor. Maybe something closer to hypertext, where the player picks keywords to think about issues. Maybe real-time sequences, where the player watches a train of thought go by and intervenes when he wants to change where it's going. Maybe all of the above, in different games. However we do it, we need more ways to break out of the level where interaction is all about handling objects, because object-manipulation is usually just not rich enough or subtle enough to express complex emotional decisions. There have been a lot of attempts in IF to handle emotional content metaphorically in text through surreal landscapes. A few of them have worked, though they've mostly worked through great abstraction and obscurity (see So Far). Most have been, in my opinion, dismal, hokey failures. I worry that most of my ideas for solving this problem would also come off heavy-handed.
I can't say Everybody Dies has solved the subjectivity problem completely. Its illustrations are elegant and powerful, but in most sequences the player cannot interact with them other than to hit a key to request the next one. For this particular game, that works fine, though. And it makes a powerful case for why multimedia interactive fiction can be something other than a tedious Myst wanna-be.