'Mid the Sagebrush and the Cactus is the latest IF game by Victor Gijsbers, author of The Baron and Fate. Gijsbers is interested in the problem of violence -- when and how it might be justified, and how games can explore what a player is willing to have a character do.
Sagebrush is about a situation where the violence has already begun: your character has killed a man, and his son David has come around for revenge. You can fight the son, or explain yourself to him, and you will need to do some of each if you want to survive.
The structure, unusually for IF, is built around a partially randomized combat system. These have gotten a pretty poor reputation: IF players tend to be frustrated by situations where randomness rather than clever thinking determines outcome, and in any case a turn-based engine where it's possible to undo a move means that it's easy to step back any time a roll comes out badly. Authors have the option of turning off the UNDO command (which only works on some interpreters anyway) and frustrating their players, or else coming up with non-random, puzzle-like ways to present combat. There have been some cool experiments in the latter mode -- C. E. J. Pacian's Gun Mute is an excellent example, and Øyvind Thorsby's Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies also has many things to recommend it. (Seriousness of premise is not one of the things.)
Gijsbers, however, trained on RPGs and intensely interested in more quantitative presentations of combat, has created a whole new library for IF combat, called ATTACK. While it includes a random component, ATTACK also tracks weapons statistics, attack and defense advantages, distinct ACT and REACT stages, and an ongoing tension level, which helps to guarantee that something dramatic will happen sooner or later. (The longer the tension has been allowed to build, the more likely that an attack attempt will succeed, as I understand it.) ATTACK also implements some AI for non-player characters to help them choose sensible behaviors.
ATTACK is different enough from conventional IF combat that players will require some new vocabulary. Gijsbers makes it a bit easier to get into, however, by listing all the possible combat actions in the status bar each turn. This is a good decision, and one I'd encourage other authors to consider if they use the ATTACK library; in the past when I've tried demos using it, I've found the learning curve for the system a bit overwhelming, and had a hard time seeing the effects of my tactical choices. Good feedback is extremely important. With the status line to help, even players who are unfamiliar with IF should find they don't get stuck for things to do next.
Gijsbers does shut off the ability to UNDO turns in this game, but because the game is short, there's very little progress to lose; besides, each thing that happens feels like the result of the whole series of choices up to that point, not just a bad move at the wrong moment. Because the sense of losing arbitrarily is gone, it's less frustrating to be unable to UNDO a step.
The resulting gameplay feels more tactical than almost any other IF combat I've encountered. Because it matters not only what you do but when you do it, there are often times where it's a good idea to stall -- and this dovetails with the game's conversation system, so that there are times when it's a good idea to explain yourself to David, and times when it's best to arm yourself instead. During the first playthrough, I found myself alert to nuances of David's behavior and to the clues in the status line, trying to work out whether I could afford to put him off a moment longer or whether he had become truly dangerous. This is an experience I've not exactly had before in IF, and I found it compelling.
I'm less persuaded by Sagebrush as a story. To discuss this fully, I'll need to include some spoilers, so be warned; you may want to stop reading here until you've tried the game.
The theme is clear enough: violence begets violence, revenge is an evil cycle, and fear makes it hard for people to explain themselves to one another.
The gameplay does a lot to reinforce all these ideas. Even if you decide you want to take a non-violent approach, there's a constant threat of being shot by David. During "react" turns, you have a very limited of dodging/avoidance reactions available and are more or less at his mercy (in contrast with the "act" turns in which you can speak or attack).
There's less choice here than there might first appear to be, however. It is, as far as I can tell, not possible to talk David out of wanting to kill you; you can only use your self-justification as a means to distract him while you prepare to take him down first, or, if you play things just right, frighten him off. Despite several play strategies over five playthroughs, I never managed to get to an ending that didn't involve the death of one of us, and attempts to play as innocently as possible mostly ended in my getting more or less executed at the end. I know there is such an ending only because Gijsbers has made his source available. (This is itself a bit daring: it's not saying that an end to violence is impossible, but it makes that end hard enough to find that some players may not get the same message.)
Unfortunately, where it falls apart for me is on the level of dialogue and character reaction. I had a very hard time believing that these particular characters would be saying these particular lines.
The problem is partly about ear for language -- these don't sound like a couple of cowboys to me, frankly -- and partly the expositional nature of it all. This isn't easy: Gijsbers has dropped us into a tense situation with no build-up and no backstory; we know nothing about either the protagonist or the antagonist before they start their fight. So they have only a few turns to establish themselves and lay out their histories and motivations. The result is sometimes bizarre, sometimes comical, as when the protagonist describes David's father's involvement in the Mexican war, and throws in various details that seem intended to help the player remember what the Mexican war was. E.g.:
"You haven't seen every side of him, David. I knew him long ago, in the Mexican war. Your father wasn't so peaceful then, when he was the most irregular of our whole band of irregulars. Not very peaceful at all."
"He was in the Mexican war? I... I didn't know. But that was twenty-five years ago! Who cares about that?"
Who says this? Who says it with a gun in his hand?
I'm intensely interested in dramatic scenes between two long-time enemies, especially ones where they seem to set aside their differences long enough to have a discussion. But it works best if they have a history developed, one that the audience is already aware of. These characters do not.
To make matters worse, there are times when, if you've gotten your statistics into the right state, David will keep listening to your explanations even though you've started shooting him. This strikes me as fundamentally implausible. Maybe if you could disarm him -- once -- and turn the tables on him so that he was forced to listen to the rest of your exposition, it would work.
So here is a curious thing. 'Mid the Sagebrush and the Cactus raises an old but perennially important question about whether it's possible to stop a cycle of violence. It supports its theme with an ingenious combat and conversation system that keeps the player on edge and forces him to play with some caution for his own safety.
What lets it down is the failure of its writing to convey the human emotions behind such a situation. The philosophical and systematic problems are only problems because of the human capacity for rage and grief -- and Sagebrush doesn't show us those effectively.
Still. It's very interesting, as Gijsbers' experiments always are. Well worth a look.
N.B. 'Mid the Sagebrush and the Cactus was built using the Glulx virtual machine. To play the game, you need to install a Glulx interpreter on your machine, and download the game file. We link to Glulx interpreters for PC, Mac, and Linux. Those new to interactive fiction may be interested in the introduction found here, though for this particular game, all necessary commands are listed each turn.