Some games become so canonical in game design discussion that it's easy to remember just the groundbreaking things about them, and forget a lot of the nuances of how they play and why they work.
In the world of interactive fiction, Rameses is one of those games. It was released as part of the annual IF Competition in 2000, got a respectable 13th place out of 53, and showed a wide standard deviation on votes: some people loved it, while others thought it was a depressing imposter in a competition for fun things. One person recently described it to me as the work of IF he hates most in the world. Ever since, Rameses has starred in rec.arts.int-fiction discussions about well-characterized protagonists, about the player's complicity in action, about whether it's possible to have a good game in which the player has no significant agency, about interactive narrative as a way to explore the constraints imposed on a fictional character.
Infamously, it's a piece that's possible to get through almost entirely by typing WAIT for enough turns in a row: that's how little the player's action matters. There are no puzzles. There's no winning or losing. There's no branching of endings. There's little opportunity to affect the plot at all. Instead, the player mostly comes along to be frustrated. You can pick from a menu of things to say, but the protagonist is too repressed to utter most of them. You can try to start fights with the bullies or attempt to defend your more vulnerable classmates, but the protagonist never has the nerve to obey your promptings. Most of the time you can't even get him to walk out of the room, though he'd rather be anywhere else.
A few days ago, I replayed Rameses with a small group -- well, mostly watched them play it, actually -- and I was reminded of a few things about this canonical classic that I'd forgotten.
One is just how deluded the protagonist is. Oh, I know, it's a story about an unhappy teenager who feels perpetually trapped, unable to express himself or to become close to anyone else. That much I remembered. What I'd forgotten was how much self-justification there was. Alex Moran is constantly excusing himself to the player. He's always trying to position his cowardice and repression and neurosis as though it were some kind of considered philosophical approach to life instead of what it actually is, a self-constructed prison that keeps him from happiness, meaningful friendship, or self-respect.
Another is how heavy-handedly it presents its themes. It's all about the protagonist's inability to do and say and be what he wants; to befriend the people he likes; to ignore the mockery of people he despises. But it doesn't just let that play out. It gives the characters a conversation about freedom of will, and has Alex reflect how obvious and juvenile their observations are. Perhaps the exchange is meant to signal that Alex sees through his own self-justification to a degree, but the scene is overdone.
A third easily forgotten feature of Rameses is its dedication to presenting the protagonist's boring, trivial, irritating life as boring, trivial, irritating play. Some games leave the player with nothing to do for turns on end because they're badly designed. Rameses does it on purpose. There are stretches of conversation in which there is nothing for the player to say -- nothing he can even think of to try to say -- but neither can he bring the encounter to an end. He just has to hang out, antsy, bored, anxious, embarrassed. It's an accurate representation of being trapped at a table of people you don't like, without the social skills to fake it or enough small-talk to while the time away neutrally, and without the perspective to realize that this encounter doesn't matter much at all in the broad sweep of your life. Rameses awakens feelings of -- oh, powerful annoyance with the whole universe, a desire to walk away and never see any of these people again, disgust with all things physical and social, helplessness to change anything -- that I haven't often felt since I was a teenager myself.
On the whole, Rameses is a better game to remember than to be playing. I remember it as a masterpiece, but part of the mastery has to do with the ruthless way it imprisons the player in its protagonist. Alex Moran is one of the most nuanced viewpoint characters in my experience of narrative games, but he's not fun to be. And yet, through the constraints of the game play, Rameses does trick the player into some tiny sympathy with him. In static fiction this person would simply be intolerable. As an interactive character he's also pitiable, and that's a major improvement.
N.B.: Rameses was built using the Z-machine, an interactive fiction engine originally created by Infocom. To play the game, you need to install a Z-machine interpreter on your machine, and download the game file. We link to Z-machine interpreters for PC, Mac, and Linux above--you can probably find them for other devices, too