Alabaster


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Rating: 4.7/5 (50 votes)
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Alabaster

JessIt is a moonless night. The lantern light does not reach far. You are seldom frightened in these woods, but tonight is unusual.

Snow White is with you. Her wrists are bound behind her back. She has made as much of a nuisance of herself as she could, deliberately stumbling over every root in the dark, until you had to half-carry her this far.

Earlier, you killed a hart and left it here. It was a preparation: you didn't want to have to hunt such an animal in the darkness.

Now, you can't help wondering whether you should have spared the noble beast.

AlabasterSo begins Alabaster, an exquisite and addictive piece of interactive fiction created by a team of eleven talented writers and spearheaded by Emily Short—one of the Grande Dames of the genre and authoress of such classics as Floatpoint—that takes the oft-Disneyfied, candy-coated tale of Snow White and recasts it in rather darker hues. You assume the role of the nameless woodsman, a loyal but ultimately good-hearted servant of the Queen who has been given the unfortunate task of butchering the comely Snow White. Unwilling to murder an innocent, you have struck a bargain with the girl: she will go to a prearranged safe haven, while you will kill a hart to produce the grisly proof of Snow White's death that the Queen requires. The portentous night has arrived, and you are deep in the woods with the girl. But now, as the moment of truth approaches, you can't help but hesitate.

While your mistress has undoubtedly become a bit unhinged and performed some questionable actions, if certain rumors are to be believed, the girl may be no better than her stepmother. Such a strange young woman, with her dark, knowing eyes, her fetid breath and nocturnal habits... and why, on this bitterly cold night, does she seem entirely unaffected by the temperature? She stands before you, impatient, waiting. If you see your deal with Snow White through, the Queen will almost certainly detect your treachery and have you executed; but how, really, can you bring yourself to murder what appears to be an innocent child?

The only thing you can do now, frustrating as it might be, is to talk to her. You must attempt to ascertain the truth of this deeply puzzling situation and unravel the mystery surrounding Snow White and the Queen; only then will you be free to make what might be the most important and difficult decision of your life. Choose your words with care...

Analysis: A superlative piece of work, in certain ways Alabaster is somewhat different than the majority of interactive fiction that we have previously reviewed. While many IF games present a more-or-less linear plot to play through, complete with puzzles to solve, items to collect and so on, Alabaster's heart and soul lies in the conversation between the protagonist and Snow White. But really, "conversation" seems an inadequate term; the potential paths of dialogue are mind-bogglingly sprawling and intricate and, depending on the choices you make, will lead you to one of 18 (!) possible endings. This gives the game near-unparalleled replay value. Also, only through replay is it possible to understand the entirety of the situation; Short and her compatriots have created much more than a simple retelling of the fable, and the underlying truth of the game's scenario is far more complex than any fairy tale.

AlabasterThe structure of the gameplay is simple and intuitive. Most, but not all of your actions will involve asking questions and supplying responses; ASK, TELL and SAY are the three commands that you'll be using most often. The game supplies you with possible conversational prompts after nearly every line of dialogue, ensuring that you never run out of things to say. While immensely sophisticated, Alabaster is not infallible; you might find yourself accidentally skipping forward (with conversational prompts that you shouldn't yet have) or missing a potential ending because your command wasn't worded in a specific way. Still, on the whole you'll probably encounter very few problems.

Beyond its value as a superb piece of interactive fiction, Alabaster is also notable for its experimental and creative aspects. The game's website calls it "an experiment in open authorship"; Short wrote and released Alabaster's introduction, and 10 other writers contributed conversation text. It's extraordinary to me that the work of 11 individuals has synthesized so perfectly into one seamless product; this is a testament to the undoubtedly dizzying amount of work that must have gone into the game's creation.

This review wouldn't be complete without discussing the wonderful, evocative graphics that accompany the game. In an experiment in "procedural illustration", in place of a standard status bar Daniel Allington-Krzysztofiak has created numerous graphical sketches that indicate and change with the state of play. The sketches themselves are starkly black-and-white but delicately lined, and it's fascinating to watch them change with the flow of the conversation.

If, after playing Alabaster, you want to catch a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the game's creation, you can take advantage of the website's wealth of interesting extras. Along with walkthroughs, you can download or link to the game's (jaw-dropping) conversation diagram, plot structure, cover art, and even take a look at the development process as charted through blog entries. Nice!

But before all that, of course, your first order of business should be simply to dive in. Alabaster is intuitive enough for a new player to pick up easily, yet rich enough to satisfy even the most experienced veteran of interactive fiction; a more wonderful combination of qualities is hard to find. Don't be surprised, however, if you find yourself unable to tear yourself away from the screen...like its "heroine", Alabaster is most entrancing, and it won't be easy to turn away.

Download Alabaster (Mac/Windows/Linux, 2MB, free)

Note: Because Alabaster is far more process-intensive than your average piece of IF, I highly recommend that you download the latest, fastest interpreter before playing: Zoom 1.1.4 for Mac and Git 1.2.4 for Windows. Links to pre-compiled versions of the game as well as the story file itself can be found at the official website.

21 Comments

Not bad, managed to figure out one of the endings myself:

Un-sundered myself and realized I probably shouldn't have.

Overall not a bad game, though I prefer non-dialogue based IF games. Love the twist on a classic though.

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tchupvskja June 7, 2009 10:20 AM

I played a preview version of this quite some time ago, and even that was pretty impressive! Great to see that the final version is out - the graphics are new.

Emily Short is indeed the grande dame of the genre (nice run on sentence by the way, Jess - it made me wonder if I'd played the right floatpoint :)

Now to get on with playing this...

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guzmanha Author Profile Page June 7, 2009 1:09 PM

Very immersive game. I liked the emphasis on figuring out what's going on and the twists from what is thought to be canon in the fairy tale. Love the grimdark-ness.

TIP: if you don't want to type out a whole question when talking, most inquiries can be shortened. "Ask why her skin is so fair" can be shortened "ask why her skin" if there are no similar questions.

1) cutting yourself to give the hart blood turns the tables

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I really like this...
only discovered one ending so far:

Became Lilith's Consort

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Amaranth Author Profile Page June 7, 2009 1:41 PM

I love games like this . . . twists on classic fairy tales are my favorite. I have a few more endings to get, but even when I finally have them all, I'll come back and play this one again and again.

Guzmanha, you can make your inquiries even shorter by typing "ask why", etc. as long as there are no other prompts utilizing the same question word. When I figured that out, it made my fingers very happy. ^_^

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I really like the overall idea, and, so far, the writing is very engaging. I haven't reached any endings yet. I do have one issue with the game though: I keep getting suggestions for questions or comments with no reason for my character to be asking. For example, "You could ask who killed your dogs." I didn't even know I *had* dogs, let alone that someone killed them.

Of course, I don't know enough about making games like this to say whether it's realistic to suggest that information be provided with respect to current character knowledge, but, in an ideal world...

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Hudoken June 7, 2009 3:50 PM

I'm really enjoying this game. As mentioned, the dark theme is particularly inticing. I've found 3 endings thus far.

Just to elaborate on asking questions: by simply providing a unique keyword, that option is chosen. Example: (made up questions) ask about her tanning in the sun, or ask about pet hamster.
By simply typing 'ask sun' or 'ask pet' you could invoke either of these because that word is unique to that question. Also, if there is only one question to ask, simply 'ask' will invoke it.

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Amaranth Author Profile Page June 7, 2009 3:57 PM

Smoke:

Think about it. You're a huntsman. Any hunter worth his salt has dogs. ^_^

If you examine yourself, you'll learn about your dogs, among other things. (A general IF tip: always, always, ALWAYS examine everything you come across, including yourself. You never know what useful information you might find.)

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Grasa Total June 7, 2009 4:13 PM

Like Smoke, I'm confused; my character seems to begin the game thinking Snow White is a vampire. Did I miss a line in the introduction explaining this?

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Volatile Author Profile Page June 7, 2009 4:16 PM

This is a great game! 7 endings so far. I like how you guys are fitting in more IF, among other things.

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I would love to play this game, but the link does not work:(

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It looks like the site that's hosting all the links for the game is over quota, but I expect it will be rectified soon.

In the meantime, I've changed the links above to point to a temporary alternate site.

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Great game - Except it could be menu driven... Replaying it seems like a typing exercise at times.

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Someone should make a walkthrough... I've found about eight, but going through it over and over again without knowing what to do is tedious...

for instance, there isn't anything special for putting both your blood and the hart's heart (though the game can confuse the hart and the heart :/) and burning it. And in the mac version at least, burning the box doesn't remove it from your inventory :/

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Fun game! Everything is so well conceived and well connected. It almost seems like that's how the story ought to have been. (In that sense, it has some of the same appeal as "No Rest for the Wicked," if anyone is familiar with that comic.)

I managed to find all eighteen endings last night -- which is kind of an accomplishment for someone who usually needs at least one hint for every game. Glee! In case it helps someone, this is my final list of endings:

(BIG SPOILERS ahead. The ending labels are actually pretty self-explanatory, so seeing them will probably give you all you need to know to achieve them. I've added nested spoiler hints for some of them anyway.)

  • Joining Lilith as her consort

  • Killing the vampiric Snow White and returning to the Queen

  • Freeing yourself from the blood-sundering

  • Going with a freed Snow White to the haven

  • Returning to the Queen empty-handed and being killed before reaching her

  • Returning to the Queen with the hart's heart

  • Going with a chained Snow White to the haven

  • Trying to burn Snow White, and being left in the dark

  • Returning with Snow White in chains, and being shot by archers

  • Exorcising Snow White, then driving her mad with questions

  • Provoking Snow White to murder through incessant questions about vampires

  • This only works if you've talked to the hart first and had him confirm that she's a vampire.

  • Returning to the Queen empty-handed after scattering the hart's ashes

  • Returning to the Queen empty-handed after exorcising Snow White

  • Returning to the Queen with the exorcised Snow White, and being shot by archers

  • Taking the exorcised Snow White to the haven

  • Returning to the Queen with Happy's ashes, knowing you had been the King

  • Ask the hart about both the king and the mirror. Apparently if you achieve this ending first, you get credit for the next ending too. Efficient!

  • Returning to the Queen with Happy's ashes

  • Promising Lilith more than you could give

  • Offer to be her consort, then refuse (persistently) to untie her. Enjoy her Darkening Glare of Impending Doom each time you say no.

A few general hints:

  • You can type TOPICS instead of CHANGE THE SUBJECT. Saves on your keyboard a bit.

  • Sometimes you have to give the same command repeatedly.

  • Pursue all conversation options. (Okay, that's an obvious one, but still.)

  • You can ask about things that aren't listed as conversation options. There are things that you (the player) can find out late in a playthrough that "you" (the character) already knew. These are things you can bring up earlier in the game once you (the player) also know them. This is especially good to practice when...

  • speaking to the hart, which is sort of time-limited.

  • Also, about the hart: After you take its heart and Snow White...

  • "kisses" it...

    you can wake it up by...

    touching it. Took me a while to figure that out, for some reason.

  • You can solve Snow White's riddle, but...

  • it appears that no apples are available. That plot point doesn't seem to be required for any of the endings, either, so don't get stressed over trying to find fruit. ;) It does open up more interesting conversation, though, and you can get more insight into Snow White's backstory.

I had a lot of fun exploring the different paths, and even when I didn't find a new ending, I almost always found new snippets of dialogue. I especially liked the oblique reference to the names of the seven dwarves. :)

My only big disappointment was, as Kgummy said...

ULTIMATE SPOILERS:

If you're clever enough to burn the heart AND the blood after agreeing to put Happy's soul into the mirror, nothing special happens. You just get the plain old un-blood-sundered ending. Alas! You should be able to return to the queen with the ashes AND your memory. It would be easy enough to code and write, since the prerequisites are already part of the game.

If there's some logical problem with that, an alternate path to a better ending would be this: 1) Learn from the hart that you're the king. 2) Agree to take his ashes to the mirror. 3) Learn from Snow White how to undo the blood-sundering. 4) Burn the heart and return to the castle with the ashes. The third step would be the one that makes the difference there; if you know how to un-sunder yourself, then it should still be possible to do it after you return to the castle. Surely the Queen has more than one magic box, or could procure one if necessary. If you reach the ending where the Queen is begging you to find the king, AND you know that you are the king, AND you know how to fix yourself, it should be a simple matter. After all, you're talking to the person with both the resources and the willingness to help you, so why not?

I know that some developers would purposely exclude an "ideal" ending just for the sake of keeping the game "dark," but I think these guys are too good for that. It doesn't have to be all sweetness and light, either (e.g. the resurgence of the war with the dwarrows would be one potential downside), but it would be nice to be able to earn some closure -- especially when all of the needed elements for it are already there in the game. Taking all the right steps and then having the results just not happen is a bit jarring, since in every other way this game rewards your actions logically (if not always pleasantly). It would be nice to iron out that little inconsistency.

Just my two cents (give or take a dollar). Now watch someone tell me that there IS a secret 19th ending, and I was just too unobservant to find it. XD

Overall, again, it's a fantastic game and I enjoyed it a lot. Thanks for the post, Jess!

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There's a walkthrough on the page itself, FYI, with all 18 endings (although of course it's the shortest possible route to all the endings, and you'll miss a lot).

I got ending 17 first:

Unsundering myself.

I think the "best" ending is supposed to be #16:

Where I become Lilith's consort after finding out and revealing that I am the king. Because the end text is "You and Lilith are free."

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Faenval June 10, 2009 4:09 PM

This is a nice game. I think I managed to get all the endings!

But, what is up with the command

a lamia

I discovered it on accident by exploiting the system through the command

a what, which basically gives you a list of everything you can talk about that has "what" somewhere in it :P

Seriously, though, what is it doing there? I can't make the context for it come up naturally in-game, and it seems a dead end.

Also, if you examine

Snow White's dress and the embroidery, then continue asking about the embroidery

you'll get an interesting message, depending on how much you currently know about who Snow really is.

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Bloatedsack Author Profile Page June 10, 2009 4:38 PM

I haven't played yet (looking fwd to it) but the description of this reminds me of the IF with the art exhibit you converse with.

I can't remember the name of it...
I thought it was reviewed here on JIG, but I don't see it under the iFiction tag. Maybe it was one that I found in an IF competition or something.

Memory failing... oh well.

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Bloatedsack: You're thinking of Galatea, also by Emily Short.

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Faenval, a Lamia was a female demon who killed children.

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