Where did you wake up this morning? If you're like most of us, it was probably snug and warm in your bed. (If it was curled up by the toilet, we won't judge.) It most likely was not pinned alone to the wall inside a badly damaged space station with no memory of how you got there. Unless, of course, you're playing the science-fiction interactive fiction title Fragile Shells from Stephen Granade. It's pretty much a guaranteed bad day a bit higher on the scale than being out of coffee creamer. (But not quite as bad as actually being out of coffee.)
The first thing you should want to do in your new and exotic predicament is LOOK around... which you do, of course, by typing "Look" into the screen and hitting [enter]. Remember, this is interactive fiction, so your brain is your graphics card! You control the game by typing your actions. Pay close attention to the descriptions of items and areas, and try to interact with everything. "Examine", "use", or "take" items and explore your environment, triggering flashbacks that give insight into how you became stuck in your unusual predicament.
The space station has a few areas to visit, and unlike most other interactive fiction titles, Fragile Shells is determined to be as space-y as possible and refers to directions as "port", "aft", "starboard", and so forth. Don't worry if you're not particularly nautical, since the game still accepts compass directions like "north", but it can still be a little frustrating at first while you're trying to map out your surroundings. I'm sorry if my inferior land-lubber brain isn't used to your fancy ship language, game.
Analysis: Fragile Shells is actually fairly light in the story department, instead presenting a narrative heavy on atmosphere. It focuses on trying to make you disoriented and instilling a sense of dread and panic through its description of your badly damaged space station. It actually makes me wish the game had been a bit more gender neutral; had the game not assumed the protagonist was male in several places, it would have made for a much better immersion experience that might have made up for its lack of a deeper plot. Curse you, ovaries! You're always bringin' me down.
One of the most common issues with interactive fiction is the nagging idea that you're playing by someone else's rigid rules, and those rules are locked in a cupboard. Fragile Shells plays fairly smoothly, but there are times when the game nips at your fingers because you aren't using the exact right phrasing for an action. "Use light switch", for example, doesn't work but "turn on light switch" does. You can type "Hint" to get a clue as to what you should be doing or consult a walkthrough if you're particularly desperate, but you shouldn't have to.
The game puts its best foot forward with its puzzles, which are clear and logical for the most part. The game does a good job of drawing your attention to important things rather than drowning you in dialogue, so figuring out what you're missing is usually pretty simple if you're a keen explorer. By doing so, it also neatly sidesteps the problem a lot of other adventure games have of requiring a specific item for a task when you can clearly see something else that would do just as well. The whole thing is very clean and uncluttered, and generally gives a sense of being very well planned out... perhaps unsurprising since author Stephen Granade is an old hat as this whole "interactive fiction" thing.
Smartly designed and pleasantly eerie, Fragile Shells is worth a play if you're an escape fan looking for a nice workout for the ol' grey matter. The story doesn't particularly stand out, instead being eclipsed by puzzle solving, but the whole experience is so well made and a prime example of the genre that it should leave you with that nice warm glow inside of an escape cleanly made. Mmmm.