It 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.
So 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.
The 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.