A post by goaskjane on this electronic literature blog directed my attention back to 9:05, a work of interactive fiction by Adam Cadre. I first played it a few years ago, and it stood out to me as a compelling example of what the medium can do.
9:05 is a really interesting piece of IF, but what makes it particularly interesting does not become apparent until the end, so I’ve put the rest of this blog entry under a cut for spoilers. It’s short and pretty straightforward, so I definitely think it’s worth playing, whether or not you want to read my thoughts on it.
The ending of 9:05 that the player seems compelled to get to – getting to Hadley’s office, as the voice on the phone commands you to do – is really not what the player expects it to be. The player finds information about a character’s name, where he works, etc., and sees that they character they are controlling has woken up in that character’s bed. Based on these expository clues, it is completely reasonable to make the assumption that the player-controlled character is Brian Hadley; the “trick” of 9:05 hinges upon this. The clock in the upper right corner makes the player even less likely to question this assumption, as it shifts the focus away from plot and towards gameplay.
If you achieve the initial “goal” ending of getting to work, you discover that the character you’ve been controlling is not Hadley, after all, but someone who broke into his house and killed him before falling asleep in his bed. Police are baffled by the murderer’s actions, the way s/he* seems to have made an attempt to live the life of his or her victim. This is an affecting comment on the way we play through games without thinking about the real reasoning behind the player characters’ actions, but you could also extend this to a lack of self-awareness in real life – note how mundane all the actions in this work are, and how you as the player just accept that they are things that need to be done.
*(I assumed that the player character was male, but there are actually no gendered pronouns used; the closest we get is reading that the character “feels like a new man” after taking a shower, but after the player has seen the ending reveal, this becomes a joke about the character’s attempted theft of Hadley’s identity. It only occurred to me to examine my assumption of the character’s gender after I reflected on how misleading the player’s assumption of the character’s identity as Hadley is.)
Even more interesting to me is the fact that it also creates a jarring metaphor for how the player relates to the character they control in a video game or IF story: When you take over a character’s actions, your consciousness replaces theirs in the context of the fictional world. On a narrative level, the character of the murderer/burglar make an attempt at replacing Brian Hadley, but on the level of player interaction, the player takes over the consciousness of the murderer/burglar, driving him or her to make that bizarre attempt at identity theft.
This metaphor of controlling someone’s identity is directly related to the effectiveness of 9:05, and explain why it is a story that is only possible to tell through the medium of interactive fiction. If you watched a film with this storyline, the surprise would not be nearly as effective – you, the viewer, would see that this character who had appeared to be an ordinary businessman was in fact a murderer, but would not have the experience of realizing that you were directly responsible for the character’s strange actions on the morning after the murder.
I’d be interested in hearing others’ thoughts about 9:05. To me, it’s a wonderful example of what interactive fiction can do.