The Act Of Misdirection is not a competition game, and in today's IF community, that alone is enough to make it remarkable. For a first-time author to release a comp-sized game (or maybe even any game) outside the competition is an even gutsier move, since she risks the product of all her hard work sinking without a trace. So when Callico Harrison asked me if I'd like to write a review that she could release simultaneously with her first game, I felt strongly in favor of the idea. Imagine my pleasure when I started playing and discovered that this a very strong game indeed. It's intriguing, skillfully crafted, and if it were entered in the competition it would surely place in the top ten, perhaps even the top three. Not only is it written with flair and diligently coded, it also makes some impressive inroads into one of my favorite areas of modern IF development: player-friendly design. Many areas of the game are constructed to allow the player to discover the story for himself, but also to notice if the player seems to be struggling, and to offer gentle nudges in the right direction without recourse to some kind of external hint system.

Nowhere is this excellent design more evident than in the game's first scene. The setting is the brightly lit boards of London's Carthaginian Stage in 1896. The house is packed with "the city's gents and ladies" who wait breathlessly "in anticipation of something magical." The protagonist is a magician, equipped with nothing but a bare baize table, a handkerchief, and a debonair top hat. The game places you in this nerve-wracking situation, and lets you take it from there; what follows is one of the most charming interactive fiction scenes I've ever played. There's nothing quite so gratifying in IF as attempting a non-standard action or phrasing that makes sense in context and finding that the game anticipates and handles it. To find that this action is the exact right choice is an unparalleled pleasure, and it's a pleasure that the game's magic act offers over and over. Whether Misdirection craftily led me into the right actions or simply anticipated a wide range of options I don't know, and in the moment of playing I didn't care -- all I knew was that as the act unfolded, I felt myself both the magician and the audience, both directing the action and dazzled by the exciting spectacle before me. The experience isn't perfect, mind. There were plenty of times when I tried something that wasn't implemented, and there was even the occasional novice glitch, like the following:

   >show 9 of hearts to audience
   You can only do that to something animate.

   >show nine of hearts
   (to the audience)
   "Any card you choose is here, friends. The Nine of Hearts?" With a
   quick ruffle the card is produced and shown to all.
Still, the game achieves a much higher percentage of implemented actions than usual, and it's enough to make the magician's routine very memorable. Just as important, when I couldn't think of the right thing to do, I never felt stuck, because eventually the game would step in and give me a gentle push in the right direction. Parser responses are written with delightful cleverness, usually pointing subtly towards a more productive action if the player has guessed wrong.

For this first scene alone, The Act Of Misdirection would be well worth playing, but the game goes on from there, its story expanding and its mystery deepening. One of the story's main themes is surprise, and this manifests itself both in plot and in design, so it wouldn't do to give away any more secrets. I'll just settle for saying that although the game's helpful design philosophy continues throughout, it becomes more and more puzzling as it reveals itself, winding up in a great enigma. I hope that the mysterious nature of the plot prompts a great deal of discussion, because, ironically enough, the game's willingness to help players through its puzzles removes one of the most prominent spurs to public discussion that past games like The Mulldoon Legacy and my own LASH have used to prompt public posting. Without hint requests to drive up the number of posts on, The Act Of Misdirection must rely on community support and enthusiasm. For that reason and for the others I've just detailed, I urge you to play this game, and to post your reaction on the newsgroups. If this game gets the attention it deserves, it'll be a lock for several 2004 XYZZY nominations. I've tried to do my part to get it that attention -- the rest is up to you.

Act Of Misdirection review / Paul O'Brian / obrian at / Revised March 2006
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