Spider and Web (IF)

Andrew Plotkin, 1997-8. Release 4 Serial 980226. Inform 6.14.


I came across this game because a website that focused mostly on Windows and/or Flash games briefly mentioned Anchorhead as a game that people with Linux might want to look up. When I took their advice, I was pleasantly surprised. Not only was my time in the fictional Lovecraftan-amalgamation quite enjoyable, but it opened up my eyes to the idea that hobbyist interactive fiction might honestly be worthwhile. I am not being judgemental of hobbyist IF, mind you, I simply had never played with it much before besides in short, themed segments.

But when, in a bit of fandom frenzy, I delved deeper into Anchorhead I could not help to note the presence of another game: Spider and Web. In most categories of the 1998 XYZZY Awards it had beat out Anchorhead or at least had shared an nomination with it. Even though the latter title is arguably more revered in the long term, the former is still mentioned with a sense of awe and wonder. I downloaded release 4 of "Tangle.z5" (as the z-code file is named) and proceeded to overlook it for a month or so.

After a month of mostly horror themed titles, I needed a break from that genre and its 101 ways of referencing The Lurking Horror and so I dusted off the old Tangle.z5 and fired it up.

Due to its unique format (which I knew of from reviews), I decided to eschew map taking and detailed notes. I figured I would play it out from memory. This is a game that you CAN do this, but I ended up getting confused in a point because I failed to notice a feature that my standard degree of detail in map taking would have easily pointed out. If I replay it, I will do so with map and notebook in hand. That is a personal choice, though, and one that might somewhat detract from the flavor of the game.

There simply isn't too much I can say about it without quickly spoiling something, so I will try and be brief and vague. It is a cloak-and-dagger title, though this is not apparent right away. What is apparent at the start is a door that doesn't seem like it can be opened and a black plate beside it that does nothing. You are non-descript and carrying nothing. It takes a few moves before you realize what is really going on. You are an agent being interrogated after breaking into the door. But since there is nothing about you in the first case that implies that you could have broken down the door, then something is missing from the story. As the interrogation continues, you are forced to admit (through some yes or no questions) that there is more to the story and details unfold.

And this is the majority of the game. You are asked questions about events and then are forced to relive the events in memory (where you play them out). If you fail to complete the event, you keep replaying the memory until you get it correct. In some cases, as the failures stack up, you are made aware of either some strong hints or it is suggested that something is missing, and than the next time through the something will be there or the layout of the memory will be different. In some, there is both a puzzle at play and a need to do some minor side task or to solve the puzzle in a particular way. It is the IF equivalent to a puzzle game where you have to solve the trick of the room to leave it.

The most clever thing about this game is how it takes all those bugs and issues that plague hobbyist IF--non-sequitors, events that are only triggered in one particular way, puzzles that are solved but fail to affect later events, the game forgetting certain things you have done, painfully barren descriptions in places, the need to replay certain events over and over over to get some minor aspect down pat--and turns them into part of the story, makes the part of the puzzle. Are memories faulty or is someone involved lying? Have things changed since the memories and what does this mean? Questions build up.

Possibly the worst part of the game is that it comes across as almost to clever in places. Some reviews bash it for being too hard or not making any sense (Frankly I think IF needs some more clever titles like this that definitely challenge, but I mention the negative reviews out of fairness for the reader). And even if there is a good excuse for a brief guess-the-action sequence with a tight time limit, it might still be more frustrating than players are willing to put up with. And, despite its best intentions, there is one puzzle that should be solvable from close to early on but you must wait until the game is ready for you to solve it later, kind of detracting from the layout of the game.

The puzzles are an interesting part of the game. They can be quite different than most IF puzzles. A lot of timing is involved. In fact, after you get past the first couple of rooms, every event from then on involves timing in some way or another or at least things go on around you that change based on time. Most puzzles are simply "What did you have to do to get where you are?" and so are not "open the doors" kind of things but more "Why did you drop that there and why did you wait there for five turns?" kind of things. I found them refreshingly different.

What truly makes this game worth it, and will truly anger some players, is the last few scenes where the intensity factor is turned up a notch. By the end, you have to think on your feet, and have solved a handful of "meta-puzzles", just to stay around long enough to get to the next tightly timed sequence. I had to restore a lot in the last hour of playing.

There are a couple different ways to end it and a good number of ways to die. The "climax" puzzle (which won the 1998 XYZZY award for best individual puzzle) is probably the best single puzzle I have witnessed to date in IF, but it is a tricky one. All in all, a fairly short game extended through a series of rooms that have to be replayed until you can figure out what needs to be done. Occasionally requiring you to replay slight variations on a couple actions until you are borderline frustrated. This is a game designed for you to fail 90% of the time but to keep slightly moving forward despite this. Whether this turns to excitement when it finally works out is up to you. I can understand going either way but frankly my heart was racing and I was very into the moment when the crunch time came.

Highly recommended. Every one with a slight interest in IF should try it out at least once but you might want to bring a walkthrough if you are not the sort that can meticulously replay actions until you get it right. And, when you get to the end, replay it all back in your head and see if you can figure out what really just happened. Oh, and I say that you should take notes and maps. It will help some things go quicker.

Final Scores

(0-100, 50 = Average)

Interactive: 75*

Fiction: 90

Reviewer's Tilt: 90

Final Average: 85

* The game does an impressive amount with a somewhat limited set of commands and most seeming breaks in the game design are actually part of the story, but a few of the puzzles are still overly frustrating despite this and the game is going to require a good amount of replaying, most likly, to get the patterns down. Ultimately, the playing out of the puzzles greatly enhances the game, but this might only be realized in hindsight. It's implementation is excellent, in other words, but necessarily frustrating, hence the score is dropped from the 85 or 90 that it deserves.


How I Did

I died a lot (in every way? maybe). I explored a lot. I got three different endings. I had lots of fun. One "puzzle" was half-spoiled while I was reading a review about a different section of the game. What was a minor aside actually clicked in my head later. Since this might have saved me an hours worth of running around and cursing, it might be worth it though. Eventually had to look something up in a walkthrough just to find out that an exit was clearly described in the room was waiting for me to go down it. Since I had skipped map taking, somehow I was overlooking the path that was clearly the way to go.

Hints, Suggestions and Mild Spoilers (for what they are worth)

For about 90% of the time, don't be afraid to experiment. Whenever you make a mistake you will often get a chance to replay it. In a few cases, a wrong choice will come to death or an unwinnable state. And UNDO only works for the previous move. Save at the beginning of a lot of scenes just in case.

There are only four words you can say in the game, and "Yes" and "No" are biggest ones. In the Interoggation scenes try out a few different answers to get a better feeling for the character, the NPC and the world.

Most scenes are only exitable if you did things correctly. While there is nothing wrong with keeping a handful of saves, going back prior to your current location is almost never (if ever) useful in this game. Usually if you are failing, then you are simply not paying attention to current states of things. You don't need to go back and do a previous thing correctly.

Written by W Doug Bolden

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