The interactive fiction community is split into two camps: Those that prefer the more traditional parser games (which mostly put a stronger emphasis on the interactive part) and those that like the hypertext ones (which mostly prefer the fiction part). So as always, a group of people cannot be small enough without quarrelling about how to do things. Some people go as far as outright avoiding games from a certain ‘faction’ or playing them just to criticise them for all the things they are not. The Entropy Cage mirrors this conflict in its story. It is hard to tell whether it is intentional or not, but anyways it is nice to find a game about the dogmatism of a hidden computerised society in an almost obscure online subculture.
What is even nicer is that, in my opinion, it proves both factions wrong: This is a game which would have felt very dated in a parser interface, but it also is not your typical Twine click along the words text. Mainly this is because of the story of you being a computer psychologist, who has to judge behavioural malfunctions of computer AIs called ‘subs’. While earlier games might have stuck to a parser emulating a shell-like interface, this one goes for menu’s with given commands. Although this still is not overly modern (and the game is even set in the future), it is a far more reasonable approach, because nowadays most non-computer scientists never get to see a shell interface for their everyday work.
Instead you are treated to the offenders ID number, his salutation and a set of commands. At first you only have one choice (i.e. punishing it). But as the game progresses you get a couple of new options, like asking them why they should be punished or you might even reward them instead – by promoting them. This is when the plot starts to thicken and after several odd glitches you finally break away from the WHILE 0==0 DO loop and get to make some choices which will change the world forever.
The simplicity really improves the gameplay, because you do not have to retype the same commands over and over again to advance the story. And you will have to redo a certain routine until things get going. On the one hand this makes it kind of tedious to get into the flow of the game, on the other hand, it fits the game’s themes really well. Yes, it is boring to ‘punish’ (interesting choice of word there) one sub after the other, but it also makes you understand how uneventful their ‘lives’ are.
Finally, the big reveal gets even more interesting this way, because it suits the thought provoking treatise on the good old energy versus entropy theme. I will not spoil it for you, but I think the idea behind it is quite fascinating… that is if you have got a bit of a clue about programming and/or ever spent a bit of thought on determinism. And even if you do not, you might still appreciate the several different outcomes of the conflict, with some very nuanced solutions that are neither entirely good nor totally bad.
And the same can be said about that conflict in the community that this game sprung from. While there is a lot of trash on both sides, there are also several pearls that put their respective interfaces to good use. There is no real truth to programming a piece of software, no perfect environment: You can create junk or joy out of anything. In the end it always depends on the creator’s skill, on how he/she uses the tools to shape their vision of entertainment/enlightenment. And as far as The Entropy Cage is concerned, I think the author knew the crafts well enough to deliver a game that finally convinced a parser fan like me, that there is such a thing as a good hypertext game.