This is my original comp review, preserved for historical purposes. Updated commentary may be available on my page for the game.
The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost by Briar Rose is an entry in the Spring Thing 2014. If you're planning on playing and voting for games in this competition, you should probably stop reading now.
Innocence Lost is the first part of the story of a Greek boy, Andreas, who, along with his brother, Alexius, is sold by his father to a Roman slaver. This part covers Andreas's childhood, with later parts yet to be released.
The game is a browser-based CYOA-style story, hosted by ChooseYourStory, a site I was not previously familiar with. Three of the ten games in the Spring Thing use it, though, making it the single most popular 'engine'--so I suppose it must be popular.
Here a brief digression: it troubles me to have games in competitions hosted externally and unavailable for download. When the host disappears--and it will, eventually--those games will simply be gone, unless the author has somehow archived them, or some enterprising player has done the same. This won't affect my scoring of the games, but I hope that authors will keep this in mind when choosing a venue.
After the story begins, the plot proceeds in a frankly predictable fashion. The protagonist and his brother are put on a slave ship to be taken to Rome. There, they meet and befriend a young girl, Lula, who has been a slave for some time already. When they arrive in Rome, all three are purchased together, and it turns out that they are to be trained, along with other youths, as gladiators. The story briefly follows their training and culminates in a battle between six of them and six competing trainee gladiators.
The player's choices throughout can impact Andreas's strength, speed, or 'approval' with another character. The most substantial change the player can make is affecting which and how many (if any) of the children die in the battle at the end of the story, including possibly Andreas himself.
The mechanism of this change is the strength, speed, and approval scores mentioned earlier. During the battle, certain decisions will succeed or fail, based on Andreas's strength or speed, and after the battle the other characters in the story will have (brief) conversations with Andreas that are impacted by his approval score with them.
When Andreas's strength, speed, or approval score with another character changes, it's displayed by the game in conspicuous colored text, inline with the story. This is a little distracting, but more importantly it had a strong influence on how I experienced the game. From the very beginning, because of these notifications, I was aware that the game was keeping tracking of the approval statistics, and I soon learned about strength and speed, so when making any choice, I could not help but think about how it might impact Andreas's stats. It put me into a mindset to engage in metagaming, and made it more difficult to immerse myself in simply roleplaying as Andreas.
When first meeting Titus (the owner of the gladiatorial school) and Rhode (the trainer), for example, Andreas may either describe his education to Titus or attempt to bite Rhode's finger. I, as the player, had a shrewd suspicion that doing this would impress Rhode with Andreas's fierceness, but Andreas's motivation wasn't to impress her--he wanted to bite her because he disliked her. I'd have thought that, even without the approval scores being made explicit, but if they had any impact, it was only to widen the gap between player and player character.
This gap was especially noticeable on subsequent playthroughs. It became clear, at the end, that 'winning' the game meant keeping all six children alive through the final battle, and that doing this would involve having sufficiently high stats, so my replays quickly devolved into simply trying the different options to learn what impact they had on Andreas's statistics, then finally going through the game making all of the 'right' choices, so as to preserve all of Andreas's teammates. It took me an hour to play through the story once, but less than twenty minutes to play through it five more times, start to finish.
Innocence Lost's biggest weakness is its linearity. Your choices have literally no meaningful impact on anything but the final scene. Andreas can't be bought by anyone other than Titus. He can't be killed prior to the battle. Your choices incline the story in one direction for just a few paragraphs before it returns, unerringly, to the single path the author determined. This, combined with the very visible statistics, makes the game more about optimizing statistics than influencing a story.
The writing in Innocence Lost is reasonably solid, if unexceptional, and the characters are interesting enough for the brief time we know them. Unfortunately, Innocence Lost makes poor use of the medium. Of course, a degree of linearity is to be expected from a game that is the first part of a trilogy. Perhaps the later installments in the series will give the player more choice. If not, this story may be better suited to static fiction, abandoning the conceit of choice in favor of more strongly developed relationships between the characters.
I give The Price of Freedom: Innocence Lost a rating of 6/10. Fun enough to read, but unexceptional as a work of interactive fiction.
Play time: 1:16 for six complete playthroughs.