Fine-Tuned: Being Troy Sterling

I’ve just gotten around to playing “Fine-Tuned,” a 2001 work of interactive fiction by Dennis Jerz. It’s a fun piece about a 1920s dandy with an automobile and an opera singer given a strange job. I’m about halfway through, and the game reportedly ends in a cliffhanger (which is disappointing), but so far I’m impressed at how excellently the game puts me into the heads of its characters.

I’ve had a shift in my gaming tastes over the years. There was a time when I most wanted story from my games; that is to say, a narrative, an interesting series of events that needed not be too interactive. These days, however, I’m most interested in character and setting; I want to be an interesting person and/or explore an interesting world. Oh, I still want a good story, but it’s now third on my list of priorities instead of first.

“Fine-Tuned” does an amazing job of letting you roleplay its characters. Miss Melody Sweet, the opera singer, is proper and polite yet independent and practical, and playing her is a pleasant joy. However, it’s Troy Sterling, a daredevil-for-hire(-in-training) and all-around likeable guy, who steals the show. There’s an early sequence where Sterling, controlled by the player, drives to town, pausing only to clean up litter, rescue a baby bird, and wave to a passerby. It’s a joy playing the cheery and friendly Sterling. Read along in this edited transcript:

In the rear-view mirror, you glimpse the earnest wholesomeness of your grinning, lantern-jawed face as you motor along. What a day to celebrate progress — a man and his machine, together.

Greenwood Lane (in the Pratt Dynamo)

You are on a pleasant stretch of Greenwood Lane, which winds north towards the town (some distance away) and south to your estate (a short drive away). The road flows by at an exhilarating pace.

A piece of paper is swirling around inside the Dynamo.

>read paper
It bears an image of your face in profile, and reads as follows:

Troy Sterling! (Amazing! Courteous!)

Unlike other daredevil would-be role models, Troy always aids the helpless, waves to strangers, and blesses sneezers.

Automotive tours. Camping and hiking expeditions. Birthday parties. House-sitting. Pet exercising.

Troy Sterling! (Polite! Kind!)

In the distance, you see a matronly woman riding a bicycle.

You wave at the woman. The woman breaks out into a smile, and waves enthusiastically as you zoom past.

[Your score has just gone up by one point.]

An old, beaten-up bucket, lying in the middle of the road, spoils the area’s rustic charm.

You push the electrical ignition button, cutting the motors. You switch the motors off.

>get bucket
You pick up the bucket, restoring the natural beauty to this idyllic stretch of country road.

[Your score has just gone up by one point.]


Greenwood Lane (in the Pratt Dynamo)

You are on a curvy stretch of Greenwood Lane, which winds north towards the town and south to your estate.

A small, colourful shape catches your eye by the side of the road, just beneath a tree. It seems to be a twitterpated hatchling.

>stop car
You push the electrical ignition button, cutting the motors. You switch the motors off.

>get hatchling
You gingerly pick up the twitterpated hatchling. It chirps and wiggles pathetically.

>climb tree
You easily grab one of the lower branches, and hoist yourself up.

Lower Branches

You are sitting on one of the lower branches of the sprawling tree, shaded by the upper branches. Down below, through the branches, you have an excellent view of the Dynamo. A worried-looking mother bird fusses about inside her nest.

>give hatchling to bird
You gingerly place the hatchling in its nest.

The mother bird wraps her wings around her recovered baby. Her joyous song of maternal bliss is all the reward you need. Although another point would be nice, too.

[Your score has just gone up by one point.]

You pull into the center of town, and find an excellent parking place right near the train station…

In the Center of Town (in the Pratt Dynamo)

The familiar buildings and side streets look cheerful in the bright sunlight. The train station is to the east, and a livery stable is to the west. Greenwood Lane runs north towards the Sneedlewood Mansion (some distance away), and south towards your estate.

A group of excited children swarms around the Dynamo.

>wave to children
The children smile and wave excitedly. More children emerge from the sidestreets. “Blow the horn!” one of them shouts.

>blow horn
No little puny “ooga-ooga” squeeze-bulb for you! This baby’s a steam-powered calliope, built to your exact specifications by Mr. Aloysius Pratt. The on-board calliope churns out a classical guitar rendition of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” The children cheer wildly.

[Your score has just gone up by one point.]

Isn’t that a cheery little sequence? Notice that you get points for these things. Not killing things or solving puzzles (although the game also awards you for the latter), but courtesy and responsibility. The game rewards you for playing your role.

Poor Sterling isn’t appreciated for his dapper derring-do, though. All most townsfolk see is his noisy, gas-burning automobile, rude and crass compared to their nice horses. Even rescuing your salt-of-the-earth neighbor Mr. MacDougal from a buggy-crash in a ditch is met with grumpiness and resentment. The game does such a good job of putting you in Sterling’s head that it’s extra-satisfying when, later, you get to dump a bucket of water on MacDougal’s head.

Oh, it isn’t right or proper or really befitting a proper gentleman. But it is satisfying.

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