Saucers of Mud

October 22, 2009

IFComp Review: Earl Grey

Filed under: IFComp — matt w @ 8:11 pm

I’ve been playing some of the games from the 2009 IF Comp. These are text-adventure games, arty to various degrees, meant to be be judged in under two hours of play. The games can be found here. My reviews will be categorized under “IFComp.”

This is a review of “Earl Grey,” which can be downloaded here and may be playable online here, though I can’t get that link to play in my browser. If you want to download these games and play them, you’ll need an interpreter. Some things about interpreters can be found here. I use Zoom for the Mac when I’m not playing online.

So. I’m going to be somewhat not-nice about this game. It has a great idea, and does some completely new stuff in IF, but it also had the highest Frustration Meter of any game I played in the comp, and I don’t think it’s my fault. It’s like, bicycles have been around for a while, and there isn’t anything very interesting about a bicycle, but if you know how to ride one it can get you from one place to the next. Personal jetpacks are exciting and way cool, and whoever invents any kind of personal jetpack is going to deserve high praise for innovation in the field of transportation. But if you can’t control the jetpack, it won’t be very much fun to try to use it to get from A to B. In fact, it’ll lead to some serious owies.

A game like Interface is a bicycle. Earl Grey is an out-of-control jetpack. When Yoon-Ha Lee asked of it, “Please either be (a) hilariously bad in an over-the-top manner or (b) staggeringly wonderful,” I think she got both.

[Actually I can’t ride a bicycle, due to an early busting-my-head-open experience. But like I said here, most IF games presuppose you already know how to play IF some. Except for something like the Dreamhold, I guess, which comes with training wheels. I’m now going to push this metaphor over the edge of a cliff, and you won’t have to see it anymore. *CRASH*]

Anyway, I need to temper my unenthusiasm some; a lot of people didn’t find this game unplayable and in fact enjoyed it. Jenni loved it. Sidney Merk, well, liked it better than I did, and I get the impression he wasn’t as frustrated as I was by a similar playthrough. So not everyone will still have my issues. Still, it’s my review, and I get to explain what my issues were, and why I think in order to make this a really excellent game the authors would have to replace about 60% of the puzzles and 75% of the plot.

Before I start complaining, I really like word puzzles. I just replayed every level of Blocks With Letters On and More Blocks With Letters On after that. In fact this may have hurt the game for me; when I read it was a word puzzle game I went for it immediately, so I may have been hurt by raised expectations.

My main complaint is that the game misses an opportunity to teach you how to play it. This might seem ironic, since it has a tutorial, explains that it doesn’t use most verbs, and in fact Jenni said “I like when games attempt to teach you how to play them, especially if they’ve got special new features….” The problem for me was that after the initial tutorial, it throws you into a bunch of situations where it’s not obvious what your goal is; instead of having a goal and looking to see how to use your new techniques to reach it, you have to look for what you can apply your technique to and hope it advances some goal you may not know you had. Which actually could be kind of fun if the application was obvious, but a lot of these puzzles pretty much have to be done by brute force. At the very bottom, under an extra spoiler space, I’m going to complain about the most egregious one.

Again, there was a problem of expectations here. Someone (I can’t find who right now [UPDATE: it was Elizabeth), when it looked like the game would be about going to various houses and getting various teas, complained about collection quests. But this structure at least would’ve given you a well-defined goal at each stage, and given the authors a chance to slowly ramp up the difficulty. And they could still divert the game into the wacky plot in the middle — in fact that might increase the impact of the wacky plot, since you were expecting to do more than collect tea.

Another issue was the conversation — there are several points where you can only move the game along by talking to someone, a lot, when you’d rather be messing with words. Seven “TALK TO DUDE” commands in a row is a lot, and though the dialogue has its moments it’s not quite good enough to sustain it. Also, there was one point (details below the spoiler space) where my dialogue with one character hung up because I hadn’t tripped the right event flag, which made me think there was a puzzle that just wasn’t there.

There was a lot of funny stuff in the game, and though I sometimes found the PC’s subtitled commentary a bit twee, there were some great lines. (Though the tone of the game also bothered me; more below.) (Also; bad idea to put the most important part of the inventory in the subtitles, because that means you can’t scroll back to see it.) And it’s good that you can’t actually make the game unwinnable; it always resets to a winnable state. But overall, I have to say that this is a great idea, but I’d really like to see a different game written around it.
The main trigger for my problem with the tone actually was also the first trigger for my problem with the gameplay. At the end of the tutorial, Eaves prevents you from descending to town until you’ve finished your lessons, but he doesn’t have any more lessons to give you. The conversation stalls out. And at this point the game clearly expects you to do something pretty dickish to Eaves; but there’s no reason for Eaves to keep you from leaving until you do something dickish to him, and I didn’t actually want to do anything dickish to him. IF is often coldhearted, but I’d usually rather it wasn’t. This also betrayed a problem the game sometimes had with insufficiently artful ways of keeping you on the plot, the worst example being “Something holds you back” when you try to go through the portal without having fixed the mess where you are.

It reminded me of the part in Ad Verbum where you have to make a (very unpleasant) child cry so you can take a toy from him; and I know Ad Verbum wasn’t supposed to engage my emotions, but that made me feel like crap. (The particular way you solve this puzzle didn’t help, also that unlike the rest of Ad Verbum the solution didn’t seem very verbal.) Except in Earl Grey when you do that dickish thing AN ENTIRE TOWN GETS DESTROYED BY A FIREBALL. That put me off even more, and the things you do to rectify the situation didn’t seem nearly adequate. Yoon-Ha Lee had a similar problem.

Also, why is Eaves knocking the sky to summon Earl Gry? Shouldn’t he be knocking the tea?

The conversation-trigger problem I had was in the scene with the ogreling, the guardsman, and, er, the other character. I got to the point where Other was pointing out an anti-ogre knife, but he wouldn’t give it to me because I hadn’t finished talking to the ogerling yet. I figured that my PC wouldn’t have much trouble going after the ogreling before being explicitly told he needed a real weapon, and I spent a while trying to see if I could somehow summon up a drink to trade the Other for the knife — it’s not like he said, “I’ll give you this knife when you’re certain you need it.”

And, like everyone else, I was completely lost when I hit the sphere. I had no idea what I might want to do. (More detail below the next spoiler space.) After a little walkthroughing I got to the point where I could let the sea lions drown, and then I quit in despair, because I didn’t want to do any more awful things. (And read Sidney Merk’s transcript to see what happened. I’m actually particularly glad I didn’t play through to the end, because the end seems terribly unsatisfying, though there may have been a bit more explanation in the subtitles.)
OK, I can see how it’s amusing to take the r and n from a crown to turn it into a cow so a lazy moo will hang into the air so you can add the n back and turn it into a lazy moon which will cast the white luster of rock into the ocean (except you can’t see it by examining the ocean, you have to examine the moon) which you can turn into a white cluster of rock for the sea lions to shelter on. But that’s something that would be fun to watch, because it’s so delightfully illogical. When there’s no way to know in advance that creating a cow will eventually give you a white luster of rock, trying to do this is torturous.


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