Saucers of Mud

November 13, 2011

IFComp Reviews, Part 6

The 2011 Interactive Fiction competition is on, with lots of games in lots of different systems. Interactive fiction is generally the kind of game where you read things and then type in commands to do things, though not always. People used to get eaten by grues in these games, but that’s rarer now.

Here is the list of games, many of which can be played online; for others you’ll need an interpreter (playing offline with an interpreter may improve your experience with some of the off-line playable ones).

If I played a game online, my review will include a link to the online-playable version. I’ll start with mostly spoiler-free discussions, though I will talk about general themes and the like; some spoilers may be rot13ed in the main discussion, but if I extensively discuss something spoily it’ll be at the end of the entry below a spoiler space.

In this grumpy edition: Andromeda Awakening, Death of Schlig, The Life (and Deaths) of Doctor M, Professor Frank.

Andromeda Awakening. You’re on your way to give a report about the coming apocalypse when it happens. Then you have to explore the futuristic machinery your society is built on to… well, that would be telling (and I’m not positive I understand). A hugely ambitious work by a newcomer, with tons of backstory and world-building, which makes me feel kind of bad to rant on about how much I didn’t enjoy playing it. But not bad enough to stop me.

There’s apparently a game called +=3, which was designed for two purposes: to frustrate Google searchers and to demonstrate that a logical puzzle can have a solution no one will find. The solution to +=3 involves acting on objects that are obviously there if you think about, but that aren’t mentioned anywhere in the game (unless you specifically look for them). At least one critical puzzle in Andromeda Awakening (described below the spoiler space) was basically a version of +=3, and many others were almost as frustrating.

The prose is a problem here. Not so much the quality of the writing; it is overwrought, and the author is clearly not a native English speaker, but it does attain some striking effects. The problem is that it’s difficult to interact with. In many cases the object you need to do something with is buried in the midst of an enormous chunk of prose, looking like a piece of noninteractive scenery. After all, when you write this much, you can’t implement everything you write about.

I didn’t have as much trouble as Emily did with the first room, because I read the opening text three times and figured out that if it was morning I should be moving away from my house. But the first puzzle sent me to the walkthrough, because I couldn’t figure out which elements of the room description were background and which was the one you needed to interact with. (And the puzzle itself was ridiculous; your train pass has expired, which is a puzzle because the train station apparently doesn’t sell tickets. This society deserved to collapse.) This is what I meant when I said that the descriptions in Calm were brief enough not to bog me down. Or what I didn’t mean, rather.

About that walkthrough: Following it was painful. It’s an undifferentiated stream of commands, which makes it hard to locate the puzzle you’re trying to solve. This is the worst toward the end of the game, when you’re often doing something in one room and then something else twelve rooms away. In itself, that’s bad design; if the player is often typing a dozen directional commands in a row, you need to implement “GO TO [room]” as a way to get from one to the next. But a walkthrough that contains an unadorned string of a dozen directions just isn’t very helpful at telling you where you need to go next, unless you’ve been following the walkthrough religiously enough that you’re in the exact location it expects you to be. So I felt punished for trying to solve the puzzles on my own. And the puzzles themselves were often inadequately clued or even anti-clued; a couple of specific complaints below the spoiler space (including one from very near the end).

So: Author, I admire your vision and your world-building, and hope you keep working. But you should probably cut down on the prose a little, maybe work with a native English speaker, and definitely find some beta testers who will tell you when your puzzles are too damn hard. Maybe try a story-based work? It felt like the world-building was what was really important to you, and you don’t need to make the player guess actions in order to show off your world-building.

Death of Schlig. Zany! Aliens kidnap you and give you prehensile eyeballs. That’s not a spoiler, it’s on the cover and in the blurb.

A couple of people have noted that this game isn’t as funny as it keeps telling you it is, but that’s not its main problem. (There were some good bits: I liked to opening in the deli, and the business with the kittens was funny even as it made me whimper pathetically. Poor kitties.)

One problem is pacing: I count three introductory sequences before the real game starts: The scene in the deli, the alien spaceship, and the operating table. That’s two too many. The scene in the deli is fine, because the required actions are clued, and because there’s a lot of things to interact with; I especially liked the menu board. In the spaceship, if you miss your first chance to do something, then you have to wait several turns for your next chance; and then again; and again; and again. (As you can tell, I didn’t find it obvious.) And then the Puzzle You Must Solve To Advance doesn’t actually have anything to do with the reason you advance. That’s the complaint Emily had against The Hours, but at least there the game rushed you on past the puzzles instead of making you wait around for them. The operating table probably wasn’t meant to be a whole additional sequence, but I didn’t figure out the action you need to advance. I did figure out how to get down from the operating table I was strapped to and wander around the compound for a while before going back, so that really stretched this sequence out. Admittedly, I knew I wasn’t supposed to be doing that, but the game should really have advanced without my taking the Mystery Action.

The other problem is also pacing. If you’re a zany character with a zany superpower, your playing experience should be zany. Zany is the opposite of fiddly. This was fiddly. Like Carl, I found myself trying to execute a long sequence of commands to do what the walkthrough suggested I needed to be doing. But it kept happening that my eyestalk snapped back to my body at an inopportune time. Or the guard who wanders around killing you walked into the room — death is a small setback, and you can see him coming, but you can’t do anything about it when he comes. Or I just forgot that when your eye snaps back it doesn’t hold on to its inventory. In the end, maybe I was doing it wrong, but I couldn’t finish in two hours; this with a game that seems to have about five puzzles in the main part.

The walkthrough was much better than in Andromeda Awakening, because it did tell you where you needed to go (in part this was necessary, because at unpredictable times you can be killed and dumped in a particular location). Still, the solution to that puzzle didn’t seem to work from me. Now that I’m thinking about it, maybe I broke it by getting down from the operating table. Oh well.

As you can tell, this game needs more polish — though I’m not going to blame it for printing extra spaces sometimes, because line breaks are impossible to deal with, and the eyeball mechanism obviously took some work. But that’s not the big problem; the big problem is too much fiddly and not enough zany.

[Aside on IF slapstick: A game can be very funny while, and by, constantly frustrating the player, but it needs to be done right. Take Emily Short’s “Revenge of the Fussy Table” (an example from the Inform 7 documentation, playable with some tiny modifications by me here). The key, I think, is to introduce more frustrations when you seem to be just at the point of working everything out — not for nothing does your score start at one below the maximum — and to have solutions create or reveal new problems. Also to be constantly bombarded with messages about how you’re failing, instead of having your careful solution collapse all at once after several turns. What makes this work is the multiple absurdities that have piled up by the time you’re juggling your inventory limit, all the furniture is complaining in various ways, and Alison is cheerfully bellowing about your plight. Also, it’s short.]

The Life (and Deaths) of Doctor M. A polished, well-written, deep game that deals with some serious ethical issues that you usually don’t see in IF. I didn’t like it. A backhanded insult: It reminded me, as it did everyone else, of Tapestry (a game about moral choices in the afterlife), and also reminded me of Losing Your Grip (exploring a giant building full of symbolic represenations of your life and psyche). I didn’t like either of those games either, and will probably never finish them. But they’re usually considered to be IF classics, so I hope the author won’t mind the comparison too much. Still: I have criticisms.

First of all, did I say Death of Schlig was fiddly? This game was fiddlier than a bluegrass festival. There’s a theme of duality, which means that a lot of objects come in pairs, which means I seemed to be disambiguating every other command; if there’s a black tap and a white tap, “x taps” will never work. This gets annoying when you hit a puzzle that requires doing about four actions to two of these things in turn. There’s a pushable ladder which can require two pushes and three up or down commands any time you want to use it. At some point you encounter twelve items, each of which must be examined to yield a difficult-to-spell name, and that name must be typed in order to look it up in a nearby book. “Dr. M” isn’t accepted as a synonym for the title character. Even the hints — which are generally excellent — require diving to the bottom of two separate menus before you get to where you want to go. (I think this comes from an extension that gives you a general introduction to IF in the first menu; I beg you, if you use this extension, give us a command that goes straight to the hint menu.) At some point I began to wonder whether the fiddly interactions was part of the game’s point, like the impossible platforming in Don’t Look Back.

Emily says the game breathes “TRUST ME, TRUST ME.” The confidence of the writing did carry me through the opening, assuring me that it wasn’t an Amnesiac Protagonist wandering in a Featureless Landscape. But I soon lost my faith that the game wasn’t going to try my patience. It’s not just the fiddliness (which I feel moderately ungrateful complaining about, given the technical polish of this game compared to some others). Early on, you drop in on a conversation between two celestial forces, very reminiscent of Tapestry; but in Tapestry I resented having to hang around for a dozen turns while celestial forces polemicized at me, and I don’t like it much more here. Unlike Tapestry, Doctor M lets me move around and even leave the conversation, but there’s not enough to do in the room to justify the number of turns I ultimately have to spend to Hear the Whole Thing.

That’s relatively minor, though. What really did the game in for me was a guess-the-topic puzzle that’s necessary to unlock a major portion of the map. Details under the spoiler space, but you have to ask an NPC about something that’s largely irrelevant to the task you’re trying to accomplish, while the topics that are relevant to that task are unimplemented or yield unhelpful responses. Here the size of the game worked against it for me; though it was apparent where I needed to go (in a general sense), there were enough rooms and topics available that I thought the solution might be somewhere else. If the game had been more constricted, I might have thought of trying every available topic on every NPC sooner. After this puzzle, I found myself hitting the hints even for puzzles I ought to have been able to solve (as well as one or two I oughtn’t). In my allotted two hours, I only really got to the beginning of the flashbacks, but I’m more inclined to blame the game than myself.

[This is part of a more general tension I often find between puzzles and story. Solving puzzles often requires cutting down the possibility space; sometimes the only way a player can progress is to see that there’s only one thing to work on, or to try to figure out what to do with the apparent red herring. But telling a good story can mean including lots of things that aren’t there for puzzles, which makes it hard to trim the possibility space. Something that’s there for backstory can effectively be a red herring in puzzle terms.]

Also: Doctor M is clearly based on a particular real-life figure. Some of the characters in his backstory have names that are nearly identical to characters in Doctor Real-Life’s story. But some details are altered in a way that I think is frankly irresponsible. More below the spoiler space.

Professor Frank. More zaniness! Professor Frank is locked in a library with Dr. Jekyll and a bunch of dangerous Scots who must be placated with Scottish food-like substances, only one of which is haggis. As Sam says, it needs to take its Ritalin. I found it kind of pleasantly goofy, just because it was so open about being a big sloppy mess that I couldn’t hold it against it when things didn’t work as they ought to have. When I got a little bit stuck, I quit with a clear conscience.
Andromeda Awakening: There’s a point in the game where the only way to progress is by placing a mysterious device on a wall in certain rooms. But the wall isn’t mentioned in the room description. Apparently if you examine the wall, it yields a description that would be helpful, but I didn’t think to examine the wall, because the walls aren’t mentioned in the room description. (The ceiling is mentioned in the room description, and I tried putting the device on the roof, to get the usual failure message.) When you think about it, every room has a wall; but I’m not about to type “x wall” in every room of every game I play.

There’s also a mountain of ice which you’re supposed to climb. If there’s one thing I think of when I see a mountain of ice, it’s “something I can’t climb.” (And the fact that it was ice didn’t have any other gameplay effects, though it was described as jagged and cracked or something like that.) There’s another point where you have to try to get a critical object, but “get doohickey” gives you the response that it’s just out of your reach. You have a longish stick (I think). Is the solution “get doohickey with stick”? No, it’s “get doohickey” again; you try harder and reach it.

And at the very end — after I’d been trying for two hours, which means it doesn’t come off the game’s score, but still — we get this:

>x door
There is no evidence this “door” could be opened. Or even that it’s a door, after all. On it, four small dots draw a perfect line, in its center.

The dots look like tiny holes in the center of the “door”, one above the other in a linear sequence. All the dots are currently off.

>put elektron on door
You link the Elektron to the door of the dome. The display on the device blinks twice: Some text appears on it.

It reads: Geo-gravitational pull. Alert. Peaks at 13.6×10^12 gamma epsilon. Reading off scale. Process terminated. [This is the same response it’s always given you.]

>enter hyerotrope
The door of the Hyerotrope opens and lets you in, like a comfortable thalamus.

That’s right; at the end of the game, just before you go through the main door, the game is still telling you that you can’t open it. You just have to walk through. [Pun not intended.] I think the clue is that the lights have gone off — you have to activate four hoojabs, so presumably a light goes off for each one — but I wouldn’t call that clued. (A completely awesome way to troll the player would be if you could’ve walked through the door at the very beginning, making most of the game completely unnecessary. But apparently that’s not the case.)

Doctor M: To unlock the command that lets you into the cellar, you have to ask the devil about the inn, whereupon he will tell you something about using the fireplace to get to the cellar (and some previously useless examinations/searches around the fireplace will become useful). Asking him about the fireplace isn’t implemented. Asking him about the fire is interpreted as asking about himself. Asking him about the cellar isn’t implemented. All this even though he wants you to fix the taps, and has told you that the servant disappeared into the cellar. Shouldn’t he be volunteering information about how to get down there?

On the facts: Doctor M is Jack Kevorkian. The real Dr. Kevorkian was convicted of second-degree murder for assisting in the suicide of Thomas Youk, a 52-year-old man in the last stages of ALS. Doctor M’s last victim was Thomas York, an 18-year-old with no physical illness at all, as I recall from the game. Doctor M also kills a homeless man with ALS; in the part of the game I played, it wasn’t clear whether John Doe had consented, though Carl finished the game and describes this as “straight-up murder[].” I’m inclined to think Kevorkian was a bad guy, but you ought not to change the facts more than you change the characters’ names. This has the potential to mislead people about what happened in the real world.

1 Comment »

  1. […] the slapstick doesn’t really work in the medium; slapstick can work in IF (more in my Death of Schlig review) but this particular slapstick doesn’t have the “a bunch of little disasters […]

    Pingback by IFComp Scores « Saucers of Mud — November 14, 2011 @ 9:38 am

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