Saucers of Mud

November 19, 2011

IFComp Reviews, Part 8 and Last

This is my last batch of reviews for the IFComp! It’s not my final thoughts, though, which are here. More reviews are here. And though the comp is over, you can still play the games here! If you need an interpreter to run them, look at this page.

Last reviews: Taco Fiction, Cursed, and Ted Paladin and the Case of the Abandoned House.

Taco Fiction. Down on your luck, you decide to rob a taqueria, but things quickly get wacky. A comic crime caper that’s actually funny, with at least one nicely drawn NPC; it deserved to win.

I had two beefs though, both to do with my not getting the best ending. The first is that late in the game there’s a timed puzzle that locks you out of a decent ending if you don’t solve it. The timer is extremely generous, but I wasn’t sure what my objective was (I think if you enter the room earlier you get a clue about it, but I did not do that). Also the key to the puzzle was that you have to examine a large flat object in the middle of the room, thus learning there’s a bunch of stuff sitting on it that wasn’t mentioned in the room description. Now, not examining it was dumb, but this is the sort of thing that The Hours deservedly got dinged for, and there it was an obstacle to progress rather than a timed puzzle that locked you out of a win. (For The Hours and this kind of puzzle, see the Escape from Santaland review, and more in the Beet the Devil review.)

But really, it was eminently fair. The problem was that my playthrough of the game up to that point had been so goofy that I wasn’t expecting that I could get into an unwinnable situation. I won’t list all the goofy things I did, because they’re spoily, but trust me: they were goofy. (Well, one, in rot13: V uvtu svirq fuvegyrff jbys znfx qhqr.) Sam suggested that this was because I was playing as a Standard Adventure Game Protagonist rather than playing along with the tension that the author created, but I must demur; so much goofy stuff is implemented that goofing around is playing along with the author. The cops are Bob and Rae! This is much more Dortmunder than Pulp Fiction and Dortmunder… well, usually goes home empty-handed. Still, maybe instead of a timer the threat could trigger when the puzzle gets solved, or you could start the game by asking “Would you like to enter Wimp Mode, for sissy boys who hate losing endings?” I’d say yes.

The other problem is that the really good ending didn’t seem to be attainable. Having done what I thought I needed to do, the relevant conversation menu didn’t change. I think this must have been a bug introduced in a revision (David Fletcher was the only other reviewer who mentioned this problem), but boo. [UPDATE: This is apparently wrong. To motivate the PC to attain the best ending, you have to do some stuff that I had done in my first playthrough but not in my second. This is fair play; it means PC knowledge doesn’t carry over between playthroughs, which is reasonable. I think there is a slight problem with inadequate feedback for failed attempts. Spoilery details below the spoiler space.] The conversation system was unusually prolix here; there were a few options that were unlocked when you had certain items, and it would’ve been more efficient to let SHOW ITEM TO NPC trigger those conversations directly instead of going through the menu. (Other, minor issues: There’s a point where someone tells you to take a coathanger, but the message for taking it suggests that you’ve stolen it. Also, I had to try about twenty syntaxes to pay for my ice cream.)

But all this is nitpicky; it’s a very funny and well implemented game that does a good job of pointing you along, with generally extremely fair puzzles. And it’s funny.

Also, checking an unrelated Twitter feed revealed that Mr. Veeder is a Homestuck fan, so he might enjoy my new tiny game, and also, do you remember the song with initials UU that showed up on some album and caused everyone to speculate wildly about the Ophiuchus troll a year before that troll appeared in the strip? I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Umbral Ultimatum. It was mentioned on Homestuck’s TV Tropes page sometime back before it got split into eleventy billion subpages, but damned if I’m going to search in there to try to find it. (Predictably enough, half an hour was spent looking at TVTropes in the middle of that sentence.)

Cursed: This is another big huge ambitious one; I think I finished maybe a third of one of the paths in my two hours. Because there are three paths; at the beginning you can choose one of three animals to be transformed into, and which one you choose presumably affects a lot of the puzzles.

There are some problems with the story here. Part of it, as everyone has observed, is that there are too many damn words. It opens with a frog-march through several locations, which in itself is not a bad idea, since it’ll help you to have a sense of the layout of those rooms. But the frogmarch is accompanied by an immense quantity of agonized interior monologue. I do not exaggerate when I say that it would work better if there were one-tenth as much prose here.

Aside from the story, there’s some innovation in the gameplay. One conversation scene, while it still has too many words, does a nice job of bolding the potential topics so you know what you can talk about; it’s just obtrusive enough. In the main part of the game your animal senses give you a sort of remote sensing capacity, where the very unfamiliarity of the senses justifies the way the game withholds information from you. There’s a particularly nice bit where your senses get overloaded and you have to navigate your way through a series of commands. The puzzles tend toward the timed death, which is generally justified (I hammered “undo” a lot); the only time this aspect annoyed me was one time when I was being chased and there was only one direction I could run without being killed. There was an in-game justification for it, but it would’ve worked just as well to let me run around being chased until I found the right room. As it is, the try-die-undo cycle sent me to the walkthrough.

The real flaw in the gameplay, though, is the occasional guess-the-verb puzzle. Early on there’s one badly underclued puzzle, and later (about where I finished) there’s a really bad one wrapped in a timed death. This is one of those things where you have to examine several layers of things before you find the right object; but in this case, none of the verbs you’d been able to use on any other object did anything. I thin you had to use a specific verb that I don’t know that I’ve used in any other IF (wait, I did, in Duel in the Snow, where it was also a rather annoying verb guess). Details under the spoiler space. And the hints made it worse; when you make the player page unlock several layers of hints one by one, the last hint should ALWAYS give the exact command needed to solve the puzzle. Here, having figure out that I needed to do something useful to a certain object, I wound up with a final hint that told me “Here’s this object. Perhaps you should do something useful to it?” And so to the walkthrough. Grrrr. (I did like having the hints run in a separate game file.)

A couple of weird messages that certainly weren’t intentional showed up, but that might just be ADRIFT interpreter issues (I played in Gargoyle). That was a minor issue, though. It’s an interesting and ambitious game, but it could use more polish in the puzzles and a lot of editing on the prose in the story-heavy parts. This character might help, with her topiary skill. Cut, cut, cut, prune!

Ted Paladin and the Case of the Abandoned House. We close with the Game of Ridiculous Interpreter Issues; only a new release of Gargoyle toward the end of the Comp let me play this. And it turns out to be… rather good. Also short, so I came in under two hours even counting the time I spent trying to get the old version of Gargoyle to run it. Anyway, it’s a little puzzle box, with three basic puzzles, but they’re not your ordinary find-the-key business. Each puzzle messes with IF conventions in some ways; the first room has a missing room description, the second has obscured object descriptions (this is basically a bunch of cryptic crossword clues), the third does something clever that I won’t describe here. I quite enjoyed it and only had to hit the hints for one puzzle in the second room (though some of them require some specific cultural knowledge). But, though I wouldn’t wish it much longer, I wish the third puzzle had been more developed. It had the potential to be something great, a puzzle with consistent logic that required some mind-bending solutions; but it was far too short in itself. I’d like to see a more worked-out version.

A gripe or two: One of the puzzles seems to rest on a false belief about colors (though it wasn’t hard to trial-and-error past it), and another on an incorrect interpretation of “two whole tones” — though there may not have been a better way to phrase that. Still, on the level of implementation it worked very well, and it was a nice short game to finish the comp on.

So, congratulations to all the authors! I hope to see lots of post-comp releases, since almost everything can use a little polish one way or another.
Taco Fiction: [UPDATED!] The best ending comes when you find the incriminating evidence that will allow Zuleika to bring down the conspiracy against her. In order to be motivated to do this, apparently, you have to talk to Zuleika enough to learn that her business has been suffering due to what you later find out to be a conspiracy, and also to generally make friends with her. On my first playthrough I did this, in fact I spent a lot of time talking to Zuleika and went back to tell her about every new thing I discovered, so on the second playthrough I was still motivated to help her. But the PC wasn’t, because the second time around I hadn’t done anything special to make friends with her.

I think there’s a little bit of a problem with an absence of feedback here, stemming from the menu-based conversation system. When a conversation menu item fails to show up, that in itself doesn’t tell you why it failed to show up. Whereas an action can be blocked in a way that tells you why it’s blocked. If “show x to zuleika” were generally implemented as a shortcut to the relevant conversation option, then showing her the incriminating evidence could be blocked with the message that you don’t particularly know her and don’t want to give her evidence that you just committed a burglary. For that matter, when you do know her and have heard about the conspiracy against her, but haven’t found the evidence, you could tell her about it and be told that she couldn’t do anything without hard evidence. On the other hand, this could undermine the ease-of-use of the conversation system; it would be bad if it turned into an ask/tell-based topic guessathon. There would be a lot of topics that could be brought up.

Cursed: The guess-the-verb puzzle that got me was in the wagon (playing as the rat) where you had to “shake bolts” twice. “Turn bolts,” “chew bolts,” “push bolts,” “pull bolts” all gave perfectly useless default error messages. This is the sort of thing that really needs to be better hinted — ideally, doing anything to the bolts would help, since it’s just a matter of banging them till they give way.

1 Comment »

  1. […] which provides the PC with the necessary motivation. Apologies, Mr. Veeder! More details in the updated review. This doesn't affect the score I wish I'd given, since as I said I didn't take it into account in […]

    Pingback by IFComp Scores « Saucers of Mud — November 24, 2011 @ 11:10 pm

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