These reviews are for the sole entry in the 2009 AbilityComp, Prison Break, by Parham Doustdar. It may be downloaded from the IF Archive.
I'm no aficionado of superheroes, but I do know that every superhero drama has a scene in which the hero introduces his powers. In a genre where deus ex machina is a constant threat, there are sound reasons for this convention. The superpower introduction scene establishes some ground rules; it lets us know the nature and extent of the hero's powers, and helps us understand the logic of the superhero universe. If a superpower has not been properly introduced, then any action involving this power will seem like random nonsense — and I speak from experience, having seen the latest Wolverine movie.
In a computer game in which the PC has superpowers, it's especially important to give these powers a proper introduction. After all, if the game is to play fair, if I am to have a hope of progressing, I need to understand the tools I have at my disposal. Ideally, I'd like to have a chance to experiment with the powers, to understand their potential and limitations, before the game forces me to apply them in increasingly creative and ingenious ways. This is the model used in the Earth and Sky series by Paul O'Brian, which is a good IF example of how to introduce special powers and abilities; outstanding examples in commercial games are found in Portal and Half-Life 2, by Valve Software.
Perhaps something similar would be too much to ask for in a game as short as Prison Break, but still I think the PC's superpower could have a better introduction. An >INSTRUCTIONS command tells us the name of the power (telekinesis) and the commands to use it, which is fair enough. The first few turns of the game — which the PC spends locked in a prison cell, waiting for a guard to arrive — would seem like a perfect opportunity for me to get a handle on his power, to try levitating a few things, perhaps to rearrange the prison furniture by mind alone. But no, any attempts to mind push and mind pull are met with the response "you can't use your telekinesis right now."
The result is that when he actually has to use his power to escape from the cell, I don't know exactly what it can do. And now, after finishing the game, I still don't know. Which objects can the PC move with his mind? His telekinesis does not work by line of sight, since he can use it to push a button outside his cell door. But neither does it work on nearby objects he knows exist, since once he leaves a room, he can't move any of the objects in it. The only thing I can say for certain is that telekinesis works on objects have been programmed to be in scope, for which a meaningful response has been implemented — which is to say, on a completely arbitrary and unknowable set of objects. This would be a serious problem in a game in which telekinesis were truly a prominent feature.
As it happens, Prison Break offers story reasons for the PC's lack of telekinetic powers at the start of the game — he has been taking drugs to suppress them, administered by a hot chick prison guard. There are also puzzle reasons — telekinetic powers would break the first puzzle. But the lesson to absorb here is that game reasons always trump story reasons, and the needs of the game as a whole are always more important than those of individual game elements. If some aspect of your story necessarily results in lousy gameplay, change the story. If some pet puzzle is hurting the rest of your game, change the puzzle.
Prison Break could solve the problem more easily still by changing the superpower. The sad truth is that the PC's unusual ability is not a prominent feature of this AbilityComp entry. I never need to use any of the telekinesis commands in a successful playthrough, and after opening the prison door, I never actively need to use telekinesis at all (the guard's bullets are automatically waved away as I walk from room to room). I can levitate my would-be lover all over the place without her seeming to notice, or affecting the story. If I want to, I can mind-push the other guard to his death, or mind-steal his gun, but I apparently can't be bothered mind-moving anything else. The PC's superpower is never crucial to the game or story; with the smallest of rewrites, he could have a different power entirely, or no power at all.
A few technical and second-language problems aside, the writing in Prison Break is fine. The PC and other characters experience a number of intense emotions; I can't say I really empathise with any of them, but at least the emotions are there. It's refreshing to see characters who care about something, who are struggling towards something, who are trying to make a difference in each other's lives. I don't think the central relationship worked in this implementation — at the very least, the game is too short to give it much emotional weight — but it's possible that there's a good story somewhere in there. Whether it's a good IF story is another question. If your game design requires you to spend the last dozen moves reading journal entries, then very likely you've either chosen the wrong medium, or the wrong story.
Prison Break has a lot of bugs: too many to mention here. They show up without fail when you stray any distance from the walkthrough. I imagine most players will need the walkthrough to finish the game; I certainly did. I would never have guessed that "turn page" was required to read more of the journal, or that reading the whole journal was even necessary. Finishing the journal yields one of two "winning" endings; a bug prevented me from seeing the second one.
While Prison Break is not by any means a good game, I do think the author should try to write another. There was enough promise in the writing and characterisation to convince me that he's capable of better. He just needs to do a bit more work on game design, and a lot more on testing.
In one sense, Prison Break makes the protagonist's special ability absolutely central: it's the reason he's in the situation he's in, and seems to have been determinative for his recent history. On the other hand, his special ability seems strangely under-used. The ABOUT text lists four commands I can use to employ the protagonist's special ability, but I only have to use one of these, and then only twice in the game. This creates the impression that the author originally envisaged a longer game than he's given us here, and indeed the ending seems a little rushed. It would, I think, have felt more satisfying if the protagonist had had to take a more active role in his escape, perhaps being hotly pursued by prison guards and needing to make further use of his special abilities to rejoin the principle NPC on the helipad. The special ability commands described in the ABOUT text thus promised rather more than they delivered; they looked as if they might have the potential to be used in all sorts of interesting ways, but the potential was never fully realized.
The game creates quite a good sense of tragic piquancy about the PC's plight and his relationship with the principal NPC, but the execution is unfortunately flawed in a number of ways. For one thing, I was not entirely convinced by the psychology of the protagonist or that of the principal NPC, and in particular by the way the relationship developed between them. Perhaps both characters were in a situation where they'd become a bit mentally unbalanced, and that would offer some justification for the way they behaved, but neither character's emotions towards the other struck me as being particularly healthy, just as neither character's estimation of the other felt wholly convincing. In particular, the main NPC's attempts at self-justification failed to engage my sympathy. I was rather left feeling that this was a story about a pair of self-deluding murderous psychopaths who somehow managed to end up convincing themselves and each other that they were kind, loving, decent people. Of course, this may have been precisely what the author intended, perhaps as a comment on the corrupting influence of power and the dehumanizing effect of brutal institutions! It also stretched my credulity that the kind of institution both characters appeared to be trapped in would have allowed the principal NPC as much leeway as she apparently had.
Part of the problem here, I think, was that the game was too wordy in places, particularly in some of the conversational responses and in the seemingly endless reading of the journal at the end. This is a case where less really would have been more; that is, the game would have greatly benefited from some pruning of its prose. It would also have benefited from having its prose carefully proofread by a native English speaker, since the incidence of typos, spelling errors and unidiomatic expressions was too high for comfort.
Although the implementation of the game was generally solid enough, there were a number of issues that would need addressing in any future release. The game seemed uncertain whether the principal NPC's surname was Lendry or Jablonsky (or else I was simply misunderstanding it at one point). The most obvious synonyms for an important object near the start of the game were unimplemented, leading to a "guess the noun" problem. The response to OUT after I had returned to the cell to look under the bed again assumed I had not yet left the cell. Room descriptions did not always make it clear where the exits were. The less good ending resulted in a run-time error. Finally (though this is may be the fault of JACL rather than the game) the RESTORE option offered at the end of the game didn't work.
Overall, though, this is a decent effort with some interesting ideas. I particularly liked the way the game offered me a choice at a crucial moment, leading to two rather different endings. I'd recommend the author release a post-comp version in due course addressing some of the points mentioned above.
In Prison Break, you play a man who signs up as the subject of a human experiment. You develop special mental abilities as a result of the experiment, but find yourself treated as a prisoner. Becoming dissatisfied, you decide to escape, and that's where the game begins.
Prison Break doesn't have much actual gameplay. There's the opening sequence, a puzzle, a dramatic choice, and then the closing sequence. I say "a" puzzle because there's really only one- during the opening and closing sequences the game tells you what to do. For example, the intro says:
The plan you and Mark made is simple: drink the water, talk to her and keep her attention away from the scarf as you kick it towards the doorframe to keep the door ajar a fraction of an inch, just enough to let your telekinetic energy reach through and unlock the door.
And sure enough, that's exactly what you have to do, in between waiting and reading text dumps. There's nothing to solve; you just follow the instructions. The ending sequence is similar, and the two together make up about two thirds of the game. So there isn't a lot of room to play around in.
The puzzle itself isn't too hard, and the response when I partially solved it pushed me gently toward the full solution. It worked well for me — I just would have liked to have a bit more. :) I did run into some implementation problems, but almost everything I tried was implemented somehow, and there are even multiple ways to do some things.
The game has "easy" and "hard" modes. Instead of removing or simplifying some of the puzzles, the easy mode added stronger hints to the text. I like this system, because the easy player doesn't miss out on anything. It doesn't get much use in Prison Break because the game is so short, but it's a good idea that I'd like to see used again.
The story didn't work for me. It's about the relationship between the player and another character, and whether you should break up or not. Problem was, I never got to know the character. The opening text dump told me what my feelings toward the character were supposed to be and how they had changed, but didn't help me actually feel that way.
Based on the pattern (boy meets girl, boy & girl fight) I assumed the next step was "boy and girl make up" and acted accordingly. But I was doing it because I thought the game wanted me to, not because I cared about the characters.
On the plus side, you do have a choice about whether to make up or not. One of the options is clearly preferred, but the game accommodates either.
THE SPECIAL ABILITY
Your special ability in Prison Break is telekinesis. You can push, pull, and lift things with your mind. There aren't many objects in the game, but you can use your ability on pretty much all of them.
There are some bugs. Once you've raised an object into the air, it will usually stay floating there even when you leave the room. The game also gets confused about where things are sometimes; for example, a guard shot at me while I was supposedly holding his gun out of reach in the air.
But a bigger problem with the ability is that it has very little to do with the game. You do use it once during the introductory sequence. But after that, while you can play with the ability if you feel like it, doing so doesn't help you advance. As I mentioned, the story is about relationships, and telekinesis really doesn't affect that.
This was a big disappointment to me, because I was looking forward to a game of sneaking past security systems and outwitting guards using my mental abilities. Instead, I got a game about talking to people and reading journals.
There are two big problems with Prison Break: it doesn't make good use of the PC's special ability, and it needs some serious testing and polishing. If these were fixed I'd like the game a lot more, but as it is I can't recommend it.
That said, I did see some good ideas and things I liked, including the easy mode, puzzle design, and some of the writing. (English is the author's second language and it shows, but even so there were some parts that I really liked.) So I can honestly say that while I didn't much like Prison Break, I'm looking forward to seeing what the author comes up with next.
Argh, I hate to gripe about this game since it's by a first-time author and it's in an unusual language and it's in this comp that I want to encourage. But the thing is, look, the comp is supposed to be about a PC with unusual abilities, and so I want to see a game where the PC uses unusual abilities. In this game the PC has unusual abilities, but he hardly ever uses them. Partly this is because the game is really short, and partly this is because it's not really puzzle-oriented. There's basically two puzzles and they're both pretty much spelled out for you, so the amount of time you spend fiddling with your abilities is small. All that said, there is a cool premise and backstory here that I wanted to see more of, and the PC's relationship definitely had some potential. But as an entry in this comp, I have really mixed feelings about the game.
All reviews in this article copyright © 2009 by their respective authors.