Posted 16 November 2004 to rec.games.int-fiction
Another year, another comp, another set of reviews. This is my third set (a quick Google Groups search for my name should turn up my '02 reviews, which containt a quick blurb about my biases); unfortunately, since I'm back at school, I didn't have the time to make this year's as comprehensive as I would have liked, but that's life, I suppose. If I occasionally don't support my assertions or dispose of a game without sufficiently evaluating all of its elements, mea culpa, and I hope the thrust of analysis survives these weaknesses. Likewise, if I'm overly blunt or leap to an unfounded judgment, my apologies; I know I have tendencies towards snarkiness, and I suspect I haven't subjected the reviews to enough editing to root it all out.
My overall impression was that this year's crop of games tended more towards the mid-range; lots of solid, well-implemented games, with very few massively ill-considered entries, but also fewer real standouts. This is probably a good thing — more newcomers entering the field and writing competent games which cover all their bases is good for the hobby, as they'll hopefully go on to more audacious works later. Still, this tendency combined with the greater number of games this year did make some periods of the comp a bit less exciting than I would have wished. Still, there was certainly plenty of creativity on display, from old hands and first-timers.
My numerical scores are really fairly arbitrary; I try to evaluate the game on its own merits as well as judging the originality and ambition of the work, which leads to a rather idiosyncratic scoring system whose results are hard to post facto justify. Perhaps a more systematic approach, breaking the score down into component parts, would be more transparent and provide a fairer guide to authors; something to consider for next year, I suppose.
I used the COMP04 randomizer; the order below is the order in which I played the games
As always, major kudos to the authors and organizers for all their hard work and keeping the IF scene vibrant.
Splashdown was an appropriate start to this year's comp; it's a solid game with some entertaining flourishes, but ultimately it feels somewhat weightless, as it's a bit lacking in follow-through and the concept is more then slightly timeworn. To the author's credit, the initial waking-up-out-of-cryosleep sequence is well done, despite the weight of countless similar scenes in other games throughout the ages, with good attention paid to the more immediate, tactile sensations, rather than jumping right to the technology and larger story. Overall, this is a good approach for the start of a game, especially one which runs such a high risk of falling into cliche.
Unfortunately, this immediacy is quickly undercut by two things: first, the response to X ME being the hair-pulling default "as good looking as ever", and the massive wall 'o in-jokes. Don't get me wrong, I examined each of the bodysicles, and appreciated the inclusion of Lost in Translation references in addition to the more conventional ones to cyberpunk and Star Wars, but I think it might have been a bit much — I spent probably five or ten minutes going through them all, and had to restart the game as a result. Probably this is just a lesson that I should be less anal, but I think cutting down on the number of references or putting them somewhere other than the very beginning of the game would have made for a more effective piece (oh, and while on the subject of me being anal, I noticed that Leonard Nimoy's name was misspelled).
On to the game itself. The writing was pleasantly transparent, but the lack of scenery was noticeable; room descriptions felt relatively complete, but many of the objects they mentioned weren't susceptible to examination. I generally loathe time limits, but this one was relatively forgiving, and taking too long was much more likely to lead to a lower score than catastrophic failure, which is a reasonable approach. No such ameliorative principle applies to the flashlight-with-limited-battery issue, however. On the plus side, the puzzles were generally logical and well-clued. Allocating power between the different systems was fairly enjoyable, and the cell phone conversations were an entertaining added touch.
The robot sidekick seemed to hold out some promise at first, but I was disappointed with how underutilized it was. As far as I could determine, it only played a role in two puzzles, neither of which was particularly complicated or engaging. It did display a reasonable awareness of its surroundings and the condition of the ship, however, and made the familiar tromping-around-a-broken-spaceship a bit more bearable. Still, on a gameplay level, I didn't feel it added that much. I should probably mention that I never played Planetfall, so perhaps the eyes of nostalgia would see this homage in a more positive light.
Finally, special mention must be made of the accompanying documentation, which is slick and enjoyable, not to mention unintentionally hilarious (one hopes that the line trumpeting ".96% the gravity of home!" is a typo, rather than an evil marketing ploy). Still, overall Splashdown is rather pedestrian — competent puzzles, competent writing, and a few entertaining embellishments which don't quite manage to make it anything special.
Murder at the Aero Club
Murder mysteries are hard, in static fiction or interactive. Pacing is key — the slow sense of discovery, as avenues of investigation open up and hit dead ends. So is ambiguity; mysteries are at their best when multiple possible interpretations (and multiple possible murderers) are reasonably plausible, and the intellectual exercise of foreclosing each possibility in turn and deducing the true culprit is one of the major payoffs of the genre. Murder at the Aero Club has a distinctive premise — it's set at an Australian airfield, which seems to have been drawn from real life — and boasts a light, breezy style; unfortunately, pacing and ambiguity are thin on the ground.
The game is a mystery, but it's sadly lacking in the suspense and richness of detail required to do justice to the genre. Most damningly, there's never any real doubt as to the murderer's identity. All the evidence points one way, and one can't confront any of the NPCs about it before making your accusation (indeed, the game doesn't actually allow you to accuse anyone besides the actual suspect). There are no ancillary secrets, no red herrings, the NPCs are flat and prone to gnomic pronouncements (Haagen and his family being the most egregious offenders) — it's mystery-by-numbers. The puzzles are just as straightforward as the plot, and thus there's no real sense of accomplishment at discovering the murderer.
Which is a shame, because the premise really is entertaining, and the game is solid, especially that this is the author's first work. I didn't run across any bugs, and as mentioned, the writing is for the most part clear and enjoyable. This is a promising start from a first-time author; still, I wonder if perhaps a different choice of genre (comedy-adventure a la last year's Gourment or this year's Sting of the Wasp, perhaps?) would have been a better fit for the author's style.
This game shouldn't work. The literary allusions are forced and don't really cohere. The balance of realism and surrealism is cock-eyed, so that after the initial scene the player is swept away on an overlong wave of dream-logic which ultimately edges towards the monotonous. The puzzles are a mix of the reasonable, the evocative and the peremptory. A central symbolic motif never quite swims into focus. It all wraps up with the hoariest cliche imaginable.
Yet work it does, with more than enough panache to spare. Yes, all of the above problems are inarguably present — the sequence in the maze-complex or whatever it is does drag on too long, I'd never think to look on the back of the fortune if the walkthrough didn't tell me to, and the whole Dante-and-Beatrice angle made me roll my eyes. But man, it just doesn't matter. I'm willing to concede that a good part of my goodwill towards this game is a result of its peculiar aesthetic, and particularly the author's knack for description, which comes off like Clockwork Orange by way of Freaks and Geeks. Most of my notes for the game consist of memorable one-liners: the first NPC we meet is "simultaneously thinking of fucking some cheerleader's brains out and calculating how many XP a red dragon is worth", while "putting on a dungeonmaster grin". All of the dialogue at the party manages to be both clever and absolutely true-to-life, which is a neat trick indeed. The narration wonderfully convey the PC's personality — sardonic, detached, and yearning for meaning. Even when the prose doesn't need to do any heavy lifting, the author manages to toss off an offhand gem; I don't even remember the context for many of the lines littering my notes, but even on their own they're great: "A miracle of genetic instinct and secular humanism"; "a faint smell, the kind that ought to trigger an old memory but doesn't".
The puzzles for the most part live up to the off-kilter yet sharp aesthetic of the prose. Nothing's more natural than getting drunk in order to dance better (or at least not notice that you're dancing poorly), and the sequence where you're forced to assign tag-lines to the major characters does a good job of forcing the player to recognize some of the thematic work that's going on beneath the surface. I do think they get noticeably weaker in the second half — the entire sequence in the darkened passageways slows the game down, and the sharp NPC interaction which enlivened the party is conspicuously absent. Finding a hidden safe combination and navigating a maze which adds rooms as you go just didn't seem activities which inhabited the same universe as the rest of the game.
The sequence in which the player trudges across the desert as George W. Bush, on the other hand, was brilliant. Possibly my personal beliefs brought more to this scene than the author intended, but floundering across the sand, attempting to justify a horrible mistake, definitely brought to mind the Iraq war, and made me feel the queasy sense of uncertainty that the PC suffered. I'm unsure how well this scene would work for anyone else, or indeed at any other point in time, but as far as I'm concerned it was the single most effective moment of the comp.
Again, I don't mean to elide the game's real problems — all of those above mentioned, and it must be conceded that the prose does lurch towards wordiness on occasion. But there's real ambition on display here, and the places where everything clicks, it works about as well as anything in IF can possibly work.
Chronicle Play Torn
"As good looking as ever." Certainly not the most inelegant clause ever committed to monitors, on the face of it; it admittedly boasts a modicum of affable cleverness and self-depreciation. One might quibble with the absence of a hyphen, but I concede that that's firmly a matter of personal preference. Still, when I get that response to the second command I type in a game (X ME, of course, right after ABOUT), it always provokes a grimace. It bespeaks one of two possibilities: either the author has deliberately left the default description in place in order to convey to the player that the PC avatar is a cipher, a blank upon which the player should project his or her identity, or not, as the case may be, because it's unlikely to matter much in the puzzle-fest to follow (although I have toyed with the idea of writing a game with an Existentialist approach to PC description; it starts out as "good looking" and slowly evolves and metastasizes into the outside world as the player makes choices to define him/herself). Alternatively, it just means that the author didn't get around to changing it, either because they were really strapped for time or just didn't think it was important. None of these are particularly cheering prospects, I find.
It's unfair to start a discussion a game with a rant about PC descriptions, of course — the above paragraph could have prefaced at least half a dozen other reviews — but somehow it feels appropriate here; just like "as good looking as ever", Chronicle Play Torn has its modest charms, but there's a too-familiar vibe and an overall sloppiness which bleach it of enjoyment.
Oh, and the inventory limit, which is just killer.
It should be noted that the author doesn't appear to be a native English speaker, but he does a reasonable job nonetheless; indeed, I often found the sometimes-awkward prose to be enjoyably off-kilter. Indeed, it helped render the otherwise-tired premise (investigate the house of a missing occult-obsessed uncle) at least slightly distinctive.
Things start out reasonably well, with only a few puzzles to work on at any time and fairly good sense of what one should be doing next. Sadly, after two relatively self-contained chapters, the third one thrusts the player in the middle of a large area, with a number of puzzles whose relevance is hard to intuit and no real clue where to start. Prodigious displays of insight are suddenly required (if there's a clue pointing towards what the mushroom is for, I certainly didn't find it outside of the walkthrough). Your items get stolen at random, and it's possible to have the game put itself in an unwinnable state if the wrong item gets taken. There's a fair bit of freedom here, and apparently one can win the game in a number of different ways, but since the player never really understands what's going on, instead of providing a sense of agency, all of this choice is just frustrating. Additionally, Torn is pushing at what I consider the reasonable length limits for the comp — I wound up just typing in a good chunk of the walkthrough in order to get through it before two hours were up.
So much for the major flaw. There's some technical wonkiness — WinFrotz crashed when I entered the water without first stashing away my possessions — and generally there aren't as many synonyms as I'd like (after CLIMB BED didn't work, I wouldn't have thought to try STAND ON BED). The overall Lovecraftian feel, with its intentional-or-not gloss of J-horror, was enjoyable; sadly, the puzzles and structure of Torn made it a chore to play.
I have a suspicion that the typo correcting function on display here is a very impressive technical feat; if integrated into later games, it could well cut down on what's perhaps the major source of annoyance when playing IF. Still, the game wrapped around this marvelous function leaves something to be desired. It reuses the popular "real-life IF" conceit found in last year's Recruit and to a lesser extent in the author's previous Janitor, but the one-room machine puzzle here is notable for its aridity. It all works reasonably well, and it's nice that the game keeps track of the various methods by which you can manage to kill yourself, but reading a manual and setting up what feels like a glorified printer really wasn't enough to hold my interest.
I Must Play
A game of minigames is sort of like a sitcom clips show: even if the disparate parts are individually strong, the overall disjointedness is difficult to overcome without a compelling frame and sustained internal linkages. None of that's on offer here; instead, we have separate IF implementations of a number of different arcade games of yore, with an Independence Day reference thrown in for good measure. I have some nostalgic feeling for most of them — especially Duck Hunt, which is inextricably linked in my brain to the synthesized chuckle of a schadenfruede-filled hound — but I still wasn't induced to care about this game especially much. The puzzle in which the player must give a strong pro-gun speech on the Senate floor in order to give a hunter in a different game more firepower was clever, but the rest of the puzzles were far more straight ahead, and I doubt whether discrete, atomistic chunks of cleverness can really add up to compelling IF experience. Things are pleasant enough (although I did catch more than one typo — alert Seebach!), but "pleasant" is a far way from "great".
I ranted about hunger puzzles at length in my review of last year's Delvyn; new year, new game, same author(s?), same annoying hunger puzzle. I won't indulge myself in a retread; suffice to say, if your game has a hunger puzzle, there'd better be a good reason for it, and Zero doesn't have a good reason for it.
Putting that to one side and looking at the merits, the best and worst that can be said about Zero is that it's boring. Taking a goblin's-eye-view of a generic fantasy world is an amusing conceit, but rather than using this as a launching-off point for entertainingly devious and amusingly craven hijinks, we're instead presented with a slightly-glorified scavenger hunt. One explores all the different locations, replaces missing items, then re-explores to see what counter-intuitive result putting a goblet on a table seems to have triggered. The writing edges towards the entertaining, and there are a few enjoyable NPCs, but the gameplay feels underdeveloped. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the endgame: after completing the stultifying "gather" portion of the game, the player is finally assigned an interesting task... which is completed automatically, as the game gurgles forth large blocks of noninteractive prose. Sadly, the static story at the end is far more involving than the archaic object-placement "puzzles" which make up the meat of the game; if the focus had been shifted to the interesting stuff, Zero could have had some promise, but as is, there's little to recommend.
I confess: the neological adjective "iron-fistedly" made me laugh out loud. I'm not sure whether this slightly ungrammatical construction was used intentionally or not, but its loopy, slightly overblown associations extend to the rest of the game; Kurusu City is set in an anime-inspired city ruled by obsessive-compulsive robots (not content merely to crush the spirits of the city's citizens, they micromanage to the point of actually dragging individual students to school if they're the slightest bit late) and inhabited almost exclusively by attractive women (I haven't gone back and checked, but I'd wager they all have different day-glo hair colors, too). The conceit is entertaining enough, and there are a few fun puzzles (faking injury in order to get into the hospital is a highlight), but unfortunately a few missteps undercut the game's effectiveness.
Primary among these is the aforementioned dragging-off-to-school. After this happens the first time, it's relatively easy to escape; the second time, however, I got stuck in the math class from hell, with no way out in sight. While the transcendentally surreal nature of the repetitive questions was fun at first, nothing I tried was sufficient to get me out of there and back to the game. Since it's very easy to get ambushed by robots without any warning, this was a hard-to-avoid game-ender. Beyond this, description leaned towards the sparse, and the city overall felt fairly schematic. Part of this is due to its wide-open nature; rather than directing the player's exploration, most locations are available from the get-go, which makes for a slightly disorienting experience of trying to figure out which puzzles are immediately solvable, and which come later. There are quite a number of NPCs, and many of them present at least the rudiments of a personality, but they do little besides inhabit a stereotype. I noticed a few bugs — OPEN MIRROR returns "I can't open the ." — and a typo or two, but nothing too distressing. Without the purgatorial math sequence, I probably would have played this one to completion, but after my truant PC was retrieved for the third time, I couldn't motivate myself sufficiently to finish the game. Which is too bad — with a bit more focus, a bit more detail, and with a clearer way out of that cul-de-sac (at least in the hints file!), Kurusu City could have been an enjoyable ride.
Goose, Egg, Badger
More a sandbox than a story, Goose, Egg, Badger feels like a collection of rather clever easter eggs and proof-of-concept systems smashed together in one package. There's certainly nothing wrong with this approach, but I must confess it doesn't appeal to me personally — I like more fiction with my interactive fiction. Still, if you enjoy virtual playrooms, you'll probably like GEB quite a lot. There are animals to annoy, appliances to manipulate, food to be cooked, and more. There are two distinct ending conditions, and as far as I could tell, a different final block of test depending on exactly what score you wind up with (and since there are 100 possible points, this is rather a large number of distinct "endings"). The verbification of nearly all the game's nouns is clever, and there's a certain wankerish glee in egging cows, cowing apes, and apeing geese. As an anthology of rather contextless cleverness, GEB works quite well; again, it just isn't my cup of tea.
All Things Devours
I'm usually not a particular fan of games which are just one big puzzle (see "Typo", above), nor do I have any special affection for "old-school" games which can be rendered unwinnable by sneezing at the wrong place, but I liked All Things Devours quite a lot nonetheless. Part of this is surely due to the documentation — the game plays fair, and states up-front in the ABOUT text exactly what the ground rules are. This is definitely the right approach — rather than belatedly realizing that my saved game is useless and cursing the author, I was able to engage to game on its own terms.
Greatly aiding my enjoyment of ATD was the prose, which possesses a bit more flair than is really required to pull off an abstract, meta-puzzley game such as this one. The PC description admittedly made me roll my eyes a bit, both because it's slightly extravagant and because the gorgeous female MIT grad student seems like a bit of a wish-fulfillment character, although of course such do exist — I certainly met more than a few during my time at Caltech. And portraying her as dowdy and asexual would have annoyed me as well, for buying in too strongly to the stereotype. Perhaps I just find the depiction of female sciencey characters somewhat problematic in general; it's hard to sail the ship of characterization between the poles of stereotype and pandering. Regardless, despite this one early issue, the writing is of high quality, and effectively plays up the tension by relying on terse, declarative sentences fraught with threat.
The puzzle itself is well-implemented and well-designed; I had the "aha!" moment when I figured out what was going on, and after that, I was able to sit down and figure out the solution both through trial-and-error and deduction. It's neither too arcane to be solveable, nor so trivial that once one twigs to the concept, it's basically over. This is puzzle design at its best and most satisfying.
The scope of the game is of necessity somewhat limited, and if you're looking for plot or characterization, you're barking up the wrong tree. But it's hard to imagine a better implementation of an abstract, brainy thriller than All Things Devours.
Sadly, Identity suffered from the vagaries of Comp04's randomization puzzle; upon loading it up, I immediately thought "hey, it's Splashdown, but with amnesia!" This is more than slightly unfair, of course, and the games go in different directions soon enough, but I think the lesson is clear: if your concept starts with the PC waking up out of cryosleep to find himself on a malfunctioning spacecraft, you'd better have some extra hook somewhere to keep your game distinctive (this principle is generalizable, of course, e.g. to waking up in your apartment and getting ready to go to work).
The game itself is largely inoffensive. One largely self-contained puzzle leads to the next, without much concern for setting unity or mood. Everything's lighthearted and low-stress. A few sloppy details mar the presentation — I had to play guess-the-verb to buckle up, and the COMPUCOM feels a bit underutilized. Oh, and I would kill for a game which would make CONNECT and ATTACH synonyms. Overall Identity is a solid first attempt; it's just that none of its features rise above a general level of bland competence.
The Great Xavio
A solid attempt at a Holmes-and-Watson style buddy mystery, the Great Xavio doesn't quite come together as well as it could; some elements are too straightforward, while others are needlessly obfuscated, and the NPC interaction isn't robust enough to really get the pair-of-sleuths approach to click. Additionally, the game doesn't transition from debunking-expedition to murder-mystery very smoothly; I was interested in discovering Xavio's secret, and to suddenly find that it was besides the point, and I was actually meant to do something completely different, was disappointing.
With all this said, the Great Xavio is technically solid, and boasts multiple solutions to many, if not all, puzzles. One unfortunate side effect of this, however, is that the game can sometimes feel a bit disconnected and overly rich in red herrings. There are meant to be two built-in help systems, but neither seemed to do much good; Dr. Todd always seemed to spout the same unhelpful platitudes, and THINKing wasn't nearly as fruitful as one would expect. Indeed, Todd is a major missed opportunity; he's definitely got a distinctive voice, but it feels overexaggerated and starts to wear at one as time goes on, especially as he doesn't appear to ever contribute much of worth to the investigation. The player should certainly be the one doing the work, but Todd doesn't seem to react to much of anything, and his list of known topics feels rather truncated.
As in Murder at the Aero Club, there is a dearth of plausible suspects, although at least there are initially two. The evidence is also overly conclusive; individual clues generally point only one way, and don't require any extra work to make useful. Again, this is due to the difficulty of the form, but it still doesn't make for a very satisfying experience; I'd almost rather see the PC and Todd solve things more on their own, rather than dumbing the clues down so far. Ah well. I suspect I'm being overly critical, and indeed, the game was a lighthearted bit of fun; indeed, if only Todd had been a bit more interactive, I probably wouldn't have found so many nits to pick.
A Light's Tale
Nearly any game which involves a story which can be altered by player input has to deal with the railroading problem. One can work to allow as many player actions as one can imagine, but this approach is labor-intensive and can lead to nonsensical and pacing-free narrative. The alternative is to put the game on rails, to one degree or another. The best authors are able to arrange things such that the "correct" course of action appears intuitively obvious, and set out a few critical decision points where the player can feel like they're collaborating in the narrative. A Light's Tale has a third take: it's on naked, unmistakable rails, and it berates you any time you even think about getting off. Needless to say, this isn't a very appealing prospect, and the regular typos, nonsensical setting, sloppy design, and clumsy prose don't exactly gild the lily. My notes for this one consist of one imprecation after another, but I'm too demoralized to run through all of them in detail; suffice to say, I didn't find much to recommend this one.
Die Vollkommene Masse
I realize that this game was withdrawn, but I just had to say something: if your game requires me to put panties on a doll in order to win, could you at least make this a transparent, easy process, rather than force me to spend five minutes wrestling with the parser, furtively glancing over my shoulder to make sure that nobody can read what I'm doing? Thanks.
The Big Scoop
The Big Scoop is a mostly well-implemented investigation story, which doesn't really have any stunningly good moments but is nonetheless solid and enjoyably designed. The early identity-shift is effective (even if the initial timed puzzle is a bit unforgiving for my taste), the puzzles are generally intuitive (although the improvised grappling-hook does strike me as a bit contrived), and the story, while unspectacular, does build to a satisfying conclusion. The writing is reasonably evocative, especially given that the author appears to be a non-native speaker. Despite all this, the game never really grabbed me; the initial murder is horrible enough to involve the player, the pacing is fluid, and new layers of the mystery get peeled back at a satisfying rate, but still, the game never really clicked with me. Possible this is an accident attributable to the randomizer — the games immediately preceding this one were fairly annoying and fiddly — or perhaps there's some undiagnosed problem which kept it from really engaging me. I do like games set in a present-day milieu, the investigative gameplay wasn't too involved but was certainly reasonable, the NPCs were of above average quality in terms of what they could talk about, but the strong elements didn't combine to stun me, for whatever reason. I realize this makes this review rather unhelpful, but that's the best I can do.
Square Circle initially seems like a contrived logic puzzle abstracted from any sort of context, but it quickly telescopes out, broadening the palate of its gameplay and turning a geometrical exercise into a clever bit of social speculative fiction. In the spirit of full disclosure, I'm a law student, and thus the well-done description of the fictional criminal justice system sucked me right in, although I could easily see a less susceptible reader finding it overly dense and overly long.
Indeed, the entire opening seems to telegraph a direction different from where the game ultimately goes; the "draw a square circle" test and the book of geometry leads one to expect Square Circle will be one of those schematic bits of IF where random puzzles are shoddily integrated into a narrative framework barely worth mentioning. Still, the initial puzzle is intriguing enough to keep one moving through it, although I do have a few nitpicks; I'd expect some combination of READ BOOK, X BOOK, and X INDEX to indicate that the book has most of its middle cut out, and I was disappointed that my initial idea for how to satisfy the jailor's requirements wasn't successful (I drew a square on the rubber sheet, then tried to deform the rubber by stretching it over the globe until it looked like a circle). I was very much impressed by the strength of implementation; this puzzle is almost inherently a visual one, but the process of drawing the required shape is nonetheless relatively intuitive, and I had much less trouble with syntax than I'd expected.
Once outside the jail proper, the game opens up in both scope and theme. Certainly the world isn't terribly original compared to the famous fictional dystopias, but Square Circle nonetheless manages to achieve a fair bit of immersion. The outside world feels appropriately gray and blanched of joy and meaning. Some of the puzzles in this section are a bit more conventional, but most of them sport multiple solutions, which adds to the pleasure of solving them, not to mention that each solved puzzle fills in a bit more of the backstory and thereby lends importance to the overall proceeding. The last puzzle is fairly straightforward, but while the correct action is rather obvious, it also feels pleasantly diabolical, leading to a satisfying resolution.
The worst one can say about Square Circle is that there are some moments of thematic fogginess; given the world and the PC the player inhabits, it feels odd to do so much conventional adventuring in the mid-game. Still, the early twist and well-designed puzzles drew me right in, and the ending very much delivered. Not much more one could ask for.
Sting of the Wasp
If ever a game were a guilty pleasure, Sting of the Wasp would be it; the overall plot is pure soap-opera, the NPC interactions are all about eking out the maximum amount of cattiness, and puzzles derive their enjoyment value from pure spite. Which is to say that it hits its design goals exactly. Guiding the super-snob player character on a rampage through a high-end country club inhabited by people even more deserving of comeuppance than you do is entertaining on its own, and it's all the more so when combined with the viciously funny descriptions and withering repartee on offer.
Indeed, the game's great success is in setting the mood. Part of this is due to the author's strong writing skills — there are some laugh-out-loud moments, such as the PC's observation that a half-eaten bowl of salad bespeaks some rival's lack of willpower in sticking to her diet, and the dialogue is razor sharp — but much of the heavy lifting is done by the robust world simulation. NPCs will remark on the items you're carrying around, smells are implemented, and the scenery is both dense and well-described.
All of this very much reinforces the sense of immersion, but it's the puzzles which really nail the feel. Without exception, every puzzle you solve winds up advantaging you at somebody else's expense, whether it's through property damage, blackmail, exploiting a dangerous allergy, or just destroying some poor old lady's hair. The PC goes about her wicked business with flair and panache, and it's hard not to cackle at her exploits as long as one isn't encumbered by too many moral objections (which isn't too hard, in a farce this enjoyable).
There are a few flaws — I think there's a bug with the exit descriptions on the dining terrace, and the social comment is a bit too easy to be worth anything other than a few cheap laughs — but they do little to detract from the overall experience. The author knew exactly what he was going for, and the prose, puzzles, and implementation all work together flawlessly to convey his caustic vision.
As far as I can determine, in the opening ten minutes of Stack Overflow, the PC three times gets suddenly shunted to a new location with no warning and no obvious rhyme or reason. Jumping the player into a radically different world can be a good way of creating interest and hooking the player in; unfortunately, its overuse here does little besides create whiplash. By the time the meat of the game starts, it's unclear if there's meant to be any tissue connecting it with what's gone before; I'd call it dream-logic, but the scene transitions lack even the symbolic linkages one expects of a dream. Instead, the game is bleached of all context, and whatever the author's intention, the motivationless player is stuck solving freestanding puzzles on yet another abandoned space station.
Some of the puzzles are reasonably interesting — although I'm still a bit confused by the logistics, the toolbox-stealing sequence was fairly entertaining, and putting on punk music to get into the proper mood for smashing was intuitive and enjoyable. On the other hand, if even the walkthrough concedes that a machine-manipulation puzzle is boring, the design on that one should probably be rethought. The writing isn't anything special, but while the author doesn't appear to be a native speaker of English, the prose flows along reasonably well, despite some questionably constructed syntax ("near the mailbox crudely attached to an iron pole the path splits into two"). A few bugs seem to have slipped in — one location described as an east-west corridor didn't appear to actually have an east exit, necessitating a restart when I couldn't leave via the locked western door. The ending yanks the PC to yet another location, and at least recalls the opening, but there's nothing resembling a sense of closure (admittedly, I skipped the boring puzzle, so perhaps the best ending explains it all). The various frames, the game's title, and the reams of junk text which print out over the credits imply that the author was trying to work towards some sort of theme or narrative progression; unfortunately, the game at the middle of the work doesn't appear to have much to do with any of that.
Blink reminds me of Jane, a game from the '02 Comp. Jane was an earnest attempt to use Photopia-style narrative techniques to address issues of domestic violence. Unfortunately, it didn't invest nearly enough in the setup, leading to a real lack of emotional connection with the characters, and it felt uncomfortable to be attempting conventional IF behavior in such a context. Additionally, there wasn't much player agency, and removing the element of choice really undercut the effectiveness of the work.
Most of the above criticisms can be leveled at Blink, and I think they hit even harder. Foremost among its problems is that it attempts to cram far too much emotional weight into far too little narrative. The opening sequence is reasonable enough (although if I were the author, I would have arranged things such that one was forced to do a bit more exploring before finding Duncan — my first playthrough, I missed Harry, which lead to a rather shallower narrative experience than I think the author intended), but the others are too compressed to be really engaging. Less than two turns elapse between the beginning of the first vignette and the time the crisis erupts, and without a chance to settle into the characters' routine, the radical change which is introduced feels weightless. The next sequence involves a puzzle which feels decidedly odd in context, and again the important action takes place far too quickly, and with no player involvement — the death of characters who've been introduced barely three paragraphs before fails to really register. Indeed, the overall lack of response to player input feels like a missed opportunity; there are a number of fairly distinct dialogue choices through the beginning of the game, but polar opposite choices don't appear to have any effect on the game world or, indeed, on the PC's personality.
The final allegorical sequence is again simply too overwrought to really be effective. These are important, interesting themes the author is wrestling with, and I'm sympathetic to his point of view, but Blink doesn't effectively grapple with the issues; in the absence of meaningful character development and any sense of player agency, it comes off instead as a histrionic recitation of platitudes.
A Day in the Life of a Superhero
By the same author as last year's Sophie's Adventure, A Day in the Life suffers from the same significant flaw — it's too large and nonlinear for a two hour comp game, for my taste at least. The opening is clever and works as a good introduction to the character and the milieu, but after that, things start to go downhill. There are a fair number of locations open from the get-go, and several more become available as one goes. A few of these are adequately self-contained, but others require objects from other areas to become solvable, and a few of them can't be easily left once started (I'm thinking of the mall, where it's easy to get locked in a closet with no obvious way out, and the factory, where the death-by-cat timer doesn't reset when you leave the area and it's easy to get killed as soon as you re-enter). It doesn't help that the puzzles are generally somewhat gnomic; handing out lottery tickets to delinquents didn't strike me as obvious, and I wound up with a variety of objects and no real sense of what they'd be useful for. As a result, I spent most of my time with the game frustrated and floundering, occasionally wandering into a situation unprepared and having to restart. Some of the dialogue is funny, but overall the setting feels like it's trying too hard to be zany. Probably this is just personal taste — I'm generally a fan of more understated humor — but it did wind up grating as I wandered the streets aimlessly searching for something useful that my PC could actually accomplish. Overall, the feeling I was left with was simple enervation, which might unfortunately be as much due to the game's placement in the Comp04 order as anything else; still, A Day in the Life never did anything to excite me, which isn't particularly superheroic, now that I think about it.
Another year, another promising game by John Evans which doesn't quite nail the execution. Perhaps this is an unfair characterization — Order is winnable, and its central gameplay mechanic is broad enough that a complete implementation is probably impossible. Still, there are enough sloppy mistakes and oversights to undercut the game's effectiveness: the PC is clearly meant to be special, but X ME returns only "as good looking as ever". A room description mentions a dome, but the game only responds to the noun "steeple". I thought CREATE LADDER was an obvious solution to one puzzle, and the author apparently agreed since it was included in the hints, but the action wasn't allowed in the game itself. These aren't fundamental problems by any means, but they are annoying, and bespeak a lack of care.
Which is too bad, because the premise really is interesting. Throwing the gates wide open and allowing the player to create nearly any object they can imagine is a clever conceit, and leads to puzzles which have multiple possible solutions, most of which are reasonably intuitive. Still, this promise isn't quite realized. The elemental-themed puzzles have disappointingly blunt solutions; indeed, there's not much room for cleverness or improvisation here. Further, the characters are highly schematic, and I'm pretty sure I missed something story-wise, as the final sequence seemed to presuppose some knowledge on my part which I hadn't seen anywhere. There's a time limit, which doesn't serve much purpose. The prose has moments of strength, but isn't enough to carry the game on its own.
Again, I feel like Order had quite a lot of potential, but the shallow implementation really prevented its strengths from shining through. The author's games are definitely getting more complete and more solid, but Order needed a final layer of polish to rise above the merely average.
When I started to write this review, I glanced over my notes: they read, in their entirety "no idea what's going on here. Opaque, uncompelling presentation." Which, entertainingly enough, describes the notes as well, since after reading them, I still couldn't remember anything about this game. So I restarted it, and felt a shock of recognition at seeing the odd glowing top hat. I must confess I got stuck after playing this one for about five minutes, and saw no prospect that muscling my way through would be in any wise rewarding. There seem to be some interesting ideas going on in the author's head, but they're not conveyed to the player in any meaningful sense; being told that "when you move, you sometimes feel yourself in a picture or sound for a brief moment, before it is gone" is interesting, but ultimately frustrating absent any context, immediacy, or explanation. Maybe there's something deeply compelling going on, but all I found was surrealism for its own sake, without even much room for exploration. All of this made the point of the exercise rather hard to divine.
How far can a game get primarily on the strength of its prose? Pretty damn far, it turns out. Trading Punches is a fairly typical science fiction game, with the requisite gimmicky alien race, melodramatic intrafamily conflict, and last-minute revelation which doesn't quite gel; it's stultifyingly linear, jumps around too much for its own good, and, it must be said, boasts a notably silly name (and it fails the X ME test). Yet it was one of my favorite games of the comp, primarily because the writing is so strong. The author goes to some trouble to address all of the senses — most notably the tactile — the various locations are distinctly immediate and immersive as a result. The descriptions linger over the feeling of skipping a stone, the quality of the ambient light, the subtle heat emitted by a wristwatch. The plot jerks the player from one event to the next, often separated by a wide stretch of time and space, and it isn't the rather tacked-on frame which unifies things; it's the familiar warmth of the prose.
As alluded to above, the game does have its weaknesses. NPCs are a particular problem; there's no real ability to interact with them in any way. One can have conversations, but they all proceed automatically. Indeed, there's a troubling absence of player choice throughout the game — even the decision to kiss a girl or not is taken out of the player's hands. The narrative takes too many detours; there's a certain spine to the thing, but too many extraneous, unexplained elements interpose themselves. There are some high points unrelated to the writing — the execution of the drinking puzzle is pleasantly smooth, as each cup gets a character's name appended as an adjective as it is used, and indeed most of the game's puzzles are fair and well clued (although I'd argue this is again at least partly due to the strength of the writing). That strong prose easily carries what would otherwise have been a rather mundane game into the ranks of the good; further prequels or sequels fleshing the story out would be most welcome, if the author can retain his stylistic chops.
"Audacious" doesn't begin to do justice to Gamlet. Harry Potter by way of Portnoy's Complaint with a soupcon of Shakespeare; kabbala, pubescence, the luminous, somehow innocent attraction that sin holds for those just cresting adolescence; there's a lot to take in here, and the author's voice is bold and assured, weaving together the abstract and the vulgar to devastating effect. The writing is elliptical, content to take its time and draw the player into the world at its own pace. Themes and echoes are everywhere.
Frustratingly, though, this pregnant, compelling premise is swallowed up by overcomplicated puzzles which aren't sufficiently integrated into the game. Perhaps I'm just not clever enough at coming up with solutions, but it felt like important objects weren't always mentioned, and some of the puzzles seem to presume more knowledge and perspicacity than I could muster. I'm still not sure where the clock combination came from. As a result of the difficulty, I found myself forced to the walkthrough sooner than I would have liked, which broke the spell of immersion the game had been weaving up until that point; the fact that instead of evoking an "ah-ha!" the solutions left me wondering how I was supposed to come up with this stuff didn't help matters.
Worse than the difficulty, however, is the way that the puzzles become more and more contrived as the game progresses. Lighting a lamp, finding a hamster, raiding the kitchen; these are all reasonable actions, and a certain degree of spelunking in the PC's father's study makes sense given the premise, as well. But too quickly, the game falls prey to increasingly arbitrary puzzles, with little connection to the story beyond the necessity of padding the length. The game very much lost me once I entered the elevator; this new, fantastic world felt colorless and generic compared to the dim, claustrophobic house below. There's a symbolic logic which continues to work even here, and the prose continues to be strong, but ultimately the latter portions of the game are a disappointment.
Overall, Gamlet perhaps tries to do too much; cramming so much characterization and puzzling together is a tricky business, and the game might have been better served by privileging one over the other. As it is, its skewed, distinctive vibe makes it one of this year's standouts, but its flaws do far too much to weigh it down.
The Realm is an inoffensive little game. The conceit is a particularly worn one, the writing neither elevates nor degrades the rest of the proceedings, and the puzzles are a decidedly mixed bag. The armorer dialogue-puzzle is a fun variant on a riddle-game (and boasts an alternate solution for those who don't enjoy such things), but the rest can be somewhat cryptic (basic considerations of cleanliness prevent me from even considering TAKE URINE as a reasonable course of action absent the most extenuating of circumstances). The plot is lighthearted and the pacing is fluid; if the puzzle design was consistently stronger, this would be a dream-confection of a game.
This feels more like a proof-of-concept than a full-fledged game. Is this parser functional? Yup (although I did get some odd behavior where the game kept kicking out ">20" in response to my input). Are ninjas cool? Check. Not much more to it than that; there's only really one puzzle, which practically solves itself; the prose is appropriately minimalist; the mise en scene possesses a certain gravity; but overall there's not enough game there to make much impression.
Getting Back to Sleep
Completing the Waking Up Alone On A Spaceship trifecta (see Splashdown and Identity, above), GBtS at least has a gimmick to differentiate itself: it runs in real time (at last, a custom parser with a raison d'existence!) Sadly, I'm not sure what the feature adds, exactly; a real time limit is in some ways less annoying than a turn limit, since one doesn't need to worry too much about typos killing you, but it does add a kind of low-level, omnipresent urgency, reminiscent of a faint headache, to the entire proceeding. NPCs move around on their own schedule, rather than everything happening at once when a command gets typed, but again, I'm not sure this is actually a substantive improvement. Perhaps part of my lackluster response is due to the fact that I've never been a particular fan of realism for realism's sake, when it comes to game design — features should buy you something, gameplay-wise. If a particular gesture towards realism increases immersion, all well and good, but honestly, I found the ticking clock did more to jolt me out of the game than anything else.
Anyway, on to the merits. The plot on offer, as can perhaps be deduced from my rather disparaging intro, isn't exactly breathtakingly in its originality. Likewise the prose, which suffers from a few errors (man, confusions of its and it's annoy me); the puzzles aren't anything to write home about, either. Eliciting an item from the robot seems to require a rather absurd skill at guessing-the-noun (better than the verb for a change, I suppose), and I don't tend to enjoy having to wander around in a maze searching for an item, even after I've found my way to the other side. I did notice one coding problem; a door appeared to spawn multiple copies of itself every time I tried to open it, which was presumably unintentional rather than some postmodern stab at indicating infinite regression.
Overall, the impression I'm left with is one of wasted potential; the ability to run things in real time could have opened up all sorts of possibilities for clever obstacles and solutions, and welding it to a fairly standard set of puzzles and making use of it only as a crude countdown clock strikes me as a missed opportunity. Tighter integration of key features, story, and puzzles would have resulted in a much stronger entry, whose technical sophistication would have elicited more than a shrug and a "so what?"
Blue Sky is schizophrenic: on the one hand, it tries to present itself as a leisurely exploration of a particular place, faithfully recreating landmarks and ambiance, while on the other it tries to tell a linear story which imparts a fair sense of urgency. These disparate design goals ultimately get in each other's way; upon entering the game and being told "go here! Solve this puzzle! You're running late!", the player's likely to take things at face value, and direct their work towards achieving that particular goal, rather than taking the time to poke around and explore the details at their own pace. The author clearly wants to convey the beauty and uniqueness of Santa Fe, but the color is lost in the stampede to the puzzle — a realist travelogue as directed by Jerry Bruckheimer.
I exaggerate slightly, but I do think the author would have been better advised to rethink some of the puzzle design. Rather than shuffling the PC from one location to the other, always being told that you've just missed your chance, something more sedate might have drawn the player more deeply into the city; a scavenger hunt style puzzle, or some attempt to synthesize the details of local custom and history into some sort of meta-narrative. As is, in the context of a conventional, goal-driven work of IF, the descriptions are a bit too long and indeed clumsy from a gameplay perspective to be truly effective. It doesn't help that there's some sloppiness on display here — a few typos, unreactive NPCs, a default response to X ME. The writing is fine enough and the setting holds potential; unfortunately, the game-y bits practically scream at getting bolted to this framework, and the overall gestalt fails to satisfy.
Given that it includes two of my major IF peeves (failure to include a non-default response to X ME and hunger puzzles, for those of you keeping score), it's perhaps unsurprising that I wasn't a particular fan of Ruined Robots. The premise is at least moderately interesting — discover the dirty laundry of a reclusive Bill Gates figure — but the game doesn't have much else to recommend it.
Foremost among its sins, to my mind, is the overall sloppiness. Capitalizations come and go. Articles are improperly interjected into sentences in a grammatically painful manner ("You foolishly place your The hands in the fire.") I'm not quite sure what's up with the ubiquitous Yen symbol; presumably that at least is intentional. Many objects seem to lack an in-setting reason for existence, and the puzzles are likewise inadequately clued and poorly integrated. Scenery which is mentioned in the default location descriptions is explicitly disclaimered as unimportant when you try to examine it more closely. And so on. At least there's a walkthrough, but after starving to death, I couldn't muster up the enthusiasm to type it in.
The photographs are neat and evocative, though, especially the first one, which seems to come from a different game entirely. You could build a neat lo-fi sort of ghost story around it, come to think. Still, that's rather a slender reed, as far as redeeming qualities go.
Magocracy is a fun idea, an attempt to inject a bit of IF-style adventuring into a combat-based MUD paradigm. There are some neat flourishes, novel puzzles, and the potential for truly emergent gameplay and nonlinearity, but overall I don't think the integration was entirely successful. The strategic possibilities the game seems to offer didn't really seem to ever be realized; too much combat reduces to brute force, as the player often doesn't have access to the relevant counterspells or has a clearly superior alternative. The beginning is perhaps a bit too brutal, as many enemy characters start out quite close to the PC, making survival a matter of dumb luck and/or headlong retreat. It's also frustrating to have the game put itself in an unwinnable state through no fault of the player's own — in one of my playthroughs, the enchantress character dominated quite a menagerie, including another of the rival wizards, while I was off attending to other business, and there was simply no way to defeat her.
Overall, I never felt like I had very much control in Magocracy; there were too many NPCs crowding in at once, I started with too few spells, and having my conventionally IF explorations constantly interrupted by forced combat made me feel like I was always just reacting to whatever was thrown at me, with success basically coming down to whose die rolls were luckier. There's certainly some appeal to this sort of gameplay — I've played my share of NetHack — but I really wish the equation had been tilted a bit more towards the IF side and included a bit more in the way of player agency.
Years in the making, the Earth and Sky saga finally comes to a triumphant end. All the stops are pulled out — both characters are fully playable, leading to enjoyably synergistic puzzle-solving, long-standing mysteries are resolved, though the focus is properly on action rather than explication, and it even comes with a Story Thus Far comic. Elegance is everywhere on display, from the completely in-character hint system to the question-and-answer which integrates the results of your playthroughs of the previous games in the series. And those sound-effect blocks never get old.
Picking up right where part two left off, Luminous Horizon does sadly involve a slightly pedestrian setting — yet another corridor-filled sci-fi installation — but the set-pieces are dense enough and the forward momentum rapid enough that one only notices in retrospect. Likewise, the evil plot isn't particularly interesting in of itself, but as an excuse to indulge in some property damage for justice, it more than serves its purpose. Banter between the siblings makes a welcome return, and it's context-sensitive, entertaining, and gives the floundering player some guidance besides. Overall, the narrative elements once again fit the genre and mood perfectly — Luminous Horizon simply screams "four color supers."
The puzzles likewise are completely in-genre. There are no real object puzzles to speak of — it's all about the clever use of each sibling's superpowers, singly or in conjunction. Many puzzles appear susceptible to solution by either character, allowing the player to pick a preferred approach. There's almost always some action going on, but one never feels too rushed, since the character who isn't being controlled can generally keep the heat off the active PC's back long enough to figure out the best approach. Each section of gameplay is self-contained and clearly set off from the others; while this may lead to some disappointment ("you mean part two is over already?!"), it works to focus attention on the particular crisis at hand and keep the aimless wandering down to practically zero.
It's clear that attention was paid to the smallest detail, and the game was extensively tested. Switching from sibling to sibling, even in the middle of complicated scenes, never resulted in continuity errors or pronoun bugs. Even somewhat nonsensical actions like PUNCH ROAD return a sound effect and a terrible pun. And just when you're thinking that Fire and Rain seems familiar, one character makes the James Taylor reference. Death is possible, but it's always obvious what killed you, and how to go about preventing it. All of this makes Luminous Horizon a pure pleasure to play.
Niggles? A few, I suppose. I spent a fair bit of time experimenting with the gizmos, but could never find a real use for them. They were certainly interesting, but the tinkering felt a little odd, in context. The sequence with Fire and Rain took me a little while to figure out, since I wanted Earth and Sky to both do something simultaneously. The ending might be a little abrupt, although part of that could just be me not wanting the series to be over. Overall, though, these nitpicks do nothing to diminish what's one of the most enjoyable bits of IF out there.
I realize that Auriga was disqualified, but I just have to say, if you're going to rip off the Aliens, you should at least make them scary. "This creature is certainly an efficient chewing machine" surely counts as the most prosaic description of Giger's horrors I've ever read.
Mingsheng: Mingsheng features a pleasantly minimalist style, an engaging concept, and one very clever puzzle; unfortunately, most of the rest of the game doesn't live up to its promise, and overall there isn't quite enough content here for Mingsheng to really make a lasting impression, outside of that one puzzle.
Mythic China is a wonderfully suggestive choice of setting; many of the familiar fantasy tropes are present, but the presentation feels completely fresh. The prose is lucid and compact, as befits the subject matter, and the landscape fits the tone perfectly. The first half of the game is very good indeed; the idea of having a puzzle which requires the acquisition not of objects or knowledge but of insight is very adroit and entirely fitting. Unfortunately, there are a few rough edges, in the prose (a run-on sentence in the initial description, a capitalization error here and there), the implementation (THROW BOX IN OCEAN really should have been a supported syntax for throwing the box in the ocean), and the design (that the last puzzle involved a glorified game of rock-paper-scissors was disappointing after the first martial arts puzzle). Still, the overall experience is quite smooth. And that first puzzle really did impress me (I can't really evaluate the success of the author's use of Chinese orthography, as my interpreter lacked the fonts at issue, but the gesture towards authenticity was appreciated nonetheless).
Redeye attempts to ape a particular genre of thriller, in which the protagonist is ineluctably drawn towards a moment of horrifying revelation where all the preceding circumstances are revealed to be part of a malignant design, whose contours are only visible at the exact moment it becomes impossible to stop. Sadly, it commits the cardinal sin of the genre: everything that happens is so obviously contrived, and the twist is so easy to see coming, that the climax is greeted with a rolling of eyes rather than a gasp of shock.
Oh, and it fails the X ME test.
The game is competent enough; the details of the initial situation are compellingly plausible, and the sense of place which inhabits the opening setting is enough to lure the player in. The puzzles are never particularly difficult and all make sense in context, which is as it should be, as they help keep the story moving along. But everything's so obviously on rails (if I don't have enough money to pay the cabbie, at least let me threaten him with the shotgun to stop him from beating me up!), and the chain of circumstance which unspools from that promising beginning is so implausible that that sense of immersion, of connection, is snapped. The PC is forced to perform a variety of ill-advised actions (everything from the police station till the end, basically), and the "master plan" winds up looking more like a Rube Goldberg contrivance of authorial fiat than anything credible. A general dive into the seedy underbelly of Australia would have made for a terribly engaging, original game; it's too bad the author tried to push the plot so far into silliness that Redeye's strong setting and well-integrated puzzles don't count for as much as they should.
Comfortable and assured, Orion Agenda is a solid an example of modern IF craft. There's an easy balance of story and puzzle, the setting is well-realized albeit derivative, and the prose is mostly unobtrusive. There's nothing particularly excellent or egregious which stands out; I'd almost be tempted to call this eigen-IF. Which isn't to say that Orion Agenda is bland or has little to recommend it; quite the contrary, I think many authors could look to it as a template for their own work. The puzzles are complex enough to be satisfying, but are very well-clued (in that the sense that the player often has a rough idea of how to go about finding a solution, and, crucially, is also almost always given enough guidance to identify the puzzles). The PC is given a few gadgets which are fun to use but which don't overpower the gameplay. The story isn't particularly flashy, but it manages to squeeze in a modicum of character development and make use of a few advanced narrative techniques here and there, like the flash-forward deployed in the opening. There's a competently-executed NPC sidekick, a few different endings, and a reasonably engaging mystery to unravel. There's something for everyone here, pretty much.
Indeed, even the flaws have something of the universal about them. The writing occasionally feels a bit stilted; the story perhaps relies on some knowledge of Star Trek for its weight; and there's at least one instakill and one way of rendering the game unwinnable (although it does warn you before taking the latter action). These are fairly mild failings, all told, and leaving aside terrible linear-algebra comparisons, Orion Agenda is, in the best sense of the word, an enjoyable, unpretentious entertainment.
Who Created That Monster
This game is puzzling on a number of different levels, most notably the conceptual: if you're going to the trouble of documenting the relationship between Saddam Hussein and the US, why would you ultimately pin it on Luxembourg (in fact, upon reading the walkthrough, it's worse than this — a different country bears the blame every time one plays)? A political work of art which fails to follow through isn't particularly valuable, in my opinion, and Who Created That Monster comes close to spreading disinformation, and its mix of cynical political comment and gamist arbitrariness isn't particularly effective.
Indeed, the game as a whole weds sharp observation — its depiction of a future Baghdad overrun by product endorsements and clueless Americanization is wryly amusing — with simple incoherence. The blurs of "historical" information appear with no rhyme or reason, all the embassies seem to share one curiously noneuclidian basement, and NPCs wend their way into the story without much in the way of motivation or, indeed, sense. The player is given only the sketchiest information as to the central goal, and the individual pieces of "evidence" unearthed, as mentioned above, are never really commented on or integrated into the setting and plot. They might as well be differently colored crystals, for all the effect they have on gameplay.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should probably say that I disagreed with the Iraq war, and think there's rather a lot to criticize about Reagan-era foreign policy. Still, despite being sympathetic to the political message putatively being conveyed, I still didn't enjoy Monster all that much. It doesn't have the courage of its convictions and never stands up and makes its case straight. Avoiding the facile and the conclusory is a worthy goal for political discourse, but once you're in the position of having your art make a statement (and by making a work of IF so clearly about a controversial and ongoing issue, the author has definitely put himself in that position), you'd better have something to say. I've got nothing against polemics, but mealy-mouthed, gnomic polemics make for hard reading, even if you think you might agree with the general thrust of what they're getting at.
Apparently jail is the new cryopod; there's another game and a half in this year's crop which start out this way (Square Circle and Stack Overflow, respectively), and I recall a few similar openings from years past. Going in, I have to say that the README did little to inspire confidence; nor did "BETA 1.2" floating up in the corner of the interpreter window. Sadly, this impression was borne out; 01 doesn't appear to do anything too novel with the idea. Indeed, it's almost a stereotypical first game, with a limited, unoriginal milieu, bog-standard puzzles, and an ending which isn't at all conclusive. The puzzles are a bit fiddly — the mirror behaves especially oddly — and the only really memorable touches are the inclusion of a dynamic vomiting script and a gratuitously offensive gay thug. These particular flourishes didn't exactly do much to endear the game to me, predictably enough.
Finally a game that goes the extra mile: both X ME and X YOU work! That on its own would be enough to put me on Bellclap's side, but the juxtaposition of Old Testament milieu with the British-valet narrative voice did even more to win me over. There's some interesting stuff going on here; the player appears to be a god of some sort, the parser appears to be said god's agent or advisor, and the object of the player's commands is the titular Bellclap, an itinerant laborer. This confusion of viewpoints makes for some compelling confusion, and jumbles together action, hints, and results in a satisfyingly integrated fashion. Admittedly, the puzzles are perhaps a bit too difficult — there's a symbolic logic at work which is sometimes well-communicated, but at other times comes out of nowhere — and there's not as much content here as I'd like, which leads to a rather stunted narrative. The incident which forms the meat of the game in fact seems a bit limited in scope, given the player's identity; I was expecting something significantly more epic, to be honest. Still, the premise is a strong one, and the game — what there is of it — mostly lives up to it; I'd be eager to see a sequel or a more robust re-release.
This article copyright © 2004, Mike Russo