Posted 9 January 2001 to rec.games.int-fiction
FAILSAFE by Jon Ingold
[NOTE: This review was written independently and of his own free will by Alex Weldon, and not for or in conjunction with the REVIEW CONSPIRACY, which does not exist. It was most definitely, positively not written by abducted orphans being held at gunpoint in the dungeons of the REVIEW CONSPIRACY secret headquarters in Antarctica. The REVIEW CONSPIRACY does not exist, so such claims would be absurd. So absurd that people making them have been known to disappear without trace. There is no REVIEW CONSPIRACY. Thank you.]
The author describes this game as "a short sci-fi game in [a] slightly experimental format." One might argue that the game is more than slightly experimental, but otherwise the game is exactly as promised. There are three qualifiers in that sentence: sci-fi, short and experimental; I'll cover them one at a time.
The plot of the game is quintessential science fiction, to the point of seeming uninspired. Mankind is at war with an alien race, known as the G'hilga. A human space ship is badly damaged in an attack, and there is one person left on board, struggling to save the ship and his own life. Although the plot is entirely linear until the right at the end, there are three different possible endings (all satisfyingly surprising, although one is rather confusing if you haven't seen the others), depending on your solution to the final puzzle.
The game is very short, indeed. There is no score, and only three or four things which might be considered puzzles, all of which are quite disappointing, since they consist mostly of randomly examining scenery and/or random trial-and-error. On the couple of occasions where some thought on the part of the player might be necessary, the game prompts you none-too-subtly as to what needs to be done, which I found rather annoying. Such hints would probably be better given in some sort of in-game hint system or be toggleable.
So far, this game sounds like a typical failed first effort by a new author, certainly not a game written by Jon Ingold, author of excellent games such as Break-In and The Mulldoon Legacy. What elevates it beyond (or at least separates it from) that sort of game is its experimental nature. Rather than controlling the protagonist of the story directly, the user plays someone at the other end of some sort of communications channel, although no details about the user's identity (other than that he/she is human) are ever given. Due to the static on the line and the panicked state of the man on the ship, it is often a challenge to figure out what is going on, particularly at the beginning of the story, when the user is plunged into the plot with no introduction whatsoever. Another nice feature of the format is a computer which volunteers interesting, but not particularly useful additional information on certain keywords when they crop up in the story. For instance, when the engineer McThwaite is mentioned, the computer asks if you would like it to access his records.
Although interesting, the experimental format causes some problems. In an attempt to make the game more like a conversation, all game verbs (save, restore, quit, undo and restart included) have been disabled, which is more than a little annoying, although bearable, since the game is short. Coupled with the time limit, this means playing the game from the beginning several times. Also, it seems that the man on the ship is so panicked as to be completely incapable of independent action. In a conventional IF game, it might be reasonable to expect the player to type >OPEN DOOR before going through it... but if I was on a comlink with another person and asked him to go through a door, I would expect him to think of opening it first without being told. This caused me to waste a lot of time trying to break the hatch, search for a tool, etc., as I assumed that he couldn't open the hatch, not that he simply hadn't thought of trying to open it.
Beyond a few minor bugs (which I have reported to the author, but about which I will not go into detail here), the game is competently coded. The writing is good, and successfully conveys the terror experienced by the man on the ship.
Although the puzzles present almost no challenge and the plot is rather thin, the game is worth playing, if only to experience the interesting format. As a game, it falls flat, but as an experiment, I would say that it succeeds. I hope to see another game with a similar style in the future (by this author, or another), but with a stronger plot and more interesting puzzles. For anyone thinking of writing such a game, however, I would recommend leaving the game verbs in; they may break the mood somewhat, but to play a game without them is an exercise in frustration.
This article copyright © 2001, Alex Weldon