Posted 16 March 2000 to rec.games.int-fiction
This post is a product of the Review Conspiracy. If you are a friend of the revolution, you will pass the word around, comrade!
Title: Not Just A Game
Author: John Menichelli
Reviewer: Joe Mason (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Response to XYZZY: Quotes the 'xyzzy' entry from the New Hacker's Dictionary
Hints: None, but there will be a built-in hint system in the next release
This game is available at ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/games/zcode/njag.z5. It requires a Z-Code interpreter, available from ftp://ftp.gmd.de/if-archive/interpreters-infocom-zcode.
Not Just A Game is a standard puzzle game, of the real-world-but-with-magic variety. The hook for this one is the game of Go, which is an interesting thing to hang puzzles on. Unfortunately, most of the puzzles are rather generic, and Go itself remains mostly in the background.
I expected that reviewing this game would be a slog, as I'm not big on puzzles and I've never gotten the hang of Go. After coming out the other end, though, I felt a much better appreciation for the game. Go, we are informed in the handy strategy booklet found early on, "was considered one of the Four Great Accomplishments of ancient China, one of the worthy pursuits of a lifetime - along with poetry, archery, and calligraphy. It is both an art and a mental workout - ingeniously disguised as a game."
The player is a six months' student of the game, studying with a traditional Chinese teacher. Not Just A Game is set in and around your teacher's home. The teacher's personality comes through strongly in the setting, from the loving detail on the Go equipment to the awkward inappropriateness of technological items. Compare:
The Go bowls (and their matching lids) are made from kaya, a gold-colored, fine-grained wood.
An electric stove and oven.
Looking at the oven reminds you of the times you suggested to your teacher that she get a microwave oven. She would always reply that this one was already too modern for her.
This passage is typical of the writing style of Not Just A Game: descriptions are utilitarian, except for a few important items which are described with more flair. This is all the game really needs, though, and provides a good sense of contrast between the sparse descriptions of the mundane and the more atmospheric descriptions of the mystical.
It's not spoiling too much to say that your teacher's house itself is only a small part of the setting. When the game opens, you arrive for your weekly lesson to find the house empty and your teacher's Go board missing. In exploring the house (and solving a few puzzles) you find several items which continue to give a picture of your teacher's character and the mystical nature of Go, including a journal and an ornate box with inlays depicting a magical duel. Eventually you find a secret door leading into the second area of the game, your teacher's underground workshop.
Unfortunately, this is where the promising setting ends. The combination of the game of Go and the teacher's hinted-at magical interests should provide fertile ground for puzzle hooks, from logic problems to more traditional manipulation of alchemical apparatus. Once out of the house, however, the game becomes simply a string of rooms containing unlinked puzzles. Most of the detail of the setting is thrown away. Several of the rooms contain complex contraptions: some of them have obvious uses (such as a water wheel providing power) but others are merely bizarre and out of place (a crystal sculpture is topped with a water-filled cylinder containing, for no apparent reason, a red rubber ball).
The puzzles were fairly easy - I went for the walkthrough early, but that's what I usually do anyway. Each time I did, I found that I'd neglected to examine something closely enough. Some of them were quite good, especially those involving information found earlier in the game. Others seemed pointless. For instance, using a lathe on a piece of wood gives you - a baseball bat. What does this have to do with the setting? Why would you make such a thing? And since you end up using it basically as a club, why not call a spade a spade?
During the exploration of the underground area, the Go reasoning puzzles I was expecting were conspicuously absent. It turns out they're saved for the endgame, after you've found your teacher and are given the final tests to advance to the next level of mastery. They were pretty simple, and I found that disappointing. I was able to solve them after only a quick glance at the rules. The exception was the last, where I misinterpreted part of the setup and couldn't get the teacher to repeat the problem. (The syntax I needed, according to the author, was "ASK TEACHER ABOUT LESSON" or SCORE. I tried "ASK TEACHER ABOUT PUZZLE" and, getting a default response, assumed I wouldn't get any more help. Interacting with the teacher is the only place where I noticed a lack of synonyms, though.)
Having some easy problems to introduce the game is definitely a good idea, but since the puzzles formed the endgame, in this case it felt cheap. It would have been better to present the easy puzzles earlier, and build up more difficult puzzles throughout the game. As it is, I felt definitely disappointed at the end - but also a lot more curious about the potentials of Go.
This article copyright © 2000, Joe Mason