To call this a "game" is hardly appropriate - it's more a tiny world that you can move around, containing some objects you can look at. There are no puzzles or challenges at all, though there are some things to do with some of the objects. Since the author is entirely up-front about all of this from the start, one cannot really complain.
What this piece does offer is a small, beautifully described world that tells a story through the descriptions of the locations and the objects found in it. The writing is sparse but descriptive, set out in lines that give it a poetic feel. Often the game encourages you just to look and reflect. As you do so, the rhythm of the days becomes clear in quite an evocative way. Although it is small, this game will reward time spent in it.
This is a multiple-choice game about getting up and going to work. The hook is that everything is told in emojis, including the player's choices. This is done rather well, and there are some nice jokes in there.
It's interesting to see a game where the challenge lies mainly in understanding the medium in which it's told, particularly when the story goes in rather unexpected directions. I don't think it's always successful, and the small size and limited nature of the game keep its rating fairly low, but it's a cute idea which is worth a look.
It puzzles me somewhat that Melbourne House's The Hobbit remains one of the best-remembered games of the 1980s (that's all games, not just text games), and yet their follow-up is rarely mentioned. The only notice of it here on IFDB is the very dismissive Baf's Guide review.
And yet it is, in a number of ways, far more ambitious and technically impressive than The Hobbit was. I bought this game when it came out and - once I'd looked past the dreadful cartoony cover - was deeply impressed by it. With its stark white backgrounds, its clever layering of screens to show which character was under your control, and its glacial response time, it seemed a technical masterpiece. I didn't get very far with it.
Returning to it now, I find that in a number of ways the IF versions of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings bear the same relation to each other that the books do. This game is bigger, more complicated, and far weirder than its predecessor.
The first thing to say, of course, is that with this game we are in the 1980s and the usual rules apply. You are expected to have to play this game many, many times in order to learn what you're supposed to do in it. You are expected to make a map, and you will be aware that this may be a more complicated business than at first appears. The game is unfair and will punish simple mistakes or lack of knowledge with immediate death. Most objects cannot be "examined" and interaction with NPCs is rudimentary (some disappear in a puff of smoke after fulfilling their sole role in the game). So this is not an experience like any "modern" IF. But as long as one is aware of this from the outset, there are some interesting things to uncover here.
First, this is actually two games, not one, which roughly correspond to the first two books of The Lord of The Rings (which, as those of us who have read the preface know, is not a trilogy but a single novel divided into six books which were initially published in three volumes). You don't have to complete the first game in order to play the second, but if you do, you can bring more items from the first game into the second. Though thankfully you don't have to do that. Also, oddly, the first game is substantially harder than the second.
Next, we find that the NPC system which made The Hobbit so memorable (and frustrating) has been dialled up to 11. As before, your companions follow you around and sometimes do vaguely useful things, but now you can control them directly. Simply type the name of the hobbit you want to become, and off you go, like Dr Sam Beckett leaping from one to the other. The game gives you the option at the start of choosing which hobbits are controllable in this way, creating the somewhat odd possibility that you could choose to control only Merry; it's hard to see why anyone would choose anything other than just Frodo on the one hand or all four hobbits on the other. The game's manual rather charmingly suggests that this system makes multiplayer adventuring possible, with up to four friends sharing a computer and each controlling one character. It's hard to believe that anyone actually did this, and if they did, I doubt they stuck with it for long.
Despite this technical wizardry - which as far as I know remains unreplicated in modern IF - it's easier to restrict yourself to just Frodo, because the other hobbits act more intelligently if they are under sole control of the computer. There isn't really any point in using the multiple first-person system. Indeed I'm not sure it's possible to complete the first part of the game by doing so. (Spoiler - click to show)You need three hobbits to activate green jewels at the same time to defeat the Nazgul, but the other two will only do so if they are wholly out of your control. In any case, even controlling only one character still allows you to issue commands to the others, which can lead to some moderately complex gameplay (not to mention Hobbit Fight Club). However, there still isn't anything like the puzzle with the robot in Zork II. In the second half of the game, you get the entire Fellowship (except Aragorn, for some reason) following you around, and while this makes for some large segments of text as everyone troops around, it does rather feel like you really have a hefty bunch of adventurers at your beck and call (and combat with this lot behind you is more worthwhile than in the first game, though it can still lead to an alarming number of key characters getting their skulls cloven in two).
The next thing one realises with this game is that the map is impressively large. One of the complaints about The Hobbit was that Bag End appears to be practically next door to Rivendell. No such worries here. The Shire is as large and tricky to traverse as it is in the book, and substantial areas of wilderness are available to explore as well. You are not restricted to the locations in the book, either, particularly in the first part of the game. I know there's a school of thought that says that all locations in IF should have a purpose, and that there shouldn't be empty locations that are there just to make the map bigger. I'm not much persuaded by this school of thought, and the makers of this game clearly weren't, either, because there are an awful lot of places here that have no purpose except to be walked through. I rather like this, as it gives the impression of a large and real world.
Making the map is frustrating, though; connections between locations are unpredictable (if you go west from A to B, the way back isn't necessarily east). Because this is the 1980s there is a maze in the first game and *three* in the second. These are all mappable in the usual way, and clearly the game designers expect players to devote whole playthroughs to doing just this. Mazes are very out of fashion today, of course. Personally I don't mind them, at least if they make sense, and if I'm prepared (as one must be with games of this vintage) to do multiple playthroughs. There can be something satisfying about mapping them out and uncovering their secrets, like doing a crossword. Still, tastes here will certainly vary, and I think even the most avid maze fan will find four in one game a tad much. It doesn't reflect well on the designers' puzzle-creating ability that the same already-hackneyed device has to be re-used so many times.
Exploring is also made harder by the limited inventory size - although having companions helps with this - and by the fairly unfriendly parser (this was before the days when parsers unlocked things automatically for you). Notably, there are many objects with the same name and description, leading to terrible confusion; even getting everyone to put on the correct backpacks in Bag End is a true trial. Worse, though, is the quite brutal hunger system. You need to eat constantly, and many actions sap your strength dramatically. This applies to NPCs as well, and it's quite common to notice suddenly that one or more of your companions aren't with you any more, because somewhere along the way they fainted with hunger and are probably lying dead in a field somewhere. The greatest danger in the first game isn't the Nazgul so much as the Bucklebury ferry, operating which can reduce the entire party of hobbits to a state of complete exhaustion. So one of the things one must work out in the multiple playthroughs is which actions and locations will sap the characters' strength and where all the food is.
So what is this world like? This is where things start to get a bit weird. At first glance, the world of this game is large and sweeping, bleak, and rather forlorn - much like the book. You can wander through grey-tinged landscapes, broken ruins, and windswept plains. You can get truly lost in the mines of Moria. The world is dangerous and serious. And yet at the same time there is a strange streak of subversive humour running through the game that undermines the world. Anachronisms abound, right from the very first location, where the walls of Bag End are described as being adorned with photographs. There is an "old-fashioned gramophone" in Michel Delving. At these times, the world feels more like Zork than like Tolkien. Other elements feel very out of place too. (Spoiler - click to show) The whole Blue Mountains area, with its monastery and observatory, and its Green Knight and Red Lady from Authurian legend, is utterly out of place in Middle Earth.
That brings us to the jokes. Some are fairly subtle and in keeping with the setting, especially in the second half, where among other things we find that Boromir winding his horn is the new Thorin sitting down and singing about gold. But some are truly immersion breaking: (Spoiler - click to show)a cannabis plant, an elf doing a Spock impression, a group of Nazgul having a drink in a dingy bar, a "watery tart" in a lake, and a nightclub filled with characters rocking out to an orcish heavy metal band. All of these feel more at home in a parody such as Kingdom o' Magic. To find them in an actual licensed game bearing the Lord of the Rings name is deeply weird. It becomes apparent that the silly cover of the original box wasn't so out of place after all.
What of the story and the puzzles? Well, there aren't really all that many proper puzzles in here. Knowledge of the book will certainly help with some sections (as will knowledge of Arthurian stories, oddly). While it broadly follows the plot of the book, there are additional segments and areas. In the first half this takes the form of a rather tiresome sort of treasure hunt throughout the whole map. I suppose this was the fashion of the time in IF - from Colossal Cave onwards - but it doesn't really sit well with the overall plot or with Tolkien lore, and it doesn't make for fun gameplay either. At times it is impossible to guess what to do. (Spoiler - click to show)How, for example, would you know if you didn't have a walkthrough that you're supposed to get Merry to swim in the lake? The second half of the game is considerably more enjoyable. Here, you actually have a choice of how to cross the mountains. I had a lot of fun going off-piste here. (Spoiler - click to show) And the moment the avalanche struck - and wiped out the entire party other than Frodo, Pippin, and Gimli - was a true shock unlike any I've experienced in IF for quite a while. The tally of each character "(who is dead)" being swept away was astonishing. The randomness in things such as combat means that both the player and their companions are prone to dying, but as long as the player is still alive it's quite possible to lose most of the Fellowship and still keep going. It's an odd mix of brutal and forgiving.
Oh, and there are rather a lot of errors in the writing - mostly inconsistent capitalisation and punctuation.
So overall, this is a strange game. In some ways it gives you a surprising amount of freedom to explore the world, take paths untrodden in the books, and watch in stunned horror as Gandalf or Sam Gamgee get their skulls cloven in two. The first part takes you to some unfamiliar (and sometimes wildly inappropriate) settings, while the more enjoyable second half gives you alternative ways of reaching the ending and a big posse of imposing, if unintelligent, companions to help you get there. The multiple-character gimmick is interesting, if never really used to its full potential, while the sheer size of the world is impressive and makes some real exploration possible (especially in the first half - the locations are more linear in the second). At the same time, hindrances such as the horrible hunger system, multiple objects with the same name, inconsistent map directions, and random events block your progress. The immersion and depth promised by the expansive maps and often evocative descriptions is undermined, with apparently perverse deliberateness, by the anachronistic and outright parodic elements that stand out like a plaster nose on a Roman bust. And yet sometimes it rises above this to give the player some truly memorable moments, and if you give it the time that its designers intended players to take with it, it will yield rewards. It feels more dated than its Infocom rivals do today, but I think it deserves to be remembered.
It's hard to fault The Orion Agenda as far as its execution goes. It is well written, flows logically, has puzzles that make sense, always gives clues when you need them, and even has a storyline with a nice moral dilemma.
I have two issues with it, though. The first is that the world isn't really very fleshed out. The planet is described in pleasingly alien terms, but there isn't much to explore and examine as far as flora and fauna go. Most of the time on the alien world is spent trapped in a small village. The Orionites are very sketchily described, and seem to behave and talk much like humans. Their religion, which is important to the plot, is even sketchier. We have the names of some gods, some moral values, and a prophet. I'd have liked to see far more depth here. As it is, I didn't really feel immersed in an interesting alien world.
The second issue is that the game presents an interesting moral dilemma, but you're only able to make one choice. Wouldn't it have been more interesting to let either decision play out? The fact that doubts remain right to the end concerning the rightness of the decision sits uneasily with the fact that the player is railroaded into it.
So overall, this is a very competent game that offers a good storyline to follow and some well crafted puzzles along the way, but which doesn't feel like it quite does justice to its premise.
I first played this game a while ago. And I think it's a testament to the writing and the design that I remember it clearly, and playing it again held no surprises - other than being delighted once again by the conceit and by the writing.
It is very like Dual Transform, also by Plotkin: a jewel of a game, tiny but perfect in its simplicity. Like that game, Heliopause hints at vast worlds to explore but delivers only a fraction of them; like that game, the sense of freedom conveyed by the clever writing conceals a short plot that runs entirely on rails. But again like that game, the writing is so beautiful, conveying so much with such economy, that it gets away with it.
I can see why some people don't like this game and others like it. There is something distant and clinical about it: its beauty is remote and grand, not personal and intimate. But I love this sort of thing. The story is simple but memorable; the settings are stark and evocative. I'd love to play a game like this that combined this kind of writing and imagery with true freedom and immense scope, but until that game appears, I'm very happy with ones like this.
I found this game deeply engrossing and immersive to a rare degree. This is partly down to the clever puzzle mechanic: it's unusual, but also quite intuitive once you get the hang of it, and it's deeply satisfying to try things out and find that they do work. I'm not very good at puzzles but I found the difficulty here just right.
But the evocative "locations" and beautiful writing are equally important. This game is a masterclass in how to write IF. Each location has just the right amount of description, coupled with background events, to conjure it perfectly in the mind's eye.
I would have loved a longer, more in-depth implementation of this, perhaps with whole Myst-style "worlds" rather than single rooms, and multiple objects to carry between them - but that would be a quite different sort of game. As it is, this one is perfect for what it is. (Though I do find the ending rather unsatisfying. *Is* there a sequel...?)
The title of this game promises much, and it mostly delivers. This is, in a way, a one-move game. You simply have to select the components for your dragon and then launch it. Most combinations don't work, and you must try again until you find the right combination.
The writing is terse but excellent. The surreal setting is evoked well, and the descriptions of the available components are rather beautiful. A nice element is that once you have launched the dragon, any components you didn't use go on to interact with each other as the cosmos itself is reborn. The game describes both how the components of the dragon interact with each other and what the other items do. It's surreal but has its own strange logic.
It's a very short game, and probably won't take many tries to complete, but the prose and imagery may linger for much longer.
I enjoyed this more than I thought I was going to. If you're now instinctively thinking "That's what she said" then you're probably in the target audience for this game too. It has an over-long introduction, and there aren't really a whole lot of different ways that the encounter itself can go, but it's all so charmingly and daftly written that you can't help liking the meaty protagonist and his improbable adventure.
There's not much I can say about this masterpiece that hasn't already been said, but I'll give it a go anyway!
I think the most impressive feature of this game is the combination of wild, extravagant possibility with tight focus. Once you get the hang of your letter-remover, the range of possibilities seems almost paralysing in its scope: you can turn the objects around you into completely different objects with a flick of the wrist. A single item can yield all kinds of wildly different new items depending on which letter you remove, and these in their turn can do the same thing. More possibilities open up as you gain access to more word-manipulation tools - the anagram gun, in particular, is a dizzyingly powerful piece of kit that, once you get it running, makes you feel well-nigh omnipotent. All of the comments about the sheer scale of the task the author must have faced in coding all of these possibilities are, if anything, understated.
And yet at the same time it all works, because the game's scope never gets too out of control. For example, restricting the main mechanic to removing letters (and not adding them, except for one limited tool) means that any given object can only yield a limited number of new objects. Judicious use of adjectives in object names means that many cannot be manipulated at all, or only in fairly limited ways. Even the mighty anagram gun can only turn most objects into one other object, and most of those are useless if hilarious. I think this is the true achievement of this game - to create a world of apparently infinite possibility, that nevertheless limits that possibility without ever feeling restrictive. Enough range of possibility remains to allow the player freedom to try all kinds of things which don't help advance the game at all but are still possible. Here a shout-out has to go to the Britishizing Goggles, which are much appreciated if completely useless, and must have been another headache to implement. (Though they're not infallible e.g. "rigourous" is not correct British English, sad to say.)
This is one of the few puzzle-based games that I managed to complete entirely on my own, though some sections gave me lengthy pause for thought. It's all logical, and while "guess the verb" is effectively replaced by "guess the noun", you at least have all those possible nouns in front of you, in theory. On some occasions the gameplay slows as you read repeatedly through your entire inventory, trying to work out which word, with a letter removed, might produce something useful - and the game's adherence to the modern convention that it's possible to carry in your arms literally everything that's not nailed down means this can be a time-consuming process. More often than not, though, the relevant object is fairly easy to identify. One point to bear in mind is that everything you need to solve a puzzle is always available in locations you can travel to from that puzzle point, something that in the later stages of the game means you can discount much of your swollen inventory when trying to work out what to do.
The parser is very friendly, allowing you to take back game-losing moves. Conversations are rather mechanical, but as we all know, conversations are impossible to implement well in IF. The parser does suffer from frustrating limits in the underlying engine - e.g. it cannot handle "Put X and Y on the Z", requiring instead "Put X on the Z" followed by "Put Y on the Z", even though there are a number of times when you do have to put two things onto or into something.
Most importantly though, this game is just absurdly fun to play. The fact that something like this is free when it outclasses on every level the classic Infocom-era games - that we had to buy with actual money, from actual shops - is something to be profoundly grateful for.
I must add that it's thanks to this game that I discovered Toki Pona, which I'm going to investigate in more detail. Oh, and finally, playing this game late at night leads to very strange dreams.
[EDIT] tenpo ni la, mi sona e toki pona. jan Emili o, pona!
It's clear from looking through these reviews that this is a rather divisive game. Praised greatly by most - including the "editorial reviews" (which always seem especially weighty from their prominence in games' entry pages) - there's a significant minority of reviewers who don't like it, including one or two who really hate it. A smaller minority sit somewhere in the middle, liking it well enough, but not greatly so.
I find myself in that last group. I certainly don't dislike the game. But if it hadn't appeared on almost every "must-play" list, and if it weren't by a renowned author of IF, and if it didn't have all those glowing testimonials, and if it were just an obscure game I'd happened upon by chance, I wouldn't think it anything exceptional. Of course it's hard to say - perhaps under those circumstances I'd be more impressed by it. After all, when something is praised this much, it has a high expectation to live up to. And besides, when you're told repeatedly that something is deeply creepy and you can expect an experience of terrifying psychological horror, little short of being trapped in a vault with Edgar Allan Poe is going to impress.
So all that said, I thought it was a good game. It's a good idea well implemented. The writing is excellent. I liked "A broad mirror tries to make the place seem twice its size; it halfway works" - very droll. The implementation is mostly good - as others have noted, the idea of having sub-locations within the single location is effective. There were some oversights though - "go to kitchen", for example, doesn't work (you need to "go into kitchen" or "enter kitchen"). (Spoiler - click to show)Also, there's no "shower drain" object at all to interact with, even though it's specifically mentioned in the to-do list. I don't have a problem with the fact that the game railroads you through its narrative - that's not the kind of game I mostly enjoy, but it can still be effective, and once I'd worked out how to progress, I rather liked almost sitting back and allowing the narrative to take its course.
I don't think I experienced the creepy psychological horror that others report. Either I'm deficient in something or being so prepared for it immunised me. So the actual activity of playing it, while fine, wasn't the deep emotional experience that others clearly find it to be. But at the same time, I suspect that the imagery of this game will prove memorable. And even in a game where the player has very little choice, making these happen *to the player* rather than to a character in a conventional story over whom one has no control at all does add to their power.
So that's my small contribution to the mountain of commentary on this game. It's very short, it's straightforward to play, it's memorable. I wouldn't call it greater than plenty of less celebrated works that I've played. But perhaps to some extent it's a victim of its own success.