Reviews by J. Robinson Wheeler

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Stationfall, by Steve Meretzky

9 of 12 people found the following review helpful:
Too many puzzles, too little time, April 3, 2008
by J. Robinson Wheeler (Austin, TX)
Related reviews: infocom scifi

I was thinking the whole time how mature an IF designer Meretzsky had become by the time he wrote Stationfall. Things are tidy and efficient and, for the most part, logical and logically clued, and the writing has some snap to it. The game creates a really nice atmosphere of arriving somewhere strange, poking around, and slowly discovering what's going on.

What bothers me about the design has more to do with the story of the game. There is a story, and its bare bones are thus: you arrive on a station with a mission, discover mysteries, become aware of danger, and (hopefully) escape alive. The problem is, this story cannot possibly play out unless the PC, within the game world, has some sort of preternatural instinct for charging around to exactly the right places in the most efficient order, somehow knowing where to go and what to search to find items he needs, somehow not bothering to even take the time to listen to the tape spools that tell him information he needs to know. A transcript of me playing the game efficiently wouldn't look like a story, and won't feel like one to play it!

Planetfall had the ongoing problems of making sure you had enough food and rest, but you were ill, and it made sense, and other than that, the path was fairly straightforward, and playing the game was satisfying. This just feels like there's a couple of layers of obstacles too many, in addition to the now-much-less-motivated hunger and sleep puzzles, which are compounded by this game's stricter overall time limit. You eventually keel over from sickness when playing Planetfall, but when I played it recently, I found that I had ample time to make it through the game. In Stationfall, there's too many fiddly things to do that require huffing back and forth all over the map in the amount of time you have before something kills you. I'm not sure that the solution would really be to have the game have fewer puzzles -- I can imagine that Meretzsky kept packing them in to give the player the feeling that they got their money's worth. A smaller map isn't necessarily right, either, or a more compact distribution of the various items.

Sometimes, it is all too easy for an author to think of obstacles to trip up the player. The player will try to do A, but it won't work, leading the player to realize that they first have to do B. Oh, but wait, I didn't let you know this earlier, but you also have to do C and D. Ha ha. (Just wait until the player realizes E is in the way. Heh heh.) That's sort of what Stationfall feels like to me. I guess it all goes back to what I said earlier about just allowing the player more time to bump around. However, today, in my cranky mood, it does feel like there's too many puzzles; at the same time, I feel like a dope for criticizing an Infocom for having too many puzzles. And I like puzzles!

I'm reminded of Graham Nelson's famous remark about IF being a novel at war with a crossword puzzle. In this case, the crossword is victorious.

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Starcross, by Dave Lebling

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Imagery that sticks in the mind, April 3, 2008
by J. Robinson Wheeler (Austin, TX)
Related reviews: infocom rods

Starcross has imagery that sticks in the mind, even after two decades: colored rods. Why these rods would be so -- hmm, I want to say "primary," and I don't just mean in coloration -- distinctive and mind-etching, I'm not sure, but if you're talking to someone about playing an old Infocom game, and they say, "Which one is Starcross, again?" and you say, "The one with the rods," they know exactly what you mean.

You find yourself on a large cylindrical spaceship of alien origin, with all systems controled by fitting these rods into like-colored slots. You start the game with none, but you need all of them to get to the end. Thus, the main thrust of the game is finding these rods in their various hidden places, and solving the puzzles that keep them from easy acquisition. It's not a bad way to plot out a puzzle game; in fact, it's archetypal at this point, although you can't really do colored rods any more without its being a complete ripoff. Instead, to this day one can still play new IF games that involve finding different colored widgets and fitting them into wodgets.

The various ways of dying in the game reveal a meta-plot at work: (Spoiler - click to show)the reason everything is so puzzly and challenging is, apparently, because the race of aliens that created the spaceship are trying to find lifeforms intelligent enough to bother with. You are a lab rat in a little maze of death traps, basically, but you can eventually prove that you are a sentient lab rat.

Some of the puzzles are clued pretty well, and some of them are rather notoriously unfairly clued. The red rod, in particular -- (Spoiler - click to show)one of the first you need to get, because there is a time-critical aspect to doing so -- shapes up as a guess-the-verb situation, with not enough feedback along the way to point you to the correct solution. I think the main failure is that the author pictured the obstacle quite differently in his mind than he ended up describing it.

Apart from the trouble with the red rod, I managed to push through this game, which 21 years ago I found impossibly challenging, on my own. Indeed, I experienced one of those primal moments of IF pleasure while playing this game. I was frustrated with not being able to find any more rods at one point, and traced and retraced my steps, and couldn't see what would produce progress. I decided to quit the game. Just as I did so, a new thought popped into my head: "Hey, what if I ...?" I reloaded the game, tried my idea -- and it worked! It's been too long since I allowed myself this kind of pleasure; it's too easy to go to the Hints or a Walkthrough or ask a friend for help these days. But the only way to get this feeling is to solve a toughie unaided.

The game has quite a few NPCs, all of them about as shallowly implemented as you would expect for a 1982 game that had to work within severe space and memory requirements. A little bit of lively writing goes a long way in these cases.

Overall, quite good, but showing signs of age. For puzzle-solvers, I don't think it'll ever go completely out of fashion, and the concept of colored rods and slots will live on in the collective IF consciousness for years to come.

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