Reviews by Wade Clarke
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(I originally published this review on 11 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 14th of 26 games I reviewed.)
With its blurb which consisted not of a blurb but of a few weird, terse pieces of advice–
"to switch on walkthrough you must type "ftang" then "walkthrough" "shazam" will fill your inventory with useful things... "ftang" toggles cheat mode"
– I initially thought that the goal of The Island might be to mock the player. The game opened without a title page and dropped me on a clifftop from which I seemingly couldn't move. It also kept insisting: "This is a miserable place."
A few moves later I managed to unstick myself, began to explore my surroundings and realised that I had gotten off on completely the wrong foot with this game, just because of that peculiar blurb. The Island is in fact a straight, compact and sincere adventure-adventure of easy to medium difficulty, filled with the paraphernalia of fantasy adventuredom eternal. You find yourself on a creepy island; why are you there? It seems likely that you will find out if you do what adventurers do best: go around overcoming obstacles by solving puzzles. To seek more or less reason than this is misguided in the context of this game. The practical minded prose (though dotted with random atmospheric additions) and design make the game's mode apparent, so if you demand long descriptions of everything you see or elaborate in-world reasoning, this game isn't for you. The Island is like a kinder Scott Adams adventure, though a very typo-laden one, presenting the fun of this genre without the arduousness that is sometimes attendant upon it. UNDO is blocked – unnecessarily in this game, I feel – but I confess I didn't notice because I had been saving occasionally, which is all that is required.
The Island is more interesting to talk about if I leap immediately to its ending, so ahead is absolute spoilerage: (Spoiler - click to show)The game has a great conclusion. After you've solved all of the island's puzzles, your mode of escape from it turns out to be a ferry summoned by ringing a bell. It's also a ferry piloted by a guy who is clearly Charon / Death, who has perhaps grown weary of shunting English tossers around over in the world of Eurydice. Death takes you out to sea, only to deliver you back to the island, where he shuffles you into his set of adventure props as a pawn. The man you murdered earlier with the dagger (he was tied to a post, screaming madly, and there was nothing else you could do for him AND the game assured you that stabbing him brought him peace) becomes the new corpse in the coffin which contained the bell for summoning the ferry, and you in turn are tied to the post to become the new man who will be murdered with the dagger by the next person damned to this place. The cyclic inevitability of such a fate was signposted by the clues scratched onto the altar in the temple, which is why it pays off well.
The murder of the man tied to the post is probably still the weakest moment in the game, since it seems a far more obvious thing to do would be to try to cut his bonds. Even a message explaining that it would be impossible to do so for some reason (super tough bonds?) would fortify it, but I couldn't find any bond props or messages implemented. This still didn't bother me as much as it will bother some folks, as I've sacrificed NPCs for way less.
The Island's puzzles will be very familiar in nature for old school pundits, but the performance is the thing, and apart from all the typos making the game look weaker than need be, the performance is good, emboldened by the ending. The design is clear, simple and satisfyingly. It's fun to be able to have an adventure like this without it being too taxing.
(I originally published this review on 5 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 8th of 26 games I reviewed.)
After the last few games I played, all of them CYOA and none of them spectacular, I was glad of the arrival of Lunar Base 1, a parser-based adventure of more voluble quality. Coincidentally, the last IF game I tried before this competition began was Hallow Eve, also by Michael Wayne Phipps Jr. who wrote Lunar Base 1. LB1 casts the player in the role of Captain Stan Rogers, one of two astronauts commencing a mission in 2080 to inhabit earth's moon for the long term. The game could benefit from more proofreading, more nuanced writing, and probably from the use of a bigger canvas (the base only has a couple of rooms). What it has going for it are the qualities of suspense, earnestness and some mystery, though I really wish it didn't take an average of four commands to get in or out of the airlock every time.
The physical setup on the moon is relatively simple, and the two heroes, yourself and Dr John Klose, are good-natured types strongly connected to their family and their past. This is reinforced all through the game in the dialogue, your own character's recollections and a nostalgic photo which Klose brandishes. The presiding feeling is a likeable one of respect for the history of space travel and the human desire to explore the unknown. That said, I wish there had been more detail about the mission. How were the two men going to exist on the moon? What were they going to do there? My personal hope is that we will have tried to send people to Mars by 2080 (if you're reading this after 2079 - are we there yet?) so for me to get into this game's mythology more plausibly, I would need some reasons and details to be given for the mission, whether real or fictional.
These issues get sidelined almost immediately in the game due to Klose (Spoiler - click to show)entering a state of delirium after seeing something out the base window on the first night. This also made me think that I would expect the people selected for this mission to have demonstrated a sturdy psychological constitution. It's not implausible that a supernatural(?) occurrence would rattle Klose to this extent, but again, it's the lack of detail in the game that doesn't help to fortify plausibility. As in many films, the characters here don't communicate sufficiently when significant things happen. You are only able to try three conversation ploys on the clammed up Klose before giving up, assessing him as thoroughly disturbed and contacting Mission Control.
Accepting the flow of the game's events, the puzzles weren't that difficult and they moved the action forward in a satisfying fashion. I only had to look at the walkthrough once; when I felt adamant that I should be able to give Klose's spacesuit to him at the time when it was crucial that we both leave the base. The game was adamant that his space suit should never be removed from its hook in the airlock. Thus the spacesuit was a source of persistent annoyance throughout LB1. Removing it and putting it on the hook to go through the airlock was fun the first time, alright the second time and a nuisance every time after that. This sequence should have become automated.
On the finale: (Spoiler - click to show)I found the extra terrestrial revelations towards the end of the game exciting as they approached, but somehow mishandled after their apex. Following the captain's amazing Mission to Mars / 2001 / Stargate-ish vision, would he really not speak of it to the other man for the whole trip back to earth? Or rather, if he decided not to, and was able to will himself not to, shouldn't we, in playing him, be privy to the inner struggle that led to this decision? These are the kinds of dramatic details that the game could use to beef it up.
Back on earth, I found the "best" ending to be strange. I didn't clearly understand the import of either of the significant things the debriefing guy said, and one of them was outrageously significant, that bit about us being the first man on the moon. If most humans are actually the descendants of the aliens seen in the vision, how is it that we are a "man", or human, instead? Or maybe I got the wrong end of the Space Food Stick entirely?
Overall I had a lot of logic, plausibility and drama questions about the events of LB1, but it's a smooth playing game for the most part and an enjoyable experience, especially if you're also into the noble pursuit of space exploration.
(I originally published this review on 5 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 7th of 26 games I reviewed.)
Transit is a solidly blah hyperlink CYOA in which you try to find your lost friend while in a foreign airport. It's also buggy in spite of its smallness.
The writing of Transit is completely unadorned. The addition of any kind of specific information about anything in the game (what airport? who am I? who's my friend? where am I going or where have I been?) would improve things, but each element is presented in its most elemental non-descript form, preventing any kind of interest from being generated. For instance, the only way to derive play interest from visits to generic airport outlets like Starbucks and McDonalds would be to allow anything at all to happen at them beyond the eating of their generic food, but that eating is all that Transit offers before telling you it's time to resume the search for your missing friend.
The three features of the game which slightly redeem it are:
1. The way you can die by binge drinking some dispensed canned drink whose title and contents you can't read.
2. The fact that the winning path involves trying anti-intuituve actions, which will probably cause you to poke around looking for it.
3. The little icons which appear each turn depicting your current situation in the universal language of public signage. A neat idea not well served by the material.
(I originally published this review on 3 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 2nd of 26 games I reviewed and it has been revised at least once since my review.)
It's 1892 in England, and also in all the other countries of the world, I expect. You're a formally dressed little boy whose mummy and daddy are away at Oxford, and you're trapped in the house with boring Uncle Stephen and Aunt Emma this Sunday while summer goes begging to be had outside. Your goal in this game is to escape the cloying weight of the very proper world of these adults and to get out of the house. Some postmodern interruptions stop it from being entirely straightforward, but I concede I might have preferred a straight telling of this story. It's a clever and finely written game, nevertheless.
My favourite element of Sunday Afternoon is its demonstration of the intelligent persistence of the child protagonist. Initially you're not even allowed out of your chair in the parlour, but with excruciating tenacity you can ask your aunt about each item on the mantel in turn from a seemingly endless series until (Spoiler - click to show)any kind of a gap in her concentration can be found, allowing you to slip away. There's a vaguely Babel Fish puzzle-like quality about this initial obstacle which was just beginning to induce stress in me when it relented. You can also ask your aunt and uncle about an extensive range of topics suggested by props in the house or snippets of prior conversation, and you will find that they have a proper observation to make on almost every one. The pair could be potentially cartoonish in their starchiness except that it's easy to believe in the united front they put up in the face of a child of a very upper-class family. And then there's also the complication of ENTERING SPOILINGTON HEIGHTS (Spoiler - click to show)the story being revealed as a role-playing meets recollections session shared by the grown-up hero with his comrades in the trenches in World War I. The flakiness of the aunt's character in particular is commented on, and the episode comments on the looping, gullible behaviour of NPCs in adventure games in general.
After that I was thinking: In the reality of this game, to what extent did the stuff that I'm doing in 1892 happen in the manner I'm performing it? Does the extent matter? Does the question matter? Other quotes from contemporary language pop up during the game ("weapons of mass destruction") and occasionally an appropriate third person quote will materialise in the centre of the screen. Some will enjoy these whimsical movements but I found they distracted me from acquiring a focused sense of this game.
My other problem was that I eventually sank to cleaving to the hints. Not out of great exasperation or because I think this game is extremely difficult, which I don't, but because it does demand some actions be performed at quite a fine scale. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show)having to arrange the particular letter amongst the contents of the sermon folder. I felt the same about trying to clean the chimney or trying to (Spoiler - click to show)make the object with which to clean the chimney. Having a sense of "OK, that's what I meant," a few times in a row does grate on me when I have to keep returning to a nested hints menu to tweak my commands to success. I'm much more in favour of adaptive hints in general, and not having to go in and out of menus whenever possible.
In spite of my wobbly feelings about the aesthetic of the game as a whole, I did like the fineness of the social puzzles (though they were also too fine-grained for me) and Aunt Emma's patience in answering my questions about her ceaseless catalogue of mantel knickknacks.
(I originally published this review on 12 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 16th of 26 games I reviewed.)
In many ways, I found sci-fi adventure Changes to be the highest quality game amongst the IFComp 2012 entries. Its prose flows transparently and conveys the vivid, natural beauty of an earth-like planet. It presents the point of view of many different lifeforms in original ways, even from within the point of view of other lifeforms. Its animal cast are realistic and finely programmed, reacting to each other in interesting ways and demonstrating instinctive, independent behaviour.
Unfortunately I also found this game to be incredibly difficult. It worked me into a state of significant frustration on many occasions and eventually I gave up. The difficulty operates mostly at a subtle level, except in the case of one marauding animal, but it is thoroughly persistent in nature, and I stopped when I could no longer make progress even with the walkthrough. There are adaptive hints in the game but they operate on such a large scale as to be of little use in helping with any specific problems. If you find yourself hesitant or struggling in Changes, I recommend examining the walkthrough much sooner rather than later.
After acknowledging at game start that I was a human trapped in the body of an extra terrestrial rabbit, spawned by some weird organic cocoon to boot, I began to explore the planet I found myself on. Other rabbits sniffed and browsed about their burrows and a flock of deer sought out food. A fox pursued me and the other deer, but we were able to outrun him, and he shied away from the beavers trying to plug up their dam. The interplay of all these creatures is so well programmed and fascinating to behold that I ran around exploring and experimenting with them all for a long but unspecifiable amount of time. Eventually, once I had thoroughly surveyed the land and staked out my (Spoiler - click to show)crashed human spaceship, my attention began to turn to the ever marauding fox and the plight of being a rabbit in general.
I think the first important steps the player must take in this game are gargantuan ones in terms of the demand on the player to come up with the ideas required and to then progress from assessing their feasibility to actually working out how to execute them. Many spoilers on this topic: (Spoiler - click to show)Once you have witnessed other animals dragging corpses into the cocoons, you must then decide that you want to obtain an animal corpse yourself. This is obviously a major challenge if you are a rabbit and every other non-rabbit land animal in the game is larger or more powerful than you. The only fatal animal encounter you are likely to have witnessed at this point would be your own death at the hands of the fox. So while you might have decided that you want to kill something, you have seen next to no killing.
The first material step on the path to murdering a bigger animal is to attack a fish flopping about in a pool. The flopping about behaviour is what may give you a clue that the fish is vulnerable and that this is possible, but attacking fish is not behaviour I associate with rabbits, nor have I seen any of the other animals in the game doing anything similar. And the fish is still just a prop for a greater abstract murder plot targeting the otter. Taken individually, I consider many of these steps to be difficult to conceive of on the player end, and they form a chain in a fairly elusive scheme which will eventually involve burying a fish in a hole as bait to trap another animal.
The subtle difficulty I spoke of earlier is that there isn't much feedback from the game that any particular step is bringing you closer to a goal, and you may not even realise what your goal is. There are also moments in the game which give misdirective feedback. There was a stick I saw and wanted to pick up, prompting the response, "There's nothing there worth having." In IF games, that's about as clear a fob off as I've ever seen. I was mad when I later discovered from the walkthrough that the stick is vital for progress but can only be collected after you have examined it.
The final problem I had with the game's first major puzzle ((Spoiler - click to show)kill the otter) was that it took me perhaps twenty or more attempts to just pull off the feat of (Spoiler - click to show)leading the otter to my fish trap without encountering the fox on the way. The fox forces a plan abort, since it is necessary to wait with the otter for a turn to activate the trap, and waiting results in death if the fox is present. Each time I encountered the fox I would retreat, hide from it, emerge and then restart the whole plot from the first step of catching the fish once again, taking it north, dropping it for the otter, waiting, leading the otter away... I couldn't believe how hard this was, but at least the fox's behaviour during this section of the game should be easy to tweak for the author.
So in various dimensions, the game's first puzzle is the hardest one. Having survived it, the player must now (Spoiler - click to show)evolve through a series of other animals – by killing them and/or dragging them into the life cocoons – to eventually become the drug-addicted lemur whose fingers are long enough to work the numeric keypad on your broken shuttle. These puzzles are all very clever, but the game just keeps missing out on giving the bits of direction and feedback necessary for most people to be able to have a shot at clearing them without cleaving to the walkthrough. In the end I did cleave to the walkthrough, but the game insisted I was not tall enough to reach the spaceship hatch, though both the sticks and the branch were in place, so I'm unsure if I hit a bug or missed something important, but I felt too drained to attempt to play on at that point.
I have barely touched on the human elements of the game's plot here, and while they're obviously important overall, they didn't factor in either the massive difficulties I had in playing Changes, nor in its wonderful presentation of a believable alien planet teeming with life. The game has the overall quality of something exceptional, but it's too hard to play at the moment.
(I published the first version of this review on 3 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. Guilded Youth was the 3rd of 26 games I reviewed. The review has since been revised to address updates to the game.)
Guilded Youth is a smooth playing and charmingly presented story about the suburban adventures of teenaged Tony. Tony is preoccupied with the cool local manor which is soon to be demolished, and he sneaks in there each night in search of treasure. The game is set in the 1980s and delivered through the prism of the imaginative life shared by Tony and his friends on their local Dungeons & Dragons BBS game, where he's Tony the Thief.
Guilded Youth is linear, but not "I don't feel like I'm doing anything" linear, and its production values, including some graphics and sounds, are impeccable. Its atmosphere works on a couple of levels, that of the world of teenagers in general, and also with a degree of specific nostalgia or period feel for folks who grew up in the 80s or like 80s things, and for the entertainment from that time. The original IFComp version of the game had a disappointing ending (I wasn't the only person to say so) but Jim Munroe revised the tail completely in response, and it's now as good as everything else.
The BBS world is presented in pretty green monochrome which makes way for a contemporary online style when you take Tony out on one of his nightly jaunts. Character portraits of your friends and inventory images surround the screen, and there are cool discrete sound effects if you play with the Chrome web browser. The game is also very simple to control, letting you know that there are only a handful of commands which are actually required for play, though others will work. On each of your trips to the manor at night you are accompanied by different friends from the BBS whom you attract to your party with loot from the previous night. I should make it clear that there is no actual RPG engine in play. Each object only persuades a certain friend to come with you, and only on a particular night, so the linearity extends to all areas of the game.
Guilded Youth recalled for me the atmosphere of many 1980s movies about gangs of adventurous teenagers. The characters in the game are excited that they're getting to have such adventures, and hope to enjoy and prolong this feeling as much as they can before the manor is torn down, symbolically ending the fun and ushering them further towards adulthood. The characters are only as open to us as Tony's point of view allows, and ŕ la their BBS characters (or the cast of The Goonies) each teen demonstrates a knack for a particular skill or way of doing things that fits neatly with the structure of going out with a different one or two of them each night. Tony even gets to (Spoiler - click to show)smooch the cool girl, which was the romance every boy liked to imagine himself in when he watched something like The Goonies. At least I assume the other boys were thinking the same things as me but that we all just never spoke about it. What's funny about the NPCs in the game (or just jealous-making) is that even though they don't say a tremendous amount of stuff or stay onscreen long enough to do a tremendous amount of stuff, they manage to leave a great impression of their liveliness, individual foibles and relationships in a way that's both fun and realistic.
(I originally published this review on 7 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 10th of 26 games I reviewed and it has been updated at least once since the review was written.)
Body Bargain is a horror game set in a near future world of cybernetic body modification. It reminds me of the film The Human Centipede in its aesthetics and ideas, and while none of the characters here get sewn together, I will echo the consumer advice displayed by the game on startup, that if you're squeamish of gore or violence or clinical disturbing-ness, this game will probably squeam you. It also deals with something that remains challenging to successfully negotiate in IF, the continuum of moral and ethical boundaries between the actions a PC might be likely to take based on his or her personality and the in-game situation, and the actions different players might be prepared to take based on their out-of-game personality. Body Bargain doesn't evade all these complications, but even as raggedly implemented as it currently is, I found it morbidly engrossing and definitely interesting. For horror fans, a must play.
The PC wakes up after surgery she has opted for to transform her whole body from that of an overweight human to that of a toned blue elven woman. The story suggests, through the tone of its conversations and the thoughts of the PC, that such fantastic transformations are now contextually acceptable in society, maybe even common. You have paid for your own surgery by becoming the new assistant nurse at the illegal practice which performed it, presided over by the more-machine-than-man Doctor Overclock. However, a big early problem in this game was that it was not clear to me that I had made such a deal. Why some robot doctor was expecting me to help him perform surgery on a stranger just because I had walked into his operating room baffled me. It caused me to fob off his request and look around other areas in the game. In those areas I found information to fill in the gaps, but I don't think it was the author's intent to let this point slip.
The first episode of surgery is a good litmus test for whether or not any particular player will have the taste or stomach for what is to come. You have to scalpel shoulders, handle severed limbs and put up with the spray of gore from the doctor's sawing, but the result appears to be what the patient requested. (Spoiler - click to show)Not so for the next patient. His grotesque fantasy drawing of the giant-schlonged dragon he wants to become prompts the doctor to euthanase him as a "pervert". It's this moment that is likely to mobilise the player, especially when they discover that the next patient is their own sister. She already has a punk hairdo and piercings. Will she attract the pervert label?
You can now continue to follow the doctor's orders or start to do otherwise. The game is ready for many permutations of what can happen, impressively so in retrospect, but some of its positions are significantly weakened – (Spoiler - click to show)in the first place by the sketchy implementation of the sister character. She is attended by numerous bugs, gives the impression of being asleep even though she is awake and has nothing of use to say to the player. Surely my character is likely to alert her to the murder of the second patient that just took place? My character does not, creating a blank stage for action in which the player can choose to blithely butcher the sister character or not. This is simply an unrealistic presentation of the situation, stealing power from the choice the player makes and what results from it. The PC has demonstrated that she is not a blank canvas upon many previous occasions; with her thoughts on the grossness of her old body and the grossness of the second patient's dragon fantasies, and with her shock at the murder of the second patient. But she seems to become a moral vacuum, as far as the prose is concerned, after that murder. I believe these kinds of inconsistencies can be incredibly difficult to deal with for any author. They have often stumped me just at the stage of thinking about creating a game in which the player might be called on to perform actions generally considered repulsive. Body Bargain has not overcome all of these problems, but that doesn't mean it's not an interesting game for playing with them.
There are a lot of technical troubles with the game, ranging from duplicate and erroneous messages (automatic doors are always opening and closing, sometimes more than they should) to under-helpful implementation (typing "cut X" always asks "With what?…" in a game about surgery and stabby violence), verb guessing (the keycard reader – I'd never have thought to type AUTHORISE) and synonym weakness ("card" and "key card" are not accepted for "keycard"). There's also an unfinished feel to some of the emptier locations in the southern vicinity of the hospital. Nevertheless, I found the core design of Body Bargain to be clear, distinctive and effective. I like the way the operating rooms are laid out diagonally from the hallway, the device of the doctor leading the player from one operation to the next and the grisly but clinical depiction of the operations. Again with The Human Centipede, the incident with the dragon patient's fantasy sketch reminded me of the opening scene of that film in which Doctor Heiter gazes with fascination at the photo of the three dogs he has sewn together.
Body Bargain is novel and has all the ingredients to be a really high quality piece of horror gaming, but technically it needs a lot of work and it faces conceptual challenges, too. These factors make for rough play and work against the game's ultimate effects. I'm glad to have played what's here already and would certainly designate this as a must play for horror fans.
(I originally published this review on 21 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 21st of 26 games I reviewed, and it had already been updated once during the competition before I reviewed it.)
Adventure games have consistently demonstrated that trying to stop people escaping from stuff, at least literal stuff, is a futile goal. Joining this rich tradition concerning the flight from the literal is switchable protagonist adventure Escape from Summerland. Summerland is an amusement park, and when the game begins, it get hits by a bomb. The adventure which follows demonstrates fun and inventive puzzle engineering but could stand to help the player more with those puzzles.
The dapper nature of the first of three playable PCs made me feel like the introductory bomb had fallen during the London Blitz, but information in the game's blurb, which appeared only on the IFComp website during competition time, specifies the setting of the game as a future in which drones are fighting all our wars for us; presumably they dropped the bomb. The explosion results in the inconvenient death and ghostification of dapper gent Amadan and the entrapment of monkey performer Jacquotte. Amadan's ghost can't do much for dead Amadan, but it can try to liberate Jacquotte from Summerland, and it will seek to do so with the help of a busted up robot found along the way. The player gets to control all three of these characters and can switch between them at will to coordinate the escape effort. This brings a lot of neat features to the game's table: multiple PCs, unique viewpoints and a tweaked parser. The game design brief is extensive, demanding in some idealised form even more work on Escape from Summerland than has already gone into it, as difficulties remain.
The core puzzle mechanic is that each of the three characters has their own way of perceiving the environment, and their own physical pros and cons. Amadan, a human until very recently, delivers regular descriptions of the locations, but being a ghost he can't manipulate anything, though he can walk through walls. Jacquotte is a high achieving monkey and able to report on the world in her simplified terms which emphasise things she finds shiny and exciting over things she finds boring. Every statement she makes is accompanied by a monkey emoticon. I thought these might bug me at first, but I got used to them over time and was even charmed by them. The damaged robot turns out to be the most difficult character to wield. It distils what it sees and experiences into a high tech series of itemised lists. The elusive meaning of some of the robot's output turned out to be the cause of most of my trips to the game's walkthrough, but transparent or not, the lists themselves are fascinating.
There is little to complain about in Amadan's implementation when it comes to the puzzles, but the game doesn't explain his evident fervour to liberate the monkey. Perhaps she was the only animal in the carnival? The capricious monkey is the source of most of the game's humour, but also seems to be the PC with the least tolerance for varied commands. This isn't illogical – she's a monkey after all – but her monkeyfied rejections of most of what you might type can be wearing. The catch with the robot is that while it has many useful abilities, they're hard to access, or perhaps to even discern in the first place. After I picked up one of the robot's detached arms, I didn't realise that I needed to (Spoiler - click to show)INSTALL it before it would work. Other attachments were hard to identify, and a couple of other robot-based solutions seemed too abstract to guess at without more explicit clueing from the game.
I found Escape from Summerland to be of an essentially high quality but it didn't operate with a smoothness to match that quality, resulting in me keeping the walkthrough close at hand. Apart from the game needing to be more helpful in general where the robot is concerned, probably the main thing I think would help is a greater sharing of feedback amongst its characters. That is to say that when the player changes from one character to another, even in the same room, it's currently very rare to receive feedback on significant changes which have been wrought by other characters. The three of them could almost be living in separate worlds as they barely acknowledge each other's actions. I could understand such behaviour from an unemotional robot, but Amadan came back to save the monkey and the monkey is just observant and reactive in general.
Escape from Summerland also has a few curious elements which seem to be underdeveloped; the drone warfare which is never specifically mentioned in the game, Amadan's history with the monkey and some interesting attractions in the park which go unused. Perhaps development time ran short before the competition? These elements might have aroused more curiosity had the game gone on much longer than it did. The heart of the adventure is its novel choice of differently abled protagonists, the contrasts amongst them and the brief but clever run of puzzles they have to solve, with most of the game's atmosphere established by Amadan's initial walk through Summerland.
(I originally published this review on 18 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 20th of 26 games I reviewed and the game has been revised at least once since I wrote the review.)
Spiral gives the player two protagonists, one male, one female. The two don't know each other but wake to find themselves bound and gagged and stuck on a moving train. What lies ahead for them and for the player are puzzly dream and afterlife scenarios which are manifestations of the characters' various crises.
If you played the entries from the 2011 IFComp, you may have a sensation that games in which characters run a morality-tinged gauntlet in the afterlife are on the ascendancy. Spiral is of this ilk, and while it does make use of symbolically charged landscapes and a little fire and brimstone / Dante's Inferno type imagery, it also has some conceptual tricks and strengths which give off more of a sci-fi vibe. Overall, it's a game whose establishing sections I preferred to its body. The large and persistence-demanding middle section, involving the tracking down of many objects, was less interesting to me than trying to get a sense of how the whole story worked in the first place, what was going on.
After I first completed Spiral (and learned that (Spoiler - click to show)I had reached one of the Unsuccessful endings from the six available overall), I had the feeling that I should probably have understood what had happened over the course of the game better than I did. I'd begun the adventure by using the proffered REMEMBER and THINK commands to draw some initial backstory on both characters as they lay in the train, learned that I could switch between characters using the BE command, and that I could enter their dream worlds by going to SLEEP.
The core of this review discusses the game in a manner where spoilers are frequent and unavoidable, so it is entirely enclosed here: (Spoiler - click to show)Ross's dream world consists of a giant environment-destroying machine in space, Helen's of something like a flaming mountain in purgatory. The nature of each protagonist's dreamscape reflects the nature of their anxieties in life, Ross with his environmental politics which apparently became mixed up with extremism, and Helen with her self-assessed shallowness. Ross needs to find pieces of his soul in his world, Helen pages from the book of her life in hers, but I was stymied as both. When I eventually turned to the walkthrough, I found that an idea that I was never going to have tried was the key to unlocking progress for the rest of the game: that I pass objects from one protagonist's dreamscape to the other's by "destroying" them after a fashion, dropping them into the waste in Ross's world or into the flames in Helen's.
Somewhat stunned but also fatigued by this discovery after playing for more than an hour, I experienced a sense of disorientation and wondered if I should begin the game anew. The next day I decided that I should simply press on if I wanted to have a shot at completing Spiral in under two hours, however, I never felt that I got my mojo back or that I was making particularly good sense of things after this point. This is obviously just one of those things that can happen when playing a game if you're unlucky, but with the time pressure of the competition on me I didn't necessarily have the opportunity to recover from it as I normally might have in another context. I'm just describing this experience here because it's my first year experiencing IFComp from the player-voter's seat.
In retrospect, the various kinds of separation of the two characters from one another makes for a strong concept. The fact that they are together on the train and within a few feet of each other, yet might as well be miles apart because their bindings and gags basically prevent any communication between them, is reflected in the absolute separation of the dream worlds. Even in their ability to pass objects to one another, which would normally be a kind of communication, there is no acknowledgement in the prose by either character that this is what they are actually doing, no thought at all as to who might have supplied an object which just fell from the sky into their current location. The only problem of course is that with no mutual acknowledgement by the characters, the idea that they could trade objects is never conveyed to the player in the first place, at least that I saw. And this idea must be conveyed, somehow. It's too huge a game mechanic to be left to chance.
By trading puzzle solving props as required and inching their way through new rooms in their respective environments, Ross and Helen both reveal chunks of their backstory and ultimately may find some or all of their respective treasures, the soul crystals or the pages from the book. In my case I found all seven of Helen's pages but few of Ross's crystals. I have a suspicion I locked myself out of some locations in Ross's world by sending Helen a prop I needed – a wall-cutting sickle – at an inopportune moment, but I'm not sure. It was apparent to me that the purpose of the characters' adventures was for them to make some kind of peace with the less than ideal lives they'd lived up until now, in readiness for an afterlife or heaven or hell or nonexistence or something. But I didn't work out the context for all this. I don't know if the train in which the characters were bound and gagged was a metaphorical train to the afterlife or a train that the characters were really on or both. Over the course of the game, the player learned that Ross was involved with an anarchist-leftist group which eventually planted a bomb on a train. Ross sought to stop the bomb going off, but a late scene in the game of a flaming train underground suggests he failed. Or was that his imagination? Or a memory or a dream?
The final stages of the game added another layer of perplexedness to my experience. The player can suddenly use the BE command at this point to take control of a wasp trapped in the train carriage with the protagonists. Then you can sting them to death. This is the only way for them to die, as suicidal actions taken by the humans only result in them being kicked into or out of their dreamscapes. And in truth, I really wanted the game to end at this point, as it seemed there had been several scenes in a row suggesting the end was imminent (Helen finding all her pages, an escape from the flaming train, the murder of some symbolic Eraserhead / mutant Voldemort type baby on the flaming train) but the end still hadn't come. I only switched to the wasp after visiting the walkthrough for the umpteenth time. The ending I finally reached dropped me back into the initial predicament in the train carriage. So here was the spiral. Perhaps without sufficient atonement (enough treasures gathered) both characters are condemned to wander their dreamscapes of failure until they get things right.
While acknowledging that I experienced this game in a more confused than average state, I imagine I'd have been more involved in the whole thing had I been more involved with the characters. In spite of their initial elaborate (overwritten for Ross) statements about the predicament of being bound and gagged, I felt the information about the characters was delivered in weird disjointed chunks which, in combination with the nature of the information, never formed a clear picture of either person over the course of the game. The business of solving the puzzles across the two worlds is normally something I would really like, but it felt like hard slog here, probably because I wasn't digging the carrots, the dollops of backstory. There's lots to admire in Spiral; the solid programming, the conceptual strengths of the design, the scope of the whole thing. But I found it to be at least as confusing as thought-provoking.
Related reviews: ADRIFT, ADRIFT 4, IFComp 2012, comedy, science fiction
(I originally published this review on 10 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 13th of 26 games I reviewed and the game has been revised at least once since I wrote the review.)
In a competition close shave, I completed Irvine Quik & the Search for the Fish of Traglea in exactly two hours. This absurdist space adventure, whose title causes my mouth to do everything it doesn't want to do at once if I say it aloud, puts the player in the role of its eponymous goofball as he and the Interstellar League of Planetary Advocacy try to save an endangered fish in order to save an endangered planet in a universe mostly populated by cat people. With its distinct aesthetic of cute humour, diverse environments, a big roster of NPCs (including a fully staffed ship) and cat-fu karate sequences, this adventure is potentially one of my favourites this year, but I have to temper that statement with observations of its bugginess and the attendant difficulties. The only ADRIFT-based game I'd previously played with a bigger scope than this one was 2011's mighty Cursed, and perhaps in a similar manner to Cursed, it's the ambitiousness of Irvine Quik which opens it up to a greater range of bug possibilities. I played the game using the aging Mac Spatterlight interpreter, which I've noted is solid for ADRIFT 4 games (ADRIFT 4, Irvine's platform, is now a static development platform) but which was incapable of recording any transcripts in the case of this particular game.
IQ, as I'm now going to call it, makes a strong impression of novelty and helpfulness through its opening screens. Alliterative taglines that would work well on sci-fi B movie posters describe the options available. It is surprising to find that you can start playing from any one of the game's six chapters. If you admit that you don't know how to use a HiRBy (your floating, grabbing robot pal in IQ) the first chapter will begin to play itself, slowly typing out the introductory commands before your eyes to show you what to do. On the other hand, if you answer "No" to the broader "Have you played interactive fiction before?" question, you seem to get almost no additional tuition at all, but the game does offer a VERB command which will list a minimum set of commands needed in the current chapter.
The first significant puzzle, helping the captain land the ship, meow, has an impressive five possible solutions according to the nicely presented PDF walkthrough. At least one of those solutions is a mini game involving quick memorisation and typing of numbers. Offering this much variety is obviously a pretty industrial strength way to start the game. In fact, the presence of a whole explorable spaceship for the good guys to live in is a pretty industrial strength gesture, and could almost be regarded as strange, considering that this ship is not where the bulk of the action takes place – except that this gesture is (a) neat, and (b) will probably be of use for any sequels, EG the one promised by the game's outro.
IQ is written in the third person, an interesting choice which seems to amplify the clumsiness of the hero and of the game's humour in general, as if Irvine is being viewed omnisciently and pitilessly from a distance above. My own playing troubles really began in Chapter 3, in which Irvine explores the jungly planet of Tragear with the broad purpose of trying to solve the case of the missing fish. The puzzle involving the coat-stealing tree monkey had all kinds of bugs in it. (Spoiler - click to show)One time the solution didn't work, so I thought I was stuck. After restoring a game, the solution did work but I didn't know that it had because the game still said "The monkey refuses to give Irvine the tiger coat!" A fruit I had previously taken from the monkey was also capable of teleporting back into the monkey's hands. Before I broke out the walkthrough for the first time, and as I continued to wring my hands at my troubles, I went back to the ship to talk to other characters in hopes of getting some help from them. Here I found that the captain was still talking about my chance to pilot the ship, the story from the previous chapter. In summary, it's apparent that IQ has many different states and events whose interrelationships it needs to keep track of, but it currently isn't on top of a lot of them.
After Irvine acquires karate in a sensei sequence he can bust it out as required. It's a fun system combining a bit of random damage with the not overtly stressful demand that you learn which of the moves particular opponents are immune to. Chapter 5 is a 100% combat chapter set in a tunnel, and pretty exciting for it, though I swear there was a moment when I was reduced to 0 hit points but still alive and kicking. Also, (Spoiler - click to show) regarding the passcode which got me through the locked door into this area in the first place, I don't know where that number actually occurs in the game. After I learned of it from the walkthrough, I went looking for it but failed to find it. Running out of time to clear this game in under two hours, I caved in and just typed in the code which-I-still-don't-know-where-it-came-from. This typing wasn't easy, either. I accept in retrospect that the game did define the PRESS command for pressing buttons, but none of PRESS KEYPAD, UNLOCK KEYPAD, (the number itself) or PRESS NUMBERS worked.
In spite of all its bumps, which kept making me worse and worse at the game as I approached its finale, what IQ possesses is a very charming and coherent aesthetic which seems to extend beyond the already decent chunk of universe presented in this game. Even though communication with the other characters could be better programmed, each character seems to have his or her own concerns and purpose, and there are a good number of characters. And while the cat people are highly capable in their roles, it is left to the human outsider, Irvine, to falteringly observe the silliness of this world which is invisible to them. That the highly sought after fish is asleep nearly all of the time, that the characters who claim to be giving instruction barely give any, or that the villain's rant explaining his motivations doesn't make a lot of sense.
I found the funniest and cutest scene to be the one where Irvine helps a kitten which is fishing(!) in a brook. Given the general absurdity of this game, I really thought that the fish I was looking for might turn out to be the one in the water here, since its description said it was. But it turned out to be a Red Herring instead. This moment sums up the feel of the game for me.
In some ways Irvine is my favourite game so far at the halfway point of the comp, but its bugs did slow me up and hamper my experience of it. A lot of me struggling to finish this in under two hours was due to me rewinding to earlier points because of uncertainty about the game state. But the world of this game is a wonderful creation, and I will line up for a more polished version of this game or a sequel.
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