(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)
I like to kick off my IFComp experience of a year with the playing of a parser-based horror game that I expect will tickle my fancies. In 2020's entries list, I could not go past the title The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee (hereafter referred to as BM). It's not actually a horror game, and I should point out that it correctly bills itself as a mystery. Its blurb also indicates that sci-fi (time travel) is involved. It doesn't dwell on its adult elements, so references to sex and violence are at the level of any restrained modern whodunnit.
BM took me about an hour to complete, and I was impressed by its interwoven layers of mystery, reality and narratorship, even as the gameplay remained straightforward look, read'n'search throughout. The issues of the PC/narrator split and narrator reliability get a triple workout here. The player initially doesn't know who they are, or why they're investigating Jenny's murder back in 2003. A bold-text-voiced narrator issues instructions that initially seem to intrude on the prose in real time, indicating that the player is under surveillance. Yet that narrator also alludes to having their own problems with another entity. I see BM's sci-fi factor landing individually with different players, but I think the whole is grounded by the specificity of Jenny's world. She was a 17-year-old Chinese immigrant to Canada, was academically pressured by her mum, and lived her teen life in rounds of the band room, the library, and the ACE Tutoring Agency. In the best narrative tradition of the murdered, she also kept secrets.
The whodunnit element presents a decent catalogue of speculative possibilities for the game's size. It's fuelled by the details of Jenny's life, one that evokes some typical migrant experiences but also has enough texture to give Jenny individuality. The way the player experiences her world is as retrospective "recordings" of her most-frequented locations, devoid of people but rife with intimate notes, diaries, library cards, signs and messages on computer screens. The rooms are full of stuff, so much so that even when a lot of objects are implemented, players are still likely to bounce off the ones that aren't. Weird implementation or under-implementation, and almost no synonym support, are typical shortcomings of the old Quest engine, and they're present here. Ninety-five percent of the time, you don't need to guess verbs in Quest games, but when you do, you're in trouble; the walkthrough got me through two such bits in BM. Nevertheless, compelling forward progress and little mysteries come thick and fast.
I was also struck by a lot of the physical environmental details in this game. The letters cut out from cardboard spelling "Asian American Heritage Month" in the library, for instance, or the markered masking tape instrument labels in the band room. The accumulation of these sorts of observations conjured the atmospheres of schools and libraries of my past.
In retrospect, BM seems to mix some unusual elements, but then again I've got a feeling this kind of thing is more common than I think. (For instance, in the Young Adult genre. I just had a flash of the novel Slide by Jill Hathaway.) Ultimately, I liked the Jenny's World elements best, and I see how the sci-fi elements facilitate the exploration of her world in a prying, adventure-gamey way that would otherwise be realistically impossible. In fact, it occurs to me I used almost the same mechanism for exploring a character's past in my contribution to the game Cragne Manor. Rough edges and implementation troubles aside, BM is novel and ambitious, often well-observed and delivers an involving story with elements of cultural specificity.
The author's note recommends playing BM offline by downloading the PC-only Quest app. This is how I played, and based on my personal and anecdotal experiences of both the Quest system and textadventures.co.uk website, I'd say: if you can play offline, don't muck around. Play offline.
Click below to read my spoilering thoughts on the game's ending.
I'm not sure either of BM's endings are great. The most positive spin I can come up with on the solid/regular ending is the idea that the future people's faintly interested reaction to the detective machine (the one that you "were", or inhabited to solve the crime) and the most famous case it solved, is a sad-leaning reminder that we can easily forget about the realities of those who preceded us, and maybe now and then we should take some time to remember them... I hope this isn't too off course, because I lost this piece of the transcript when I tried the other ending.
The other ending is far-fetched in the sense that I think it's almost contrived beyond intentional logic (go west ten times in limbo?!) but it could be hit by accident. And with the walkthrough handy, I think players will probably try it anyway. While it's novel, it's totally removed from the bulk of the game. It reads as: 'Forget about Jenny Lee! I'm now a self-actualised AI out in the world!' Which is almost a different game altogether. I suppose it's cute as a novelty ending, and there have been a lot of bonus endings of this type in Playstation console games. Unfortunately this one wastes BM's remaining locked cabinet passcode puzzle in the process.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)
This review is entirely spoilery.
Tentaculon is a link-driven Twine game that initially appears to be an eat-or-be-eaten squid simulator. Its prose is keen, a bit gooey and very slightly uncomfortable-making as one cruises around trying to kill and eat stuff while not being subject to sudden spasmodic jerking motions at the same time. I admit I feared some kind of cheap game-ending blow to the back of my head was imminent, for instance a message saying 'HA! You killed to live! You lose!' – but this was unfair misapprehension on my part based on past negative experiences.
Instead, the game cut to a Philip K Dickensian scenario in the present day. I was really a human. The squid I'd been brainjacking was safely across the room in its tank.
Placing what could stand as a whole Twine game in its own right (the short history of this design tool mostly being about short works) within a larger one which turns out to be about neurobiological research and realities within realities is conceptually a very attractive design move, and one I also felt aesthetically. In retrospect of the whole of Tentaculon, I really liked its sci-fi story and its idiosyncratic humour. But actually playing it I found to be a curiously disorienting slog. It brandishes a large variety of interface and delivery approaches that kept me in a place between irritation and aggravation.
There's no consistent way to move between sections. Sometimes it's by clicking the specifically crafted back button, which I'm used to reading as an UNDO button in Twine. Sometimes it's by clicking an acknowledgement ('OK'). Sometimes it's by clicking a particular option amongst several others which are only asides. The variation which bothered me the most, because I didn't realise it was happening for awhile, was when it was necessary to simply wait for the viable link to appear amongst additional text further down the screen after a fixed amount of time. I have complained about the use of text delay timers in Twine games before and will do so again now in light of having discovered a new way in which they can hamper your experience.
I'd say Tentaculon's interface inconsistencies stand out because considerably more Twine games prior to this one have been broadly abstract or linear than have not. Tentaculon features locations connected by stable geography, exits, gettable items and conversations with NPCs. In other words, it's got a light world model, currently a minority mode in Twine, and players need to be able to have some kind of reliable relationship with that model in order to grasp or visualise the results. I struggled with all the chopping and changing of the presentation, links being all over the place and in different styles, and I often felt I didn't have much of a hold on things.
In spite of my troubles, I made it through Tentaculon, relieved that the keycard puzzles were easy, that I was able to link-mash my way through some other bits when I'd lost the plot, and really glad that I'd encountered the fictional work Life Chutney.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2016.)
I thought I recognised the 'blob of goop evolves to starflight via all the stages inbetween' premise of Little Lifeform from somewhere. I've not played Spore but I've read about it, and that's the game. But I don't think Little is 'just' doing Spore via prose and the Choice Of Games engine. It has a particular aesthetic slant that is somewhat cute, somewhat dapper (hat-orientated) and generally encouraging. Simultaneously, it seeks to avoid throwing any eggs into particular baskets of peril. It presents a version of the universe that equalises all paths. Frankly this is not something I am used to, and in some bizarre way, I found it a little sinister. The most violent way through life turns out to be as good as the most arty, which is as good as the most capitalistic or the most dapper. That said, I don't think my subtextual reaction is worthy of any great dark spin. The goal of the game is obviously to let you play any way you want, give you a corresponding experience via its cute aesthetic, and allow your way to work. Then, if you like, you can try another way and see what humourous take the game offers on contrasting modes of behaviour.
Your stats in categories like Charm, Defensiveness and Patience are tracked, checkable at any time, and don't seem to lie, though I found the game's ultimate prose assessment of some of my performances a little off (one said I'd leaned on trade when all I remember doing was being the greatest artist and aesthete in the whole universe.) The game is otherwise pretty perfect at what it does, and it's charmingly written. I just missed having some emphases somewhere, because that's how I've always liked my games.
The Little Lifeform that could is certainly not the amoral spectacle of violent death in an uncaring universe that it could have been.
Or is it?..
No, it isn't.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2015.)
The Insect Massacre is a Twine hyperlinks game about which it's possible to expose little more than the blurb if one is to avoid specific spoilerdom. That blurb is:
"A short murder mystery set aboard a space station."
The title is explained in a neat way which I will also not explain here. This review will be incredibly coy by my standards.
I found the game's mystery intriguing. The events of the story are concrete enough to provoke speculation, but blurry enough around the edges so as to ward off absolute explanation. Multiple plays are required to investigate multiple angles. Each session requires little time.
The game's aesthetic delivery was beguiling on the first playthrough, if a bit confusing in terms of indicating who was speaking in each scene. The speech is effected with colour-coded names matched to coloured lines of text. My proper gripe is that on the second and subsequent plays, the unskippable Twine delays, pauses and fade-ins that were enforced on material I'd already read felt pointless and tedious. Text is basically not a temporal delivery vehicle like music or film, especially text in a branching story.
Fortunately, The Insect Massacre is short enough that even on replays it isn't too hurt by its eternally slowly-fading-in text. It is particularly good at making the player guess at the implications of the choices it presents, and not because the choices are at all vague, but because of carefully deployed elements of the game once again not discussed in this coy review.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2016.)
Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles. Book I: The Departure --- Part I: Prelude to Our Final Days on Kyzikos is an extraordinarily long title for a game, or for anything else. Its multiple clauses of descending magnitude promise tons of episodes, galactic-scaled adventuring, locally-scaled adventuring, sci-fi societal sculpting, a cast of thousands (or at least dozens) and the highly agreeable portentousness of prolonged high fantasy. This is a set of promises no single IFComp entry can keep within the context of its IFComp; the two hour rule makes that physically impossible.
Folks can, have and will continue to use IFComp to introduce punters to their big multi-part IF. Aether is one of these introductory games, and it ends in a weird place and starts in a confusing one. The end is not inherently weird, but it's weird in light of the experience it just spent all its time imparting. That experience is a link-based sci-fi / fantasy adventure with a scaffolding of Greek idylls, philosophers and mythology. The first screen, a page of prose from a log, indicates rhetorically that the narrator is or was something like a familiar of the eponymous Zephyra, then confuses by setting the scene with a series of nested geographical relationships (paraphrasing: the moon with the woods orbiting the planet surrounded by the clouds in the Propontis system) and raising the spectre of a great many groups of people and other entities with unusual names involved in Zephyra's story. Plus there's a quote from Plutarch. It's a tad overwhelming.
Zephyra turns out to be a space pilot in the now who used to be a wandering fisherwoman in the past. Links in the prose passages lead to elaborations, courses of action or different locations. The trajectory is generally forwards with occasional gating of progress by character knowledge or events. There is no puzzling difficulty as such, but some patience is required.
Aether's opening, in which the heroine is piloting a starship that's about to disintegrate (the why, where or what of this aren't exposed) should be hooky, but it's handled a bit strangely. The game's structural tactic of looping asides back to already-read passage describing the current scene works later on, but not in this first scene, where it feels like it's slugging up action that should be screaming forwards. The other issue is that Zephyra's visions of divine help from giants and marble hands during this scene come across as pretty psychedelic. Altogether, an odd impression is made, and the whole spaceship scene is not explained or returned to later in this game, leading me to think it's grist for a later episode.
The game then cuts to a more rural (and presumably more modest) time in the past, with Zephyra wandering around and trading fish. The scenic descriptions paint a nice picture, but this prosaic exteriority prevails across all the writing. That's to say that although we're basically playing Zephyra, we barely get inside her, experience her thoughts, motives or feelings. This makes for a mostly inscrutable experience in a Greekish world that's not exactly inscrutable, but is not a world we've been given any reason to invest in yet. Who are these guys Zephyra playfully wrestles with? What does she want out of her days? What's the role of the satyrs she meets? I never learned the answers to any of these questions. Having no character goals and not much of a clear perspective on anything resulted in an uninteresting experience.
There are a fair few links to explore throughout the game – sometimes a crippling-feeling number, like the fifteen on the Fishing District of Kyzikos page – but not many incentives to be thorough. And I got the impression the game expects you to be thorough, since some later asides present information that obviously assumes earlier optional asides were read. Some state-tracking would help address this kind of thing, and will surely be essential in later episodes of this tale if it holds to its mammoth projections.
The finale of Aether is dramatic and ominous, but also oblivious of the fact the player just spent the whole game with Zephyra. The arrival from the sky of a space-faring Jason and his Argonauts, and the promise that they will carry out 'dark deeds' that will wreck everything on Kyzikos, amount to a deus ex (in the broader modern sense) that will remind most players that Zephyra didn't do anything that had anything to do with these things. She might in the future, but so could any other character. In this rural episode, Zephyra has really yet to do anything of significance.
This is what the narrative troubles of Aether boil down to: The game is meant to be an establishing experience for the character of Zephyra, but she has yet to show any personality or do anything of note. The ending only underscores these problems. While they're obviously the biggest ones, the authors don't seem to have any trouble being prolific or riffing on Greekery, and the CYOA-style wandering sections are mechanically effective, though it would take me awhile to get used to negotiating so many links on single pages when those links are interspersed throughout the prose. Aether needs structural recalibration and prose that addresses the interior of its heroine, and so interests us in her, if it's going to succeed.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2013.)
Trapped in Time is a fun and novel CYOA game which operates not on a computer but on paper, either real paper if you print out the PDF file which comprises the game or on the virtual pages of the PDF itself. It is divided up into numbered paragraphs as per a Fighting Fantasy gamebook, and whenever you make a decision you will be told to turn to a particular paragraph. I played the game just by paging back and forth through the document in a PDF reader, a method which had the added convenience of enabling me to take notes by copying and pasting chunks of prose into a TextEdit document. Unless you have a very good memory you'll need notes to stay abreast of the game's trickery, and that trickery leads to an outcome I found strangely moving.
While Trapped in Time's prose has the clear, enthusiastic and kid-friendly style of one of the original Choose Your Own Adventure books, four-letter words and a bit of violence do make appearances later in the game.
In Trapped in Time you play a newly minted Chrononaut, a time travel test pilot, the best in Denmark, and you're about to enter the Copenhagen Institute of Chronology for your first time trip. After you step into the time machine, sparks fly and you find yourself back at the start of the day, standing outside the Copenhagen Institute of Chronology again and actually reading the same numbered paragraphs as before. The difference this time is that you've been informed that you can tell people about your strange experience by adding 30 to the number of the paragraph in which you first speak to them, and reading that paragraph instead. This is the first of a good number of such math-powered mechanisms for taking new actions you'll acquire during Trapped in Time, hence the need to take notes.
These addition / subtraction / multiplication tricks were used by the authors of various Fighting Fantasy game books throughout the 1980s. For instance in Phantoms of Fear (1987) if you saw an asterisk at the start of a paragraph, you could move into a dream state by adding a certain amount to the paragraph number. However, the Fighting Fantasy books were much larger than Trapped in Time and had many other mechanisms at work. Trapped exclusively uses the maths tricks, and uses them more than than any other individual gamebook has before. Of course, it's also fairly novel in using them in the service of a time traveller's loop.
The time travel concept and the overturning of staples of CYOA are played out on many levels here in a way that speaks to adults like myself who grew up on these gamebooks. The earlier stages of Trapped in Time treat you more like a child reader and occasionally invite you to write your name in the book. But as your time stream becomes more messed up and your character becomes more stressed, he starts swearing and opportunities for violence arise. The more exciting of the two endings to the game declares that your ability to travel in time is a form of cheating (I.E. reading paragraphs you weren't told to read) and that you really could have turned to any of the paragraphs at any time, and can do so now. You can use this power to find easter egg endings which are never referenced in the text of the main story.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2013.)
Coloratura is an outstanding parser-driven adventure in which you play an aqueous alien entity (or more gauchely, a blob) capable of interacting with the universe on a rich metaphysical level; part psionic, part molecular, part empathic. Unfortunately you've been dragged up from your seabed home by a crew of humans not unlike those in The Abyss and placed on a table in their ship for research purposes. Your goal is to escape and find a way to return to your home, and it is in your nature to seek to do so without inducing unnecessary violence or discordance in the universe.
The primary aesthetic is the viewpoint of the alien, rendered in a grammatically strange style and with invented words and unusual uses of tense and person. Your character is preoccupied both with the atomic joys of the universe, its magnetic fields, temperatures and viscosities, and with the emotions and empathies of other beings, which it perceives as coloured auras. You also have the power to try to affect others' emotions by instilling them with the corresponding colour, and many of the game's puzzles involve interpreting the panicking humans' emotional states, which the blob is very good at, and nudging them to alter the situation aboard the ship in your favour.
This is an excellent game with many levels of engagement and innovation, plus puzzles and suspense, and which exploits a lot of possibilities unique to text gaming. This is Lynnea's third time in IFComp and I think it's her best game yet. Spoilers ahead.
There is a delight in sharing the blob's way of seeing and feeling things, in mingling your particles with those of a column of hot air or slipping through vents and pipes. Your ability to keep these sensations separate from your apprehension of the drama of the human crew, who are freaking out about your escape, conveys your alien character's holistic view of existence. While you're always aware of the urgency of the different tasks which must be completed to aid your escape, you're incapable of feeling the panic yourself. These tasks include sabotaging elements of the ship so it doesn't stray too far from your home or persuading crew members to help each other. And viewed from your outsider perspective, the humans are extremely panicky. You almost feel as if you're trying to placate bickering children at times.
The game's modelling is strong, with the different crew members (sometimes named by you for their emotional qualities - E.G. 'Mercy' is the nurse) moving around the ship independently in response to your various transgressions. It's not always necessary to follow them on their errands but in most cases you can do so if you wish. At times when they come to blows and you need to calm them down, the actions to take are well clued by both the situation and the prose. Another achievement of the game is that the human drama is so dense. There is a suspenseful development of different crises aboard the ship over the course of the game and you're usually aware of each human's motives and movements in relation to them. I was reminded a little of Infocom's Suspended here by the way you have to negotiate burgeoning disasters remotely.
In the way of nitpicks, there are a decent number of bugs in the game, but almost all of them are down at a level of fine detail which doesn't obstruct core play. For instance, some commands produce responses worded for the blob at times when you're controlling a human. I hit one runtime error which didn't stop play, though in retrospect I wonder if it corrupted the next game I saved, which would not reload. Something which isn't necessarily a bug but which I would like to see changed is that the command LOOK takes a move. There are several occasions where timing of actions is critical, especially during the climactic fight involving the ship's captain, and at such times you'll instinctively LOOK to remind yourself of any features in the immediate environment which could help you, and probably die as a result. Having to remember not to do that and to scroll back through the history was annoying.
As an Inform author, I was interested to see that this game uses only one extension (a small code library which adds a particular piece of functionality to your game). I usually break out about ten extensions before I've gone anywhere, but I didn't notice any inconveniences here. If anything, the game is pro-convenience. Occasionally it reaches into that territory where it makes the taking of a particular abstract action so easy that grizzled parser veterans like myself will get stuck as they try to achieve the action by performing unnecessary constituent actions, even though the master phrase to use is right there in the last piece of prose the game spat out. Apart from the fact of the traditional player base not being used to such helpfulness and therefore often missing it, this is a direction I'd personally like more parser games to go in where it's appropriate.
I confess that I didn't really get the implications of the epilogue, which is playable, but that's my only beef with the game's content. Coloratura is a top-notch sci-fi adventure with an engaging story, vividly realised character viewpoint and a concept which is likely to refresh your batteries on the subject of empathy.
(I wrote the original version of this review in my blog upon this game's initial 2013 IFComp release.)
100,000 years is a sci-fi Twine piece about galactic-sized spans of time. It is easily worth any comp-goer's time to try as it is very short. I almost said "ironically very short," but that would have been silly as the smallness/largeness thing is obviously a feature.
The goings-on in a chunk of the universe are described in a few lines of verse. Clicking the left arrow takes you 100,000 years into the past while the right arrow takes you the same distance into the future. Changes over that time period are then described, but the arrows remain, ready to move you forward or backward again. The result is a tiny existential text toy. What you discover if you go far enough in either direction is equally likely to make you feel more a part of the universe or just less significant. The achievement of 100,000 years is that it can touch on those feelings quickly and with such a simple device, though the whole piece is definitely short-lived.
(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 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.