This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012.
Changes is a science fiction eco-adventure, taking place on a beautifully realized foreign planet. It is well implemented and well coded but is also incredibly hard and needs much better hinting to be playable without the walkthrough.
(Spoiler - click to show)Changes begins with what is probably my favourite introduction so far:
You wake and see blood.
There’s blood everywhere. So much blood, that at first you don’t realise there’s a figure behind the blood. It’s alive, just; there’s a face, twisted with pain, and more blood that bubbles from its mouth as it breathes, and a hand that spasms as it tries to paw at the thing projecting from where a chest should be. The eyes gaze into yours. There is still life and desperation there, but it it knows that it is quickly running out.
You want to help. You reach out — and that is when you realise that you are looking into the inside of the reflective cockpit canopy, and that the face you can see is yours.
Hell, yeah! This is how you do a proper “in medias res” start to a game. After reading it, I was eager to find out just what the hell was going on here.
After the intro, the game abruptly changes to the inside of some kind of gooey cocoon, from which you emerge into a beautiful alien forest. The descriptions are very atmospheric, pointing out the way the light falls through the canopy, the sense of space inside the clearing, and the peacefulness permeating the air. I was looking forward to exploring this strange new world.
I think I’ve pointed out in earlier reviews that I like to go through a series of Inform standard actions, just to see if the author bothered to implement them. I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did everything have a non-standard response, but the responses actually gave me clues to my new identity. When I tried jumping I was told that I got much higher than I was expecting. At first I thought that this planet might have a low gravity, but other responses strongly hinted that I was no longer human. I looked at my reflection in the lake and it seems I had been turned into some kind of alien rabbit. Not only am I on a strange new world, I am also a Space Rabbit! This is the greatest introduction to a game ever!
I keep exploring the landscape, enjoying all the sights and sounds on the planet. Not only is everything beautifully described, but there are ton of animals moving around dynamically with what appears some very complex AI behaviour. Deer like animals run through the forest, eating the plants; beavers build dams; rabbits play in their burrows. Also, you seem to have some kind of telepathic ability allowing you to sense the emotions of the other animals from afar, and even read their minds on occasion. All this contributes to making the environment feel alive, and I thoroughly enjoyed just exploring and looking at all the animals.
Unfortunately, the world is just to bit too large for a Comp game, I think. There must be 20-25 locations and I never really properly got the lay of the land. Oh, and did I mention the fox? There is a ravenous fox like creature roaming the lands. Every time you encounter it, it will give chase, and you need to find a safe spot to hide from it. Whenever I was finally starting to figure out how the locations were connected, the fox would appear and I would get hopelessly lost, desperately typing random compass directions until I found one of the safe spots. This made exploring a lot less fun than it might otherwise have been, but I still enjoyed the sense of being part of a living ecosystem.
After exploring for a while, I suddenly realized that I had played the game for more than an hour, and made no progress whatsoever. I typed HELP and learned that the game implements no less than five helpful commands: ABOUT, HINTS, CREDITS, LICENSE and WALKTHROUGH. I’ve later learned that finding the HELP command was a stroke of good luck since it’s apparently the only way to learn about the walkthrough. For future releases, I recommend mentioning all the special commands in the ABOUT text.
The HINT system turned out to be so frustratingly vague as to be completely useless. The hints kept telling me to find the shuttle, but I had no idea where I was supposed to to go to accomplish this. Sometimes, I would the see the shuttle glinting in the distance, but there never seemed to be a way to get there. I only managed to find the way much later in the game, and it turns out that finding the shuttle isn’t necessary until the end-game, so why insist that the player do it right away?
When I finally turned to the walkthrough I learned that not only had I made no progress towards solving the first puzzle, I hadn’t even figured out what it was. The intro of the game did imply that I was supposed to drag dead animals to the Mother Tree, but since I am a harmless rabbit, I had no idea how to procure one. It turns out that I am supposed to lure a poor otter into a rabbit warren, and then collapse it, killing the otter, who had never done me any harm. I have absolutely no idea how I was supposed to figure this out on my own. Not only would it never have occurred to me to kill the otter in this way, but I hadn’t even realized I was supposed to try. The game gives you no hint that turning into an otter might be useful at this point. It’s simply the only animal you are capable of killing.
When you kill an an animal, you can then use the Mother Tree to take over its body, which opens up new options. For example, the otter can swim, giving you access to new paths through the landscape. The game progresses in a linear manner: There is always exactly one animal you are capable of killing and taking over, until you finally reach one that is capable of entering your shuttle. The game would have benefited from better hinting as to what animal you are supposed to be focusing on next. As it is, you just have to figure it out by trial and error.
Every time you change bodies, you get a big text dump, explaining more of the back story. These are well-written, but are also very long, and I would have preferred it if the story had been doled out in smaller bits while progressing through the game. The story itself is a pretty interesting science fiction story concerning a mutiny on your spaceship, which ends up with you having to escape to the planet where the game takes place. I love spaceships, so I kinda wish there had been some kind of interactive flash-back taking place there, but the game is a bit too long as it is.
Once I figured out that I was never going to solve any of these puzzles on my own, I played through the rest of the game with the walkthrough. Normally, this would trivialize the puzzles, but this game is so hard that making progress is a challenge even when you know exactly what you need to do, due to the dynamic nature of the environment. I may know that I need to get the otter to the burrows, but I still need to successfully lead it there, while avoiding the hungry fox along the way. Furthermore, the walkthrough will say things like “herd the deer to the dam”, with no explanation of how “herding” works.
Nonetheless, I managed to successfully complete the game using the walkthrough, and found this to be far more enjoyable than trying to solve the puzzles on my own. I just wish I had figured this out sooner. By this time, I was quickly approaching the two-hour Comp deadline, and had to rush through the rest the game, to reach the ending in time. The environment changes as you make progress, so I would have loved to have more time to explore in between solving the puzzles. I’ll probably go back to the game after the comp, just to see all the things I missed.
In conclusion, I found Changes to be a very well-made and engaging sandbox exploration game, but the actual puzzle solving gameplay needs way better in-game hinting to be enjoyable. With some polish, this could be a real gem.
This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012.
Lunar Base 1 is a short game about an expedition to the Moon being interrupted by mysterious phenomena. The game is reasonably well made, but suffers from a combination of bland writing and design flaws.
(Spoiler - click to show)The game begins with a short info-dump describing the set-up. You are one of two astronauts on a mission to the Moon to the be its first long term inhabitants. Now, I love space and things that are in space, so this is right up my alley. Unfortunately, the writing is rather bland, although functional. You are told what the trip has been like, what you’re currently doing, what your mission is, and how you are feeling. I would have liked to be shown some of these things more indirectly, perhaps even with a modicum of interactivity. In general, the writing seems to have been proofread pretty well, but grammatical errors does occur regularly, and there are some really awkward turns of phrase. Stuff like ” It has a built in microphone and speakers in the event of not talking to through your space suit headset.” really could have used a rewrite.
The depth of the implementation is also somewhat inconsistent. By and large, I found the implementation to be good: Every part of the lunar lander can be examined separately, even though you don’t need to interact with more than a few them. However the actual flight controls, described as a pair of joysticks, can only be referred to in the plural, and only gives standard responses to attempts to interact with them. Even if I am not allowed to fly the thing manually, the controls are a central part of the lander and should at least have custom responses implemented.
Perhaps it’s just me, but the first time you step off the lunar lander, onto the surface of the Moon, was one of my favourite parts of the game. The game does a really good job of capturing that sense of wonder of first stepping onto the Moon itself, describing the landscape around you, the way the dust seems to glow in the light like snow, the vastness of space above, and even interjecting a brief childhood flashback from a visit to a science center. Now, if your first instinct on stepping onto the Moon is not to type “jump” then you have no heart. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that the author had, in fact, implemented the ability to jump high in the air for no other reason than to marvel at the low gravity.
Unfortunately, the sense of wonder soon starts to dissipate as it becomes apparent that the Moon is basically a short corridor leading from the lander to the base (and later on, a longer corridor leading to Mysterious Phenomenon. Also, jumping into the air curiously stops working in other lunar locations, to be replaced with the usual standard reply.) Trying to walk in a direction you are not supposed to results in the usual “You can’t go that way” reply, even though you are in an open environemnt on the Moon. At least implement a custom response so I don’t feel like I am in a Moon themed corridor. I realize that Comp games have to be short, but the tiny environment feels silly in light of the plot. You are supposed to be long term inhabitants on the Moon, but there is just the two of you, and the entire base seems to consist of a single room with two bunks and a scientific workstation. How long-term is this supposed to be, exactly?
The plot of the game is simple, but works pretty well. You start out by doing scientific experiments, involving some simple puzzling, during which you are introduced to the scientific equipment of the base. Later on, Mysterious Events start happening, and you will have to use your knowledge of this equipment to proceed. This is not a bad puzzle structure in itself, but it suffers from the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any way to proceed in the second half of the game, if you don’t remember everything you learned during the first. The objects you need to interact with to use the equipment are not mentioned in the room description, but only described by the NPC during the previous part of the game. I went to bed halfway through the game, and had long since forgotten those details when I returned, so I had to use the walkthrough to finish.
The game doesn’t seem to have any major bugs, but there are some annoying issues with descriptions not being properly updated and the other character sometimes not responding when you talk to him. The conversation menus also seem a bit stiff, since options are never removed once they have been exhausted. It seems like the menus are made by simply printing all the options as a single block of text, and then replacing the menu wholesale in the next scene. If you don’t know how to implement a proper conversation menu yourself, I recommend using an extension like Michael Martin’s Quip-Based Conversation, or similar.
I mentioned earlier that the introduction was just a non-interactive info-dump, and such “cut-scenes”, become even more prevalent later in the game. When you discover the source of the Mysterious Events you are rewarded with a long text-dump, with nothing to do but press space to read the next section. Even worse, the entire ending chapter of the game is taken up by a single long non-interactive cut-scene, where you are moved between several locations, with no opportunities to interact with anything. Now, I am not asking for complex puzzles here, but just being able to walk around and explore things would have done wonders to make this feel more interactive.
In spite of these flaws, I did enjoy the game. The plot is okay, the characters do display some depth after a while, and the implementation and puzzle design is decent. And as I said, it really does do a very good job of evoking the sense of wonder of just being on the Moon. I just wish I had gotten to explore the lunar landscape a bit more. It’s making me want to write a game where all you do is explore the moon, discovering cool stuff along the way.
This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012.
The Living Will is a hyper-link based CYOA story, which reminded me, at first, of last year’s The Play. Unfortunately, I found it a much less satisfying experience.
(Spoiler - click to show)The Living Will starts out promisingly, with a very novel concept. You are playing a character reading a will, and the choices you make in reading it affects how much you are bequeathed, the legal expenses, and so on. These are shown in a box to the right, similar to how The Play tracked the shifting moods of the actors. The game tracks no less than six different statistics, including medical fees, taxes and shares in the telecom company founded by the writer. This seemed daunting at first, but I assumed that there would be some kind of strategy involved in manipulating these numbers.
At first it seems like the choices you make might simply represent the reader deciding which sections of the will to focus on, but it quickly becomes apparent that this is not the case. The character of the writer has actually implemented an interactive will, which is being read by the player character.
The game begins with a few introductory paragraphs, describing the background story. The maker of the will has created a telecom company in the Congo, and it’s strongly implied that he has committed many unsavoury deeds along the way. Each paragraph usually has several in-lined options to choose between. Which ones you choose not only affects how the story unfolds, but also causes one or more of the numbers being tracked by the game to rise or fall.
Unfortunately, I never did figure out how I was to supposed to know how my choices would affect the numbers. It seems like you are supposed to work out a strategy to optimize your gains, but there doesn’t seem to be any way to tell in advance what effect your choice will have. In “The Play”, you could at least figure out that letting an actor have his way would make him happy, while putting pressure on him would make him sulky.
After a brief introduction, you get to choose between four different potential player characters, each with their own background story. As you read through these stories, selecting options along the way, numbers continue to rise and fall in the box to the right. I pretty much stopped paying attention to them after a while, as there seemed to be nothing I could do to control them.
After getting the background story for your character, you arrive at the Allotments chapter, where you are told how much will be bequeathed to each character. The bequests all seem to consist of a randomized list of junk, followed by a certain amount of shares in aforementioned telecom company. They seem to be at least partially randomized. They may or may not also depend on the choices made before then, but I was unable to replicate any particular combination, even when following exactly the same path through the story.
Here the game introduces another novel concept, as the current player character can seize the bequests of the other characters. This increases your own total inheritance, but also adds to the legal costs, and you will get a note later saying the character in question now hates you.
However, there still doesn’t seem to be any way to tell whether seizing a bequest will be a net benefit. Sometimes the legal costs exceeds the extra inheritance you get, and sometimes they don’t. If I am missing something here, I would love to know.
In about two-thirds of my playthroughs, I ended up with legal and medical costs exceeding my actual inheritance, which seems rather strange for a will. Worse, when you end the game with a negative net inheritance, the writer will chastise you for your lack of “resourcefulness.” I would love to know what kind of resources I am supposed to bring to bear to determine the optimal ways through the game.
When you do manage to end the game with a positive net inheritance, you are given the chance to save the life of the writer, who is dying from an unspecified disease. Saving his life will slightly increase the medical costs, and give you a different ending, but I didn’t feel very emotionally involved in the choice.
I played through the game several times, but I did so to see the story, and never because I had a coherent idea for a new approach. To be fair, I did find the story to be reasonably entertaining and well written. I enjoyed gradually uncovering the background history from several different perspectives, and learning more about the writer of the will. However, I enjoyed the game much more after I decided to ignore the numbers, and just read through the different stories, seizing a few random bequests at the end.
As an interactive story, I liked “The Living Will”, and found the presentation to be novel and engaging. As a game, I found it severely wanting. If you include numerical scores in a game, you have to provide some hint as to how the various choices will affect these scores. There is a good reason why most story based IF no longer tracks a point score, much less six different ones.
This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012
The Sealed Room is a very short game in which you have a conversation with a dragon and a unicorn. There is not much story, and no real puzzles.
(Spoiler - click to show)The Sealed Room describes itself as a “short-short story”, but it’s actually a short puzzle game consisting of a single, rather surreal, puzzle. The protagonist is the usual nameless adventure game hero with no personality, and “x me” gives what I can only assume is the Alan standard response to self-examination: “You notice nothing unusual about yourself.” You are out for a walk when you meet an old man, who transports you to a mysterious sealed room, for no particular reason.
The room contains a unicorn and a dragon, and the game mostly consists of talking to these two creatures, and convincing them to help you escape.
It’s never really explained why any of you are there, except as some kind of test devised by the old man. Now, there is nothing wrong with making a storyless puzzle game, but the actual puzzles in the game suffer from being severely overhinted: You are almost always told exactly what to do next, and the required actions would be pretty obvious even if you weren’t. When you procure a new item, the game might say something like “Maybe you should show it to the unicorn and the dragon?” and that will be what you need to do to proceed. At no point did I need to stop and think, which makes the whole game feel rather mechanical and pointless.
The game uses an ask/tell conversation system, but the dragon and unicorn will conveniently tell you every topic you can talk to them about, so I just lawnmowered through them all in the order they were listed. To be fair, the game does add some innovations to the standard conversation framework: You can ask the dragon and unicorn for advice or help, which adds an extra dimension to the conversation, but the game is too short to do anything particularly interesting with it.
After talking to the two creatures for a while, and performing a few obvious actions, a doorway opens, allowing you to leave the room. For some reason, the unicorn and the dragon show no interest in leaving, even though they were trapped there along with you. After leaving the room, you are congratulated for solving the puzzle, and get to choose between ending the game, or exploring the room a while longer. I tried to see if I could get the two creatures to leave with me, but they didn’t acknowledge that I had solved the puzzle at all.
If there had been some actual puzzling to do, this might have made for a decent puzzle game. As it is, there is just nothing there.
This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012
Sunday Afternoon is a short but atmospheric game, set somewhere in Victorian England. It is both well-written and well implemented, but is a bit too short and simple to achieve greatness.
(Spoiler - click to show)In Sunday Afternoon you play a young boy stuck at home during a beautiful sunny day, forced to stay inside and read a sermon while being watched by your stuffy Aunt Emma. Your mission is to escape the house, so you can go play in the countryside. I found this objective to be a pleasing diversion from most IF, which usually involves trying to accomplish something really important.
At first, the game is confined entirely to the parlour, and your first objective is to distract Aunt Emma so you can access the rest of the house. The implementation is pleasingly deep – so much so that I thought the game might turn out to be a one-room game for a while. The mantelpiece in particular is loaded with sentimental knick-knacks, and talking about these turn out to be the key to escaping the room.
The mantelpiece objects are implemented several levels deep, and also reward careful examination by displaying boxed literary quotations when you examine objects more than once. Most of these seem to be references to children’s literature; your aunt even owns the painting of the Dawn Treader from the Narnia books, and I was pleased that the author remembered to implement a proper response to “enter painting.”
Anyway, talking about these objects is the focus of the first part of the game, and the conversation is also well implemented, using the standard ASK/TELL system. Talking to your aunt about her things will reveal new possible topics of conversation, and I never felt like I had to play “guess-the-topic” to proceed in the game. Unfortunately, typing “ask Emma about X” got tedious pretty quickly. Conversation heavy games will often implement a short-cut, by allowing the player to type something like “A TOPIC” to ask the current NPC about the topic. I believe Emily Short’s Galatea was to first to come up with this, and I wish it had been part of this game as well.
Luckily, this was a very minor annoyance as conversation is not really a big part of the game once you get out of the first room. Once Emma has been distracted, you get access to the rest of the house, and have to figure out how to prevent Aunt Emma from taking you back into the parlour.
Here the game introduces an interesting twist: After a few failed attempts to escape, the game suddenly shifts to the trenches of World War I, and it turns out that the events so far are just part of some sort of role playing game to pass time among the soldiers. I thought this was a really cool twist, and was looking forward to seeing how the two stories would interact. Unfortunately, you never really visit the trenches again, except for a short comment at the end, so I felt this was a bit of a wasted opportunity. Perhaps it is there to show the contrast between the innocence of youth and the problems of the adult world?
After you figure out how to placate your aunt, the entire house opens up to exploration. The house as a whole is not quite as deeply implemented as the parlour, but I never felt like anything was missing that ought to have been there. You also get to meet the other NPC in the game: Your uncle Stephen, who is a priest, and wrote the boring sermon you were forced to read in the beginning of the game.
Uncle Stephen’s study is full books, and studying these was one of my favourite parts of the game. His bookshelves are full of exciting adventure novels, and all sorts of other interesting stuff, but the main character stubbornly expects it all to be boring religious stuff because that’s how he sees Uncle Stephen – he assumes “King Solomon’s mines” must be some kind of boring biblical history book. It just goes to show how our prejudices often prevent us from seeing what is right in front of us. The main character is looking for excitement outside, but refuses to see all the interesting stuff inside the house. If I was him, I would have probably stayed in the library.
The puzzles you have to solve to escape are all well clued, without being too easy, and when I checked the hints I always felt stupid for not figuring out the solution myself. The solutions never seemed arbitrary, or illogical as is all to often the case in adventure games. I just can’t help but feel that the reason you can’t leave the house to begin with is a bit silly. Would getting into trouble for running away really have been any worse than getting into trouble for flooding the house with soot and then running away?
After escaping from the house there is a brief call-back to the thing with the soldiers, and the game then ends abruptly. I really enjoyed playing through the game, but I just wanted more, somehow. The game is well-written, and well-coded, and I discovered no major flaws, but was the point of it all? You learn virtually nothing about the main character, and what was up with the soldiers? Was that soldier the main character as an adult, and is it supposed to say something about the contrast between childhood and adulthood?
Then again, not everything needs to have some deep ponderous “point” to it. Exploring a cosy Victorian household was relaxing and atmospheric, and I thoroughly enjoyed every second. I can heartily recommend the experience.