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Great story, disappointed with game, March 27, 2009
It took me a long time to really get into Worlds Apart, but the end it was rewarding. Worlds Apart was far from my first game, and maybe it didn't hold up so well for me because of that. The reviews gave me very high expectations, but I probably should have heeded the part about how it was revolutionary "for 1999." It is indeed very good, but I have a number of issues I'd like to present as warnings to future game authors.
Both the author and the reviewers give frequent advice to explore and learn background instead of merely trying to move through the story. For me, this was probably unnecessary advice - I am an obsessively thorough game player, and usually when I read something like that it makes me obsessive to the point of not having fun. My focus seems to be opposite to the player these notes are addressed to: I spend too much time learning background and then I don't have enough patience left to solve the puzzles. I had to resort to hints at several points, even though I had discovered a lot of background already. In fact, the first time I played Worlds Apart, I got bored very early on and quit for several months.
There were two kinds of situation where I used the hints: One was to find out whether a puzzle was even solvable at the current point in the game. Usually the answer was no, and it was a surprise - I thought nothing was going anywhere until I solved this particular puzzle. For the most part, the game gave a lot of helpful prompting about what needed to be done next, but maybe because that raised my expecations, I got very frustrated when it didn't.
The second situation was when I was ready to solve a puzzle, but I'd missed something important. In one particular situation, I had saved the game and quit for the day right after a new area opened up, and missed exploring something that probably should have been pretty obvious. Even so, I think this points out one of the biggest problems of Worlds Apart: pacing. I spent a lot of time revisiting the same places over and over again, because they changed so often. That was rewarding, but it also encouraged a lot of not-rewarding behavior, so when truly new places turned up, my excitement was dampened. In general I think Worlds Apart worked best when new information came at a slow drip; the occasional big flood was sometimes disruptive.
One of the hardest things about IF for me is figuring out how big a game really is. I expected something smallish for some reason, and when I ran out of leads early on, I thought there wasn't much more to see or do. I was wrong. The first part of the game is VERY large. When the full size became apparent, I got a lot more interested - it's just a pity it took so long for me to arrive at that point.
I had to keep a file of notes on the names of things and characters in the story. It's really not possible to follow the story without being able to keep track of a LOT of names. The names are colorful, but don't always provide meaning to the story - they're just details you have to remember. I probably understood the story better because of it, though, because when reading static fiction I don't take notes. Even so, I missed a couple important things I would have liked to talk to characters more about - the "quicksilver sea" that appears in the prologue, for example. Since I made one very long and thorough play-through instead of many replays, I never picked up on the significance of it until very late.
Why didn't I replay the game when there were so many recommendations that I do so? One reason is that some of the puzzles involve a lot of tedium - waiting, juggling possessions, etc. The game is filled with flashback scenes, some of which must be experienced in a particular order. It seemed laborious to work through several of these to get to one in particular that I wanted to revisit. Also, since there are very few characters in the central "present" node of the game, it involves a lot of guessing to get to a point where you can ask a particular character about a particular thing. Finally, many of the expository scenes are full of times when characters are busy and won't talk to you, so it takes some guesswork to find a place to go back to where you can really grill them.
The conversation system is truly impressive, and the depth of interaction with characters is the beating heart of Worlds Apart. I've never seen anything so vibrant in a computer game. The conversation system has a "talk mode" where you can just type >TOPIC and it will automatically ask the current conversant about TOPIC. It saves a lot of typing and encourages conversational exploration. Occasionally it was hard to guess what topic would advance the conversation, though, and at one point I got a bit stuck because I didn't realize that using TELL (which must be typed explicitly) would give a different result. There were surprisingly few points where TOPIC apparently did not mean what I thought it would. (Spoiler - click to show)At one point, I was sure asking about MOTHER would have the PC saying "Is my mother alive?" but there was no way to ask that question. I think that's intentional, because it would give away too much of the plot, but it seemed like an obvious question for a player to ask at that point, and deserved better handling in my opinion. The biggest flaw of the conversational system for me was topic disambiguation. It didn't happen too often, and I'm sure there's no way to avoid it completely, but it tended to break the immersion, especially when it provided clues as to topics I SHOULD ask about, but I didn't know why. (Spoiler - click to show)I have absolutely no idea why asking Saal about the Emperor would make me a "clever sleuth," but because of a disambiguation question about "eyes," I found out a very surprising bit of information. Maybe there was more to learn about the Emperor that I missed early on. In addition to being a total surprise, I thought this plot point seemed a little implausible - a bit like a deus-ex-machina.
The second part of Worlds Apart goes much quicker than the first, although there's a lot to learn there. The third part goes even quicker. Although it was exciting to be getting along with the story, there was a little bit of anticlimax to the end - after so much struggling and so much character interaction, it seemed too easy.
I hope I haven't given the impression that I didn't like this game - I really did, after the initial false start (which is common for me; I gave up on Curses because I couldn't figure out how to work the projector, and eventually did the whole rest of the game with a walkthrough). But I wanted to bring up a number of issues for people who'd like to write similar games (which would be great!) and want to avoid some of the pitfalls of this one. Worlds Apart is a deeply immersive game with a great story and wonderful characters. Just remember to save at the BEGINNING of each scene so you can get back to it easily and explore it some more. I always forget that. And make sure you have script on at all times!