The Lost Islands of Alabaz

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
My new "go to" introductory game for children, December 10, 2021

The Lost Islands of Alabaz has been out for more than a decade now, and, while it did make a splash by winning the Spring Thing 2011 competition, it seems to have faded into something like obscurity in the years since.

This is a grave oversight.

Michael Gentry's overlooked gem is an exquisitely well-planned introductory adventure for children (or, indeed, for adults sufficiently young at heart). Developing it in the years after his work on Jack Toresal and The Secret Letter, he seems to have been prompted to write this piece as a test of his own insights about how to craft a kid-friendly IF experience.

In the same way that his genre-savviness elevates Anchorhead above the pack, his deep intuition about children's storybooks serves him well here. The very first interaction, the simple device of asking for the protagonist's name, is a remarkably-effective hook for young players, especially as it is phrased ("What is your name, brave Knight?"). Immediately, the player is invited to either enter his or her own name (thereby stepping into the story with an actual identity) or to invent a heroic-sounding name (creating an avatar to embody an archetypal persona). From there, the target player is deftly drawn into the fairytale world that will be the story's setting while at the same time being shown the ropes of interactive fiction. The spare text style of just a few lines to describe each room is appropriate to the genre, won't tax even intermediate readers, and leaves plenty of room for the imagination to fill in the details -- especially after it has been sparked by a few carefully-chosen adjectives. The tropes at play are simple, and the story progresses with a light-hearted sense of fun that is both charming and compelling. In the first few moves, during which the tutorial mode is active, I was powerfully reminded of Infocom's Wishbringer, but it is important to note that this isn't an "old school" style game.

Once again, the author's talent for integral design of the play experience is evident; a few careful changes to the mechanics of interaction do much to set the mood for those familiar with interactive fiction, while smoothing the way for newcomers. The world model is somewhat simplified from the standard: Only four cardinal directions are supported, and objects never leave inventory once acquired. NPCs are talkative enough within the game's ASK/TELL model, which can be daunting for beginners, but implementation of a "topic-prompting" system (similar to that of Lost Pig) and functional combination of the verbs ASK and TELL make it very easy to get started. The SHOW and GIVE verbs also can also be used, a discovery that new players seem to make intuitively once they have had a few interactions with people in the world.

Trig, an almost ever-present sidekick who is the most prominent NPC, arrives early and takes over as the game's tutorial voice after the first few moves. By the end of the first chapter, he stops dispensing tutorial advice, and from that point on he doubles as a hint system. Repeatedly asking Trig about an active problem (as identified in the self-updating journal) will yield increasingly larger hints. It's quite intriguing how this plays out psychologically with young players -- they seem naturally resistant to asking him for help whenever they think it is something that they should be able to figure out themselves, even when stuck. Perhaps this has to do with the way that Trig's personality is implemented; he is somewhat dull, in the style of Trent/Tiffany from the Infocom canon. (The logic seems to be "If even Trig can figure it out, I should be able to!")

NPCs are an integral part of the game. In addition to Trig there are two other crew members, Javier and Zoey, that the protagonist is nominally in charge of as captain of a ship. These at first seem to be information-dispensing cardboard cutouts (the dominant but wholly-appropriate style used in the game), but at several points the protagonist needs to gain cooperation from one of these team members to complete a puzzle. This is a small but important touch, moving them out of the realm of background decoration and into the realm of supporting characters. At least one of these occasions requires issuing a command to Trig, an affordance that might not be obvious to new players but which Trig himself introduces as an optional interaction during one of his last tutorial voice comments.

Although the hint system is in place, it is rarely needed because the puzzle structure is masterfully designed. It works marvelously in conjunction with the game's "journal" system that serves in place of a score. Reading the journal lists achievements that have been accomplished as well as the pertinent puzzles to be solved at that point. The effect of reading over the list is much like a FULL SCORE command without any numbers attached, and it's interesting how over time this creates a sense of progression through the story's highlights without implying a precise measure of how much of the game remains.

Initial puzzles barely count as such, with solutions on the order of opening a container or walking between rooms, but the difficulty level slowly increases over time. While even the most difficult puzzles in the game are on the easier side for experienced players, several are clever in their construction and require small leaps of intuition that are just the right length for kids. Using Andrew Plotkin's definition of a good puzzle as being one that makes the player feel smart, these are very good puzzles indeed. There is also quite a bit of variety to the types of puzzles, including a superb racing sequence that makes for a very memorable action scene (and adds a new companion NPC: the mount, which the player must name). Wonderfully, the puzzles dramatically reduce in difficulty as the plot reaches the top of its arc, allowing for a quick denouement before the sense of victory is lost.

The story's pacing is also excellent. Its structure involves exploration of several islands, each consisting of a small number of rooms (generally 3 to 10) and each relatively self-contained. Access to each island is granted by obtaining one of ten magical pearls, and much of the functional plot revolves around obtaining these. As the range of traversable locations expands, more and more interactions between locations become possible (and necessary to progress). Although the central mystery of the plot remains a mystery until near the end, the player is rewarded with snippets of history that are revealed through exploration. These snippets contrast with the expectations set by the game's well-crafted "feelie" (an almanac of the kingdom written 50 years previously), giving a sense of deep dynamism to a world whose present is generally static. The command GO TO assists in navigation on each island, but it is not 100% reliable, suffering bugs in certain places(Spoiler - click to show) [confused by basket-o-vator, or presenting occasional malformed disambiguation questions] and outright refusing to cooperate if the destination is too nearby. This is another of Gentry's bits of subtle genius; it frees players from long sequences of navigation commands while still encouraging them to create a map of their own, in their heads if nowhere else.

One feature that I particularly liked about this work was that it includes some strategically-placed red herrings in a couple of places. These are items that seem like they could have a use somewhere, but which never actually do. Players are left to mull over these and deduce which items among them are the ones that can actually be put to use. Their presence does quite a bit to vary the pace of the story (allowing for thoughtful, slow-paced experimentation phases) and to engender the sense of a world of possibilities, even when in practice there are few options for progress. They also contribute to the satisfaction of working out the relevant solutions by sorting trash from treasure.

Although a version 2 was released to correct bugs, there are still a noticeable number of typos and a few issues with the interaction. These are minor, and they do not detract from the story. Perhaps these will be addressed in a future release, but most players will probably be more interested in seeing the sequel that is promised at the game's end.

There's something in the alchemy of this work that may particularly appeal to those who enjoy games in the old school style. It manages to retain the heart of some of the best elements of that style while adopting (and adapting) several innovations that inarguably improve the play experience. I'm not sure how well playing this would prepare someone to try older games, which might seem primitive in comparison to this work, but it certainly seems likely to encourage young players to view interactive fiction as a category in a positive light, and that aspect alone makes this a valuable contribution to the field.

This game earns five stars for me, as it has become my first suggestion whenever someone asks for a recommendation for a children's game. If you are looking to introduce a grade school child to interactive fiction, this is definitely the one to try. Even middle school aged children may enjoy it if they can get into the proper mindset -- especially if they are teamed up with younger kids and can help them think through the puzzles. The same applies to parents: It's sure to be fun if played with kids, even if it's not the kind of thing that you would choose for just yourself.

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