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About the Story
Auditions for the play are tomorrow but you've been left behind...without a costume. Oh, and you're having a bit of trouble with your kidneys.
67th place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
Number of Reviews: 6
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This game is an educational game about kidneys made for kids using a custom engine that reads full sentences.
The game itself has multiple endings; I finished after only examining 3 rooms out of 5 in the main hub.
A magical fairy is helping you get a Halloween costume by transforming whatever you pick up into costume parts. Meanwhile, you get hungry, and eating requires you to take phosphate binders due to your kidney problems. This opens up a minigame where you have to hunt for phosphate crystals.
Throughout IF history there have been at least two different threads: one using text to provide a realistic simulation of the world (including Emily Short and her physics games), and those pushing for abstraction and ease of use (including Ryan Veeder who provides a lot of subtle affordances to make gameplay smoother). Most people authors use a mix of the two.
Abstraction and ease pushed to its extreme leads to dynamic fiction, where there are few choices besides 'next page'. And realistic simulation pushed too far leads to hunger timers, inventory limits, and an insistence on proper grammar, all of which this game has. It's a stylistic choice that some are fond of, but I don't really enjoy my character getting more and more hungry as I go back and forth between rooms because my character can only hold two objects. The engine is also slow between responses, so it can be a bit frustrating.
I found the educational part fascinating and didn't know the kidneys had anything to do with phosphate. Also, this game is specifically designed for kids unfamiliar with IF tropes, so I'm specifically not the target audience. And a lot of the things I found off putting could be fun for kids; discovering the game character actually responds like a real person with needs and limited capacity is something fun about text adventures when you're new (at least it was for me).
+Polish: It worked smoothly.
-Descriptiveness: The game felt kind of bare at times.
-Interactivity: The game felt a bit too fiddly for me at time.
+Emotional impact: I love the idea of making a game for kids and the phosphate thing was cool.
+Would I play again? I don't really feel like it, but I only found one costume and there were many rooms I missed, and I'd like to support this idea of making games for health purpose (kind of like Gavin Inglis's game about self-abuse).
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
Kidney Kwest is an educational game, aimed at helping kids with kidney failure learn more about how to manage their condition (in a heartbreaking detail, the blurb mentions that it’s meant to be played during three-hour dialysis sessions). It’s also unintentionally educational in showing why natural-language parsers aren’t yet dominant in IF.
Taking the first part first: the game gets off to a sweet start, with the player character worried about finding a costume for a school play and unable to find anything until the Kidney Fairy takes a hand. She sweeps you away to the fairy world, where you need to solve some small puzzles to get the pieces of a costume. The educational angle also kicks in once you move to the other world, as a hunger timer starts up, but with a twist – in addition to regularly finding (ideally healthy) food to eat, you need to take your medication (a phosphate binder) before or after each meal. Taking a pill also shifts you into a Fantastic Voyage style minigame, where you roam your body looking for rogue phosphate crystals to hoover up before they accumulate.
This is all charmingly realized – I liked the little drawings that pop up in the sidebar – and the couple of puzzles I solved were reasonably satisfying. I didn’t find the full costume and make it to the end of the game, though, because the hunger timer is tuned really aggressively, and requires a restart once you get too hungry. This makes some sense given that that timer, more so than the costume-gathering puzzle, is the main point of the game, but I still found it frustrating, all the more so because of the second notable thing about the game, which is the custom natural-language parser.
Per the introduction, this is meant to make the game more accessible to younger players who aren’t versed in IF conventions. The details are well above my head, but I read a linked blog post which provides an overview, and the parser does appear to live up to its billing: it understands complete English sentences, including asking questions about the state of the world.
The cost of this success is high, though. First of all, the parser is finicky, requiring you to speak in formal English (you can’t even drop a “the” without making it do extra work) in a way that feels awkward to me as a seasoned player of IF, and I suspect would also not be a good fit for how digital-native young people expect to type things into a computer. Second, some of the standard conveniences of mature IF languages are missing – pronouns aren’t recognized, UNDO does nothing, disambiguation is painful, and there’s no command buffer. And most critically, the engine ran very slowly for me, with each command taking at least a few seconds to process, and some even requiring ten or so to complete. This added so much friction that every interaction became really frustrating – and since running around trying to deal with a hunger timer is already kind of annoying, this makes for a bad combination!
If the natural language engine brought something new to the gameplay, maybe this tradeoff would be worth it. But Kidney Kwest, at least the portions I saw, just requires very simple object-management commands that any traditional IF language could handle quite easily. Sure, there’s added functionality if a player wants to request the detailed description of an object using more convoluted syntax (like “what’s in the safe?”) – but teaching a player how this works seems harder than just teaching them to type X SAFE, and the frustration of waiting so long for a response seems greater than the frustration of struggling with a quickly-responsive parser, at least if a game’s implemented well.
Eventually, these kinds of parsers could replace the ones we’ve got, which are based on decades-old models at this point – but we’re not there yet, and that shift will probably be ushered in by games that make good use of the new affordances provided by natural language, rather than doing the same old stuff in a slower, more convoluted way.
Highlight : I liked the miniaturized segments where you explore your own body – there’s some good detail, and it makes for some novel gameplay.
Lowlight : much of the feedback the game gives feels very close to the world-model, without being translated into more accessible text. For example, “examine myself” gave this response: “you is a person, a physical object, a place, and a thing. It also has a hand, a hand, a body.”
How I failed the author : Henry hadn’t been sleeping super well when I played this one, so I was nodding off while waiting for the game to respond to my commands, which is why I didn’t feel up to a third try.
MUCH LATER UPDATE: I went back for a final replay after the author mentioned that the server’s responsiveness had gotten better. It still wasn’t lightning fast, but was much less frustrating to play nonetheless. I also didn’t worry about eating “bad” food this time out, so the hunger timer was less of an issue, and I was able to get an ending. There’s a neat mechanic where your choice of items to pick up along the way give you a different costume (I got scientist, appropriately enough), and a metal rating depending on your dietary choices (I wound up with bronze, given my damn-the-torpedoes approach to food this time). I can see a couple of places where I could have done things differently, so there’s definitely replayability, and I can see kids swapping stories of how they did. I still think the game’s intended purposes would have been better served by just using one of the existing languages, but now that the optimization is a little better, and I’ve got more familiarity with the parser’s idiosyncracies, it definitely worked a bit better.
Well this is unusual: an educational text game designed to reinforce key messages for young kidney patients about the regimen they need to follow to stay healthy, created in a new and experimental ‘natural language’ game engine called Perplexity. You play a young person with a dilemma: you have an audition to go to but no costume to wear! A quick look around your school’s drama room yields not much of use but then, lo and behold, the Kidney Fairy appears to give you a helping hand by transporting you to a magical place where some puzzles and the continual need to manage your medical condition with appropriate medication are all that stand between you and a part in the school play. A little wandering around, some untaxing exploration and a quick, if slightly queasy, trip inside your own body should be enough to solve this one. So far, so interesting. But does the game live up to its rather intriguing premise?
Sadly, no. The problem here isn’t so much the slightness of the gameplay (the puzzles, few and simple as they are, don’t offer much in the way of challenge) or the annoyance of having an inventory limit and a hunger timer (you’ll find yourself forever fumbling to drop items so you can pick up other items, while expecting any second to expire for want of food) but the engine itself. It’s a little hard to understand what the authors are trying to achieve here – Perplexity is heralded (to quote the blog of one of the authors) as "a natural language AI experience that uses deep linguistics processing to fully understand every word you type", but judging by this demonstration, it falls very short of that mark. Not only does it appear to understand very little of what you type, it is also very buggy and prone to produce strange and unintentionally comical responses (for example, LOOK AT THE DOOR = "a white door is north, open, and white. It is connected to an opening, an opening", EXAMINE ME = "You are a person that looks like they need a costume for the audition. It also has a hand, a hand, a body" and CLOSE BAG = "The on top of a bag of potato chips is now closed."). It’s also pretty fussy about the limited range of commands that it is prepared to accept - it’s rather wearing to be continually told to use articles in sentences even though it’s quicker to enter e.g. OPEN DOOR or EAT HAMBURGER, and furthermore it’s not even consistent: when handling a bag of chips (i.e. crisps, for us Brits), GET BAG prompts the usual nag about using the definite article but GET CHIPS is accepted without such fuss. The authors seem to believe that forcing players to enter commands in full sentences like this will lower the bar for entry to those unfamiliar with text games – but I’m not convinced that’s true. It strikes me that the simplified set of commands and abbreviations conventionally used in interactive fiction are a) not very difficult to learn and b) make interaction with a game a lot more straightforward than trying to use the messy, ambiguous and heavily nuanced thing that is the English language. Even if it’s accepted that Perplexity is a prototype system and there is still a lot of work to do to bring it to maturity, I’m unconvinced that asking a game WHAT AM I CARRYING? is more straightforward or easier to remember that simply typing INVENTORY or I, or that LOOK AT THE DOOR is more satisfactory that EXAMINE DOOR or X DOOR, conventional commands that are not difficult to master, even for young people. It’s difficult to imagine your average child spending more than a few minutes with a game like this before giving up, even (or especially) if foisted upon them by their doctor (how the real-life kidney specialist Dr. Sangeeta Hingorani got involved in this is anyone’s guess); kids generally don’t have the patience for text games at the best of times and this falls very short of providing such times. It’s just too frustrating and unforgiving. Personally, I did play to the end, but I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t felt obliged to (this ended up on my IF Comp random shuffle list).
Ironically, since the game engine is billed as something new and progressive in the world of text games, the overall effect is actually very retro. The hunger and inventory limits bring forth fond memories of the rage-inducing text games of my youth (all that is lacking here is an inescapable maze) and the frequent lengthy waits while the game digests the player’s input before finally spitting out a response that may or may not make any sense remind me strongly of many adventures of the 8-bit era. Odd then, that something that aspires to be at the cutting edge should in some ways hark back so strongly to that long ago era (unless there is some sort of meta-joke here that I’m not getting).
Probably I sound a little harsh, and I do accept that here, perhaps, the system is not being shown off to its full advantage: perhaps there is another game waiting to be presented that will demonstrate unequivocally the power and potential of Perplexity – but sadly Kidney Kwest is not it and, as a showcase for a new game engine, as a pedagogical tool intended to appeal to young players, and simply as a reasonably fun game to play, I'm afraid it falls considerably short of its aspirations.
Kidney Kwest is a short game aimed at kids who need to take medication for chronic kidney disease. I admit I couldn't find details on the condition, but fortunately, you (and kids who need something uplifting) aren't going to be quizzed on the biochemistry at work here. Your task is far less technical: you want to find a costume for a school play. There are plenty of props around. But you also have an inventory limit. You also are very hungry, and after you eat, you need to take a phosphate binder, to get rid of phosphate crystals your kidneys have trouble breaking down. For that, you go inside your body and explore your intestines.
It's pretty simple in the big picture, but it's slowed down by the parser. I realize there's a lot of criticism below, but it's the sort where I had fun despite having these suggestions and despite, thankfully, not having kidney problems. I think back to how I wish I'd had something like this as a kid for health stuff in general. It would have worked so much better than a video or in-person lecture featuring an adult telling you how you'd better take care of your body, because they wish they did.
It's very cheery (both text and graphics) and helpful for the holes you need to fill in with a non-standard parser, though (small warning) I had trouble taking my medicine even when I knew what to do, to the point where I lost and had to restart the game because I didn't get the syntax right. So not penalizing the player for good (I hope) guesses would go a long way. This seems easily fixable, though. TAKE A PHOSPHATE BINDER works.
The nonstandard (and slow) parser also takes a bit of getting used to (I for inventory and X for examine don't work–you have to spell them out) because you also get a warning if you forget to use "THE." The irony here is that the authors are using something that parses natural language, and it in fact brings back the inconveniences modern parsers short-circuited long ago. While the authors make clear their intentions and the software they're using, I think it's a case of maybe pulling something needlessly high-tech.
At the end of the game I had a chance to restart and get another costume. It would be neat if there were an expanded adventure, or some assurance of it. Perhaps more areas inside your body to explore. The first try had five rooms outside your body, and there was only one puzzle.
But I liked what I saw and hope this game, and this sort of project in general (teaching through parser games) continues to grow, and people try combinations they hadn't thought of before. Pure language parsing doesn't seem to be the way to go here, but this could be rectified in a sequel, if the authors chose to branch out, because sadly there are a lot of diseases, and it may not make sense to kids why they have to do things and all the other kids don't, and "because adults said so," no matter how kindly stated, gets a bit annoying.
I feel like a bum poking holes in a game with so much potential to do good. But I know the authors have taken the feedback they've gotten well and made some adjustments to the parser since I played this. I hope they continue to tweak things for this and other educational endeavors.
The "Kidney Kwest" game was developed to give something to children to play while they are on dialysis. It is meant to teach them about a medication they take, what kinds of foods to eat, and to let them explore some parts of the stomach.
It was made using a new engine that requires the player to use full sentences instead of standard IF commands. This is to help the patients have an easier time knowing which commands to type.
The game will tell you that if you do not enter a complete sentence, it will cause it to slow down and process the request before it responds. A few commands such as "go west" do bring up an immediate response, but as the game is now, you WILL experience numerous lags. Some of these lag times are ridiculously lengthy.
The description of Kidney Kwest says that it was designed for patients ages 8 to 18. That is a pretty vast range for a piece of media to cover. Children who are 9 or 10 are at a very different level of development than those in their late teens. I think that as it is written now, the game is best suited to a middle school audience. I believe it would be more effective to adapt the writing to create at least one other version for older students.
In the game, you must collect items for a costume and find food. Some reviewers have pointed out that you are only able to hold two items at a time, but actually, there is a way around this. However, it will take an extra command for each item to add it to your inventory. This is just one of the ways the game adds extra steps to your kwest. The reason why extra steps are a problem is because the player has a limited amount of time to find food before the game will end. Once you have played and know what you are doing, you can plan for this; however, on the first several explorations, I can imagine many of the younger kids being kicked out before they are able to make sense of what needs to be done.
There is no randomization; once you have figured out how to solve the game, it will be the same every playthrough. Kids might not look forward to coming to dialysis to play the same steps over and over. At the end of the game, it is suggested that you play again to get a different costume. The costume you will put together will be almost exactly the same, except it will either be gold, silver, or bronze, depending on what food you ate. I almost didn't notice the color difference; to me, it just seemed like I was getting the same items to make the same costume.
The area you explore consists of five rooms. There is a map onscreen to help players navigate, but it is somewhat small. There are some illustrations, but they look like very old pieces of clipart. The interface only uses half the screen, is very plain, and sometimes displays so much text that it doesn't fit in the small window, so you have to scroll back up to see where to start reading. The game is very unappealing visually.
You have to take your medication before or after you eat, otherwise you will go back to the start. There were times when the character was so hungry, I had to eat an unhealthy food just to survive. After several playthroughs, I knew where the healthy food was, and went there first. When you eat the chips or the hamburger, the game will tell you that Kelly has changed color because the food was salty. However, the graphic of Kelly disappears on your next move, and I would always completely forget that anything was wrong.
Whenever you take your medication, or eat something after taking the medication, you travel into your stomach to look for phosphate crystals to remove manually, because your kidney is not able to do it for you. This might be the least effective portion of the game. You are given a list of several parts of the stomach to explore, and the crystals hide in them. However, the majority of the time, the crystal is immediately visible upon entering the stomach, meaning that no exploration is needed, and the child has no chance to become familiar with the inner workings described. I got a little confused by some of the descriptions in this portion. The only visual given here is a picture of the crystal when you are near it. There wasn't much description for the parts of the stomach. An illustration of this area seems like it would be a helpful component for young learners, especially if it were designed like a map that you could track your movements through.
The game mascot is Kelly, the magical kidney. Does an illustrated character aimed at kids always have to be alliterative? When you first find Kelly, and every time you look in your itinerary, she is called "Kelly the magic phosphate binder container". However, if you look just at Kelly separately, you find out that Kelly is the character sitting on top of the container that the phosphate binders are in. So you actually have a phosphate binder container, which is just the container that medicine comes in, several pills called phosphate binders, and Kelly the magical kidney sitting on top. It took me more than one playthrough to understand this. It was confusing when I needed to take a pill what I actually had to ask for. When I typed "Look at Kelly the kidney," I was told that there was more than one kidney and that I had to be specific. If I typed "Look at a kidney," I was told that no kidneys were visible.
I feel that media aimed at children need to be as carefully considered and receive as much effort as those for adults.