Kidney Kwest

by Eric Zinda and Luka Marceta

2021

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Number of Reviews: 6
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Renal Perplexity, October 30, 2021
by ChrisM (Cambridge, UK)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

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 Ďnatural languageí 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 schoolís 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 isnít so much the slightness of the gameplay (the puzzles, few and simple as they are, donít offer much in the way of challenge) or the annoyance of having an inventory limit and a hunger timer (youíll 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. Itís a little hard to understand what the authors are trying to achieve here Ė 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."). Itís also pretty fussy about the limited range of commands that it is prepared to accept - itís rather wearing to be continually told to use articles in sentences even though itís quicker to enter e.g. OPEN DOOR or EAT HAMBURGER, and furthermore itís 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 Ė but Iím not convinced thatís 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 itís accepted that Perplexity is a prototype system and there is still a lot of work to do to bring it to maturity, Iím 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. Itís 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 anyoneís guess); kids generally donít have the patience for text games at the best of times and this falls very short of providing such times. Itís just too frustrating and unforgiving. Personally, I did play to the end, but I wouldnít have done if I hadnít 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 playerís 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 Iím 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 Ė 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.

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