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About the Story
You punctuation-obsessed uncle has died, leaving your family his house, but leaving you, a mere kid, with his unfinished business. As you follow the clues left by your uncle, you quickly discover that while there's only one way to finish the job, there are several ways to die. An atmospheric parser game with puzzles and portals to hidden worlds. (It's also a thinly-veiled attempt to teach comma rules without feeling "educational.")
23rd Place - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
h s gerard
Ferryman’s Gate strikes me as a very good first game. It’s the only thing on Maycock’s IFDB page so I’m guessing it is the author’s first (though I am sorry if it’s not!). There’s just some things that call out a newbie author: having default responses, not having a description of the player, some weirdness with objects and takeability, having a maze puzzle.
However, there’s also a lot of good polish going on here: the NPCs are nicely implemented, and there’s a lot of them – you have 4 family members, as well as a maid and a butler. The map is large but sparse in details, although the language is always good. And no typos! Which is a very good trait in a game about English grammar.
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Number of Reviews: 4
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The curse strikes, as it inevitably must: in the opening text of Ferryman’s Gate, a game whose stated purpose is to inculcate good grammar, there’s a grammar error. Admittedly, it’s an omitted apostrophe (“in your mothers words” should be “in your mother’s words”) and FG is all about the commas, but the rule that you can’t talk about grammar without messing up your own claims another victim (though there’s an alternative explanation – the author, well aware of the curse, is prophylactically warding it off with an early sacrificial offering!)
This is pretty much the only clear misstep in a game that I’d been looking forward to ever since I saw it on the list. Among my many exciting and romantic-partner-attracting interests, grammar looms large, and if the humble comma doesn’t have quite as much to offer as the stately semicolon or the forceful em-dash, nonetheless it has a lapidary charm all its own, as well as a host of teeth-gnashingly awful potential misuses. My expectations led me to imagine something pretty off-the-wall that went all-in on the concept, stuffed to the gills with comma gags and puzzles. For all its pedagogical premise, though, FG’s world is fairly grounded and dare I say plausible, with the comma obsession of the player-character’s great-uncle given a psychological basis. And the gameplay is familiar and solid for anyone who’s steeped in parser IF: you rove about the mansion of a dead relative, slowly unlocking new areas, interacting with family members who have reasonably deep conversation trees, solving swap puzzles, dealing with areas of darkness, performing a few secret rituals, and taking everything that isn’t nailed down.
The twist is that scattered among the more traditional adventure-game puzzles are a series of tests your deceased great-uncle has set, requiring you to demonstrate your knowledge of proper comma usage. There’s a book that ably spells out the rules, so I think this is fairly accessible even to folks who didn’t learn English grammar in school. You’re usually asked to pick out the one sentence that’s error free, or that demonstrates a specific kind of mistake, out of a number of options, which will guide a choice of actions: it’ll indicate which button to push or sign to dig at or way to go at an intersection or what have you. FG leans less on the commas than you might think, though – while the major puzzles gating progress do involve grammar, there’s also a collect-a-thon running in parallel where you need to obtain a dozen metal plates to solve the final puzzle of the game. These plates are hidden throughout the rest of the game and usually rely on exploration or light object-based puzzling to obtain, meaning you’re usually making some kind of progress as you go, and making sure you don’t get sick of the comma stuff (is it weird that if anything I wanted more?)
The author – I think a first-timer, given some self-deprecating notes in the ABOUT text – takes a canny approach to implementation. Most scenery is implemented, and objects that you can interact with are for the most part clearly set out from the main text, though several objects, including the player character, do have default descriptions. The map is large, but navigation is easy due to the mini-map in the corner (I didn’t see any extensions listed, so this might be custom-coded, in which case nicely done!) and there are very few guess-the-verb issues or other struggles with the parser. Partially this is because most of the puzzle solving happens in the player’s head, as you identify grammar errors; the actual commands you type in once you’d identified the solution are usually simple applications of Inform’s default systems, like moving around, pushing buttons, or opening containers and putting things in them. This is a really smart choice that minimizes parser frustrations and the risks of bugs creeping in from complex logic, without having to trade off the novelty or complexity of the puzzles. I did run into one small niggle – I think the plates were each supposed to be marked with an alchemical symbol, but only the one for Mars displayed correctly in my interpreter – but the relevant association is helpful spelled out in the text description too, so this doesn’t impact progress.
Sometimes I say a game is solid and feel like I’m damning it with faint praise, but not so here. FG takes a somewhat off-the-wall premise but grounds it in well-considered design and a surprisingly serious though never grim storyline. While part of me can’t help but wonder what the maximalist version would have looked like, there’s a power in restraint that Ferryman’s Gate amply demonstrates.
Having just finished Ferryman’s Gate, I’m suddenly worried that my use of commas in previous reviews are not entirely up to standards. I will, however, resist the temptation to spend the night going through them, and instead do my best to make sure at least this review is as well punctuated as I can manage.
Several of the elements in this game are fairly stereotypical: an inherited mansion, secret passageways, and a sacred task that only you can take on. Still, as an educational game, Ferryman’s Gate makes good use of them, allowing you to focus on the important things, such as comma rules.
Although somewhat under-implemented, I did enjoy it, and learned something underway, which probably means that its mission is accomplished.
In Hollywood Hijinks, your uncle Buddy was endearingly quirky, imbuing his Hollywood-themed puzzles with a kind of silver screen logic. Ferryman's Gate reminds me of Hollywood Hijinks, but the deceased Osmond Ferryman seems fussy and judgmental.
Ferryman and I agree that clear communication is difficult without clear punctuation. However, Ferryman's interior design choices suggest that people should be put to death for incorrect comma usage. I’m not sure I can support that position.
The parser work is solid. There are locked doors, buried chests, dark rooms, and everything you'd expect in the "treasure hunt at your wealthy relative's estate" genre. The question is whether an obsession with punctuation adds novelty to the experience.
A lot of work went into coding, writing, and proofreading not only Ferryman's Gate as an entry, but also the style guides inside the game that explain its preferred rules of grammar. I respect that work while questioning whether it was worth risking a catastrophic invocation of Muphry's law.
I try not to pick on typos, but it's dicey to set characters up as supreme arbiters of correct language — giving them actual power over the gates of Hell — when your work is likely to include visible errors.
At the start of Ferryman’s Gate, a "volume of Gerard Manley Hopkin's [sic] poetry" is mentioned, giving an awkward example of possessive apostrophe use.
The Utility Closet, two rooms away from the starting point, "is empty except from [sic] a strange copper panel," which might be a figure of speech that is specific to Georgia.
Overall, I think that the obsession with perfection weighed down this parser-based treasure hunt and made it less enjoyable.
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