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Nominee, Best Story; Nominee, Best Setting - 2012 XYZZY Awards
Sparkly IF Reviews
It feels like there’s an actual ecosystem here, a world that has some independent function and structure, existed before the player came along and will continue to exist after he leaves. That stuff is really not easy to do, and the author has not only done it, but made it puzzle-relevant.
-- Emily Short
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A piece of ecological science fiction with obvious similarities to the James Cameron Avatar, Changes relies on a contrast between an idyllic setting and violence and destruction. Some fairly nasty behaviour is required to make much progress in the plot: (Spoiler - click to show)a space explorer crashed on an alien world, you must kill a succession of alien creatures in order to steal their bodies and abilities, enabling you to return to your ship.
The immediate attraction of Changes is environmental; it is set in a good-sized map full of attractively-described locations, pleasant to explore and absorb. (Given how well-suited IF is to environment-focused games, it's surprising that so few exist, so this was pretty refreshing in its own right.) The writing is strong enough to serve as an immediate draw. At the larger scale, it has a consistent, overarching set of puzzle goals that are readily grasped, are deeply tied into the world, themes and plot, and do a good job of directing short-term motivation.
It's at the intermediate scale that Changes stumbles: between the immediate experience of setting and prose and the grand arc of the puzzle sequence, a player has to figure out the shape of individual puzzles and get them to work. Here, the extensive map becomes a drawback: it's not always very clear which problems can be tackled at any given time, and even when you know what to do the execution can be fairly frustrating. A good deal of effort has been made to provide clues, but these often appear long before they can be usefully acted upon and don't show up again. Experimentation isn't always as well-rewarded as it might be.
In some ways, it's tempting to think of Changes as a belated artefact from around the tail-end of the Middle School period, something to be shelved alongside The Edifice and Babel, intended to be played over multiple sittings, likely to stump the player for considerable periods of time. (Tending to support this: the backstory is doled out through amnesia-recovery.) The game might have been served better by that model, perhaps; at any rate, the two-hour Comp doesn't seem to be its optimal environment.
(I originally published this review on 12 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 16th of 26 games I reviewed.)
In many ways, I found sci-fi adventure Changes to be the highest quality game amongst the IFComp 2012 entries. Its prose flows transparently and conveys the vivid, natural beauty of an earth-like planet. It presents the point of view of many different lifeforms in original ways, even from within the point of view of other lifeforms. Its animal cast are realistic and finely programmed, reacting to each other in interesting ways and demonstrating instinctive, independent behaviour.
Unfortunately I also found this game to be incredibly difficult. It worked me into a state of significant frustration on many occasions and eventually I gave up. The difficulty operates mostly at a subtle level, except in the case of one marauding animal, but it is thoroughly persistent in nature, and I stopped when I could no longer make progress even with the walkthrough. There are adaptive hints in the game but they operate on such a large scale as to be of little use in helping with any specific problems. If you find yourself hesitant or struggling in Changes, I recommend examining the walkthrough much sooner rather than later.
After acknowledging at game start that I was a human trapped in the body of an extra terrestrial rabbit, spawned by some weird organic cocoon to boot, I began to explore the planet I found myself on. Other rabbits sniffed and browsed about their burrows and a flock of deer sought out food. A fox pursued me and the other deer, but we were able to outrun him, and he shied away from the beavers trying to plug up their dam. The interplay of all these creatures is so well programmed and fascinating to behold that I ran around exploring and experimenting with them all for a long but unspecifiable amount of time. Eventually, once I had thoroughly surveyed the land and staked out my (Spoiler - click to show)crashed human spaceship, my attention began to turn to the ever marauding fox and the plight of being a rabbit in general.
I think the first important steps the player must take in this game are gargantuan ones in terms of the demand on the player to come up with the ideas required and to then progress from assessing their feasibility to actually working out how to execute them. Many spoilers on this topic: (Spoiler - click to show)Once you have witnessed other animals dragging corpses into the cocoons, you must then decide that you want to obtain an animal corpse yourself. This is obviously a major challenge if you are a rabbit and every other non-rabbit land animal in the game is larger or more powerful than you. The only fatal animal encounter you are likely to have witnessed at this point would be your own death at the hands of the fox. So while you might have decided that you want to kill something, you have seen next to no killing.
The first material step on the path to murdering a bigger animal is to attack a fish flopping about in a pool. The flopping about behaviour is what may give you a clue that the fish is vulnerable and that this is possible, but attacking fish is not behaviour I associate with rabbits, nor have I seen any of the other animals in the game doing anything similar. And the fish is still just a prop for a greater abstract murder plot targeting the otter. Taken individually, I consider many of these steps to be difficult to conceive of on the player end, and they form a chain in a fairly elusive scheme which will eventually involve burying a fish in a hole as bait to trap another animal.
The subtle difficulty I spoke of earlier is that there isn't much feedback from the game that any particular step is bringing you closer to a goal, and you may not even realise what your goal is. There are also moments in the game which give misdirective feedback. There was a stick I saw and wanted to pick up, prompting the response, "There's nothing there worth having." In IF games, that's about as clear a fob off as I've ever seen. I was mad when I later discovered from the walkthrough that the stick is vital for progress but can only be collected after you have examined it.
The final problem I had with the game's first major puzzle ((Spoiler - click to show)kill the otter) was that it took me perhaps twenty or more attempts to just pull off the feat of (Spoiler - click to show)leading the otter to my fish trap without encountering the fox on the way. The fox forces a plan abort, since it is necessary to wait with the otter for a turn to activate the trap, and waiting results in death if the fox is present. Each time I encountered the fox I would retreat, hide from it, emerge and then restart the whole plot from the first step of catching the fish once again, taking it north, dropping it for the otter, waiting, leading the otter away... I couldn't believe how hard this was, but at least the fox's behaviour during this section of the game should be easy to tweak for the author.
So in various dimensions, the game's first puzzle is the hardest one. Having survived it, the player must now (Spoiler - click to show)evolve through a series of other animals – by killing them and/or dragging them into the life cocoons – to eventually become the drug-addicted lemur whose fingers are long enough to work the numeric keypad on your broken shuttle. These puzzles are all very clever, but the game just keeps missing out on giving the bits of direction and feedback necessary for most people to be able to have a shot at clearing them without cleaving to the walkthrough. In the end I did cleave to the walkthrough, but the game insisted I was not tall enough to reach the spaceship hatch, though both the sticks and the branch were in place, so I'm unsure if I hit a bug or missed something important, but I felt too drained to attempt to play on at that point.
I have barely touched on the human elements of the game's plot here, and while they're obviously important overall, they didn't factor in either the massive difficulties I had in playing Changes, nor in its wonderful presentation of a believable alien planet teeming with life. The game has the overall quality of something exceptional, but it's too hard to play at the moment.
Changes is a fairly long game, about as long as, say, Spider and Web. It is set on an alien planet with a variety of animals that move about and act independently. There are ten or twenty locations, and not that many items.
The game has a very curious mechanic, which I didn't really figure out without resorting to the walkthrough: (Spoiler - click to show)You have to kill other animals in order to become them. This mechanic means that your abilities are constantly changing, and you have to reevaluate the environment that you are in and what it can do. The ability to see the same environment from multiple perspectives is a real treat, similar to Heroes.
As some have said, the puzzles are fairly frustrating. I didn't complete any protagonist's quest without hints, although I knew exactly what I needed to do for the second one.
The writing is beautiful and evocative. Some have compared it to Avatar, and that is fairly accurate. It is also very similar to the Ender's Game series (specifically, the pequeninos), and uses some of the same terminology.
The game includes cut scenes after every major success. I loved them; they were wonderful. The ending left me wanting a bit more; it felt abrupt and unsatisfying.
Overall, a fun game. Not likely to be completed without a walkthrough; like most such games, the walkthrough tells you shouldn't use it. Authors frequently overestimate readers' abilities to complete games without hints. I recommend this game, with hints, after exploration.
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