by David Given

Science Fiction

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Number of Reviews: 5
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1-4 of 4

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Alien nature game with multiple protagonists and curious mechanic, February 3, 2016

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.

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
The planet is magnificent but the game is too difficult on numerous fronts., January 12, 2016
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2012, Inform, science fiction

(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 Ė by killing them and/or dragging them into the life cocoons Ė 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.

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Great sandbox, but the puzzles need better hinting, March 23, 2015
by Simon Christiansen (Denmark)

This review was previously published on a blog in connection with IFComp 2012.

Changes is a science fiction eco-adventure, taking place on a beautifully realized foreign planet. It is well implemented and well coded but is also incredibly hard and needs much better hinting to be playable without the walkthrough.

(Spoiler - click to show)Changes begins with what is probably my favourite introduction so far:

You wake and see blood.

Thereís blood everywhere. So much blood, that at first you donít realise thereís a figure behind the blood. Itís alive, just; thereís a face, twisted with pain, and more blood that bubbles from its mouth as it breathes, and a hand that spasms as it tries to paw at the thing projecting from where a chest should be. The eyes gaze into yours. There is still life and desperation there, but it it knows that it is quickly running out.

You want to help. You reach out ó and that is when you realise that you are looking into the inside of the reflective cockpit canopy, and that the face you can see is yours.

Hell, yeah! This is how you do a proper ďin medias resĒ start to a game. After reading it, I was eager to find out just what the hell was going on here.

After the intro, the game abruptly changes to the inside of some kind of gooey cocoon, from which you emerge into a beautiful alien forest. The descriptions are very atmospheric, pointing out the way the light falls through the canopy, the sense of space inside the clearing, and the peacefulness permeating the air. I was looking forward to exploring this strange new world.

I think Iíve pointed out in earlier reviews that I like to go through a series of Inform standard actions, just to see if the author bothered to implement them. I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only did everything have a non-standard response, but the responses actually gave me clues to my new identity. When I tried jumping I was told that I got much higher than I was expecting. At first I thought that this planet might have a low gravity, but other responses strongly hinted that I was no longer human. I looked at my reflection in the lake and it seems I had been turned into some kind of alien rabbit. Not only am I on a strange new world, I am also a Space Rabbit! This is the greatest introduction to a game ever!

I keep exploring the landscape, enjoying all the sights and sounds on the planet. Not only is everything beautifully described, but there are ton of animals moving around dynamically with what appears some very complex AI behaviour. Deer like animals run through the forest, eating the plants; beavers build dams; rabbits play in their burrows. Also, you seem to have some kind of telepathic ability allowing you to sense the emotions of the other animals from afar, and even read their minds on occasion. All this contributes to making the environment feel alive, and I thoroughly enjoyed just exploring and looking at all the animals.

Unfortunately, the world is just to bit too large for a Comp game, I think. There must be 20-25 locations and I never really properly got the lay of the land. Oh, and did I mention the fox? There is a ravenous fox like creature roaming the lands. Every time you encounter it, it will give chase, and you need to find a safe spot to hide from it. Whenever I was finally starting to figure out how the locations were connected, the fox would appear and I would get hopelessly lost, desperately typing random compass directions until I found one of the safe spots. This made exploring a lot less fun than it might otherwise have been, but I still enjoyed the sense of being part of a living ecosystem.

After exploring for a while, I suddenly realized that I had played the game for more than an hour, and made no progress whatsoever. I typed HELP and learned that the game implements no less than five helpful commands: ABOUT, HINTS, CREDITS, LICENSE and WALKTHROUGH. Iíve later learned that finding the HELP command was a stroke of good luck since itís apparently the only way to learn about the walkthrough. For future releases, I recommend mentioning all the special commands in the ABOUT text.

The HINT system turned out to be so frustratingly vague as to be completely useless. The hints kept telling me to find the shuttle, but I had no idea where I was supposed to to go to accomplish this. Sometimes, I would the see the shuttle glinting in the distance, but there never seemed to be a way to get there. I only managed to find the way much later in the game, and it turns out that finding the shuttle isnít necessary until the end-game, so why insist that the player do it right away?

When I finally turned to the walkthrough I learned that not only had I made no progress towards solving the first puzzle, I hadnít even figured out what it was. The intro of the game did imply that I was supposed to drag dead animals to the Mother Tree, but since I am a harmless rabbit, I had no idea how to procure one. It turns out that I am supposed to lure a poor otter into a rabbit warren, and then collapse it, killing the otter, who had never done me any harm. I have absolutely no idea how I was supposed to figure this out on my own. Not only would it never have occurred to me to kill the otter in this way, but I hadnít even realized I was supposed to try. The game gives you no hint that turning into an otter might be useful at this point. Itís simply the only animal you are capable of killing.

When you kill an an animal, you can then use the Mother Tree to take over its body, which opens up new options. For example, the otter can swim, giving you access to new paths through the landscape. The game progresses in a linear manner: There is always exactly one animal you are capable of killing and taking over, until you finally reach one that is capable of entering your shuttle. The game would have benefited from better hinting as to what animal you are supposed to be focusing on next. As it is, you just have to figure it out by trial and error.

Every time you change bodies, you get a big text dump, explaining more of the back story. These are well-written, but are also very long, and I would have preferred it if the story had been doled out in smaller bits while progressing through the game. The story itself is a pretty interesting science fiction story concerning a mutiny on your spaceship, which ends up with you having to escape to the planet where the game takes place. I love spaceships, so I kinda wish there had been some kind of interactive flash-back taking place there, but the game is a bit too long as it is.

Once I figured out that I was never going to solve any of these puzzles on my own, I played through the rest of the game with the walkthrough. Normally, this would trivialize the puzzles, but this game is so hard that making progress is a challenge even when you know exactly what you need to do, due to the dynamic nature of the environment. I may know that I need to get the otter to the burrows, but I still need to successfully lead it there, while avoiding the hungry fox along the way. Furthermore, the walkthrough will say things like ďherd the deer to the damĒ, with no explanation of how ďherdingĒ works.

Nonetheless, I managed to successfully complete the game using the walkthrough, and found this to be far more enjoyable than trying to solve the puzzles on my own. I just wish I had figured this out sooner. By this time, I was quickly approaching the two-hour Comp deadline, and had to rush through the rest the game, to reach the ending in time. The environment changes as you make progress, so I would have loved to have more time to explore in between solving the puzzles. Iíll probably go back to the game after the comp, just to see all the things I missed.

In conclusion, I found Changes to be a very well-made and engaging sandbox exploration game, but the actual puzzle solving gameplay needs way better in-game hinting to be enjoyable. With some polish, this could be a real gem.

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Invasion of the Bunny Body-Snatchers, November 18, 2012
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: science fiction, environment, setting

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.

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