Luna Gardens

by Justin Kim profile


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The tao that can be spoken is still hard to get the parser to understand, May 20, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

(This is a review of the Spring Thing version of the game; I understand it's since been updated to address some of the implementation issues raised below)

Having just written a review of a Back Garden game that could have just as easily been entered into the Main Festival, I turn now to one that clearly belongs where it was entered. In some respects that’s simply an acknowledgment of what’s on offer here, which is a self-contained tutorial or demo section of a larger game targeted for release next year – and in many ways it’s an effective teaser, with the Taoism-inflected magic academy setting hitting a nice balance point between familiarity and novelty, and a backstory involving a dead parent and their mysterious former paramour that I’m curious to further unravel. In other respects, though, in its current incarnation Luna Gardens is recognizably a clumsy first draft in need of further refinement.

The game’s central mechanic is emblematic of this duality. Appropriately for the setting, you’re required to perform an act of divination to successfully complete the opening section, and the basic outline for how this is done is solid: first you identify particular mystically-significant symbols by exploring the eponymous grounds and finding especially resonant objects, at which point you can try to guess which are most relevant to your present circumstances and construct an oracular reading from combining the correct set of three. That’s a nice way of embedding a magic system in behavior that’s well-suited to a parser game – wandering around and examining everything you can see – and leveraging a game-y but reasonable enough structure to lend narrative weight to what’s mechanically speaking a basic combination-lock puzzle.

The difficulty is that every step of this process has significantly more friction than it should. Start with exploration: getting around the garden is a little tricky, I found, since neither of the two navigation options on offer is completely intuitive. Traditional compass navigation works well enough, but exits aren’t always clearly marked, and the frequent use of ordinal directions made it hard to build a mental map. There’s an alternative keyword-based system that allows you to simply jump to neighboring locations, but I also found it occasionally leading to strange results. For example, each location tends to list adjacent landmarks in a final paragraph at the end of the description, but upon being told “farther away, you see a dark gate rising in the air and a rusted light pole” I was surprised that EXPLORE GATE just resulted in the game saying “You can’t see The gate.” I’m pretty sure that capitalization means you knew what I was talking about! Admittedly, this is partly to do with the barriers cutting off the demo area from the larger game’s map, but it can still make for a frustrating experience.

Finding the symbols also had its speed-bumps. I like taking my time checking out scenery, and Luna Gardens does a good job of making the process rewarding by sprinkling hints of backstory and worldbuilding into object descriptions. But there are some rough patches in the implementation that sometimes led to me tearing out my hair:

> x trees

…You notice a carving someone made on one of the trees.

> x carving

You can’t see any such thing.

> x tree

You can’t see any such thing.

I was eventually able to guess that the right answer was X INITIALS, which isn’t totally unreasonable but still, the protagonist obviously knows what they’re looking at so why make life hard for the player? At least this is just an incidental detail; I needed a hint to complete the game because X OCEAN at a cliffside overlook was insufficient to reveal the relevant symbol, with X WAVES being required to progress (X WATER just got my “you can’t see any such thing).

As for the actual divination process itself, the syntax is a little under-clued – I thought at first I had to type DIVINE [SYMBOL 1] [SYMBOL 2] [SYMBOL 3], but actually you just enter DIVINE and then get a follow-up prompt where you pick the symbols you’d like to try. Further complicating matters, you don’t actually slot in the short-form name of a symbol – there’s a FIND command that tells you that, say, the connection symbol translates into “a link between two poles”, and that longer formulation is the one you need to write in, magnifying the scope for typos and confusion. Meanwhile, the actual answer of which symbols are the “right” ones that trigger the end of the game is underclued – there’s a FORECAST hint command that gives you a strong prod in the right direction, but there aren’t really any diegetic prompts to help you avoid simple trial-and-error, so far as I could tell.

The good news is that the author’s indicated that the final game will be redone and written in Gruescript, rather than Inform, which strikes me as a smart idea – using that choice-based interface will remove some of the ambiguities and confusions around navigation and identifying relevant nouns, while giving more space for the prose’s wry mix of mysticism and observational humor.

(I haven’t mentioned the writing yet, but while it’s occasionally a bit convoluted due to complex syntax and the use of the passive voice, I generally liked it! Here’s a matter-of-fact bit of landscape description:

"A grove of trees forms a circle in the middle of this garden and shield from the outside world the bench you like to nap on in-between classes."

Or a later bit:

"In fact, the only things resting around here are students reaching the end of their wits as they journey through textbooks, dry lectures, and someone’s bright idea of putting everything on campus far away from each other.")

A clickable interface would also make the divination system more manageable, and generally reduce friction across the board. Hopefully the feedback from this and other reviews will help inform the future, final release of Luna Gardens, since there’s definitely enough promising elements here to make me look forward to it.

Note: this review is based on older version of the game.
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