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About the Story
On my boatride back to my hometown after a failed music career, my insomnia seems to have finally ended, yet the world I have woken up to seems so different than the one I know of, and it talks to me in it's distinct voice known only to me.
64th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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Number of Reviews: 5
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Lost at the Market is the first game I’ve ever played in GrueScript, and from the author’s notes I think it’s the first one they’ve written in the language as well. Unfortunately, I spent most of my experience with it fairly confused – you’re playing through some kind of dream, but what the dream is actually about isn’t clear. (You also don’t appear to be lost in any kind of market, dream or otherwise). The game does a good job at making you feel as if you’re in a dream, but the dream-logic on display is frustrating and makes it hard to decipher what you’re supposed to do. This isn’t helped by the writing, which has an unfortunate number of spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes.
The author’s notes imply a more polished version with added multimedia is in the works, which I’d be interested to play. But for now, this game seems unfinished.
Lost at the Market is I think the first Gruescript game to be released by anyone other than the language’s creator, Robin Johnson. It’s a system that aims to make it easy to create parser-like choice games, allowing the player to easily click their way through the kind of actions and object interactions that typify the parser experience. Sadly Lost at the Market isn’t much of a showpiece; there’s a potentially compelling story here a protagonist trying to change the moment when they gave up on their dreams and walked away from a career in music, but it suffers from slapdash implementation, perfunctory puzzles, and stripped-down writing. There’s the germ of something good here, but it needs elaboration and refinement to be memorable.
In terms of the gameplay, what we’ve got here is yer standard allegorical journey of self-reflection. You start out at a beach, ruminating on the hubris of whoever built the sand castle that’ll inevitably be swamped by the tide – to progress, you need to kick the castle over, reflecting how the protagonist has self-destructively surrendered their dreams in order to protect themselves by beating the world to the punch. There’s the germ of something here, but the action is too abrupt – there’s not much else you can possibly do – and the writing isn’t quite crisp enough to do the idea justice:
"Once in a while you see something like this and wonder what your dad would say, the point in building sand castles that are here waiting to be swept away by the ocean is the same dream that keeps the world moving, yet can anyone move the ocean?"
There are a few more puzzles after that one, which generally require both a bit more object-manipulation to solve, and a bit more mental engagement to decode, before fetching up at the climactic performance where you can choose to change the past and play your music – or, alternatively, go south at an unmarked intersection and find yourself forced to once again walk away from your passion (at least there’s an UNDO).
The interface for doing all this is reasonably functional – a set of buttons let you move around and examine objects at your location, which in turn pops up more buttons to further interact with them, plus you have an inventory that works on the same principles – albeit it’s pretty ugly, with the main screen subdivided into too many short, narrow rectangles with a color scheme that even I can tell clashes horribly. This isn’t the only way the implementation feels slapdash – actions often have awkward names consisting of multiple words linked with underscores, and while I’m not sure if this is a limitation of Gruescript, even if it is the author should have found a less immersion-breaking workaround. And there are a fair number of typos, including one in the subtitle on the Comp page (oof).
I don’t want to be too hard on Lost at the Market. It’s trying to communicate something that clearly has personal relevance for the author, and stretching to try out a new authoring system is good for the IF community as a whole (man does not live on Inform and Twine alone, I suppose). Some of the elements do show promise – there’s a choice at the end, about whether to adapt your music to what the crowd wants to hear, that points to something that’s more engaging than the more mechanical puzzles before that point, and some parts of the story do have some thematic resonance even if the writing needs a few more passes to make this resonance effective. Still, it’s disappointing to see a new platform not shown off to its best effect; hopefully this won’t be the last Gruescript game the Comp sees, or the author writes.
So I have to shout out this author for being the first person to release a Gruescript game in a competition outside of Robin Johnson (that I know of). It's a cool language and looks neat.
This is a surreal game where you explore various dreamscapes after having failed at a musical career.
In a contrast to Robin Johnson's puzzle-filled games, this is more of a thoughtful introspection game where you wander around and follow directions given in-text.
I love surreal games in general, and Gruescript is cool, so I have a lot of good feelings in general. The execution needs a lot of work, though. The author says they want to learn, so here are my thoughts on things that could be improved:
-I feel like there could be a little space between the output window and the room description window; it felt a little crowded (I don't know if this is adjustable?)
-Some buttons had underscores (Who_Am_I) and some had spaces; I think it would look better if they were standardized.
-Some options seem like they unintentionally lock the player out of an action; like going south in the very last area and finding the envelope. Even if you don't open it, you can't go back north.
-The writing is descriptive, but it often feels like something's off with punctuation. I had similar problems and always check my games with Grammarly (I promise this isn't an ad lol), may be useful here. by playing through and copying and pasting the output
Overall, I think the game could be substantially improved, so I'm giving a lower score for now, but I definitely think this is promising and would like to see more from this engine and from this author.
So, a game in GrueScript! If Robin Johnson isn't in IFComp this year, it's good to see his engine makes an appearance, which is the next best thing. I've been curious about GrueScript for a while–sometimes it feels like it could capture everything I want out of a parser, except maybe for gag commands like XYZZY or SING or profanity to be coyly rejected. I dabbled in USE X ON Y, hoping to make guess-the-verb less of the puzzle, and I may go back to that. But I realize how efficient GrueScript can be!
LatM is a bit of an odd game. There's no real market, officially, and I was waiting for one to show up, but it never did. It's more about your dreams as a musician and how you go about finding them. It felt a bit surreal to me, which given my stuff, I can't complain about, but it took a while to realize surrealism was the intended effect. You just need to find things to rig so that you can escape from various situations, some of which feel very odd. For instance, you are locked in a bathroom, but you have enough tools to make a hole and get out by trial and error. In another place, it turns out you're just in a dream, and you have to find a way to destroy that dream. Orr you talk with an old man who may or may not be your future self before doing something odd and symbolic ... but it makes sense in retrospect.
Your ultimate goal is to make it to a concert, though there are other endings that provide failure. In one, you avoid the stage and open an envelope, and you decide not to go on with things. It feels like the author had some metaphysical recollections they need to include, but they didn't, and they're leaving a bit too much hidden. And unfortunately this seems due to unintentional omissions. There are a couple bugs where you search scenery X and an item appears in the room. But if you search X again, the item reappears, even if it's in your inventory. This is particularly odd with a wardrobe after you've worn your costume to go on stage, which probably isn't the dreamlike effect the author wanted.
There are two ends, one where you give up on your dreams and one where you don't. You have a choice whether to sing a pop song enough. It feels like something the author could've explored more, and on balance, a lot of what seem to be philosophical statements feel a bit overgeneral. Nevertheless, LatM felt complete, though quite possibly the scope of its ambition was cut short by the IFComp deadline. It was a good technical demonstration of what GrueScript can do in the hands of someone other than its creator. I hope we have more.
Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review
Dreams are certainly useful settings in IF. When used effectively, they can explain and justify any of the inherent limitations of the medium or even lean into the limitations as features. The role dreams play in human experience also immediately gives entree to a deluge of symbology, psychology, metaphor and abstraction.
LatM starts in a dream, invoking the other kind of dream, y’know aspiration. It also highlights to you the double entendre' of Market - to promote and a target customer base. It notably does NOT mention ‘place to buy stuff’ which is the easiest of the three to get lost at. So much wordplay in so little time! It won me over instantly.
And then I crashed into the user interface. Now, first impressions are not awful, its an uncommon but pleasant color palette. Any hopes of the palette being part of the story quickly vanished and that’s fine. It briefly got me hoping for more, but whatever. But not ‘whatever.’ The interface refused to be dismissed and instead stepped to me like I had insulted its mother. It was a 4-bar implementation which I’ll call ‘current command’ ‘inventory’ ‘game control’ and ‘log.’ My biggest gripe was that the log and current command bars frequently repeated the same text. Adjacently on different color backgrounds. This is where the color palette first became a problem.
The inventory bar was also problematic, in that it took a lot of real estate between item lists and interaction options, and ended up crowding the display. I think there’s an esthetic reason inventory is classically a command and not just a list printed on the screen after every turn. A quick fix here would have been a standard dropdown - let the player engage the list when they want, not have it thrust on them. Same for game controls which similarly never left your peripheral vision.
The command bar had another issue in what it offered as a next action. Too many times once you look at an object, the command bar gives you no option NOT to interact with it. This was frustrating early when the only way to make progress was a mindless act of destruction I was disinclined but forced to do. It was really bad when I encountered an object that felt game endy, but I had no option but to manipulate it once clicked on. I could (and did) use UNDO, but that is a big hammer. There is a significant narrative difference between “you drop the X and continue on your way” and “REWIND REALITY.”
“Well reviewer, you’ve certainly bellyached about this UI long enough. You can’t possibly have more to say about it,” you might reasonably say right now. I would have to condescendingly shake my head and reply “Oh no, dear reader, no no no.” Most distractingly, the colored bars constantly resize themselves based on input, output and new options. So not only are the bars distinctively and contrastingly colored. Not only is significant real estate taken by infrequently needed information. Not only is text distractingly repeated and options limited. The bars themselves jump around like hyperactive frogs with every click of the mouse. This constant motion demands you unceasingly monitor the entire cockpit. This was so distracting I can’t even, and I never got over it the entire game. I am a shallow, petty person and I don’t love myself right now, but you see what its done to me??? I can’t be free even after four paragraphs!
You might have detected, this user interface ultimately prevented me engaging the story in any meaningful way. For its part, the story is a relatively sparse journey (perhaps a dream?) with a few object-fetch puzzles, capped off with a story-ending choice. I took three paths to two endings and none of it allowed me to shake off the user interface. The theme of musician struggling with the collision between reality and aspirations is one I could engage. The wordplay on display out of the gate was fun. To my shame if it was present elsewhere in gameplay I was too distracted to appreciate it. In the end Technical Intrusiveness of the UI is what dominated my experience.
I do want to know more about Betty the Drummer though.
Playtime: 20min, 2 different endings, another duplicate ending
Artistic/Technical rankings: Mechanical/Intrusive UI
Would Play Again? I can’t do that to myself
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless
I referenced this game in a review of Lost Coastlines. Crosslink!