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(based on 25 ratings)
About the Story
There's something down there in the ocean, something terrifying. And you have to face it - because only you can save the Aquadome, the world's first undersea research station.
One of the authors has ghostwritten books for the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and Tom Swift series, and the writing style carries over very well. The game has the same oh-my-gosh-golly sense of adventure that those books have. This is not a criticism, I read and enjoyed the Hardy Boys as a child, but it has a mixed effect on the ratings, causing the atmosphere rating to go up a bit, but the plot rating to go correspondingly down, as I had read so many of these books that the plot seemed rather routine and predictable.
-- Graeme Cree
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Number of Reviews: 3
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Once again the urge to play the Infocom games came over me. In the past, this mostly led to me being frustrated, so I decided to play the easiest Infocom game this time. How much trouble could I have with a game explicitly aimed at young people?
Well, still some, because there is a time limit, which can surprise the unwary interactor. But in general the puzzles will not be much trouble for the veteran IF player, and most of them are clearly hinted by either the game or the documentation. Additionally, I hit a show stopping bug once; but it turned out that I was playing version 86, which is apparently a beta version. (What is that doing in the wild?) I will assume for this review that the real game is bug free.
The plot of the game is functional: you are a young inventor who is into submarines, and you have to save an underwater research station from a huge fish. There are some twists, and the story does manage to keep one's attention and put one into perilous situations of different kinds. Unfortunately, the characterisation and writing are very bland. I would have preferred even the cruel humour of Zork to this nondescriptness.
In terms of gameplay, some good things are done here: the submarine scenes are novel and fun (though probably long enough); the freedom in the Aquadome is also refreshing. On the bad side, some of the "puzzles" are so obviously hinted, with characters simply telling you what to do, that you don't feel in charge. This would seem to underestimate the children for whom the game is meant: surely one should design appropriate puzzles, rather than design puzzles that are too difficult and then remove the puzzle-element?
But the worst thing about the game, apart from the bland writing, is its use of feelies. In a design choice that is either incredibly stupid or a copy-protection scheme gone horribly wrong, you constantly have to read descriptions, commands, and maps from the feelies. This is very irritating. It works for the map of Frobton Bay, where having to consult a map is diegetic and even fun, but it doesn't work in the rest of the game. Examining a person and then having to read the description in the manual is simply stupid.
So -- not really recommended. Unless you wish to finish your first Infocom game, in which case I can tell you that with this game, it is possible!
To start: I love Nancy Drew, and I had high expectations for an Infocom partnership with Jim Lawrence. Seriously!
Seastalker was authored and marketed as a children's game, and Infocom partnered with a successful author of children's fiction to write it. Despite the potential, it's hard to imagine Seastalker turning out any worse than it did. It's mechanically dull, the feelies are oddly irritating, and--most bafflingly--there is an actual stalker. Not a sea serpent, mind you, but a fake nice guy who tries to teach a woman that "she's just a human being like the rest of us -- and not only a human being, but a warm, desirable woman...!" by CUTTING OFF HER OXYGEN! Really! Such a strange thing to hide in a children's game.
The first major part of the game involves piloting an experimental sub (designed by the protagonist) through "Frobton Bay." Mechanically, this requires consulting a bathymetric map and using its depth information to navigate an on-screen ASCII map of the sub's immediate surroundings. It's a novelty, but I think a player's enjoyment will come down to taste. In any case, it isn't a model of play that appeared in later Infocom games. I did not enjoy it, personally, but recognize the attempt to innovate.
Once the bay is cleared, the autopilot kicks in, freeing up the protagonist to deal with an apparent act of sabotage. That's an ongoing concern throughout Seastalker: traitors or moles. I think this element was a major missed opportunity, as it would be enjoyable to discover clues about a double agent. Even if the answer was withheld until a climactic moment, these discoveries would enhance a sense of danger and help maintain tension. As it is, concerns over saboteurs rise like bubbles to the surface only to pop and leave no trace.
Once the oxygen plot is foiled, the protagonist must work with its perpetrator to upgrade the submarine. This is a case where the novelistic sensibilities of Jim Lawrence clash with the demands of gameplay progression in IF. In order to foster a sense of collaboration with a specialized team, many characters will approach the protagonist and ask a yes or no question: "Would you like to install the frob on the front-left frob arm?" The player must answer. I am not completely certain, but I think saying "no" can lock the player out of winning. In this sense, the function of the questions is to dramatize a team effort to upgrade the submarine. It is not, as one might have guessed, an occasion to evaluate the characters' offers and tailor the sub to the player's liking.
Experiences will vary, but I found the mechanic jarring in an immersion-disrupting way. I think that this is also a "knowledge of past lives" situation in which a player can be killed by failing to take a specific action some turns previous. Those of you who have followed my writing know that I try to be philosophical about old games and the "Player's Bill of Rights." In this case, though, there is no sense of danger--quite the opposite, in fact--that would prompt the player to save or even be wary. At least, if there was, I missed it.
The climactic battle involves a return to the ASCII sonar interface for a high-speed chase. It's hard to gauge how good this is or isn't. It is not the kind of gameplay that typically draws IF fans. This is also the moment in which the nemesis and a TRIPLE agent are exposed. It's a little underwhelming because, as mentioned above, you as a player haven't really been on the trail of these people. I think the scene illuminates the ways in which the craft of IF and the craft of fiction are different. Neither philosophy has a chance to shine here, and the work suffers as a result.
The feelies are unusually bad for this period in Infocom's history. They don't translate well to PDF, which is how many modern players will experience the game. They aren't very good in physical form, either--I have a folio copy. Passages of text (descriptions, mostly) are randomly left out of the game, and the player must sift through many cards to find a matching entry. As a former kid, I recognize that this might have initially had a "gee whiz" appeal, but there are many cards and many more snippets of text. The novelty wears off, and the process breaks immersion and takes time (Example cases include descriptions of Sharon Kemp, the scimitar, etc.). Still, the "Discovery Squad" patch is a nice touch and would have certainly appealed to my more young and adventurous self.
I can't recommend Seastalker. Its writing just doesn't work very well, it fails (though I recognize the effort) to create the forward motion of traditional fiction in an IF game, the ending comes out of nowhere, the creepy stalker suffers no loss in social capital for his outlandish behavior, and the feelies--usually a draw for Infocom--feel like a hassle. It is also among Infocom's least accessible games due to its graphics, joining Infidel, Zork III, Enchanter, and Zork Zero.
I grant it two stars for the technical superiority of Infocom's parser (in its day, of course). Compared with other Infocom games, though, this is all but certainly a one-star game. Children deserved better.
Seastalker was Oneida my least favorite Infocom games, but part of that is my own fault. The game is fairly simple, and I didn't need a walkthrough, until about halfway through the game I started some kind of timer and would die after 40 or 50 turns. It turned out that (Spoiler - click to show)there was some sort of black box I didn't fix that lead a monster to the base. So that made me lose interest, until I went through with a walkthrough.
The game comes with some hint cards that are missing some information. When the time comes in the game, the game itself will fill in the blanks in the hint cards.
There are some tricky parts to the game like using sonar to pilot a sub, and the endgame, but over all it was pretty fun.
Note: The GO TO command makes this game MUCH more enjoyable.
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