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About the Story
"A frickin' important episode in my life." -- Tom Trundle, 17
59th Place (tie) - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Number of Reviews: 4
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To me, there's something deeply satisfying about a text adventure set in a (Spoiler - click to show)school with hidden passages. It evokes a kind of nostalgia, not perhaps for the puberty years themselves (they were mostly terrible), but for the particular flavour of escapism that appealed to me at the time. The writing is often adolescent, in a way that can be embarrassing or off-putting to an adult reader, but which also paints a raw and honest picture of what's going through the mind of a seventeen-year-old.
And here we get to what I consider the most brilliant aspect of this story: While reading it, you (Spoiler - click to show)gradually realize that the story, which starts out mundane, veers into wish-fulfillment territory, and then turns increasingly preposterous, might just be the rambling fabrications ("bullhockey", as it were) of an unreliable narrator—whom you keep humouring because you just have to know how it's all going to end. And this is a brilliant move on the part of the author, because it turns the tables on the reader: What seems at first like a rather puerile and sexist case of self-insertion must be reassessed as an astute portrait of the adolescent narrator-protagonist. Of course the story doesn't pass the Bechdel test, and of course the protagonist suddenly finds himself surrounded by fawning, attractive love interests, because the story is told in the voice of a self-aggrandizing, stereotypical straight male teenager. It was style all along—and the joke's on us for not realizing it earlier.
Mechanics-wise, a lot of effort has gone into making the game merciful. At one point I managed to put it in an unwinnable state (if you (Spoiler - click to show)wear the robe too early, it's not possible to get back into the school building), but that was an exception: Overall the implementation is robust. The story feels on rails, in the sense that many of the puzzles have a linear dependence on each other and can only be solved in one particular order. But for a story-driven game of this size, it can be a blessing to know what your immediate goal is, and where you're supposed to be looking for a solution. Unfortunately some of the puzzles are insufficiently clued. For instance, (Spoiler - click to show)to get into the announcer booth, you need a certain remote controller that you may have stumbled over in an earlier scene. But the clue for why this would be a reasonable approach is hidden in the examine-text of the remote controller. So if you fail to notice and pick up the remote controller, you'll be stuck outside the announcer booth with no idea where to look. When you get stuck like that, it really hurts the flow of the narrative, which otherwise does an admirable job of keeping up the momentum and urgency.
Halfway through the game, I already had a habit of checking the walkthrough whenever I got stuck. Seeing the solution, I'd occasionally kick myself for not figuring it out. Just as often I had figured it out, but the game was expecting a particular turn of phrase, and gave misleading responses to my attempts. Sometimes the solution didn't make sense until after I'd typed it in and seen what happened. But I believe that with further testing, more nudges, and better support for different ways of expressing the same intent, all of these problems could eventually be fixed. In its current state, though, the game cannot be completed without the walkthrough.
But here's the thing: Despite those mild misadventures of game design, I kept going for hours upon hours, in part because of the agreeable setting, but mostly because I wanted to see how it all ended. And I'm not talking about the mystery of whodunit: I had figured out the identity of (Spoiler - click to show)the culprits and victims quite early based on the law of conservation of detail, so the dramatic reveals felt more like checking off boxes (which again worked beautifully in the narrative context, and was probably just what the author intended). No, I kept going because I wanted to see the full extent of this rambling, crazy story that was, above all, entertaining. So thank you, B F Lindsay, for all those hours of fun!
OK, I’m going to assign several Pinocchios to the “incredibly mild” tag, because while there are a lot of things you could say about this game, “mild” sure doesn’t seem like one of them. I mean that positively: TIMMoTT has a strong and appealing narrative voice, a distinctive setting, and some fiendish (in a good way) puzzles. But I also mean it negatively: the protagonist’s well-meaning but still an often-annoying horndog, the overall plot oscillates between ridiculous and insane, and there are some fiendish (in a bad way) puzzles. And unlike the title, the “more than two hours” warning in the blurb is completely accurate – this is a big one that took me about four hours to work through, including recourse to the hints and walkthrough on more than one occasion. For all this, I did enjoy my time with the game, but it was a complicated, spiky sort of enjoyment.
With something as overwhelming as this, it’s tricky to figure out where to start but I guess we can default to the plot. For over an hour (that is, over halfway through the judging window), I thought TIMMoTT was doing a sort of Risky Business thing, with its 1980s setting, focus on adolescents desperate to get laid, and late-first-act reveal that the main character has a friends-with-benefits arrangement with a significantly-older prostitute named Anne (buckle up, it’s gonna get weirder). But then the story shifts in a radically different direction: (Spoiler - click to show)after his girlfriend breaks up with him so she can move to California and start a new life, the protagonist goes to visit her for one last heart to heart, only to find out she’s been kidnapped. Her house’s phone starts ringing, and when he answers it, it’s the kidnapper, who says he wants the main character to bring Anne’s book of clients to the school as a hostage swap. .
Thus is the meat of the game revealed: a long puzzle-fest gradually unlocking different parts of the very large school map, following a breadcrumb trail of (Spoiler - click to show)taunting notes from the kidnapper. Along the way you’ll interact with a bunch of teachers and janitors (in the middle of doing a Spring Break deep-cleaning), discover at least five secret passages, and juggle more sets of keys than Inform’s default disambiguation systems can really keep up with (I’d hoped that the keyring you start with would automate some of this, but no such luck).
There are a couple things to say about this story. The first and most obvious one is that it makes no damn sense – feel free to come up with your own plot hole, but the main piece I got stuck on (Spoiler - click to show)is that the kidnapper’s whole plot makes no sense: they clearly were in Anne’s house so if they wanted to find the notebook, searching her very few unpacked possessions would obviously be far less work than pulling this weird mindgame on Tom. And even assuming he couldn’t find the notebook and actually wanted it, why create so many hoops to jump through that would almost certainly mean Tom would never find the hand-off point? There’s bonus craziness around the whole cult/ritual thing that swerves into period-appropriate Satanic panic, but let’s leave that aside for now. Second, though, it also creates a tonal mismatch with the first part of the game – the relatively grounded teen romance stuff falls by the wayside as the genre shifts from Risky Business to I dunno, like Mazes and Monsters?
At least the narrative voice is consistent throughout, even if the plot elements and tropes shift substantially. An initial warning about the writing: there is a lot of it, and while it’s generally error-free and pretty fun to read, it’s not uncommon for the description of an ordinary room to be preceded with two or three paragraphs of introductory material and then have the room itself take up the rest of the screen. There are also a lot of noninteractive dialogue sequences and cutscenes that are easily a thousand words or more. I didn’t mind this so much, as a matter of personal preference, but I’m not sure this approach is best suited for an interactive medium.
The game is in first person (past tense, with a few small errors), and Tom is generally good company as he explains what the deal is with all his classmates, muses about how he’ll spend his Spring Break, and (eventually) puzzles out how to make progress through the labyrinth the school becomes. He’s a laid-back guy who curses a lot, but he’s overall a good sort who tries to look for those who are having a harder time of adolescence than he is. The fly in the ointment is that he can’t look at a lady without drooling. There are I think just four female characters in the game (not counting Tom’s never-seen mom), each of whom is a total babe with awesome breasts. This is kept PG-13, and is certainly a plausible bit of characterization, but when he’s contemplating how much he feels like he’s connecting with a woman he’s just met and who’s currently caged in an underground prison, it’s a bit much. The fact that pretty much all the teenagers are secretly banging people one or two decades older than they are is also a bit off-putting.
Again, though, after the opening the focus is really on the puzzles rather than the plot and characterization. These are primarily about navigating from one end of the school to the other, surmounting more locked doors than I can easily count. Most of them are fairly well clued and fun to solve – putting pieces together from the intermittent flashbacks to discover secrets in the present was a reliable highlight – but I definitely felt a note of exhaustion when I realized I was going to have to get a set of keys off yet another character, or discover yet another secret passage (the architects for this place must have a lucrative sideline in Transylvanian castles and ancient Egyptian tombs) – cutting the map size and puzzle count by 30% would have still made for a big game while reducing the occasional feeling of repetitiveness.
There are also some puzzles that are less well-clued and do seem like they require some mind-reading, unfortunately. The most egregious example for me was a puzzle that required me to get some salt. Fortunately, I was carrying a salted pretzel, so you’d think this would be a one-step puzzle, no? I never would have hit on the actual solution but for the walkthrough: (Spoiler - click to show)you need to leave the pretzel out on a cafeteria counter that’s glancingly described as having a few ants occasionally wandering through; duck out and come back, and in the intervening thirty seconds they carry away all the bread and leave nothing but the salt. But there were many puzzles with similar issues, including a TV remote that has what are basically magic powers and some rigmarole with an A/V room return slot that I still can’t figure out.
The implementation throughout is solid enough, but in a game this big and complex, “solid enough” can actually get frustrating. As mentioned above, locking and unlocking doors is a big part of what you’ll be doing, but it’s not automatic, and given how many different sets of keys you’ll have, and that both keys, doors, and parts of the scenery might all be described as “rusty” or “steel”, the can be a lot of annoyance to doing something that should be simple. There’s a holdall item, thankfully, but the inventory is quite large and moving things in and out of the holdall can be a pain. And exacerbating some of the harder puzzles, there are some guess-the-verb issues (at one point you find a clue directly telling you there’s something hidden behind the soda machine, but PUSH MACHINE, MOVE MACHINE, and LOOK BEHIND MACHINE, all fail with default behavior since only PULL MACHINE is accepted).
I also got a crash bug late in the game (an out-of-bounds memory access error). And while I’m not sure these are bugs, strictly speaking, I found I think three ways to put the game in an unwinnable state, which I’m not sure is an intentional piece of the design: (Spoiler - click to show) if you put on the robe too early, you can’t change back into the janitor’s uniform to finish up your remaining tasks in the school; similarly if you wander off school grounds after you hand over the notebook, Tom says he doesn’t want to return to campus without it; and I think it's possible to get to the final confrontation without carrying any of the items needed to get to a positive resolution, though alternate solutions are available.
I’m complaining a bunch because honestly, there kind of is a lot to complain about. But with that said, I still had a lot of fun sinking my teeth into this big hunk of game, and while I’m not sure I’d trust Tom around any of my female family members, being inside his head was enjoyable in a retrograde, throw-back sort of way.
I liked the beginning of this game a lot. The story is on rails with a puzzle here and there, which increases immersion. After 1-2 hours (depends on how fast you are), the game turns into a puzzlefest very similar to the Bullhockey games. I have played both Bullhockey games for a while, but they couldn't hold my interest, in the long run, so I never finished those.
I think I played for four hours and got 155 points out of 400 while I tried not to peek too much on the walkthrough. So the game is definitely huge. I do like a good long puzzlefest, but for some reason, this part of the game is not for me.
Perhaps because too many similar standard objects (chairs, tables etc in most rooms) must be searched and examined, too many locked doors must be attempted to be unlocked with each key (confusing, as the game, in the beginning, can figure out which key to use) and there are too many keys to keep track of. All this becomes rather tedious with only a few clever puzzles (maybe there are some deeper into the game). Perhaps just a combination of all these things.
I think the game would be more fun if the tedious puzzles were removed and only the good ones were kept. A lot of locations could also be removed, as they seem to be there mainly for realism, which isn't necessary.
Still, the beginning is truly excellent and I wanted to see the end, so I copied the very long walkthrough into the command line (had to cut it into 25 pieces) to see the ending, as I didn't feel like playing through the whole game to see the ending.
If BF Lindsay ever makes a game with the same gameplay style throughout as the beginning of this game, I would love to play it. Also, if he is able to improve his puzzlefests, I would like to play those too. Still, if you liked the Bullhockey games, you will probably like the entire game.
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