The Incredibly Mild Misadventures of Tom Trundle

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Teen adventure/Romance

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Anything but mild, December 8, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

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.