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Too many puzzles, too little time, April 3, 2008
I was thinking the whole time how mature an IF designer Meretzsky had become by the time he wrote Stationfall. Things are tidy and efficient and, for the most part, logical and logically clued, and the writing has some snap to it. The game creates a really nice atmosphere of arriving somewhere strange, poking around, and slowly discovering what's going on.
What bothers me about the design has more to do with the story of the game. There is a story, and its bare bones are thus: you arrive on a station with a mission, discover mysteries, become aware of danger, and (hopefully) escape alive. The problem is, this story cannot possibly play out unless the PC, within the game world, has some sort of preternatural instinct for charging around to exactly the right places in the most efficient order, somehow knowing where to go and what to search to find items he needs, somehow not bothering to even take the time to listen to the tape spools that tell him information he needs to know. A transcript of me playing the game efficiently wouldn't look like a story, and won't feel like one to play it!
Planetfall had the ongoing problems of making sure you had enough food and rest, but you were ill, and it made sense, and other than that, the path was fairly straightforward, and playing the game was satisfying. This just feels like there's a couple of layers of obstacles too many, in addition to the now-much-less-motivated hunger and sleep puzzles, which are compounded by this game's stricter overall time limit. You eventually keel over from sickness when playing Planetfall, but when I played it recently, I found that I had ample time to make it through the game. In Stationfall, there's too many fiddly things to do that require huffing back and forth all over the map in the amount of time you have before something kills you. I'm not sure that the solution would really be to have the game have fewer puzzles -- I can imagine that Meretzsky kept packing them in to give the player the feeling that they got their money's worth. A smaller map isn't necessarily right, either, or a more compact distribution of the various items.
Sometimes, it is all too easy for an author to think of obstacles to trip up the player. The player will try to do A, but it won't work, leading the player to realize that they first have to do B. Oh, but wait, I didn't let you know this earlier, but you also have to do C and D. Ha ha. (Just wait until the player realizes E is in the way. Heh heh.) That's sort of what Stationfall feels like to me. I guess it all goes back to what I said earlier about just allowing the player more time to bump around. However, today, in my cranky mood, it does feel like there's too many puzzles; at the same time, I feel like a dope for criticizing an Infocom for having too many puzzles. And I like puzzles!
I'm reminded of Graham Nelson's famous remark about IF being a novel at war with a crossword puzzle. In this case, the crossword is victorious.