1-6 of 6 Calorie Conscious Questing, January 6, 2024
Number of Ratings: 6
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Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review
And Travel you will... A LOT, December 15, 2023
During IFCOMP22, this author’s work snuck up on me. Last year, I was treated to a homebrew parser implementation that wowed me. It’s the backbone for this game too! No more element of surprise, I’m on to you this year, game!
I wish I could say that history repeated itself, but that was not to be my experience. My issues come down to two: Interaction and Fiction. Ok, that was inexcusably glib, I’ll explain. It seems inevitable that at some point I’ll end up comparing this to last year’s too, but I’ll hold off as long as I can.
On the Fiction side, the premise is tissue thin - retrieve a fantasy orb from a cottage and its surroundings. There is really nothing to latch on to here, no interesting world building, environment engineering or character work. No motivating impulse. Understood game, it’s a puzzle-fest, nothing wrong with that. Don’t sugar coat it for me. Nevermind that SUGAR IS DELICIOUS, I’ll just go straight to the medicine. Here’s the thing though. A fictional setting and framework, particularly fantastical ones, can be more than just sugar. They economically let you define ‘rules of the world’ that can inform a player’s actions and crucially give you chrome to mask the barriers. Without leveraging that, you are reduced to “You just don’t feel it is the right time…” “There is a barrier to progress, maybe you need to do something unrelated?..” “Something (the author) is telling you no…” It lays bare what we all know to be true - that IF puzzle solving is guessing the author’s intent. I know to be true that my parents are fully anatomically correct homo sapiens. Let me infer it, please dear GOD don’t make me SEE IT.
On the Interactive side, the puzzle design is rife with remote-effect knobs and switches with so much virtual real estate between them deduction is nearly impossible. You may pull a lever and ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD something interesting happens? Is this Butterfly Effect, the game? Even some clues are fixed remote from the puzzles they are cluing. There are red herring objects that look and feel like puzzles, but since they’re not they become huge wastes of time that you’re never quite sure WON’T be needed for some remote effect. Some game objects spawn new objects in old areas without hint, meaning if you don’t RE-examine old things you’ll never see them. And if you do, you will have no idea what it was you did that made it show up. Arbitrary barriers vanish when you get the right object, without clue that they’ve done so or why. All this makes for an opaque world with unpredictable behaviors and attendant lack of perceived player agency.
Perhaps most egregiously, the puzzle design was often actively at war with its interface, which was its biggest strength. This homebrew parser implementation POPS ya’ll. It is speedy and tight, and very capable. Why then are puzzles not leveraging this super impressive strength? Instead, they seem to steer directly into the cracks. Using spells requires a laborious spellbook paging exercise to relearn EVERY TIME. (The fact that spells are so infrequently useful actually makes that WORSE.) There is a maze that while clued, requires two commands for every step, and it’s not short. And you may need to navigate it several times. Another maze you don’t even get to interact with. Instead you are led through in a chafingly pointless and extended timed text sequence. Other puzzles require pressing buttons to set a code one increment at a time instead of dialing it in directly. Between the obscure design of the puzzles, and the punishing interaction needed to experiment with them, it feels like no thought was given to how it would PLAY only how to connect the desired clockwork of successful moves. I don’t believe it was engineered to maximize player frustration, but I see where that conclusion could be reached.
Ultimately, I consulted HINTS often here, somewhat sheepishly given its Spartan layout. I was almost always rewarded with ‘ok, but how was I supposed to know to do that?’ The answer is an implied ‘explore and experiment,’ which ok I guess? Then why make experimenting so painfully frictiony?
At this point I can no longer resist invoking last year’s game as contrast. It was almost a mirror image. It had a light Fictional setting that did SO much lifting in justifying the puzzles and cluing the cause-effect of the place. And was fun in its own right! The puzzle design leveraged its poppy engine for really engaging gameplay and satisfying puzzles. More of that please, author! This was a Mechanical exercise for me, puzzle design Intrusively anti-gameplay.
Credit where due though, there was one (Spoiler - click to show)spelling puzzle that I found to be a really clever and fun tweak of form. There is cool stuff in there!
Playtime: 2hr 160/350, not finished
Artistic/Technical ratings: Mechanical, Intrusive remote and slow puzzle design
Would Play After Comp?: No, not my puzzle style
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless
Have Orb, Will Travel is an old-school style parser, where you play a wizard tasked to find an elusive orb somewhere inside a quaint cottage, to gain back the Council’s trust. With its custom system and Interface reminiscing of old Minitel pages, the game is a puzzle fest. Though you will not really reach a failed state, the puzzles are fairly difficult. The game includes hints and a walkthrough, both of which I used extensively.
Sub orb-ital, December 8, 2023
Old-school style parsers intrigue me, in their implementation (often confusing for new parser players), their sometimes convoluted puzzles, and the sheer amount of work needed in the back-end to make things work. They require a lot of attention, out-of-the-box thinking to solve puzzles, and knowledge of the codes in interacting with elements. Reaching the end feels like an achievement.
But I struggled with it so much. I didn’t even exited the first room before I ended up opening the hint sections… which weren’t actually helpful in my case. Turns out, keys are not the only way to open a door. Who knew? ¯_(ツ)_/¯
Still, I persevered, because I am not a quitter, and ran around the cottage, trying to interact with anything in my path. Sometimes it worked well, and I could unlock things just fine (and feel so darn smart about it), sometimes… it was a frustrating disaster (;-; mazes yall… that one broke me.).
For how interesting and new some puzzles felt (actually, the maze, as strange as it was) or how reined-in the clues were (not always helpful, but fun anyway!), there were quite a lot of friction when it came down to playing it. For examples: you’d need to type a very specific command to get things, not just take item; even if a thing is mentioned in a description (especially an item), the program might not let you examine it unless it is in your inventory, pretending even it does not exist; one of the first items available to you is a book, but you can’t read it completely unless you turn each of its pages… All of these little frictions do end up adding up, making the game maybe a bit more frustrating than it could be.
Most of the latter part of the game (which I reached only because of the walkthrough), revolves around manipulating different machineries that affects other bits of the map. So you end up going to some part of the map, interact with one thing, walk around the map to see if it affected it correctly, walk back to the machine (which is sometimes going the long way round because of one-way passageways), pressing some more buttons and doing it again… Damned if you enter the wrong combination, because the game has many rooms.
While you are supposedly a wizard, and can learn 3 spells in-game, you surprisingly use very little magic to solve puzzles - the spells being used at most 3 times in total. You spend more time walking around the cottage or manipulating buttons, dials, and handles. You do end up getting a wand at some point though…
For all the text the game has, it answers surprising little in why you need to find the orb, how it got there, what it does, or how important it is to the Council. The game is so focused on the puzzle, you mainly learn about the setting or context of the story at the start, with the quest of finding the orb handed to you. Just a little bit of nudging and framing would have helped.
I still found the game fascinating - even if it may have broken my spirit a little bit, resulting in finishing the game with the walkthrough opened next to the game instead of solving it all by myself. The interface is very playful and colourful (though the timed text gets annoying by the second use of the ring), and the use of background noise gave the game a lot of charm. The ding notification when solving something and gaining points was so darn rewarding!
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).
I’m not generally one for “old-school” IF. The text adventures of the 80s don’t tickle my nostalgia receptors – I played a few at the time, and many more since then, but I got into IF via the late 90s/early aughts indie scene so when I think of The Games of My Youth, it’s Photopia and Slouching Towards Bedlam that come to mind. Many of them also tend to take the two-word parser approach, which fundamentally doesn’t jibe with how my brain approaches IF interfaces. And while I enjoy a good puzzle as much as the next person, I tend to place a high value on literary prose, thematic depth, and engaging characters; it’s not so much that most old-school IF is bad at those things as that it politely declines to even attempt such things in favor challenging gameplay in the medium-dry-goods model. I can enjoy this style of gameplay but I’m very aware that when I bounce off an old-school piece, the fault’s more likely to be on my side than the game’s.
At the same time, though, I sometimes wonder whether this attitude has become something of a crutch for my critical faculties. Like, it’s easy to say “I guess this thing I didn’t like is just a matter of taste”, and it makes one feel like a broad-minded, ecumenical sort of person who can look beyond their own prejudices. It’s much harder to try to be more rigorous and nail down questions like a) what exactly do we mean by “old school”, anyway, given that there were plenty of early 80s games that aimed to integrate gameplay, plot, and theme and had literary pretensions; b) what particular design elements are necessary or at least helpful to creating an “old school” vibe; and c) are those elements implemented well or poorly in a particular work?
That sounds like a lot of work that I’m not going to attempt now – maybe post-Comp fodder for the Rosebush – but having had these thoughts, I’ve decided to try to provide a slightly more critical look at Have Orb, Will Travel than I was first inclined to do. Because despite having enjoyed the author’s previous two games, this is another old-school puzzlethon that I didn’t quite get on with, but upon reflection I think that’s due to some particular design choices that deserve to be engaged with rather than just chalked up to de gustibus non est disputandum.
Start with the curious decision to play coy with the plot. It’s a hallmark of this style of game that the story isn’t a primary draw, but even by those standards what we’ve got here is curiously thin. The game’s blurb, its opening text, and the letter you start out with in your inventory all gesture towards your character having been given some sort of charge by a Council of Elders, which can be inferred to be to obtain the titular orb, but despite several hundred words being dedicated to this setup, it never comes out and says what the orb is, what it does, how it got lost, why you’re looking for it where you are, and why finding it will matter. Sure, it’s a MacGuffin, but this is uninspiring and even a little confusing, so much so that when I found a magical “sphere” I thought I’d just about hit the end of the game, even though I was only halfway through.
Speaking of magic, HOWT features a Vancian spellcasting system where you can learn spells from a spellbook and then cast them. I’ve liked this kind of system in games like Enchanter, but it’s again oddly vestigial here. There are only three spells in the book and you never accumulate more through play, there are only two places in the course of several dozen obstacles where spellcasting comes into play (meaning that yes, one of the spells appears to be useless), and the system is needlessly baroque, requiring the player to intuit that they need to manually LEARN each spell, which can only be done when you flip through the book page by page until you get to the appropriate one.
The puzzles are generally solid, though after a couple gimmes (there’s an early maze with a fun but straightforward gimmick that’s satisfying to solve) they quickly ramp up in difficulty. This is genre-appropriate – and kudos to the author for providing a full hint system as well as a walkthrough – but some design decisions around traversal made experimenting with them much more tortuous than it needed to be. The map is riddled with one-way passages whose existence isn’t disclosed in advance, and it’s easy to blunder into one before you’ve completed exploring a new area. It’s always possible to retrace your steps, but for much of the game, doing so typically requires either solving the maze again – which quickly grows tedious – or enduring a medium-length section with timed text, which similarly wears out its welcome almost instantly. Further, many puzzles involve interacting with some kind of mechanism that has an impact somewhere else in the map, often without a direct cue about what sort of changes you should be looking for. As a result, the puzzle design presupposes that the player will be making frequent laps around the map, while the navigation design contrives to make that approach pretty annoying.
I hasten to point out (er, 900 words into the review) that there are definitely strong elements here. The author’s homebrewed parser continues to be a highlight, feeling almost as seamless as the tried-and-true Inform or TADS ones (the only foible is that taking items from containers requires a little extra typing, but this is well signposted in the documentation, and a shortcut is provided). There are also a lot of little riddles and clues that help lead you through many of the puzzles, which is a style that I like and which is generally well-executed. And while the setting could be a bit more exciting – when you wend your way through a magically-confusing wood and discover a secret cottage hidden away at its center, it’s deflating to be told that it’s “totally uninteresting” in its features and décor – the prose is efficient at communicating what you need to solve the puzzles, and even manages to be fairly evocative. I think I found one bug (the game crashed when I tried to walk W into the lake rather than type SWIM) but otherwise it was completely smooth.
It’s these very positive pieces that make me want to beg off from any sharper critical judgment: this is a well-made game with a cheerful vibe, and its design choices feel intentional rather than being oversights, so if those design decisions frustrated me, again, maybe I should just blame myself. But thinking about them some more, I’m increasingly of the mind that actually some of those decisions were bad ones, and that HOWT could have been just as old-school but decidedly more engaging if it had paid a little more attention to its plot, or made the magic system a more integral part of its challenges, or reduced the friction of navigating its map. A game like this was never going to be my favorite in the Comp – again, this isn’t my subgenre of choice – but there’s no reason I couldn’t have liked it a lot more than I did.
2 people found the following review helpful:
Long old-school game with hard maze and complex puzzles, November 22, 2023
This is I think the 5th Jim MacBrayne game I’ve played, and I think it’s definitely the most fair and well scoped of them that I’ve played; either that or I’m simply getting used to their internal logic.
These games are all written in a custom engine that is remarkably smooth, as least here. For those new to Jim MacBrayne games, the most unusual feature is that if an object is in a container or on a supporter, you can’t take it; trying to will say ‘You don’t see any…’. I believe this is due to the fact that tracing through the contents of all the supporters and containers is too hard for the engine to handle. Instead, you have to say TAKE ALL FROM ____. There is a shortcut specifically for that (F1).
Anyway, the main idea of the game is that you are hunting through a cottage and adjoining area for a mysterious orb, with clues left behind by a circle of elders.
Most of the puzzles revolve around enigmatic devices that you have to figure out, interspersed with riddles and codes that explain how to use them.
I was able to get pretty far on my own; although I only got 70 points by the two hour mark, when I checked the walkthrough I was about 40% through the game. The puzzles are tough but fair; the place where I got stuck was due to not remember a clue from earlier.
The setting is very abstract, and much like Zork in its mix of fantasy and modern aesthetics.
I was glad to play this game, and hope Jim MacBrayne is able to enjoy coding up games for a while to come.
- Edo, November 6, 2023
- jaclynhyde, October 2, 2023
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