Have Orb, Will Travel

by Jim MacBrayne (as Older Timer)

Fantasy Adventure

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Sub orb-ital, December 8, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(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.

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