Have Orb, Will Travel

by Jim MacBrayne (as Older Timer)

Fantasy Adventure

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Calorie Conscious Questing, January 6, 2024
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2023

Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review

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!

Played: 11/7/23
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

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