Time For Tea

by kaibutsu


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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Loose leaves, loose ends, November 30, 2013
by Mr. Patient (Saint Paul, Minn.)

Time for Tea makes a terrific first impression, with signs of a lush, deeply imaginative setting, great atmosphere, and strong writing. That impression isn't quite sustained through extended play, but even so, it's a deserving winner of the 2nd Metafilter competition.

The setting was adapted from Clarabelle Chong's Time 4 Tea, from the 2010 One Page Dungeon competition. Most of the other entrants that I looked at were in a D&Dish vein: caves and orcs and that sort of thing (although I see that Adam Thornton had a winning entry that year entitled Central New Jersey After the 'Big Whoops'). Time 4 Tea is a fantasy/SF Victorian "dungeon" with an enormous amount of imagination stuffed into the one page. There are tea alchemists unlocking magical powers, tea pirates, missing persons, mysterious notebooks, strange symbols, sinister labs filled with unusual machines, and of course, the rough outline of an actual dungeon which ends with the word "secrets!".

Virtually all of this ends up in the IF game (which was not written by Clarabelle Chong), along with some new elements: airships, a cult of Hermes Trismegistus, permutation theory in mathematics, and a touch of Lovecraftian horror. The setting seems fully-formed right out of the gate. Very quickly -- before having left the first room, even -- we find a notebook filled with historical details. We're encouraged to SOCIALIZE with the other patrons in a tea garden, suggesting that this will be a game which takes its pseudo-Victorian backdrop seriously. The initial objects we encounter have been given the deluxe treatment:

> x silver coin
Minted just two years ago, the coin carries the visage of Blake Whitstone, who founded the eponymous city in 1843, just after the War of the Rosy Cross. On the reverse is a diminutive picture of a fleet of clipper ships with minuscule tea leaves inscribed on their tiny sails. The coin should be just enough to buy your afternoon tea.

It's quite a lot to absorb from an opening, but it says to the player: There's some deep world-building going on here; you're in good hands. Unfortunately, while it remains fairly compelling throughout, the game doesn't quite fulfill this promise. The central problem is that it writes a lot of checks that it can't cash. We know from the start there's a grand mystery or conspiracy involving the tea trade, alchemy, and a missing person. As we persevere through the game, more gets piled on. There are grotesque statues, mysterious plants, a bookstore we can't get into, massive machines, engravings, creepy paintings, old tomes, all lavishly described with seemingly important detail. It turns out that hardly any of it actually matters. At the end, when we have won, we have learned almost nothing. The author ran with all the interesting stuff in Chong's original design, added yet more cool stuff to it, but didn't actually tie anything together. The game is all loose ends. It's a shame, because it's a hell of a setup.

After that first room or two, Time for Tea also becomes somewhat thinly implemented: there are a lot of objects which appear important but are only painted on; actions which should be plausible but are not accounted for; synonyms expected but not found; and just a couple of NPCs with not much to say. The game is written with a definite just-enough aesthetic. If something is directly related to the solution, it'll be manipulable or takeable, and might have second-order descriptions. If not, it might still get a very detailed description, but otherwise will be swaddled in default responses.

The puzzles are mostly in the just-about-right range, except for two. One of these involves a (Spoiler - click to show)hungry animal who has something you need. If you are reading this, you already know the solution. The obvious actions do not work, though, and the failure messages you get are highly misleading. (In fact, the solution makes no sense at all, as you have to perform the action on the (Spoiler - click to show)wrong animal). The other puzzle is one of the hardest I've ever seen in any game. To access a certain location, you must place objects in a specific order. This order is determined by (Spoiler - click to show)understanding a bit of mathematics I've never heard of (and which took quite a bit of concentration to grasp), finding two codes, performing a very unexpected (and unmentioned) operation on those two codes, and then taking the result and decoding it back into a value. Or to be more precise, decoding it into one of two values, because the game randomly selects between them. As you work on the puzzle, there is no feedback to give you any confidence that you actually understand what you're doing. The game has built-in hints, but they are so limited and so coy as to be useless. The hint given for the ordering puzzle is "Everything in its right place, but which place is right?". Ultimately, I contacted the author for the solution.

I've been mostly negative here, and I didn't mean to be. I found the mystery at the game's center compelling enough to want to see it through, to try decompiling the game to help solve that inscrutable puzzle, and to track down and email the author for help. Time for Tea is unquestionably the cream of the 2010 Metafilter competition. But to actually tell the story it wants to tell, it would need to be as long as Anchorhead.