Off-Season at the Dream Factory

by B.J. Best (writing as “Carroll Lewis") profile


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Number of Reviews: 5
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Orcs have feelings too. Let Dud share his with you., November 29, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

I'm glad Adventuron exists. I think it fills a gap between pure-choice engines and Inform. It's not too rigorously pointed to pure text or to specific web effects. Certainly when I learned about Inform, I felt as though I had to learn all the verbs and their default behaviors, which was fun for a while when I wanted to feel competence, but then it just annoyed me to feel I had to. The person behind Adventuron has done great things to keep it simple yet attractive. You have the picture in the top half and the text prompts in the bottom. There are relatively few basic verbs--unlink Inform, Adventuron never felt a need to pay homage to Infocom with rarely-used ones. But of course you can define more. For those who want, you can have colored text or the fonts you want. And OSatDF seems better suited to Adventuron than a choice-based engine or Inform. It looks for a homage to, well, Lewis Carroll and is very successful, while still being its own story.

You play Zildud "Dud" Henderson, an orc who works at a Dream Factory. That's where non-orc clients beat up orcs for fun and adventure or, at any rate, excitement that helps keep the economy going. This isn't the first game to look at how the bad guys live, but it does give a credible view into how they could live and not really be the bad guys. Dud's not good at his job, but it makes money. His human co-worker, Jonathan, sympathizes with having to deal with his fairy boss, who doesn't understand why Dud fails to even put up a fight. Can't he get over it and be a decent employee? Not actually kill the enemies, of course. After all, they don't kill him. Employees all wear reanimators, which ensure you can come back from that in-between world to face a new foe? Just, Dud needs to do better, for himself and for his boss. And yet, he doesn't want to spend his whole life getting beaten up. To make things more complex, his father was a lot better at his job than Dud but got killed when his reanimator glitched.

Dud's first trip to work is, well, a dud. Not for the player, necessarily. There's a maze to start, and there's a trick to the maze, and once you're 3/4 of the way through, the game stops giving you chances to mess up, which is really nice of it. The forest maze pictures change nicely enough, and I almost felt a bit upset when Dud reached the clearing outside MEI (Dud's employers) and I wouldn't have to do that again. In this clearing, you have Dud wait and fight enemies, give a good effort (hopefully) and then enter the office to get more gold for humans to beat you up and take. The injuries are all mental, but they're there. The game's forgiving each time you lose, though if you've played before, or you really grind at the puzzles, you need only lose once, at the start. You have about the same hit points, but you generally do about 2 damage per round to the humans' 10.

How to rectify this? Dud's mother suggests he talk to his Uncle, an Orcish Lewis Carroll-a-like. There's a vulgar history book with orcs as brutes, etc., and Uncle Carroll discusses his feelings on it, but he has more practical advice. It seems painfully random at first, until you realize that there are spells involved. If Dud can learn defensive spells that tie enemies up, he can defeat opponents without hurting them. There are five such spells, which use Adventuron's rainbow text quite well. To find them, you alternate between reality and a sewer that contains runoff from the dream factory. For each item you find, you get a spell. They're tied in with Carroll's famous poem Jabberwocky, so you have stuff like wax lips and cabbage cloud and royal robe. (Talk of cabbages and kings, if you forgot.)

The contrast between the real world dream world(s) is quite effective. Your dream world is based on the cheap freebie experience potential clients get which, of course, is no-frills and low-res. The font is blocky and so are the corridors. Even a snake guarding an important item is extremely lumpy. So there's a great contrast in graphics, simply done. The dream world, in addition, has a different set of directions (forward, turn around, left and right, and you can type in just the first letter) from outside, and I thought that too was a nice hat-tip to first-person RPGs. It's the right size, and it doesn't sprawl, either. Finally, the combats have a cursive-ish font which is right at home. I've heard boring (to me) discussions of Evocative Fonts before, and they left me shaking my head, but OSatDF proved to me that, yes, it can be a very positive thing, and it doesn't have to be complex.

Once you have the spells you need, combat is pretty easy, and the descriptions of enemies (clearly quite different and weird to your orcish self, with their odd mannerisms and clothes) flailing around is pretty funny. You can just use trial and error to figure who gets befuddled be which spells. A story develops: your boss, who abused you for being no good, seems quite upset now you've gotten good. She is hiding something, clearly. And there's a climactic scene at the end I don't want to spoil.

OSatDF brings up many serious issues without really being heavy. When I got the game to test, I was worried it might be Just Another Carroll Tribute, and later I worried it might veer into My Lousy Job territory, but it quickly proved to be more than that. There's the surface complaint of "that orc you beat up had a family, too!" but OSatDF explores it, along with issues like what it means to have a demeaning service-industry job where the customer is always right. Or, in some cases, how to deal with people who want to defeat you in an argument–but not too easily! Or they want to pretend they had a challenge without actually having one. And while LavaGhost's review brought up more serious points, I had really only considered the dream factory clients as a similar, lesser version of people who go to Africa to "hunt" exotic animals bigger than they are.

Both endings were satisfying to me, where Zildud has a moral choice. I also think the last lousy point was quite apt. It was independent of any puzzles and definitely in tune with "a modern interpretation of (classic work X)" and made me laugh. At the same time, it showed one more way Dud was surveilled and, yet, gave a small message of encouragement from Uncle Carroll. Which is quite good, because with a Lewis Carroll poem as inspiration, a game like OSatDF could try to be too wacky. Fortunately, it imagines things that are quite real and preposterous at the same time, and it almost seems like escapism until you take a bit of time to consider Dud's employer, MEI, being both quite shady and pedestrian at the same time. They're offering people wild fun! What's wrong with that? Well, only certain SORTS of people.

I think the only other game I've seen that treats Orcs as the civilized guys is Magic Candle III, an RPG from 25+ years ago. It was great fun, with a lot of jabs at uncivilized humans. And I think I put in a silly bit in Ailihphilia where you get a "we're not the same" response for feeding a troll ort to the cross orc or ergot ogre. This is considerably deeper than both, of course, with a stronger story angle. I think it's effective and doesn't lean on the original material too much. You never get a "Look at me I'm literary" vibe from it. The author got a lot of small things right that a book just can't do.

On replay I was slightly upset the puzzles were easy to remember. Like the in-game antagonists, I suppose, I wanted to win quickly, but not too quickly. I grumped when it folded like Dud. But that cleared the way for some of the less whimsical themes the author hoped to address. Yet I can still take it as a fun game. I have to admit I forgot I tested it for some reason. It had been a few months, but it's memorable enough. Still, I was glad to piece together the parts I didn't quite remember. It's much more serious than it seems, if you want it to be. Or it can just be a lot of fun.

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