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About the Story
Dear Ms. ████████
27th Place - 26th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2020)
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Number of Reviews: 8
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Oh, I just got (Spoiler - click to show)got why the subtitle’s funny.
Academic Pursuits is a funny, focused game with an assured narrative voice, and while there are no puzzles to speak of, there’s plenty of entertainment to be had fiddling about its one-room setting. The player character has to unpack their boxes after an office move – they’ve just taken a new job at a university – and while the nuts and bolts of the gameplay involves finding small, medium, and large spaces for the small, medium, and large items coming out of the boxes a few at a time, the real engagement comes from peeling back the player character’s backstory and characterization.
This is done in several layers: most prosaically by EXAMINING each item in turn, but there’s also a THINK ABOUT verb implemented which provides some additional context and hints at the player character’s history with the item. You can get further information, and views into the protagonist’s character, depending on where you place the item: you could put the farewell card from your old colleagues in a prominent place on your desk or bookshelf, secreted away in a bottom drawer of your desk, or simply chuck it into the rubbish bin. In each case, you’ll get a response showing you more of the player character’s thought process, and also might make an impact on the mood of your room – there are a few objects that have a rather dour aspect, like a jar of soil where you’re unsuccessfully trying to grow some flowers, and putting too many of them out will lead to your office being described as having a gloomy mood.
There’s a story – or maybe it’s better to say a situation – that emerges from all of this, and it’s fun to piece together this tale of academic rivalry with a twist. It’s fairly simple to get the broad strokes of what’s going on ((Spoiler - click to show)I figured out the protagonist’s deal as soon as I started messing around with the first object, a mug with suspicious dark stains – and yes, the jar of soil isn’t really for flowers), but the relationship between the main character and the Professor has clearly taken some twists and turns that are fun to try to trace through, even if they didn’t all clearly resolve for me. The writing is strong throughout, boasting clean prose with nary a typo to be seen, and a wry, arch tone that’s full of small jokes and double-entendres.
The implementation is similarly solid – though the main action involves juggling multiple items into different containers, with size always being an important factor, objects can be dropped places and swapped fairly easily, with a minimum of parser annoyance. This is important since seeing the end will probably require rejiggering your solution once or twice, as a new object emerging from a late box will often upend your plans. The one niggle I ran into was that uncharacteristically for an Inform game, I couldn’t refer to the “wide shelf” or the “narrow shelf” as simply WIDE or NARROW, which was simple to work around.
My only real disappointment with the game is that I’d hoped for a bit more reactivity from the ending. As far as I can tell, there’s not an optimum solution to the unpacking puzzle that puts every object somewhere, and the tradeoffs you’re forced to make are implied to be reflective of how you’re playing the main character – at least some objects will need to be discarded, and as you put each one in the rubbish bin there’s a small judgment voiced about why the protagonist is doing that and what it says about their character, and the same is true of which objects you choose to display openly and which you hide. Based on that, I’d been expecting that there’d be some summing up of my choices at the end, with a statement about what they all said about my version of the protagonist. But I didn’t notice anything of the sort, just a quick reference to the objects I’d left easily visible that restricted itself to the concrete.
Working out the combinatorial possibilities here I’m sure would be exhausting – my game has a similar, but much simpler, setup in one of its puzzles, and implementing it nearly broke me – though I thought it would have provided a neat bow on the whole experience. But even without that, Academic Pursuits still makes for a lovely game – nothing wrong with focusing on the journey, not the destination, after all.
This is a short, one-room, parser-based game where you play someone moving into an office at a university. The game is basically one complex spatial puzzle where you have to take items out of your moving boxes and put them in various places around your office until they all fit. Well, actually (Spoiler - click to show)they don't all fit, and so a second layer to the puzzle is to figure out which items are important and which items can be thrown away or sent back to storage. Despite the basic nature of the puzzle, the game uses the objects in it and your actions with them to tell your backstory and reveal why you are at the university in the first place. Part of the story, who you are, is pretty obvious from the get-go. The rest becomes clear as you work through all the puzzle pieces. I thought it was a fun and unique way to tell a story.
My biggest complaints would be that the game was heavy-handed in some things, like (Spoiler - click to show)revealing your true nature, and not clear enough in others, like (Spoiler - click to show)how to know when you were done or even if you were headed in the right direction. Still, well worth the time!
This game is ostensibly about unpacking and furnishing your new office. It has a simple mechanic, but has enough intriguing details to make it more than an (ahem) academic exercise. To tell more would probably be spoilers…!
If you liked this, Bruno Dias's New Year's game Not All Things Make it Across should scratch the same itch. Unpacking, after all, is a liminal space sort of activity - marking a transition from one location to another, and in this case one stage of life to another.
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