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A charming one-room puzzler, January 10, 2023
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
A Walk Around the Neighborhood has a somewhat deceptive title. Like, close your eyes, picture what you do in the game based just on those five words and knowing it’s a parser game: I mean it’s right there, isn’t it? You take a stroll around some streets, maybe meet some neighbors who have some small problems, carry out some light fetch-questing to the corner shop; possibly there’s a park or bit of woods you can poke your head into, and there’s a little maze or something. But no, there’s a bait-and-switch – instead, what we’ve got here is a one-room puzzler, because while you’d like to go for the eponymous walk with your partner Alex, first you need to find your wallet, and charge your cell phone, and get your keys, and put on a mask… and since you’re working off a days-long hangover, none of this is as easy as you’d think.
There’s another layer of deceptiveness, though, because again, close your eyes and picture what the game is like based on that description: it’s a tough-as-nails pixelbitchfest, with tons of scenery (a few pieces of which will turn out to be important) and implausible puzzles that take what should be a grounded premise and make it absurd. However – twist upon twist! – A Walk Around the Neighborhood also manages to escape this escape-the-room stereotype. It’s a charming, laid-back game that’s smartly designed so that you can tackle its reasonable challenges in a bunch of different ways, and reach a satisfying, plausible ending even if you don’t feel like following the scavenger hunt to its bitter end.
It takes a little while to realize this, admittedly; I let out a groan when the intro stopped and I realized how long the list of stuff I’d need to collect was, and how concomitantly long the list of living-room furniture to poke at was, too. But that list of objects is pretty much it – there aren’t like sub-items and sub-parts fractally expanding the game space to ludicrous levels. And while many one-room games are dense but “steep”, with a host of puzzles that all depend on each other in a mostly linear sequence, this one is quite flat; there are one or two that need to be solved in order, but for the most part, there’s nothing that’s useless or out of bounds from the off, and wherever you start your efforts, you’re likely to make some satisfying progress.
The individual puzzles are well-designed, too. There are no secret messages or color-coded signals or anything like that, just a jumble of missing keys that have largely wound up where you would expect, and a couple of logical object-interaction puzzles. Sure, you’ll need to LOOK BEHIND and LOOK UNDER stuff, but that’s de rigueur for a game like this, and it specifically prompts you with those verbs so I think it plays fair on that score. A few are a bit more creative, including some that require watching TV for inspiration, but even these are quite grounded, helping maintain the integrity of the pleasant, low-key premise. And if you run into trouble, you can always check in with your partner, who can give you some light, in-world hints while proving a pleasant look what the relationship is like (there are regular hints, plus a walkthrough too).
Despite the simple building-blocks and the relatively short running time – I got one of the two “complete” endings in about 45 minutes – it’s surprisingly deep, too. You see, you’re not stuck on this train until you’ve managed to retrieve all your possessions – there are over a dozen additional off-ramps, where you get sucked into some other activity instead of going on that much-delayed walk. These are all easy enough to back out of with an UNDO, and crucially, they’re not treated as bad ends – sure, your partner might lightly chide you for not getting some exercise, but typically they involve doing something else that’s fun or useful, so it’s enjoyable to try stuff that’s not on the scavenger-hunt list to see if you can discover one of these premature endings.
Tying everything together, the tone is light without getting silly. As the presence of a mask on the list indicates, the game’s set during COVID times, but not in an intrusive or depressing way. And the protagonist has an affable voice that made me want to help them out – as befits the rest of the game, they’re not like aggressively characterized and the prose is by no means show-offy, but it’s technically quite clean and does a good job efficiently putting a little bit of personality into the straightforward descriptions of quotidian things:
The key ring currently holds a backdoor key, although it usually also holds a car key, a house key, a work key and a bike key.
Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence. Your key ring doesn’t quite make a full loop, so if you’re not careful with them (as happens from time to time, especially when you’re drinking or out with friends), they fall off without you realizing it.
Admittedly, there are a few items that have a default “you see nothing special about the XX” description, which really shouldn’t be the case in a small albeit jam-packed game like this, but at least it’s for stuff like AA batteries, where the lack of description isn’t holding the player back any. Other than that, I didn’t run into any bugs or implementation oversights. Really, this is a smooth, low-friction game; it’s cheerful and pleasant and rewarding to play. It’s not an angsty, story-heavy game that’s going to tax your brain and challenge your ability to put together a complex narrative, sure, so I suppose you could level the criticism that in some respects it’s a bit lightweight. But with a title like A Walk Around the Neighborhood, is that really what you’d be expecting? No, it does what it sets out to do, and very satisfyingly at that; it’s a quiet but clear highlight of the Comp.