Bigfoot Bluff

by P.B. Parjeter


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(Pun involving sasquatch), June 16, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

(I beta tested this game)

The first three sentences of Bigfoot Bluff land like a clap of thunder:

"Ten years ago you renounced Bigfootdom to become a paparazzi. Now it is your job to do an exposé on your reclusive sasquatch father. Welcome to Bigfoot Bluff."

This opening crawl efficiently answers every question you could have about the game – you have your who what where and why all cleanly laid out, albeit “how” is a bit trickier since you don’t start with a camera – while raising a whole host of new ones a player wouldn’t know they had to ask, like “wait, can you just choose to stop being a sasquatch?”, “have I been like photographing celebrities in Santa Monica sushi joints for the last decade? As a sasquatch?”, “couldn’t I just do the exposé on myself?”, and “wait, shouldn’t it be paparazzo or is that not how Italian works, because I’m pretty sure ‘paparazzi’ is Italian” (maybe that last one is just me).

To its credit, Bigfoot Bluff is adamant about not answering any of those questions – it’s given you all the backstory you need, and now it’s time to just roll with it. Beyond just the disorienting setup, the overall vibe of the setting took me a minute to get a handle on, before realizing that the author’s riffing on early-90’s tabloids, from the blurrily-photographed cryptids to a late-game cameo that I won’t spoil. In fact the ending pulls out a number of rugs, questioning the premise and raising significant questions about what’s going on outside the eponymous park. Squint, and you can see the game touching on questions that go beyond the terminally silly, about media production and overzealous parenting and identity – which it then comprehensively undercuts, so maybe the joke is on me for starting to take it seriously. Regardless, it’s a uniquely-combined set of reference points that come together into a mélange that’s memorable even if it might not be to every player’s taste.

The gameplay is also something of a rara avis. Bigfoot Bluff bills itself as a sandbox game, which calls to mind a certain structure – of a fairly open map where the player has a lot of freedom to solve puzzles, which are largely of the medium-dry-goods variety – but here also speaks to the mechanics. Rather than requiring you to run through a linear chain of barriers to unlock the endgame, though, the game takes a more systemic approach. Instead of points, you have a stealth score, that abstractly represents how noticeable you are; the finale is gated behind getting a sufficiently high score, on the theory that at that point you’re sneaky enough to get sufficiently close to your bigfoot dad to snap a pic.

Even more intriguingly, this doesn’t only increase monotonically – while solving many puzzles will increase your stealth, as will wearing the appropriate disguises, but some actions can also decrease your stealth. Sometimes these are signposted, but sometimes what feels like ordinary IF-protagonist behavior gets you dinged. For example, you might think that wearing sunglasses would help you blend into the crowd, but in the park environment, the glare they give off winds up drawing attention to you. The game is clear that you can always regain lost points by taking appropriate actions, which adds an interesting wrinkle, though it also necessitates disabling UNDO to prevent the player from ignoring this aspect.

I’m of two minds about this – on the one hand, this moves the gameplay in a roguelike direction, creating the expectation that part of the fun for the player is rolling with some punches, but on the other, sometimes it can set up situations that feel like gotchas, which hits doubly-hard when the player convenience of taking back the offending action is removed. I personally like roguelikes, and given the large number of ways to get points none of these setbacks wind up being that punitive, but at the same time keeping UNDO enabled might encourage players to opt into the chaos, rather than leaving them to start save-scumming or declining to poke at dangerous-seeming situations. At any rate, experimenting with traditional gameplay axioms like this is exciting – it gives me lots of ideas for other ways to import roguelike or immersive sim mechanics into IF.

I keep using, or circling around, the word “unique”, because there’s very little that Bigfoot Bluff does that’s conventional. It’s notable that the author has previously made choice-based games, I think – I’ve mentioned my thesis that the long-established division between these two kinds of works is breaking down, and BB may be an example of how that hybridization is shaking things up, since my sense is that the kinds of systemic design it uses are more prevalent in the choice-based space. If it’s an experiment, though, it’s a generous one, letting the player choose how deep they want to get into the puzzling and allowing them to roam the (nicely-illustrated) map to their heart’s content. Even though I mostly wound up wittering on about design, here, it’s still very much a fun, playable game – it just might leave your brain bouncing in a bunch of different directions when you’re done.