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About the Story
"Magic comes with a price. But on your birthday, all your expenses are paid. Welcome to Grooverland."
1st place - ParserComp 2021
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Number of Reviews: 4
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Happy birthday to you!
It's your special day and your parents have gone all out and got you the Queen-package for Grooverland. It's an all-access special treatment pass for your favourite theme-park, with a coronation ball in the big castle included. You just have to enjoy the rides and find your Queen-stuff while you're at it.
A seemingly light and humorous plot, told in a funny and colourful tone. Until you get a bit farther along on your quest and start gathering the regalia you need to enter the Queen's castle. A darker dimension lies behind our own, and obtaining the symbols of your royalty causes it somehow to overlap more and more with the happy theme-park reality, subverting our familiar world into solid scary-clown territory. (Coulrophobics can rest assured, no actual scary clowns appear in the game)
The writing seems to have some trouble keeping up with the gradually changing atmosphere. The descriptions do change while the game-world devolves into a darker version of itself, and random background events now depict monstrosities selling snacks, but I never had the feeling of being dragged down into darkness with the protagonist though. I was more a curious but distant observer than an involved participant.
In part, this is because the puzzles are so darn good. They are very accessible, even on the easy side. At the same time, they are wonderfully original in the most creative way: take something that's well-established and add an unexpected twist. The laser-fight puzzle is among the best I've ever seen, while it is in essence a "push the right button"-puzzle in disguise.
Now, the accessibility and originality of the puzzles demands that the writing be crystal clear (which it is), without any ambiguities in the descriptions, so the player can clearly visualize the surroundings. This takes precedence over describing the atmosphere of the changing game-world. The clarity of the puzzle-descriptions shines a bright spotlight in the supposedly dim and gloomy alternate realm taking over our world, causing it to be not so dim and gloomy.
Grooverland's gameplay made a very solid, robust impression on me. The game-world felt like it was there, and I could try whatever I wanted without fear of breaking anything or confusing the underlying order. There are helpful NPCs, funny references to other games, a lot of tinkering and experimenting puzzles, all leading up to an exciting endgame.
The grand finale is just the way I like it. I have proved my worth during the middlegame, solving the fiddly puzzles with the many possibilities. Now it is time for a straightforward but very exciting and well-paced boss fight. Excellent way to reward the player and to leave him with a sense of accomplishment after finishing the game.
I enjoyed this very much.
About a decade ago, I played the Lego Harry Potter video game with an ex-girlfriend. She was a fan of the franchise, but at the time it was probably the biggest gap in my nerd-milieu knowledge: I’d never read any of the books or seen any of the movies, so while I knew the setting’s basics (off-brand Gandalf, wizard rugby, Alan Rickman) I had no idea about the overall plot or the secondary characters. The game, unsurprisingly, was pitched towards fans: the cutscenes didn’t have dialogue, just mime-acted versions of famous sequences that the audience presumably knew by heart, and it boasted dozens of beloved side-characters to unlock. My memories of playing it are thus of bizarre story sequences where a mute Lego-guy seemed to be scared of the moon or an ugly-cute gnome was excited to read a book about a sock, while my ex excitedly crowed that we’d just unlocked Fistibum Crackettycrank, who looked exactly like the seven other randos we’d previously rescued. And yet, I had fun! The cartoonish pratfalls in the cutscenes had great comedic timing, and the low-challenge, welcoming gameplay was enjoyable even if I had no idea why killing plants with sunlight should work.
This is a long-winded way of saying that as with Zork, I’ve never actually played a Chandler Groover game, save for that cyberpunk fish-pope one he co-authored last year. But while that means that I’m pretty sure I’m missing a huge number of in-jokes, call-backs, and meta references in Grooverland, nonetheless it’s a well-crafted romp through a darkly fantastical playground that doesn’t require outside knowledge to be compelling. Starting with a dangerous situation that turns out to be innocent, then slowly shifting from innocence to spookiness then back to danger, there’s a smooth progression through a series of set-piece puzzles that are clever without being too hard, and if the relatively-thin overall plot means Grooverland doesn’t wind up being more than the sum of its parts, those parts are compelling enough in their own right.
Said plot has a straightforward setup: the player is a little girl whose family have brought her to the eponymous amusement park to celebrate her birthday, and after a short introductory sequence you’re given a list of regalia to collect ahead of a climactic celebration for your big day. This framing provides a perfect excuse for running around the various attractions – your character is clearly excited to be there so seeing all the sights and chatting with all the characters is in-theme, but you also have a puzzle or challenge awaiting you at most of the park’s sub-areas, which move you closer to completing the scavenger hunt. The structure isn’t a simple hub-and-spokes (or maybe spine-and-ribs?) model, since some of the challenges are initially locked off by an independent puzzle, and there are some connections between the areas so only a few are completely self-contained. This helps proceedings feel less artificial than scavenger-hunts sometimes do – progress requires more than going north to solve a puzzle and find a MacGuffin, then going to east to do the same, then south…
Collecting the pieces of regalia also slowly transforms the park, adding to the dynamism of the world. What starts out as a purely kid-friendly, sunny playground takes on a more sinister cast, with the patrons growing more inhuman and members of your family going missing one by one. This effectively raises the stakes, again making Grooverland more engaging than the typical “solve five puzzles and then you’re in the endgame” scavenger hunt. Unfortunately, on my playthrough, this meant I never actually got a chance to talk with my sister Alice, since she was the first to be taken despite being located the farthest from the entrance, so I’d solved the first major puzzle before I came across her. I’m not sure if the choice of abductees is randomized, and of course other players might explore more systematically before trying to crack the puzzles, but it was still disappointing to miss out on meeting her, especially since the help text indicates that she can provide some background info on the various easter eggs and Chandler Groover references.
The writing is effective but for some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I found the prose wasn’t always quite as evocative as I wanted it to be. Take the Midnight Laserfight area, where vicomtes and countesses, clad in fools’ motley and armed with laserpistols and cutlasses, fight savage skirmishes for the parkgoers’ amusement. That’s a great setup, redolent of ancien-regime decadence, but some of the descriptions once you dig in are a little flat. Here’s X VICOMTES:
"This group of people are so wild and diverse they are impossible to describe. Your sister Alice might say they have a look that 'inspires passion', but that’s just Alice. They are carrying some red laserpistols and wearing some red motley."
It’s definitely not bad, but I wanted a little more to sink my teeth into. With that said, there are also places where the prose does go the extra mile, like the descriptions of the too-big, too-sweet cake you eat your way through in pursuit of one piece of the regalia.
The puzzles are ultimately the main draw here, and they’re a fun bunch, widely varied and rewarding to solve. There’s a series that involve luring animals out from the petting zoo to help overcome a bunch of different obstacles, an optimization puzzle involving feeding the right foods to the right animals in the right order, two mazes that play very differently (though neither is frustrating), and the aforementioned Laserfight area, which has a profusion of levers to pull, dials to turn, and noblemen to arm, in a pleasingly tactile way. These are lots of fun to work through, since you never feel like you’re doing the same thing twice. The difficulty also hits a nice middle ground, since most of the puzzles require a little bit of thinking or note-taking, but once you do that they fall pretty easily (I build a spreadsheet for the food puzzle, which was overkill but that’s OK, I love making spreadsheets for puzzles!)
Despite these varying mechanics, the implementation of the puzzles is completely smooth, with every synonym and alternate syntax I could think of easily accepted. And even when there were multiple layers of events firing off in some of the more complicated scenarios, I didn’t notice any holes that took me out of the world. There are also a really large number of conversation topics implemented for the sizable supporting cast, which added to the fun of exploration. With all this spit and polish for the key parts of the game, it’s forgivable that there are a few small rough patches in some inessential areas – a few typos and missing line-breaks, the inability to pet the animals in the petting zoo, the persistence of a few members of the crowd after the part is evacuated, and a non-updating description of the layers remaining in the giant cake after you start eating are niggles that would be nice to see fixed in a post-Comp release, but don’t do much to impact enjoyment.
While I’m levelling small criticisms, I also found the endgame weaker than the beginning and middle. Again, it’s not bad by any means, with callbacks to the opening and some nice thematic weight, but the final sequence is a fairly straightforward matching puzzle that’s not as mechanically interesting as what comes before. And the ending wraps up the fate of the park, its rulers, and its inhabitants perhaps a little too neatly, and doesn’t linger on the impact of the day’s events on the protagonist and her family.
But perhaps that’s for the best: I won’t remember Grooverland for its epic narrative but for as the small moments along the way, like meeting the delightful Morgan the Mechanical, dancing a frenzied tango with the gentlemanly Eugene, and winding my way through the world’s creakiest (and rattlingest, and shakingest) mansion – it’s more of a place than a story, in other words, and what a marvelous place indeed.
I have a vague recollection of a Twitter conversation with the esteemed Mathbrush about a year ago regarding this game that was still a work in progress at the time. I don't remember if I was talking to him about it or merely observing a thread he had going with someone else, but what I do remember (which doesn't necessarily make it true) is that he said he was working on a game that combined all of the most popular elements from IFComp winners of years past. That he was making the uber-IFComp game, designed specifically to win the competition in 2021. I'm not sure what happened along the way, but more vague memories of tweet snippets have led me to believe that IFComp needed his help, perhaps behind the scenes, but definitely as the preeminent reviewer and judge of interactive fiction, so he selflessly entered his game in the less prestigious (though still awesome) ParserComp 2021. And it won, defeating a game by another titan of IF, Robin Johnson, along the way. I don't know if it would have won IFComp 2021 (the list of games isn't out yet), but it would have had a great chance.
This is a really good game.
You play the part of Lily, a little girl on her birthday at the eponymous theme park, tasked with gathering five key items from throughout the park in order to enter the castle at the far end of the park and become queen for a day. But all is not as it seems. Strange things are happening in the park, and the longer the day goes the weirder things get.
The game is heavy on puzzles and atmosphere, light on story, but that's just fine. The puzzles are some of the best I've encountered and range from easy and obvious to tricky and hard. I liked the spectrum of puzzle difficulties as well as the variety of types. There are a few find-the-missing-item puzzles that we've all seen a million times, but there were also some truly unique geographic and mechanical puzzles, one of which I will likely nominate for a XYZZY award (see spoilers below). With one exception I thought puzzles were pretty easy to wrap your head around, even if they took a little while to solve, and the clues were ample.
The world is very modest in size and the map laid out very simply, which is great as it makes sure that navigation isn't a frustration. I did draw a small map for one of the puzzles, but moving around the park from attraction to attraction was easy and set in memory pretty quickly. Every location and just about every item was important, with some dependent on others in order to progress, so that if you got stuck somewhere you could just explore and examine some more, or in other areas and usually find something to help you out. There is also an in-game hints system. I didn't have to use it at all (first time in while that has been the case), but I tested it out after I finished the game and the hints for the hardest puzzle are good and dole out the information Invisiclues-style so you get just the push you need.
Overall the writing wasn't anything to write home about, but it usually isn't something that I look for in parser games. However, there were a couple places that had some great writing, one atmospheric (to me reminiscent of the Land of the Dead puzzle from Zork) and one just crazy weird in true Groover fashion. The story is thin, again, pretty normal for puzzle-first parser games, but it is sweet and has a good ending.
Overall, a truly excellent and enjoyable game. This one got close to five stars from me, and I very rarely give those out.
(Spoiler - click to show)My favorite puzzle was making the Creaky House sing. I think that one should get nominated for best individual puzzle in next year's XYZZY awards.
My least favorite puzzle was the Midnight Laserfight puzzle. The explanation of the mechanics/layout of puzzle went by fast and didn't give me enough to really visualize what was happening. I had to save my game and then restart to go back to the first entrance into that room to get the explanation again and still it took me a while to figure it out. But eventually I did without hints. There were enough clues in the text after you experimented with giving the teams uneven weapons that I knew what my ultimate goal was, and I just missed it a couple times when the hidden room became an option at the controls.
See All 4 Member Reviews
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This is version 7 of this page, edited by MathBrush on 15 August 2021 at 2:12pm. - View Update History - Edit This Page - Add a News Item