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About the Story
Set out on a dire mission through worlds with nothing but amnesia and intuition.
68th place - 27th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2021)
IFComp 2021: Plane Walker
Plane Walker opens as an intriguing thriller aboard an empty plane. Not just any plane—you wake up mid-flight to discover you’re a passenger aboard a jumbo jetliner devoid of travelers or crew. Your destination on your ticket has been mysteriously defaced. While this rings out like the set-up for a Twilight Zone episode or a Hollywood action movie, the opening lines hint at something more thoughtful...
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Number of Reviews: 3
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Instead of giving a review, I'd like to give a description of my experience playing.
I start the game. I try 'X ME', and get the standard response ('As good looking as ever.'). I'm on an airplane with amnesia, no other flyers and the bathrooms blocked by doors. I find a few items and look around. I get stuck and look more, and find an object that only appears when you examine something twice.
I then get stuck, because I know I need to (Spoiler - click to show)break a keypad but I don't know how. I even try hitting it with (Spoiler - click to show)a pencil. I turn to the walkthrough: apparently I'm supposed to (Spoiler - click to show)hit the number 6 key, specifically, to break the keypad.
At this point, I realize I would never have figured this out. I turn to the walkthrough and start following it blindly. I go to a school with no connection to the last location, and apparently need to figure out that I need to (Spoiler - click to show)put a book from the airplane on a random lectern and then walk into it. I'm grateful for the walkthrough but after I escape the (Spoiler - click to show)complex plane the walkthrough breaks down, so it seems the author didn't test the walkthrough for this version of the game. I try exploring on my own but get nowhere. No testers are credited.
I would play this game again, but it needs a lot more polish, a lot of the descriptions are generic ('The barren hallway continues from north to south, and it turns to the east'), and the interactivity didn't work for me, leading to less of an emotional impact. This means I'm giving 1 star, although this game works reasonably well and probably took a lot more work than some other shorter games in the comp. It's just that according to my usual criteria it would only receive 1 star, and I'd like to be consistent.
I think the author could make an incredible game if they had a longer testing period with many testers, including some familiar with what's possible in parser games.
I played Plane Walker through with a walkthrough during IFComp. It was pretty wild and confusing, and yet, I thought there was something there. I hoped there was. Perhaps without the walkthrough I would've gone nuclear. But I'm glad it's there. Some people may be purists and say a walkthrough doesn't count. I like it as evidence the author tried to figure out and explain what was going on to people who might miss it. Unfortunately, the walkthrough is a bit plain (heh,) but after two playthroughs I had a better idea of what was going on. Perhaps I have a sympathy for games with weak blurbs and walkthroughs because I may rely on walkthroughs, myself. But the walkthrough was there, and it evidenced some level of rigor, and I think I saw that rigor the second time through. It actually leads you in the wrong direction, and when I discovered the right thing to do, I felt smart.
The table is set for so much more. The game name is clever, given the plot. You move from walking about a plane to (sort of) walking about, well, the plane of complex numbers. This gives very strong _A Beauty Cold and Austere vibes_. That was a big-idea general game that very effectively looked at stuff like basic graph theory and gave enough space for possible sub-games or spinoffs that discussed trickier mathematical ideas in detail. For instance, you could discover how to derive the Quadratic or Cubic formula. Or you could have a proof of sorts of the Checkerboard problem (I wrote an EctoComp game called The Checkered Haunting which tried to,) or maybe a look at induction or strong induction.
And I felt sort of bad when Mike Spivey asked me “what more would you do with this/what would you add?” after I sent a transcript. My answer was: yes, this is out of the scope of ABCA, but I'd do stuff like show how the quadratic or cubic formulas got derived. I don't know how, because it's hard, but if it could be done, that'd be cool. This sort of thing in a blurb might leave people running and screaming for the next game, but it would definitely attract certain people or make them realize okay, I need to buckle down here. IIRC, Mike responded "yeah, that'd be neat, but it'd be hard." But I think there is a lot you can do with probability or whatever that'd go beyond a story problem, and so forth. And ABCA covers a lot of basics and opens the door to much more that could be done.
But it's all a bit dry with Plane Walker. And the first impression it gives when you have to guess the verb a bit to short out a passcode keypad is unfortunate, though things pick up from there. You find a textbook, read it, enter a chalkboard, and flip to the right page to move forward in the game. There are a few aliens around telling you you have a mission, but I was unable to read between the lines. There's a dungeon area where you clean off a pickaxe and break down walls. There are also some classroom doors which the game says you should be able to enter, but you can't. Eventually you make yourself two-dimensional, which is kind of cool. (This spoils nothing, as the way to go 2-D is unusual.)
Unfortunately, though, Plane Walker seems to rely too much on the “intuition” part of “nothing but amnesia and intuition,” and I was left confused. Since the walkthrough was just commands, I wasn't even sure what my mission was. I floated around a lecture hall and read textbooks. This all should have had a more explicit, point but it didn't. I had a few moments where things seemed pretty neat, though in one case, I completely misunderstood what was going on in a puzzle. I thought you had to tie a rope around yourself to fetch a key around a bend, but instead, you got the 2-D puzzle above. On reflection, I can't remember why the rope was necessary.
Still, there are neat harmless trippy bits as well as good cluing of what doors will be available later in the game, as you wander the university hallway. Which is nice--the names are a bit drab (e.g. East Hallway) though the game is not too intimidating.
Every year IFComp throws out a game or two where I'd love to sit down and say "Oh, THAT'S what they meant to do!" But sadly they never get updated. With Plane Walker, which is indeed such a game, I'm glad I took the time to write out a map for others to look at, so I could at least figure out some of it. This is such a game, and unfortunately, having some math background left me unable to understand or appreciate what the author was getting at. I was waiting for it to work, and even a walkthrough annotation would probably give me a few real a-ha moments. But, in contrast to Codex Sadistica and some heavy metal terms I knew nothing about but was able to follow, this gave me imaginary numbers and I wasn't able to.
Looking at others' reviews, I am not alone. Some of the puzzles felt like some of my first-draft games before I realized, oops, I forgot to make this-or-that clear, or I really should throw in another example, and no, it won't spoil any puzzles. Plane Walker certainly arouses my imagination and curiosity more than easy-reading cliches, and I applaud the author having vision, even if they didn't communicate it well. There seemed to be jokes just waiting to work, but they never did. I'd love to see that vision fully formed. I'm glad I took a more careful look to see some of it, but a lot is too far buried. That said, playing it with a walkthrough was a positive and harmlessly trippy experience.
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)
If you’ve ever perused the IF Comp guidelines for authors, it’s hard to miss that there’s a single recommendation that looms larger than all the others: in a big bold heading right at the top of the document, it booms “playtest your game (and credit your testers).” Plane Walker sure seems like it didn’t mind the first part of this admonition, and it definitely didn’t follow the second, and as a result, a promising puzzle game with some clever math-based mechanics was for me an exercise in frustration, nit-picking, and authorial mind-reading. There’s fun to be had here, but if there’s any prospect of a post-Comp release, I’d hold off until there’s a more battle-tested version of the game available to play.
(Fair warning that I’m going to spoil a couple of the puzzles in the remainder of this review – I’m not putting them in spoiler text because I don’t think they’re fairly solvable in the current version of the game, so a push in the right direction is likely to make the game more enjoyable rather than less).
Plane Walker doesn’t give the greatest initial impression. The very first character of the game is a superfluous space that awkwardly offsets the opening text, which is a single too-long paragraph saying you’re alone on a plane and are suffering from amnesia (sigh). There’s no ABOUT or HELP text, and the player character is as good looking as ever. The first puzzle requires typing X SEATS twice, with a critical item only being revealed after the second time; the second needs you to spell out an action with absurd specificity (to break open a keypad HIT KEYPAD WITH STICK doesn’t work – you need to go through the specific keys to find one that’s susceptible to brute force); and the third is a trial-and-error exercise with a time limit (Plane Walker will kill you, including one open-the-door-and-die sequence in the midgame, so definitely make saves).
Things improve a little once you reach the second major area. The environment opens up, something like a plot slowly starts to emerge, and there are a couple of really clever puzzles – though again, they aren’t well clued. For example, the major puzzles in this section require exploring some math books by literally entering them, but the possibility of doing so, much less the mechanism for doing so, isn’t suggested anywhere as far as I could tell.
Once I went to the walkthrough and got over that hump, I was able to get my teeth into things, but again, too many of the puzzles are undermotivated. The best of them involves turning yourself imaginary – in the mathematical sense – to explore the blocked-off part of the area. The steps you take to do this are fun and make sense, but the problem is there’s no reason to think it should accomplish anything: trying to access the locked-off areas before you solve this puzzle gives you a failure message saying you’re worried about getting lost, which has nothing to do with the intended solution.
Making matters worse, implementation is spotty throughout. I didn’t run into bugs as such, but there are a host of typos, unimplemented synonyms, disambiguation issues, guess-the-verb puzzles, and actions requiring very specific syntax to succeed. It all adds up to frustration, and makes the trial-and-error the puzzle design often requires even more annoying.
Again, this is a real shame, since I was enjoying some of the puzzles, and while the story doesn’t make complete sense, I did like the pieces of it that I understood, which see you dragooned into a secret war between mathematical planes. There’s a version of Plane Walker that I could highly recommend as a tough-as-nails but fair old-school puzzler, but that’s unfortunately not the one we currently have.
Highlight: By the endgame, either I’d tuned into the game’s wavelength, or the author had mercy and decided to make the climactic puzzles easier (always a good practice) – either way I found the last challenge fair and fun.
Lowlight: OK, I’m going to spoil a puzzle. To get through a particular barrier, you need to turn yourself two-dimensional, which is a cool idea! However, the way you do this is you pick up an anvil with a hole in it, cut a strange rope you find embedded in the ceiling (you need to cut it with a broadsword – if you try to cut it with your handsaw, you get a default “that would achieve little” error), tie it to the anvil, and then tie the other end to an iron bar in a supply closet. I can’t reconstruct the logic behind even a single step of this process!
How I failed the author: this is another one where I think the impatience caused by my new parenthood was actually helpful – I went to the walkthrough relatively quickly, which was definitely the right move.