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Brilliant ontological SF story with a disappointing on-rails ending, November 18, 2009
by sneJ (San Jose, California)
The first 3/4 of "Rover's Day Out" is truly excellent; one of the best IF games I've ever played (though I haven't really played through the whole canon of modern IF.) Unfortunately the climactic scene and endgame were a real letdown.
"Rover" is a very 'meta' game, with several levels of reality superimposed on each other. As you almost immediately discover, the character you play is not really a person, and the prosaic apartment you wake up in is not really the clichéd waking-up-in-your-apartment trope. The meta-layers involve a good deal of fun poked at the idea of interactive fiction, and there were several jokes during the introductory phase that made me (literally) LOL.
This introduction trains you for the main task of the game, and in this phase things get weird. In a good way -- it's rather mind-stretching and eerie in the same way as a good Philip K Dick or John Varley story. Every place and item is simultaneously two different things, and the layers of reality begin to fray and tangle up with each other, but you have a job to do and you do it. This was pure gold for me, and I felt simultaneously as though I were reading a really engrossing SF short story, while also realizing that this was an experience that couldn't be duplicated in any other medium. (It would totally not work at all with graphics of any kind.) The puzzles were not too hard but kept my mind working, and the characters were very well-drawn.
The game's problems come with the situation you end up in after you complete the game's primary task. At this point you are trapped and have to escape, and the narrator's voice constantly reminds you that you have to escape, but as it turns out there is not really any way to escape by your own actions. (I had to read the walkthrough to figure this out, after struggling with this scene and restoring many times.) It's really a puzzle with no solution, and all you can do is draw out the struggle before the blatant deus ex machina that leads to the last scene. There are some amusing situations here (the repair droids get in some great lines) but it wasn't worth the frustration.
There is an endgame that involves pretty much nothing but conversation, and IF has not yet attained the level of parser that makes conversation worthwhile. (Disclaimer: I haven't played "Galatea" yet.) This part again felt like it was running on rails, with the other characters just waiting for me to recite the correct stock phrases that would advance the story. In the end there was one last puzzle that, again, I couldn't figure out and had to consult the walkthrough for. (The acting also took a turn for the worse here.)
I initially rated the game five-stars while halfway through it, and I'm reluctant to lower that even though the rest of the game was such a letdown. The good parts are still really, really good, good enough that I'm still thinking them over and savoring their atmosphere. The game really is a must-play; only adjust your expectations downwards for the final scenes.