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About the Story
It figures that your pickup would die on a night like this and leave you stranded in the dark New Mexico desert. But nothing else figures about this night, man. Nothing at all.
Winner, Best Supplemental Materials - 2010 XYZZY Awards
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Number of Reviews: 6
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Sand-Dancer is a good game with strong atmosphere, a well-characterized protagonist, lots of guidance for the player, and a story well worth the modest investment in time and effort the game demands. It also sports some genuine replay value, and almost demands that you take advantage of that. On the flip side, Sand-Dancer is marred by some awkward writing issues, basic implementation shortcomings, guess-the-verb, guess-the-noun and even guess-the-preposition problems, a sometimes overwhelmingly overt linearity, and pockmarked by the occasional proofing mishap.
It's the kind of game that's difficult to review because while its problems are many, my goal is to celebrate it and affirm the good bits, because most of the bad bits are easily fixable distractions, lesser parts of the worthy whole. Compounding the problem is this: most of the bits I want to celebrate are spoilers, and not the kind of spoilers I'm even comfortable tucking away behind a spoiler tag ... because I do feel this game is worth playing, I don't want to tempt anyone to shortcut its delights. But with that sincere praise on the record, I'm also here to warn you about some of the speedbumps that lay ahead.
The game setting is, in many ways, minimally implemented. A large number of the nouns offer a single stock non-description. I like that, for the most part ... it provides a crystal-clear focus on exactly which nouns are important to the character (not to be confused, in this case, with importance to the "puzzles" in play). But there are some places where the world model underperforms in frustrating ways. To pick one simple non-spoiler example: I'm here in the desert with my damaged pickup truck, but the pickup truck doesn't have a bed. I don't mean the game gently refuses to bother with the bed; I mean it's just not there, even as a minimally implemented noun. This would be only mildly jarring in some games, but here it's compounded by a host of other guess-the-noun issues with missing common synonyms, so when I'm alarmed to find that my pickup truck has no bed to look into, I feel obliged to make sure it's really not there, and to do that I have to bang my head against the parser wall a few more times, to make certain it isn't just hiding behind a synonym I've overlooked.
Nouns aren't the only culprits. I have a lighter, but I can't FLICK it ... but if I SWITCH LIGHTER ON, the first thing it tells me is that I've flicked it. At one point in the game I can (Spoiler - click to show)lift a sheet of metal ... except it doesn't understand LIFT (but when I finally TAKE it instead, I'm told explicitly that I've lifted it). To solve one of the earlier easy puzzles, I need to (Spoiler - click to show)throw something through a window ... except I can't throw something THROUGH a window or INTO a window, I must throw something AT a window, and other phrasings provide no re-direction; they leave me wondering if I've got the solution wrong (even though, as it happens, I don't). Minor issues like these are, individually, dismissable, but Sand-Dancer is dusted with them from start to finish, and it drags the experience like grit in the gears.
The game is linear (or at least, guided along very finite paths) in an overt way. The key character choices are so clearly marked (and in most cases, their consequences so clearly telegraphed) that, structurally, I'm comfortable considering the game a choose-your-own-adventure with bonus interactive cut-scenes. As a fan of CYOA for any game that explores really divergent story possibilities, I don't intend that as a slur, but it undermines the sense of interaction when, at times, you're given a "choice" of exactly one thing to do, and the game grinds to a halt until you do what you're told. This happened to me several times during the course of play, and it left me wondering why the game simply didn't presume the action instead of forcing me to "interact" by typing in the only allowable command. Other games, for example, also characterize with (Spoiler - click to show)triggered memories ... but in other games that rely on the same device, the memories just happen. Here, the game prods me to ask for them, and won't advance correctly until I obediently comply. Maybe that's meant to be a helpful blend of "guided" and "interactive," but there's a line between leading by the hand and leading by the nose. This game lives nowhere in sight of that line.
My biggest problem with the game is also my most subjective problem with it, so grains of salt all around, please. The writing is, for the most part, very able ... the game's authors (I'm unsure of who wrote and/or coded which bits) achieve some very effective atmosphere without resorting to bloated prose, and I can't thank any writers enough for that ... but the game makes attempts at colloquialism in a way that fails spectacularly, resulting only in that embarrassed awkwardness you get when an elderly person makes an attempt to sound 25, in that hey-kids-I'm-hip-to-your-crazy-lingo way. The parser is a smartass, which would be more palatable if it weren't so frequently (and outrageously) a dumbass ... and when on top of that it's referring to me as "holmes" and "bro" and "dawg" and "gangsta" (no, really) with all the authenticity of George W. Bush in baggy shorts making a gang sign, it's just ... it's just embarrassing. All this to emphasize that my regular-guy protagonist (the one with the grease-monkey job and the pickup truck without a bed ... who also happens to think of the world around him in flowery poetics) is just a dawg who SWITCHES HIS LIGHTER ON, holmes, that's just ... no. In these matters, the game fails not only totally, but pitiably.
But it's a good game. Smarten it up, tighten it up, ease it of its insecure pretenses and give it more backbone, and it'd be a very good game verging on great. Play Sand-Dancer, because it has qualities seldom seen and some genuinely sharp ideas, well-executed and well-implemented. Play it to be inspired to do better, perhaps. Play it for the imagery. Play it because it's fun. But don't expect a completely polished and satisfying experience, at least not until a later release.
[Review based on Release 1; some of the technical concerns (forwarded to the authors in greater detail) have already been addressed in the first days of the game's existence! Groovy.]
About half-way through playing Sand-dancer (as I was following the rabbit) it occurred to me that this game might well be Aaron Reed's homage to Andrew Plotkin's Shade, centring as it does on a combination of fighting hostile elements and surreal/supernatural occurrences. This idea that was then dramatically vindicated by later events in the story, as one of Shade's central events suddenly turned up in this story as well.
The resemblance is nevertheless relatively superficial: where Plotkin's main interest lies in playing with knowledge and narration, Reed is far more interested in the motivations and choices of characters. In Sand-dancer, the fight for survival quickly turns into a meditation on the protagonist's past and future. Compared to the length of the game, the characterisation is deep, although it must be said that almost all of it is done through non-interactive text dumps. This means that the story is engaging, but perhaps not ideally suited to explore the possibilities of interactive storytelling. There are some choices that have an effect on gameplay, but they lack dramatic import. (Spoiler - click to show)The important choices in the game are, of course, which characteristics you wish to get from the animals. Although it is a need idea that (for instance) a courageous character now dares to do things he would dare before, the actual effects are a little underwhelming. I mean... I'm in danger of dying here, but I am afraid of spiders? I can now smell gasoline? These sequences are fun, but it's hard to take them seriously as important character developments.
The entire work is suffused with elements of U.S. culture, mixing popular entertainment, lower-class life in the nation's more desert-like regions, and native American culture. This makes it somewhat hard for people not from the U.S. to follow what exactly is going on. (It took me very long, for instance, to understand that "the res" referred to an Indian reservation. Which is apparently a place where they have high schools? My ignorance here is enormous, so accept nothing I tell you about the story as true!) Lest this be read as criticism, I actually applaud this move towards more culturally embedded works: it makes the reader learn more, or at least realise his/her own ignorance, and the real world is after all an interesting place.
Finally, a few words about the gameplay. As we can expect, the game is smooth and well-implemented (although attempting to open the rusty tin can with the can opener could have done with a description), we have a helpful in-game hint feature, and the puzzles are always logical. There were, unfortunately, certain points in the game where I had to retry random actions that used to fail, because it was not clear to me where my new-found powers would come in handy. (Spoiler - click to show)That courage would help me with the spiders: yes. That it would help me reach the control room: no. That scent would help me with the control room: no. However, this is a relatively minor quibble, since the game is not large.
Sand-dancer has a good story, an interesting gloomy American atmosphere, and adequate puzzles; it is a recommended read/play for all.
It's tough to write a tutorial game without making it sound patronizing, and it's tough to write an example without it feeling like an example. The Inform docs do a good job of explaining how to do specific things with the language. But it's tougher for a complete game to show you what to do.
And I think Sand-Dancer does this. Because I'm not strictly grading it on being a game, I'm not giving it a starred rating, because as an example, I think it gets five stars, and I find it hard to dissociate the learning tool from the game.
As a learning tool, it shows how to use basic Inform syntax, but more generally, it captures various stages of creation on the game's website, which is a nice blueprint for anyone making a game who wonders where to start and how to keep it coherent. This is more a comment on process than content, but I really like when programmers are willing to share their code and ideas, and it is well done. Especially in a game where there are a lot of things that may leave you wondering "how'd they do that? I'd like to do that." The game does a bit of everything with the Inform language--scenes with NPCs, opening new areas, variable text, and even defining new objects and concepts.
As a game, it offers a lot of possibilities. You play as Knock (Nakaibito) Morales, a high school dropout who's crashed his Jeep into a cactus with a cold desert night approaching. He's impregnated a girl and is not really sure he loves her. He's hardly a hero, but the game never gets too sappy or too judgmental. He has to pass a few survival tests, although there's no real way to fail them. The game, and the book about the game, stress a lack of cruelty to the player in the narrative, and I think it works well.
After passing each survival test, Knock visits a spirit animal who replaces bitter memories Knock needs to let go of with virtues. Virtues allow you to do things that seemed too hard before, such as (Spoiler - click to show)being brave enough to reach inside a spider web, and once you get more resources, you meet more spirit-animals that guide you toward your ultimate choice. I very much like the setting and uncomplicated puzzles, too--the Arizona desert is probably a mystery to many Americans, far enough but not too far from cities, without any silly Wild West romanticism or melodrama.
But what I remember about this game was the "I see how they did that" moments that go beyond how they did something in Inform. General design and user-friendliness principles come out in the game, too. I'd really like to see a similar sort of game for other IF programming languages, because I think it'd be handy. This sort of thing seems ideal for collaboration. But I think the key is never trying to blow the player away, and Sand-Dancer is never too fancy. But it's never too simple to feel like you're being herded through a tutorial.
The source and notes on Sand-Dancer at its website were good enough to make me buy Aaron Reed's book eventually. That adverb should not have applied. But that is another review for another site.
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