Number of Reviews: 6
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A writer's game more than a player's game, but a good one, October 23, 2012
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.