The Promise

by Sean Huxter profile


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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Chore Quest, May 16, 2011
by Sam Kabo Ashwell (Seattle)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2011

A children's game that sets out to teach the importance of hard work, promise-keeping and the total inflexibility of social obligations. It's painfully earnest, cheerful but oddly joyless, and it ends up badly botching the moral (in a way that leaves a lot of players drop-jawed).
Wil, nine-going-on-ten, lives in a rural village under a curse of perpetual winter. Most of the game is about doing chores for the local artisans, and at first it seems as if this will entail some rich economy-worldbuilding; but this never gets very far, and ends up feeling incomplete and inconsistent. The villagers are uniformly cheerful and pleasant, but the world feels grim and cold; the chores are mostly fetch-quests, and the game runs somewhat slowly, so navigating the large map can feel very much like trudging through ankle-deep snow doing a job that somebody else cares about.
There is potential here; there were plenty of things that caught my interest that were never fully developed, and the game's basic structure and implementation is competent (if not hugely exciting). It's appropriately easy, and (with some minor exceptions) bug-free. Its failings are mostly quite high-level intangibles: the delicate matters of pacing, engaging gameplay, tone and theme. Still, I would not recommend this to a child -- not just because of its stark and bungled ethics, but because it never really gets to the fun part of a proper child's story, the part where the child breaks the rules and gets to have an adventure. (Spoiler - click to show)At one point Wil stumbles into a supernatural realm, the Valley of Perpetual Summer, and meets a fairy girl. Almost immediately, he leaves -- he has to get on with his chores.

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Sean Huxter, May 29, 2011 - Reply
Yes, "The Promise" is a bit of a chore fest, I admit it, but I was hoping the chores were at least fun, and served not only to teach a young man in a village some trades he may wish to put his life's work into as he grows older, but to teach a young IF player how to manipulate objects to achieve goals.

I know it's a chore fest, and perhaps I went a bit overboard on the number of chores. However, I had hoped they would serve as an excuse to talk to the villagers, and get some back story from them, and learn a bit about the other people in your village. One of them tells a rather funny joke about a polar bear.

But once you get past those chores, which I believe even in their current number, are not as tedious as obtaining a babelfish or finishing a term paper without pointless and frustrating distractions and a nagging bitch of a girlfriend, the story picks up and is worth the effort you put in to play it.

Perhaps it is my failing as an author that some players, including some prominent ones, short-sightedly did not get the idea that this is an all-powerful, angry god in a child's mind and body that we're dealing with, someone once snubbed by a human boy she truly trusted - and such a thorough betrayal of that trust to your direct knowledge has already led to the decline of the health of your village population, as well as the hardship of decades of constant winter, and the very death of your own father - and someone who has made it quite clear that she will not take that kind of defiance again. Ever.

Perhaps it's my failing that I wrote the character of a 10-year-old boy who even at that tender age is intelligent enough to understand that defying that same god once again as his father did would only lead to the complete destruction of his mother and the people he loves in his village.

Perhaps it's my failing as an author that some didn't understand that Wil is sent on an errand that he knows is the only hope of saving his entire village from what he knows will be complete destruction at the hands of invading raiders. He may not know exactly why his mission is so important, but due to his trust in his Elder and his mother, he knows as certainly as he knows his own heart that it is vital to the survival of everyone he knows.

So perhaps he can be forgiven not hanging around a nice warm valley with a wrathful, petulant, angry girl-god. He knows the stakes of delay.

This story is intended for younger children, and introduces nothing more unusual than you see in many of Grimm's Fairey Tales (the originals, in which toes are hacked off, and people are burned and eaten alive, not the Disneyfied versions with pink bows and ribbons and it all works out in the end.)

And in a competition which featured sexual gameplay and rape humor, I think that calling the idea that our young hero has a very life-threatening binary decision to make at the risk of his own young life "just fucked up" - no, that wasn't you, Sam, that's from another reviewer - is a bit on the extreme side.

I am in a strange way ok with coming in fifth, as my first venture into IF (Piracy 2.0) also came in fifth. Of course Piracy 2.0 came in fifth out of a field of 35, not a field of 6, but again, there is at least some internal consistency to that number, and it pleases me inexplicably. I understand the competition was particularly strong this year, and few games aroused such actual anger as did mine.

And at six votes, I am ever so grateful to the second person who gave me a 3 score. The graph now perfectly reflects my feelings on the inexplicably extreme negative reactions this game has gotten, (as well as my gratitude for those higher scores) in light of the fact that most IF games do come down to a binary decision - whether a game ends successfully or fails - at some point. (Do you put the dingus in the red thingamajig or not? Well, if you don't, the game kind of hangs, doesn't it? Until you finally relent and stick that dingus in the thingamajig and win the game - congratulations, by the way, you won. There, that made sense, didn't it?)

And with that basic fact of IF understood, I have to admit to being just a little bit surprised and take aback at the negativity of some of the reviews I could find that were posted here and there on the internet.

I wrote a fairly detailed back story and hid it inside other NPCs, to be learned by someone willing to ask about things or people. In this game you are rewarded if you take time to ask people about other people, or you ask about your own family history, or >Remember things, or even if you actually explore the game world. Did anyone hang out under the wharf for a few minutes look around?

It all tells itself in what I had hoped was a fairly coherent story that not only goes back to the events of that day your father disappointed an all-powerful nature god, to even further back to hints of your village's once more noble and powerful history, including where it was originally situated.

I also provided multiple ways to achieve various goals, such as getting to the Peat Bog (if you needed to - not everyone needed to - in fact if you were very good at doing your chores, you only needed to retrieve three things in the forest, while if you were slow about them you had to get five, and I opted not to randomize those chores, to my discredit). Did anyone notice that if you took your sweet time helping people out they actually treated you differently? That if you were very slow, they show their anger? And if you are quick about them, they were quick to praise?

I provided a command to return quickly to where you once had been once you hold the Amulet, and imbued the Amulet with another power that I doubt anyone has discovered, and several items in the forest can be gotten in other ways, if you are lucky. (Searching the stone wall, for example, nets you the Nitre you need, but only at a 5% random chance. Otherwise it's down into the Cistern with you.)

Thanks, though, go out to Pissy Little Sausages, and The Rest of your Mice, both of which gave reviews that I thought actually considered some of these points fairly.

As for some of the other reviewers and the actual ire they spewed about this humble little game, intended for young people as Grimm's tales were, I just do not get it I'm afraid.

But as the author, perhaps that's my failing.

Then again, perhaps that tinge of bitterness after a solid year's work on a solid game I believed in, several solid rounds of testing from very dedicated testers, and a trust that my story was actually worth playing through after all that effort, is my true failing.

Very sincerely, Sean Huxter.

Feelies available on request for a nominal cost to not quite cover materials and shipping.

Emily Short, May 30, 2011 - Reply
"I wrote a fairly detailed back story and hid it inside other NPCs, to be learned by someone willing to ask about things or people. In this game you are rewarded if you take time to ask people about other people, or you ask about your own family history, or >Remember things, or even if you actually explore the game world. Did anyone hang out under the wharf for a few minutes look around?"

I didn't do this much myself. I'm obviously not against talking to NPCs, but I really didn't feel encouraged to do so here; on the contrary, there seemed to be an emphasis on doing my tasks efficiently, and playing with the grain of the game sent me scuttling around without much conversation time.

Not knowing that backstory may indeed be the reason that I reacted negatively to the game; my review addresses the idea of characterizing the forest spirit as a malevolent or at the very least amoral deity, but also some reasons why this didn't feel like it was the game's message. (Too much use of promises in other places, too little background about the spirit, and endgame writing that seemed to conflate the spirit's message with that of the narrator.)

If that's not the story we were expected to get, then I think you've fallen prey to a fairly common game design issue. If something is critical to the player understanding the theme or story of your game, you have to put it where it cannot be missed. Do not make it optional! The player will have a less than optimal time and will not be able to distinguish between "I missed something good" and "the author left out something good." Similarly, it's cool that your game is so adaptive, but no, frankly, I didn't notice those things -- because the design was a play-once kind of design, and there weren't many occasions within a single play-through where I was forced to learn how my behavior affected villager reactions.

FWIW, what you've said here suggests that some revision of the game might bring the average player's experience more in line with what you intended. (Probably by setting it up so that there's more foreshadowing of the business with your father and more obligatory NPC interaction in the early game.)
Sean Huxter, May 30, 2011 - Reply
Thanks for replying to my comment, Emily.

You are completely correct in a lot of your points. My implementation of the story contradicts itself in some ways. In one way, you really should explore the village. There are some hand-carved images under the wharf, your father's favorite place to play as a boy. They tell part of the story of his visit with the spirit. But at the same time, I'm pressuring you not to lollygag around. In fact, some of the gameplay reward comes from efficiently doing chores and not exploring. I wish I had a better way to do both.

I had two immediate reactions to some of the negative comments from you and others about the game: I did neither. It's been weeks and this is my first public comment about the competition and the game's reception.

My first was to rant. I sat on that, but didn't completely ignore the impulse - as this comment I posted reveals.

My second reaction, however, (the first being unproductive) was to open the game up for suggestion - ways to make it more along the lines I was intending it to go. Some suggestions to allow some of the interesting back-story to come out while not slacking on the chores you promised you would do.

The problem is I put a full year into the project and have no real desire to spend the same amount of time fixing what is clearly not working as I had hoped.

Perhaps I will do it anyway. I would love input on how to fix the first part. I think the second part plays well. The forest part could do with randomizing the items you need to retrieve, and the third part, the part that so got peoples' goats, might be salvageable...

Still... I'm a bit exhausted at the moment.

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