Somewhere, Somewhen

by Jim MacBrayne


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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Toilsome fantasy adventure, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

Reader, a confession: I have played a large amount of IF over the last few decades, but have never been able to dip more than the tiniest toe into Zork before I get bored and wander off. Iíve faffed around in the white house, reconnoitering the mailbox and display case and thinking ďthis will be fun!Ē as I lift the trap door and enter the Great Underground Empire Ė but despite making that descent at least half a dozen times, I have no clear memories of actually accomplishing anything down there, my impressions a uniform smear of over-large maps and exploration-punishing mechanics like time and carrying limits and the murderthief, which always lead me to abandon the attempt.

Iíve read a bunch of appreciations so I certainly understand why this works for others, and some of this is definitely down to expectations Ė I got into IF in the early days of this century, when a wholly different set of design aesthetics was in the ascendant, so while Iím as subject to nostalgia as the next person, Iím not nostalgic for Zork. And some of itís down to the ridiculous plenty of the modern age Ė when Zork was the only thing going, beavering away at its devilish puzzlery was Iím sure the glorious work of many a late night and weekend. Here and now, though? Itís hard to justify the time investment to myself when Iíve also barely scratched the surface of Counterfeit Monkey, to pick one example from literally hundreds.

I bring all this up to lay the groundwork for my two central takeaways for Somewhere, Somewhen: 1) itís pretty Zorky; and 2) I really didnít get on with it, partially though not exclusively for the reasons Iíve never got on with Zork. If Acid Rain, the game I played right before it in the Comp, was an example of an old-school game whose archaisms donít stand in the way of contemporary enjoyment, Somewhere, Somewhen serves as a caution for how easy it is for this approach to go awry. A custom-parser fantasy adventure with a wacky mix of magic and anachronistic technology is certainly appealing to a specific audience, but I think even their patience would be tested by SSís sprawling, red-herring-choked map (including one literal red herring Ė no, this doesnít make it better), arbitrary puzzle design, and too-dense prose. There are some individual puzzles that arenít bad, and the custom parser is pretty well implemented, but ultimately I didnít find much to enjoy.

The game doesnít put its best foot forward, which is part of the issue. After a quote from The Raven that doesnít connect to anything in the game so far as I could see, you get a vague but wordy introduction where youíre plucked from your ordinary life (in the regular, real world? Itís unclear) and told by a mysterious voice from beyond that youíve been chose to retrieve an unpronounceable MacGuffin that the mysterious voice and pals have somehow lost (adding insult to injury, when you finally find the MacGuffin at the end of the game, it has only a default description, underlining the arbitrariness of proceedings). Then you show up in a deserted labyrinth, and well, this is the description of the initial location:

"You are in a high-domed and circular chamber suffused with a soft ambient light, which seems to have no obvious direct source, but which appears to emanate from the very walls and ceiling. On those walls, at some distance above your head and spaced at equal intervals around the periphery of the room are six inscriptions deeply inscribed into the vertical stony surface. There are thus first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth inscriptions. In the very vault of the dome and well above your head thereís an aperture. Deeply embedded into the floor of the chamber thereís an inlay. Beside you there lays a lamp and sword."

Yes yes, lamp and sword, but itís too wordy, and the parser doesnít allow you to abbreviate the inscriptions to FIRST, SECOND, etc., so youíre in for a lot of typing to fully explore things. And before youíve gotten a chance to get to grips with your surroundings, the mysterious voice comes back and tells you how to solve the first puzzle, which by that point Iíd only started to dig into.

After this rocky beginning, it does improve for a bit Ė that initial puzzle gives you some magic words that open portals to various other locations, which each have a couple of puzzles to resolve, mostly hinging on unlocking doors and collecting kit. And the writing starts to get a bit more fleet, though itís never a real draw. By the time I was about a third of the way in, though, I started having additional complaints. First, the various locations you explore are fairly monotonous Ė thereís a castle, a cellar, and a hall that all felt pretty much interchangeable, though a deserted village at least somewhat changes things up Ė but have large, sparse maps. Thereís an EXITS command to help with mapping, but it has some issues, like closed doors not being listed and a few exits opened by puzzle-solving not being included even once they were available. There are also one-way connections that require a lot of step-retracing, and non-cardinal directions (northeast, southwest, etc.) are used without much rhyme or reason, which complicated getting around to no real benefit.

The other issue that reared its head at that point was the inventory limit. Its existence was predictable enough, but what was less predictable was that worn items still count against it, and the conveniently-provided carryall you get towards the end of the first act also has its own limit. And as mentioned above, there are rather a lot of useless items and red herrings scattered throughout the game Ė in addition to a number of critical ones only findable via SWEEPING DUST and LOOKING UNDER and LOOKING BEHIND Ė so you will run into this limit, and it will require a whole lot of inventory-juggling and backtracking, which combined with issue number one (remember those sprawling maps?) makes much of the mid-game an unfun exercise in logistics.

The puzzles themselves are a mixed bag. Most are pretty traditional and straightforward Ė collecting ingredients for a witchís brew, navigating a maze, solving riddles, getting an iron key with a (Spoiler - click to show)magnet Ė but there are a few that rely on authorial mid-reading. One late-game puzzle requires realizing that a safe has a key lock rather than a traditional dial one, but thereís no indication of that in any of the descriptions I found. And then thereís the riddle that had me tearing out my hair Ė Iím going to spoil it, because if you try to play Somewhere, Somewhen youíll need it spoiled to. Getting into the witchís cottage requires entering a code on a keypad (remember what I said about the wacky mix of magic and technology?), clued with the following message:

"Winifred accepts digits
spiderís legs and octopus
arms on weekdays."

Right, so thatís 885, easy enough. But no! ďDigitsĒ is meant to indicate that you should type a 10, and ďweekdaysĒ translates as 7. Maybe this is a Downton Abbey joke (you know, ďwhatís a week-end?Ē) but it sure requires some trial and error. And some of the puzzles like this are item-based, so playing the game straight would require a whole lot of item-hauling to enable you to run through the red herrings and figure out which are actually useful. Others might have the patience for this, but I very much donít, especially when the rewards of advancing the story and exploring more of the setting are pretty lackluster Ė I started having regular recourse to the hints about halfway through, and didnít regret it one bit.

Iíll close by repeating that the custom parser is actually pretty good for such things. It doesnít like abbreviation of objects, and you canít interact with objects in containers or on supporters, even to examine them, without first taking them (I havenít mentioned the inventory limit yet this paragraph, have I? Yes, this makes the inventory limit even more annoying. And it applies to the caryall too). But other than that, it affords most of the conveniences of a modern system, including being able to recall recent commands. Itís clear a lot of time, energy and enthusiasm went into coding it, and Iím sure thatís true of this big game as a whole Ė and for someone looking for another Zork to pour hours and hours into, I could see Somewhere, Somewhen being the most fun theyíd have in this Comp. But for someone like me, whoís barely ever been eaten by a grue and sees a flood control dam and just wishes the whole thing were over, it sadly misses the mark, especially with a bunch of other games Iím excited to get to.