Somewhere, Somewhen

by Jim MacBrayne


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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A Lovely Slice Of Nostalgia Pie, October 8, 2021

Somewhere, Somewhen is the latest in a fairly long line of very large puzzlefests written by Jim Macbrayne, starting with two efforts for the old Commodore PET back in the early eighties and culminating in this latest game.

Somewhat surprisingly (to me, anyway) this game ranked only 17th out of 18 games in the recent Parsercomp. Just as Abba became naff in the eighties only to enjoy a triumphant return years later, so I hope the effort put into games like this will truly be appreciated one day like a fine wine. And unlike a less than fine twine.

Enough of the pun-ditry, what of the game?

Those of you who have played Jim's games in the past will know what to expect. The plot involves you hunting for an Ibistick (who he?) after you are plucked from a country road in summer. This is of course a thinly veiled artifice to confront the player with a large amount of mechanical puzzles involving buttons, levers and switches, and a number of set pieces involving musical theory with many locked doors to be opened by a variety of devious means.

The game has a central hub from which eight set piece scenarios radiate (much like an Andy Phillips game but without the teeth gnashing difficulty) and each area can be revisited if you happen to have missed a vital item or been stumped by a locked door (also unlike an Andy Phillips game). There is a logical sequence for choosing which scenario to tackle next which will become obvious when solving the first puzzle in the game.

The room descriptions are nicely evocative, particularly the castle in section six, and a large number of items serve only as red herrings but carrying everything shouldn't be a problem thanks to a suitable container. There is another way to increase your inventory limit which you will find on your picaresque travels.

There is one maze (go on, you know you want to) which must be thoroughly mapped although given the large number of items available to be carried the tried and trusted method of dropping objects can be safely used.

As far as I can tell it is not possible to put the game into an unwinnable position and there are no hunger, thirst or light daemons.

The screen display is customisable which is a nice touch.

I came across a couple of typos which I have passed on to the author.

There are no NPCs as such; you are very much on your own here although there is the option to turn the built-in hints system off or on. I must admit without twanging my own Spanish guitar that I managed to finish the game without any recourse to it, something I have never managed with any other of Jim's games; maybe he is becoming more merciful in his advancing years.

Rarely will you not be able to have the parser understand your command. The QBasic parser allows for take all, drop all and the usual abbreviations. One idiosyncracy of the game (and Jim's other games) is the necessity of using TAKE X FROM Y when acquiring an object, but this is fully explained in the introduction. LOOK UNDER and BEHIND are also strongly advised.There is however no UNDO command so save often and the parser accepts multiple words. Some of the puzzles are not easy although I would rank this as the least brow furrowing game in Jim's oeuvre and I don't think it abrogates Andrew Plotkin's rule book. These are generally common sense mechanical puzzles. Knowledge of musical theory will, as previously suggested, help.

I may be biased but as this kind of IF becomes rarer and more disdained by a large slice of the IF community, the more I cherish new examples of old tropes to keep the home fires burning.

I have put the completed map up in Trizbort and PDF formats on the CASA website.

Jim is currently mulling over his next game. Expect a broom cupboard and a few levers!

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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
YMMV, but I got mileage, August 3, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)

Seeing this game place second-to-last in ParserComp was the motivation I needed to write a review. I rather liked it, and yet I can't blame those that didn't.

It certainly has faults, and I think many people, when looking for ways to separate games, may often rely on those faults. Or the faults may be magnified because other things show serious competence: the homebrew parser works. The whole picture fits, once you get past a certain point. The author allows shortcuts with F-keys, which I think is the sort of innovation ParserComp hoped to provoke.

Perhaps the title was a bit too bland (first impressions are important) and that, coupled with a lot of common sorts of fantasy items, let some players' minds wander.

That's not to say that I can pinpoint other entries that deserve to be below this. There's always going to be an odd man out, but compared to, say, the bottom few entries in IFComp for the first 15 years, this is light years ahead. It just feels like the author wasn't fully able to explore or communicate their vision. And I think, to a certain extent, the polish on the technical side outstripped the more subjective stuff. For instance, at the beginning, I fumbled around for a few moves but then began reading what I was supposed to. I got a message saying "You may wish to read <clues I was in the process of reading>." Which is technically correct, but a bit tone-deaf. These are the sorts of first-effort mistakes that grow far less prevalent in the future.

And some of the puzzles probably require too much of a leap without a walkthrough--but then again, I am the sort of judge who gives mulligans for too-tricky puzzles if a walkthrough is handy and I could see myself making a similar oversight. This may be a recommendation for some, but it may be discouragement for others. I suppose it depends on the imperfections you're willing to tolerate.

SS is certainly inviting enough, if a bit generic. Some parts feel overwritten, and some objects get lost in description. Yet I felt it filled enough holes I didn't know were there that it's worth the time to revisit. I'll probably need a walkthrough, along with maps. But it feels like the sort of game I'd want to replay to get ready to judge the next ParserComp.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
ParserComp 2021: Somewhere, Somewhen, August 2, 2021
by kaemi
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

For all the mystery of the terminal, for all the mindboggling puzzling, perhaps Zork can be best captured in a dream: the homebrewer designing dungeons digital, an infinitely malleable systems engagement through which we like archaeologists wander awed at the dizzying gauntlet of implementations lovingly crafted by capable hands day by day, week by week, feature by feature. Architects without bound, homebrewers build and build, until the building itself becomes an act of worship, passionate and moonmad adding wing upon wing, floor upon floor, baroque cornices of night after night of dreaming what ifs, achieving what ifs, and if MacBrayne’s Somewhere, Somewhen seems lost in its own momentum, ornate spires shooting spectacularly out of metal frames, then it is this, not the lamp, nor the magnet to get the iron key, nor the maze, nor the inventory limit,nor the heady interpolation of magic and tech, nor the brazen disregard for continuity of place, that most evokes its Zorkian lineage.

This game, our author assures us, “was written just for fun in QBASIC64” with a parser that, it hastens to add, “is fairly sophisticated”. I agree, it is rather impressive for a homebrew, with some sophisticated possibilities for multitier commands, with only a handful of oddities (you can’t examine an object until you TAKE [IT] FROM [CONTAINER]) to have survived the rigors of implementation. There’s also some really nifty but somewhat extraneous features, like a variety of reassignable function key hotkeys for common commands, which is exactly the sort of rabbit hole that can easily drink hours and hours of a homebrewer’s development time. The game also bends over backwards to ensure the player has a smooth experience, boasting not only a set of in-game hints (both implicit and explicit), but also a complete set of maps and even a walkthrough.

It is perhaps unsurprising that all this homebrewer enthusiasm for systems polish glistens over a game that is frequently jarring and obtuse. Some of this is just the map: we have a central hub that gives way to six scenarios, but they’re not really scenarios, they’re just areas, there’s really not cohesive themes to them. That would be fine, except that traveling between the hub and the scenarios is confusing and tedious: you have to say a spell to unlock one scenario at a time, which then only has one exit, which is hidden in often confusing ways, and you must loop through the one way trajectory in order to traverse from scenario to hub to scenario. If, say, you accidentally enter the wrong scenario, just the headache of trying to find your way out again makes you wonder why moving through the hub needs to be so clunky and difficult! Compounding this frustration is that you do need to frequently travel between scenarios: like many IF games, you’ll build up a list of unsolved puzzles and go spelunking elsewhere to find the items that might solve those puzzles, but there’s also an inventory limit, and there’s many more items than are actually useful, so you’ll constantly be backtracking, which means going down the well, crawling through the hole, saying the right spell, wandering back through a spelunk of rooms, then tying a rope to a hook, climbing back down into the hub… you get the idea. Over the course of the game, you’ll build up a veritable arsenal of leftover items in the hub location, looping endlessly back and forth and back and forth as you try items J, K, and L on puzzle H. Trudging around this game is actively disorienting and disheartening.

Which is a shame, because the puzzles themselves can be rather clever. I particularly like the musical puzzles, which start with a light concept, but then build in complexity to a satisfying climax. For instance, you find a tuning fork set to C, then you find a door labelled C. Get it? Hit the tuning fork, and the door unlocks. Later on, we find a note saying “I NEED FED”, which is actually an instruction for playing a nearby instrument: play an F, then an E, then a D, voila. It’s always gratifying when a game trains us to think in a certain way, and then actually rewards us in multiple situations for thinking that way. Several other puzzles require some enjoyably lateral thinking, as when we’re given the password hint “Male bovine’s visual organ”, which seems like it might have something to do with the witch’s brew of ingredients we’ve been assembling, until you realize the password is just “bullseye”!

It’s good that the game has several charming puzzles, because the puzzling is clearly the intention of the game. There’s not really a plot: out of the blue our nameless adventurer is whisked away from “a deserted country road” to a “hemispherical chamber”. Why? Just to do some puzzling, of course! A voice informs us “we have sought one who could help in our time of need, and you alone have demonstrated the required intelligence and skills”. Finally, my PhD in the humanities is getting the respect it deserves! They want us to return an artifact, but when we find said artifact, an examination garners the response that “There isn’t anything notable about the Ibistick.” So like, don’t think about that, it’s not important, just get to puzzling. There’s also not much of a world to inhabit here: the rooms are a fugue state so mercurial one gets rather mistyeyed in nostalgia for Silent Hill.

Moreover, the prose, while chatty, is usually focused on providing the player with the information useful for the puzzles. This is kind of counterproductive for a game that’s happy to stretch out over a large amount of unnecessary rooms with objects that serve no purpose, it’s not like the game is going for a graphing paper aesthetic, yet nevertheless the game cheerfully motors along, giving us a number of rooms that are described as “spartan” except for the one or two interactable objects. The prose, where descriptive, generally focuses on neatly ordering the gamespace. Sometimes, however, the prose gets perhaps a little too chatty and clatters through redundancies with indefatigable aplomb. We watch a door “undulate and become almost like a fluid”. We find ourselves “at the southern end of a tunnel which therefore passes northwards”. In a rather egregious example, we find ourselves in a Cramped Room: “The light from your lamp demonstrates that this chamber is so cramped that you feel quite claustrophobic. The walls close in on you, and the staircase which is right in front of you, leading the way up, tantalisingly beckons. Beside you there lies a red herring.” Counting the title, that’s five times it tells you the room is small, thrice it nods you up the stairs, and for the coup de grace a literal red herring. What makes this description even sillier is that a different room tells us that “The walls and ceiling seem to cram in on you, and it’s fortunate that you don’t suffer from claustrophobia.” This is either a mistake or some incredibly advanced state-based character arc subtlety!

Despite these stumbles, the prose can prove charming. When we encounter a hovel guarded by a keypad, our protagonist finds it “a little bizarre that high-tech mechanical sophistication such as this has been installed in an attempt to protect such a down-market and tumbledown construction.” I quite like that phrase “down-market and tumbledown construction”! It rolls off the tongue with an aptly tumbling momentum, slyly flashing fangs acerbic. I also liked this little line, which adds an enchanting flourish to the waving of our wand: “As you wave the wand you are almost immediately enveloped in a bright cloud of mauve-coloured mist in which little sparks of fairy dust scintillate and dance all around you.”

The game has a pervasive disjunctive jauntiness that pleases even as it perplexes, refusing to make sense, but never disrupting the whimsy dreamy puzzle befuddles. Somewhere, Somewhen embraces its weirder threads: for instance, the game splatters magic and machinery together with a deliberate delight in how they conflict. One puzzle in particular, where we have to dress as a wizard, fake beard and all, in order to fool CCTV into giving us access to an inner sanctum, is joyfully idiosyncratic, blessing this bizarre line with a middle school theater kid’s ebullient confidence: “Thank you for requesting entry to our inner sanctum. Before being allowed to proceed, your identity as a wizard must now be confirmed. Please look at the camera directly and remain very still as the scanning takes place … The scan has now been completed. Your identity as one of our brethren has now been confirmed.” It’s actually kind of adorable.

That offbeat charm ends up giving the whole experience an exuberance that blunts its rougher edges. Perhaps that’s par for a homebrewer’s passion project! We get plenty of cute details, like ASCII graphics for doors and books, including one sequence where we have a keypad that actually displays the numbers we type into it, as well as many items being ACME devices. It can be easy to get frustrated with Somewhere, Somewhen, but it’s hard not to forgive its wobbly weirdness when it is delivered with such sincerity and with an admirable amount of polish. The joy of the homebrewer who builds and builds is to take the player by the hand, lead them through their project’s winding corridors and lavish follies, lead them right into its heart beating with the devotion and affection that kept them going through months of grind, then turn around, smile, and simply share somewhere, somewhen.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A lengthy QBASIC traditional adventure with magic and codes, August 1, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 2-10 hours

This game is a large treasure hunt that, like very early parser games, is a mishmash of fantasy and modern concepts put together for a treasure hunt.

There is a central hub with different 'mini-worlds' you can access. They are interconnected, in that the solution for one world is often found in another.

I played straight through with the walkthrough, as:
-the game is in QBasic, and no scrollback seems to be available, making it harder to keep track of things
-the author stated it may take weeks to accomplish
-I wasn't sure if the game was 'cruel' or not in the Zarfian sense (i.e. can you lock yourself out of victory without knowing it?)

After I won, I went back and tried to explore on my own and look for different paths. I found it 'parcelled out' fairly well.

The parser is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the author describes it (in a forum post) as being the product of 40 years of work, and that it is a 'very powerful parser'. It can understand pronouns and complex commands like 'drop everything except blah and blih and..'

However, it has some issues. Sometimes you can refer to a noun by its first name (like EYE for EYE of NEWT) but not its second (like NEWT); sometimes, it's the opposite (so SCRAP doesn't work for SCRAP of PAPER but PAPER does). Perhaps most oddly, it, as many people have pointed out, can't take items out of container without using the phrase TAKE X FROM Y. Given the 40 years of development and the otherwise complexity of the parser, I can only imagine this is a conscious stylistic choice.

The world is sprawling, with many rooms having multiple exits and the ordinal directions like NW, SW etc. being used extensively. Rooms are almost ideally generic, with most rooms being empty and having names like 'MIDDLE OF CORRIDOR', with most descriptions being 'The room is vaguely lit and hard to make out. There are bare walls and floor and ceiling and several exits, including one going down.'

There is at least one NPC, who is fairly responsive. Puzzles include codes, riddles, leaps of intuition, musical puzzles, etc. with many hint sources in-game as well as built-in hints and a walkthrough.

Every game is written for a purpose. Some purposes are to share your feelings with others, to emulate something you find worthy, to try to become famous, to make money, to fufill a request for others, etc.

Due to the author's desire to keep in the oddities of the parser, the general vagueness of the game and its Zork-like setting, the QBAsic64 environment, etc. my guess is that the game's purposes are to evoke nostalgia and to demonstrate the author's system. Evaluated for those purposes, I'd have to call it a success.

For my own liking, the game is very polished and has some clever puzzles, but I didn't enjoy the interactivity as much as I could have and felt emotionally distanced from the game.

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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. I’ve faffed around in the white house, reconnoitering the mailbox and display case and thinking “this will be fun!” as I lift the trap door and enter the Great Underground Empire – 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.

I’ve read a bunch of appreciations so I certainly understand why this works for others, and some of this is definitely down to expectations – 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 I’m as subject to nostalgia as the next person, I’m not nostalgic for Zork. And some of it’s down to the ridiculous plenty of the modern age – when Zork was the only thing going, beavering away at its devilish puzzlery was I’m sure the glorious work of many a late night and weekend. Here and now, though? It’s hard to justify the time investment to myself when I’ve 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) it’s pretty Zorky; and 2) I really didn’t get on with it, partially though not exclusively for the reasons I’ve 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 don’t 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 SS’s sprawling, red-herring-choked map (including one literal red herring – no, this doesn’t make it better), arbitrary puzzle design, and too-dense prose. There are some individual puzzles that aren’t bad, and the custom parser is pretty well implemented, but ultimately I didn’t find much to enjoy.

The game doesn’t put its best foot forward, which is part of the issue. After a quote from The Raven that doesn’t connect to anything in the game so far as I could see, you get a vague but wordy introduction where you’re plucked from your ordinary life (in the regular, real world? It’s unclear) and told by a mysterious voice from beyond that you’ve 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 there’s an aperture. Deeply embedded into the floor of the chamber there’s an inlay. Beside you there lays a lamp and sword."

Yes yes, lamp and sword, but it’s too wordy, and the parser doesn’t allow you to abbreviate the inscriptions to FIRST, SECOND, etc., so you’re in for a lot of typing to fully explore things. And before you’ve 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 I’d only started to dig into.

After this rocky beginning, it does improve for a bit – 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 it’s 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 – there’s a castle, a cellar, and a hall that all felt pretty much interchangeable, though a deserted village at least somewhat changes things up – but have large, sparse maps. There’s 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 – in addition to a number of critical ones only findable via SWEEPING DUST and LOOKING UNDER and LOOKING BEHIND – 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 – collecting ingredients for a witch’s brew, navigating a maze, solving riddles, getting an iron key with a (Spoiler - click to show)magnet – 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 there’s no indication of that in any of the descriptions I found. And then there’s the riddle that had me tearing out my hair – I’m going to spoil it, because if you try to play Somewhere, Somewhen you’ll need it spoiled to. Getting into the witch’s 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
spider’s legs and octopus
arms on weekdays."

Right, so that’s 885, easy enough. But no! “Digits” is meant to indicate that you should type a 10, and “weekdays” translates as 7. Maybe this is a Downton Abbey joke (you know, “what’s a week-end?”) 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 don’t, especially when the rewards of advancing the story and exploring more of the setting are pretty lackluster – I started having regular recourse to the hints about halfway through, and didn’t regret it one bit.

I’ll close by repeating that the custom parser is actually pretty good for such things. It doesn’t like abbreviation of objects, and you can’t interact with objects in containers or on supporters, even to examine them, without first taking them (I haven’t 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. It’s clear a lot of time, energy and enthusiasm went into coding it, and I’m sure that’s true of this big game as a whole – and for someone looking for another Zork to pour hours and hours into, I could see Somewhere, Somewhen being the most fun they’d have in this Comp. But for someone like me, who’s 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 I’m excited to get to.

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