Unfortunate

by Jess Elizabeth Reed

2021

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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Doubly unfortunate, November 22, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Ugh, the title here is apt in more ways that one. Itís a clever bit of wordplay for this parser-based fortuneteller-me-do Ė weíre not talking turbans and crystal balls, youíre just looking to show off your palmistry to some friends at a party Ė but it also conveys how frustrating it is that the significant promise here is let down by significant implementation issues. This isnít just a matter of smacking down a few bugs here and there: thereís a need for additional design work, from fleshing out the conversations, deepening the characterization of the party-goers, and providing clearer feedback on how youíre making progress, as well as a good amount of polish. But even the rough version on offer goes a good way towards showing the (I think first-time?) author has some great ideas for how to realize this wonderful premise.

Digging into that setup, which is delightfully more specific than the blurb initially made me think: as mentioned weíre in the real world, not a fantasy one, and the protagonist is a hobbyist, not a carnival charlatan or anything like that (in fact, since you do get vague flashes at least some of the time when you do a reading, you might have some real talent). And the party here is one of those awkward post-college hangouts featuring a mix of old friends, exes, and coworkers, some of whom canít stand each other. Thereís a complex web of actual and potential connections, which creates a lot of potential for how things can shift once you start telling fortunes and intervening.

Thatís the other part of the premise, you see Ė the game proceeds in two phases, with an initial round of conversation and palm-reading giving way to an interactive second phase as the characters start bouncing off of each other and having accidents both happy and not. Success isnít about guessing a correct fortune and then lying back and waiting for fate to catch up to your intuition, though: you do have a choice of three different prognostications to offer to each of the other guests, but except for the first, generally negative, option, they wonít come true if you take a laissez-faire approach: you might have to arrange some mood music, or make sure someone has what they need to ensure a romantic gesture goes off.

These puzzles are pretty tricky, though. For one thing, it seems like thereís tight timing in the section Ė the other characters move around, and while some of the setup can be done ahead of time, there are also some right-place right-time pieces. You also canít work on most of the fortunes on their own Ė the majority of them are about romantic matters, so how the fortune you pick for one character plays out can depend on what you picked for one or more complementary characters. In fact, after an initial, spectacularly unsuccessful playthrough, I realized Unfortunate is meant to be played multiple times as an optimization challenge Ė thereís a clever meta touch here, since the playerís accumulating knowledge over multiple passes stands in for the protagonistís flashes of intuition.

On paper this should appeal to me, since I usually like optimization puzzles and real-world settings. Unfortunately (thereís that word), implementation issues bedeviled my enjoyment, so I didnít get very far. Again, this isnít just implementation in the sense of programming, though thereís some of that Ė X ME has the default description, lots of scenery is unimplemented, rules for picking up objects give responses that only make sense the first time you take something, whether or not a device is technically switched on doesnít make a difference to whether it works or not, there are misdescribed or even missing exit listings, and room descriptions sometimes donít update even after youíve removed objects. And there are lots of typos.

The bigger issue is that there are significant chunks in need of a lot of polish, and sometimes things even feeling unfinished. The characters are probably the major example here. There are seven of them, and their backstories and roles are intriguing enough to set up a bunch of potential business as they bounce off of each other. But theyíre thinly drawn, with physical descriptions focusing on superficial details like clothing. While thereís a multiple-choice conversation system, all the characters have the same three options (one of which initiates fortune-telling), which feels quite artificial. And thereís something odd about the implementation of the second phase, since the different characters donít actually seem to be present and available for interaction, even as event text describes them talking and moving around.

I also wanted there to be better feedback on how I was doing on the puzzles. There are some ideas that seemed obvious but the game wouldnít let me try (Spoiler - click to show)(Moses is allergic to flowers so giving him the bouquet for his big demonstration of affection doesnít work Ė but while the herb bouquet seems a likely substitute, I couldnít get him to accept it) and some of the fortunes are probably a little too vague, since there were a couple of times when I thought Iíd satisfied one only for the post-game scoring to say I hadnít. Combined with the combinatorial explosion of trying different mutually-dependent fortunes and the choreography required in the second act, this lack of clueing makes it feel like making real progress would require a lot of trial and error.

Itís not hard to guess at the source of these rough patches: Unfortunate doesnít list any testers in its credits, and however much playtesting it got wasnít enough. Iím really really hoping for a post-comp release of this that makes upgrades and bug-fixes based on folksí transcripts, since Unfortunate could easily be a five-star game given the quality of whatís already here Ė I havenít mentioned the prose yet but thereís some really good writing too Ė if it had more time in the oven. Hereís hoping it gets it, and that the author keeps writing games but gets more testers next time (Iíll volunteer, just DM me!)

Highlight: Figuring out how to get one of the good fortunes to work felt really rewarding Ė this is a great puzzle-solving framework.

Lowlight: The game lists exits in all-caps, which is a nice convenience Ė except oneís mislabeled (it says itís east but itís actually in) and then thereís one that isnít even mentioned at all (tip: going IN from the kitchen will get you to the laundry room).

How I failed the author: Henry was having a fussier couple of days, so I only put like half an hour into the game before I had to put it aside for a little over a day, and while I intended to play more, the challenging difficulty and thin characters meant I wasnít able to get back into it.