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About the Story
Ten years ago you had to burgle every store in Stufftown to get your hands on the sought-after doll called Sugar Toes Ballerina so your 7-year-old daughter Samantha wouldn't be heartbroken on Christmas morning. ("Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina," 1999.) Sam is 17 now, and tonight is her senior prom -- but her little brother spilled black ink (accidentally? maybe...) on her prom dress! The clerk at the fashion boutique in Stufftown said on the phone they have the identical dress in the right size, but most of the stores have closed up early because there's a parade downtown. So now it's back to Stufftown to try to get your hands on the Only Possible Prom Dress.
It's not going to be easy. "The Only Possible Prom Dress" is a parser-based puzzle-fest in the classic mode, packed with chatty characters and unlikely perplexities. For best results, the cross-platform QTads interpreter is strongly recommended.
Language: English (en)
First Publication Date: October 1, 2022
Current Version: 1.0.1
Development System: TADS 3
Sequel to Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina, by Jim Aikin
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Number of Reviews: 5
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This game is a sequel to Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina, a game a couple decades old. When I first played IF in 2010, I downloaded the Frotz app and played all the main games that come with it. After I found how fun big puzzle games like Curses! are, I searched for other games that were like it and found Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina. I ended up really enjoying the game a lot.
This sequel so far lives up to the original. Per IFComp rules, I've only played 2 hours, getting 20 out of 250 points and unlocking much of the map.
You play as a parent (I think a mother?) that is trying to get a prom dress for your daughter. There is a large mall that is mostly abandoned due to a parade. It's a 3-story mall, with many stores per floor and other areas outside.
It's a puzzle-based game, with a variety of puzzles, including conversation, codes, machines, animals, etc.
Like the original game, it has a huge map and is (eventually) very nonlinear. Unlike the original, it contains extensive in-game help systems and suggestions that smooth out the player experience. In particular, the (very mild early spoiler) (Spoiler - click to show)texts from your daughter help point you to the next available puzzle. I turned to the hints once, when I felt like I had a reasonable solution to something but it just wasn't working; it turned out I had just thought of it differently than the author, and the progressive hints gave me just the hint I needed.
The first two hours have been fun, and I look forward to the rest. I was just going to power through with the walkthru, but I think this is fun enough I'd like to take it slow later.
(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp. I beta tested this game and didn't do a full replay before writing this review).
I am not much of a braggart by nature, and crowing over accomplishments in the IF realm is an inherently absurd proposition, so itís saying something that I was tempted to open this review by not-so-humbly pointing out that Iím pretty sure I was the first person on the planet to win The Only Possible Prom Dress. Largely this was by dint of being one of the beta testers, of course, but still, there were other testers and this is a long game Ė Iím guessing I put in at least 15 or 20 hours, even after getting some hints, and I often had to put it down for a while to let the puzzles percolate so my subconscious could worry away at them and hand my conscious mind some new ideas. Getting to the winning screen after putting in a fair bit of sweat equity over two weeks felt like an accomplishment.
This is not, I hasten to add, because the game is formally cruel Ė itís I believe Polite on the Zarfian scale, with any game-ending events only a simple UNDO away. Nor is it because the puzzles are unfairly diabolical. Donít get me wrong, many are pretty tricky Ė and there are at least two, both involving codes, that I suspect most players will need a hint on Ė but save for that diabolical duo, they feel on the level. When I solved one fair and square, I felt satisfied; when I stumbled into an answer through trial and error, I immediately saw the logic; and when I needed a hint, I slapped my forehead because I realized Iíd missed some solid clues that would have gotten me in the right direction.
Funnily enough, the puzzle-solving is also rendered more pleasant by the size. The game starts with many areas locked off, then twice opens up a new, large chunk of the map after surmounting a key obstacle Ė but even from the get-go, you can go a lot of places, pick up a lot of items, and make progress on a bunch of puzzles. At any given time you might have half a dozen different challenges in progress, and if youíre feeling stuck, often just taking a circuit of the mall and messing around with all the new stuff youíve discovered will be enough to make progress on at least one Ė or give you an idea in the meantime. Thereís also a good variety in the different things you wind up doing; the gameís ultimately a scavenger hunt, but between foiling security systems, decoding anagrams, navigating mazes (all of which I think have workarounds), messing around with devices, cheering up NPCs, and the good old-fashioned medium-dry-goods business of pushing things around and climbing through holes and inserting thing 1 into receptacle A, youíll never be bored. The scale of the game also lends it a sort of logic-puzzle vibe, as I wound up keeping a running inventory of the different puzzles Iíd encountered as well as a separate list of the different items or other possible puzzle-solving things to try, cross-referencing them and deducing which solution went with which barrier as I went.
Atypically, Iím fairly deep into the review here without mentioning the plot or the theme or the writing. Thatís because this is definitely and defiantly a puzzle-focused adventure game, and the plot is honestly something of a shaggy-dog story Ė the blurbís setup, that you need to find a dress for your daughter, isnít exactly a lie, but the steps to retrieving it from the near-deserted mall wind up taking you to some wacky places, with weird technology and more than a bit of magic getting into the mix without the protagonist making much of a comment. But the prose is well done, and the cast of supporting characters, one-note stereotypes one and all, are written engagingly and enjoyably, so theyíre fun to interact with even if their role as flywheels to set some of the cogs of the puzzles in motion can never be ignored.
All this is to say Only Possible Prom Dress is an old-school puzzlefest as advertised (albeit more late-90s than late-70s), but a good one, even I think for folks like me who arenít inherently drawn to the form. Itís perhaps ill-served by being in the Comp, though Ė this is one to savor.
Big picture stuff first: PPD (I'll neglect the O, as otherwise I'm reminded of Naughty by Nature's hit which seems, um, incongruous with the title) makes me want to play Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina. It's maybe on the long side, slightly, to fit into my plans, and I'd have missed it outside of IFComp. I admit I appreciated the walkthrough greatly. I don't know how much I can kvetch about tricky puzzles, or even if I have an ethos of one, but it's the sort of thing I wish I have bandwidth for, even if I don't. Still, it's a lot of fun, with a lot of variety, and it's old-school in many ways. I mean, malls are dying, and it's extremely expansive, and you need a big map. There's a big word puzzle, too. I'd have absolutely loved it back in the Infocom days, before there were so many other games to grab my attention. I've had paid for the InvisiClues. Thankfully, during IFComp, I needed to buy neither PPD or its cluebook. Technology!
PPD is the story of a woman who wants to get her daughter the perfect prom dress. It tackles no great social issues (okay, there's a bad rich person who gets comeuppance, and we can never have too many of that.) But it's not just pure entertainment, as there's some nice family stuff in there. Your daughter sends slightly pleading texts that double as shallow hints, and one of the main puzzles includes a love story on its own. There are absurdist laughs along the way and a bit of criminal mischief. You lock someone in a closet, but it's revenge, because what they did violated a memory of something nice from Ballerina. You may have started them smoking again, too, though they likely didn't have the discipline to stay away) and I do enjoy the cringey puns in the store names.
I hope my review gives you a big-picture idea of what was a fun experience for me, even though I abridged it. This is a game where even looking at the walkthrough will make you laugh. But sometimes we don't have the time. Compared to other long efforts, I got a lot more. This has obviously been planned and tested well. And the author admits they don't expect anyone to solve it within the IFComp time limits. They hope it will last. Perhaps it's a great game for when it's cold outside and your Internet is flaky.
A word on malls. Even a closed mall brings back memories for me. Malls were bigger when I was a kid--part of it was, I was smaller, so they seemed bigger. There was a mix of awe and fear, and I figured the future held even wider and taller shopping malls, because everything would be bigger and better in the future! They amazed meĖall the stores I wanted to look in but parents wouldn't let me, because we wouldn't buy anything. Then, of course, malls started closing, and I realized I never had a look in store X. Sometimes I still see a store name today where I wonder "what did they sell?" (Thanks for answering, Google!) And I feel like I'm doing the next best thing to sneaking away from my parents looking in. PPD captures that sense of being lost in a way a swashbuckler can't, but not really, because if a mall were an actual maze, it would be very, very bad for business. It has to be practically laid out, and there are no dungeon rooms or whatever (government regulations!) but there's still a chance for hijinx. And though I've been in few malls with elevators (Schaumburg, Water Tower Place--they're there for aesthetic value,) just having that elevator in PPD helped me imagine an impossible mall, or one I expected would be build by now and wasn't. It turns out, there's some reason why the mall and its elevator are laid out the way they are, too. Nice planning by the architect.
As for the puzzles? I thought the item-based ones were the strongest, and the more abstract ones felt forced. In one, you push a bunch of buttons in a certain order to cause security screens to go blank. This is neat on its own, but picturing the security guards you suckered away from it actually figuring out how to operate this seemed far-fetched. If they could, they'd have a much better job than security guard. Perhaps I'm a stickler for this, given the puzzles I like to write. I can't express my full theories, but sometimes an abstract puzzle at the wrong time feels like it's just there, and here it can break up the relative fun of doing odd things with everyday items.
These puzzles make for a very pleasant escapism, and when you do punk an NPC, there's that brief moment of worry PPD's going to get mean, then it doesn't. It could really have gone wrong with the homeless man (he seems to have delusions, but he doesn't,) but you actually enjoy some significant cooperation. And there's general retro mischief like smoking indoors, which we wouldn't tolerate today! It's not full retro, though, as a cell phone you have provides you with occasional love-bombs from a well-meaning daughter and also the ability to take photographs. I remember reading how so many horror plots from years past could've been subverted if even one person in a party had had a working phone, but here it's not possible. OPPD has the phone, but you never need to use it, and in fact you probably want less technology.
PPD also does well enough keeping the relevant focus areas small. You eventually need to distract the security guards, but until you do, they have movie cameras centered on most stores. You have a catch-all for unnecessary items, and the various stores with their crazy names (bad pun alert! Of course, I was sad when the bad puns were over) are emptied quickly enough. So OPPD is comfortable despite its intimidating size. It doesn't make any great philosophical statements, but I'm often glad when a work doesn't state that up front, and I don't think they all should need to.
I can see myself going through PPD with a walkthrough before I play through Ballerina. Jim Aikin is one author I'd always managed to look into, and I just haven't found the right excuse, yet. It really is a fun, long story, and although I ran out of energy because I had other comp games I wanted to look at, I enjoyed getting turned around a bit and having that sense of wonder I felt so long ago, when Internet one-click shopping made everything easier.
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