The Only Possible Prom Dress

by Jim Aikin

Fantasy
2022

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Just the ticket for those who yearn for the IF of yesteryear, January 7, 2023
by Jim Nelson (San Francisco)

Adapted from a review on intfiction.org

As a TADS writer myself, I was happy and relieved to see another TADS game make it into IF Comp 2022. (There was only one in 2021, the atmospheric Ghosts Within.) On top of using the venerable authoring system, Aiken’s entry is also a sequel to his 1999 Inform-based Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina (which I’ve not played). Prom Dress is very much a throwback game, and the author’s notes indicates he meant it to be seen as such.

The premise is one of domestic plight: At the last minute, your seventeen year-old daughter needs a new prom outfit to replace the one damaged by her younger brother. As fate would have it, the shopping mall is all-but-closed due to a downtown parade. Dutifully you drive to the mall praying you will find something for your daughter to wear.

The premise is particular, but the setup is generically familiar to text adventure fans. The deserted shopping mall—a rat’s nest of passages and walkways—and it’s numerous locked storefronts reminds of any number of crawlers, whether they’re set in a dungeon, a haunted mansion, a space outpost, or a jungle island. The few shops remaining open are manned with the requisite NPC providing key information and hinting about their highly-specific unmet need. They’re sufficiently implemented, but none I encountered popped off the screen character-wise.

A few nice touches separate Prom Dress from standard maze-grinding fare. For one, guards on the bottom floor man a video surveillance system. This limits where you can explore without being caught. Another nicety is your daughter at home texting what her Ouija board is spelling out, giving you automatic in-game clues on where to focus your attention.

The map is enormous. Even after two hours of play, I was still finding new locations, and no, not all had been unlocked by solving earlier puzzles—I’d simply not explored every available exit from all rooms. More than once I felt utterly lost. (Fortunately, a link to a downloadable map was added to the game after the comp started. I highly recommend getting it, unless you’re the type of person who likes drawing maps while you play.). Fans of nonlinear adventure games will feast on this game.

One gripe: A number of paths are asymmetrical, that is, going east will take you to a location where you have go south to return to your previous location. The logic for this can be teased out from the descriptions (“East and around a corner, the mall continues…”), but these twists really mess with keyboard muscle memory when you’re hot to solve a puzzle.

While one might not expect much commentary from a game of wander-collect-unlock-repeat, the twisty-promenades-all-alike layout does paint a compelling picture of brutalist American commercial architecture and its rapid decay due to rentier maintenance practices. This mall is the same setting as Aiken’s earlier effort, and references back to it highlight years of neglect and a crumbling infrastructure. Although not described in-game, I could "see" the mall's scuffled flooring and battered kick-plates, and smell yesterday’s Cinnabon in the air. It’s Thomas Cole’s Desolation in suburban miniature.

The map’s enormity is only matched by the inventory to be collected. A discarded shopping bag rapidly goes from a convenience to a necessity. The game is configured to permit only so much be held in-hand, leading to lots of automatic inventory juggling by TADS. One extreme example:

> get belt
(first putting the old-fashioned army helmet in the shopping bag
then putting the flashlight in the shopping bag then putting the gold
coin in the shopping bag)

Norms-bending is the norm here. Gaining access to the closed storefronts—that is, breaking and entering—is a major part of the game. General tomfoolery is performed, all under the guise of securing a prom dress. At one point, in order to advance, (Spoiler - click to show)I found myself waving a fresh pack of Marlboros under the nose of an NPC desperate to kick the habit—that one made me question myself. This is on top of the usual kleptomaniac shoplifting so central to most interactive fiction. (Did I mention the shopping bag?)

In counterpoint is a general levity. This is not a game that takes itself too seriously. The rent-a-cop guards are enraptured by a Law & Order marathon; the military recruiting office’s posters are a touch too jingoistic. It’s not hacker humor a la fnord and the number 42, but a subversive, smirking skepticism that pokes its head up now and then.

Most of my criticisms regard polish. The expansive map means many location descriptions are little more than prose enumerating all exits. It also means a surplus of unimportant decoration objects, with most returning stock replies to actions. Combined, this creates an unfinished feel in places. A few disambiguation problems made me stumble (such as rooms with multiple indistinguishable doors, or a golf ball / golf balls situation). And while it’s obvious the author was having fun with the regrettable puns so ubiquitous to mall shop names, some were stretched thin. (Which might make for another puzzle, but I did have to wonder: Would anyone call their store “The Finest in Taste”? Perhaps in a different part of the country than where I’m from.)

My largest gripe, though, is a bit of a spoiler: (Spoiler - click to show)Once you’re in possession of the shopping mall’s skeleton key, you can enter any store’s front door without explicitly unlocking it. This led to numerous times I tried a location exit thinking it led to an unexplored area, and then being instantly nabbed by the security guards watching the security monitors downstairs. UNDO is available, but to "die" by simply traveling a direction was wearing.

My meager score when I broke away tells me I barely scratched the surface. My first two hours, I was almost drowning in options to pursue. It’s a highly nonlinear game. Puzzle difficulty gradually ramps up as you advance through the mall. The nostalgia of navigating the quasi-maze in solitude, and the micro-bursts of dopamine when solutions are discovered, is just the ticket for those who yearn for the IF of yesteryear. If you’re looking for thoughtful story arcs or expressive characters, this might not be your bag of oats—but that’s not what the game set out to achieve. What it does want to achieve—an expansive puzzle-fest set in a non-traditional location—it does quite well.