A Spot of Bother

by David Whyld profile

Episode 1 of The Bulldog

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Self-proclaimed "puzzlefest", February 3, 2011

The only reason I started this piece was because I came across The Warlord, The Princess & The Bulldog here on IFDB. I liked the introduction to that so much that, when I discovered it was a sequel, I decided to play the first installment of the series before continuing.

A Spot of Bother has a funny premise, and I liked the humor in the introductory backstory. The absurdist tone fits perfectly with absurdist version of the universe presented in a typical "text adventure." However, the joke started to wear off pretty quickly, because the style of humor in the writing (spoofy one-liners at a brisk pace) is entirely mismatched with the structure of the game (really, really oblique puzzles that bring the action to a grinding halt, and lots of them).

Some puzzles can be bypassed by taking a hit on your lives (you get 5 to start), but others must be solved to make any progress. The limited space to explore in the game between required solutions -- often allowing progress to only one additional room -- means that there's nothing but frustration to be had if you get stuck.

To make progress, sometimes it's necessary to examine things in great detail. The lopsided object implementation -- from items mentioned in room descriptions but not "there" to items with 4 levels of detail description available -- makes this requirement particularly cruel. Couple this with an irksome tendency to require performing the same action multiple times, and any sense of fairness to the player evaporates.(Spoiler - click to show) The final insult is the pure capriciousness of exchanges like this:

> examine metal bar
This looks like a javelin of some kind, although quite why Mrs Moog had it lying around her front garden you canít imagine.

> throw metal bar at window
You donít see any reason to go throwing things around.

> x spike
The spike is about an inch wide and an inch tall and has the look of a good poking device to you.

> throw spike at camera
You take aim and throw. The spike hits the bars and bounces back, falling onto the ground at your feet.

So there's no reason to go throwing things around, especially not hard metal javelin-like things, when a softer wooden spike described as a poking device is so much better for the job.

There are several other examples in the same vein, unfortunately.

And believe me, stuck you will be. I have a hard time agreeing that this game is a "puzzlefest" because it doesn't seem to have very many genuine puzzles. If you accept Nick Montfort's argument that a good IF puzzle is like a riddle, the kind of riddles in this work are a lot like Bilbo's "What have I got in my pocket?" in The Hobbit -- patently unfair and likely to drive the one trying to solve them crazy.

It's hard to believe that anyone could have possibly finished this game without resorting to a walkthrough or a decompiler. There are built-in hints, but I found them to be singularly useless -- either referring to puzzles I wasn't aware of yet or confirming the existence of puzzles I was aware of already, and offering no actual hints (i.e. a nudge in the right direction without spoiling the puzzle entirely) in either case.

The game also suffers with respect to quality of implementation. There are guess-the-verb challenges of the most elemental kind. In the first room, a key item offers different responses depending on whether you use "get" or "take." In another place, "examine sign" works but "read sign" doesn't. For one obstacle, "flick switch" but not "flip" or "change" or "toggle" or "turn" or "use" or "press" or "pull" or "push" or any of the others I tried before resorting to the walkthrough. There's even a game-critical NPC that you can't examine but can talk to.

As a side note, I think I like ADRIFT less every time I run into it. What it makes me realize is that the quality of the parser creates a fundamental difference in the quality of the player experience. ADRIFT's parser appears fairly primitive, with the most irritating aspect being that it is often not apparent to a newcomer whether a word has been understood or not -- in other words, one can't differentiate parser failure from referring to an unimplemented object.

All of the above said, producing this piece took a significant effort, and with a higher-quality implementation, I'm sure I would have had a much more favorable reaction to it. I really do like the writing and even found just reading the walkthrough to be an enjoyable experience once I gave up hope of actually working through the game on my own. Perhaps if every puzzle could have been bypassed with an amusing near-death sequence, allowing the story to be completed with few points quickly, reaching the end would have been much more enjoyable, and I would have been more motivated to figure out how to get the highest score.

I still plan on playing the sequel to this piece, but it may be a while before I'm ready to risk that much frustration again.

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