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Dickensian parody, June 17, 2012
The core mechanics of Olivia's Orphanorium are more reminiscent of time management-style games than typical IF puzzle fare.
Your task, as orphan master, is to decide how to spend money on food and devices (such as treadmills, baths, et al) that will in some fashion alter the discipline, vigour, appearance, or morale of the orphans in your charge. Undisciplined but vigorous orphans are more likely to escape; attractive and well-disciplined orphans are more likely to receive good jobs. Orphans with terribly low morale are likely to die. Good orphan outcomes mean more money for the player, while there is no profit from orphans who die or escape.
Most of the active gameplay consists of moving through the orphanage's three rooms (junior, middle, senior); washing and/or beating certain orphans; and assigning orphans to tasks, such as walking the treadmill. The risks and difficulty ramp up gradually. You start the game with just four orphans, but new ones are steadily assigned to the place until you're managing a significant number of them at a time.
One help I would have appreciated is a tabulated way to inspect the well-being of all my orphans at once, in order to decide which could most profitably be scrubbed and/or beaten that day. As it stands, as far as I can tell, one must go around examining them all. I also would have preferred if gameplay weren't so front-loaded with the task of reading the manual. The game starts with the player carrying multiple explanatory items, introducing the major concepts of the game, the commands you can use, and the catalogue of items you can buy. Players with a habit of thoroughness will probably read every entry in each of these manuals before beginning play. They are entertaining reading, which helps, but I think I might have preferred to have the catalogue of purchasable items introduced after a few days of gameplay, since a) none of the items available for sale are going to be affordable sooner than that anyhow and b) this would have spaced out the amount of looking-up necessary, and made sure I received the catalogue *after* I already understood enough about the concepts of discipline, vigour, etc., to know what I might need.
To enliven the core play elements, Orphanorium also features a series of special tasks or missions that pop up every day or two. These typically involve some sort of amusing event, and require the player to do something slightly more puzzle-oriented than the main gameplay: search the grounds for a stolen treasure, for instance, or identify an appropriate orphan to perform a particular special task.
After you've processed thirty orphans, you will be subject to a Periodic Assessment, which tallies up your success so far and assigns you an ending. For me, that was just about right -- the Assessment occurred just at the point when I was slightly starting to wonder whether the game had an end, but before I had gotten tired of it.
Orphanorium might sound like the sort of game that ought to be graphical rather than textual. But most of the pleasure of the game comes from the rich genre parody and descriptions. The catalogue items you can buy to enliven your orphanage, the environment, and the orphans themselves are all described with a consistently tongue-in-cheek mock-Victorian voice, taking the line that children benefit from frequent beatings and near-toxic baths. The actual mechanics of the game are more humane, however, as it is generally most effective to (Spoiler - click to show)feed your children the best, most fattening gruel and to refrain from using The Box for discipline.
So the text-out aspect is definitely a strength for Orphanorium. I'm a little more uncertain about whether the parser is ideal; there were times when the typing got a bit longwinded. Most commands are of the same type and there is little occasion to try out new verbs except, occasionally, during unusual story events. To be fair, the potential tedium of assigning every orphan in a room to a task is considerably reduced by the fact that you can use ASSIGN ALL TO TASK -- but I didn't discover this point until late in the game. A note about this in the instructions might help, or (better, I think) the game could detect whether the player had assigned multiple characters in a row and issue a hint message about combining those into one command.
Overall, Orphanorium is an unusual construct for IF, but it's solid, engaging, and amusingly written. Do not expect difficult puzzles or a strong narrative arc, just a lot of exploration of a particular milieu and mindset.