Spring Thing 2005 Reviews

The Authority
Bolivia By Night
Flat Feet
Whom The Telling Changed

Remarks from Spring Thing 2005, a competition for longer games. There was one other game submitted which I did not review, David Whyld's "Second Chance"; it turned out not to run under either of the ADRIFT interpreters available for the Macintosh.

Aside from that hiccup, I thought this competition went well: the longer-game format produced some neat pieces (though I think "Whom the Telling Changed", for instance, would easily have fit within the time limit of the yearly competition).

Eva Vikstrom
Played to completion?: No

Oh my.

Subjective criticism: I've worked in a few places that vaguely resembled this. I hated them. I am not having fun reliving the experience. Sorry about that.

Substantive criticism: the game frequently offers me a bunch of conversation responses that don't yet make logical sense. And it's a little strange the way what to do next is always spelled out.

I did not finish this one. It's entirely possible that it gets much more compelling after the intro.

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Aaron Reed
Whom the Telling Changed
Played to completion?: Yes

Technically a polished and well-made piece of work, and one which allows for some real variety of outcome. Unfortunately, playing it felt a lot like negotiating hypertext, which I find tremendously off-putting.

I also found the generic frame story dull and a little distant, especially set against the specific cultural background of the Gilgamesh tale. The characters in the internal story were far more compelling than those in the "real world". I realize that some of this is because the frame has to be flexible as to the PC's gender and attitude, so it tends to make all his/her relationships a little vague and hypothetical as well. (And some of it has to do with the inherent robustness of classic literature, about which, well, it would be unfair to complain too much.)

But I can see that there's good stuff here. All in all, a strong effort, and I found myself wishing that I'd been more engaged by it.

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John "Doppler" Schiff
Played to completion?: No

I'm not the ideal audience for this one, because while I am not opposed to fantasy genre games, I rarely enjoy those which style themselves after RPG scenarios.

Threnody exudes authorial good will and seems technically adequate -- in a few respects, more than adequate. I appreciated touches like the enhanced status bar and the magic self-updating map.

On the other hand, the setting, and the writing that described it, disappointed me. It struck me as fairly stock fantasy material, the author not having given a lot of time to developing his world as a place with its own history and character. And once or twice -- as when the passageway collapsed behind me -- I had the impression that he was trying to apologize for having just relied on a tremendous clichˇ. This almost never works; if you realize that one of your plot mechanics is overused, better to take it out and replace it with something more interesting and more specifically suited to the story.

I played about a hundred moves before losing energy and interest. Points for accepting >FIAT LUX as a command. But the bottom line is that it takes tremendous writing skill to get me to accept a talking cat without rolling my eyes.

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Joel Ray Holveck
Flat Feet
Played to Completion: Yes

...speaking of which.

This has much to recommend it. There are good lines, especially in the relationship with the PC's sidekick. I like the flexible treatment of geography that makes the map feel open and unconstrained; the car was so tidily handled that I never got annoyed with it -- it provided an excuse for traveling long distances but never made my job as a player harder. The tone was light, but in an enjoyable way. (How many games let you throw NPCs?) There were nice extras, like the extensive hint menus; I didn't run into any obvious bugs, either.

"Flat Feet" lacks something in the cohesive design department, though. I spent the first fifty or sixty moves wandering around in search of motivation, with key information turning up only after I'd solved a puzzle because it was there. Some of the puzzles worked fine; others (like the Transamerica Pyramid bit) relied on my going places I had no reason to go, and doing things I had no reason to do.

Early on, it gives the impression that the player should take guidance from plot constraints rather than map constraints. To explain: there are obviously quite a few locations open at once, as soon as you get the car working. Not all of these locations are equally relevant to what you're doing. Some of them are actively a bad idea to visit before you're ready, even though it's technically possible to get there.

So at the outset, I felt that my job as a player was not to explore every single thing I could find, but rather to follow the course of action that made the most sense at the moment. (Seek out person X, ask for information about Y, investigate crime scene Z, and so on.) The minimalist implementation of scenery encourages that play style as well. When there are a lot of nouns mentioned in any given room description which are not examinable, I start to get the idea that examining things is not the player's primary task. That's fine, especially if it's handled consistently.

What I found jarring was following along a plot thread for a while, coming to a dead standstill, and discovering the reason I was stuck was that my PC hadn't taken time off from the plot to explore a location he had no reason to think interesting. Worse, the location I needed to visit was only peripherally hinted at in a room description, though a bunch of other scenery nouns were not implemented at all, and I had come to expect useful exits always to be clearly and explicitly listed. This isn't so much a question of obeying any one set of design rules about how open or closed to make the map, or how fully to implement scenery. It's possible to make work any of a range of things, as long as you set up the player expectations properly and then follow through on them.

Unfortunately, the feeling of arbitrariness grew stronger and stronger as the game went on. I found myself turning to the Invisihints increasingly often, and being increasingly annoyed by the things they told me to do. (And at least one of the puzzles was simply so finicky that, even when I had the right idea, I had to try about fifteen variations to get it to come out right.)

So I would have enjoyed this more if the puzzles had been more sensibly integrated with the plot, or (paradoxically) if the game had been *more* purely puzzle-oriented and more methodical about its world model. One or the other. The mixture was problematic.

But the author did do a lot of things right. With a clearer approach to the overall structure of the game, his next piece could be quite good.

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Aidan Doyle
Bolivia By Night
Played to completion?: Yes

This is nutty but works far, far better than it has any right to do. With a few minor exceptions, I almost always knew where to go and what to do, and had a general idea of how to solve the puzzles that were in front of me -- thanks to careful game design. The map and plot are laid out in such a way that it's hard to reach a puzzle without already having seen all the components necessary to solve it. I was rarely stuck or bored. A few solutions of the late game puzzles veered from merely unlikely into mind-bogglingly implausible, but they were hinted fairly extensively; there were only one or two things that I got hung up on.

The setting was also strong; the credits indicate (if we couldn't have guessed from the photos) that the author visited in person, and there's evidence of that first-person experience throughout.

I very much enjoyed the photographs. They set the atmosphere and grounded the game in reality. In general I think this is a great example of the sane way to incorporate graphics in IF. Illustrating every location is hugely difficult, and if you try to depict all the environment changes that the player can accomplish, you start to lose one advantage of having a parser and text game in the first place -- namely, relatively inexpensive interactivity. Instead, in "Bolivia" we have illustrations that show up at important plot junctures and scene changes (as a reward for accomplishment, sometimes) and show the setting, but don't even pretend to be pictures of what is going on at the moment. [One mildly spoilery example of how the author used the photos well: if the picture of the Zebra had appeared before the Zebra character showed up in-game, I wouldn't have understood what it was, other than Something Really Wacky. Having the photo show up after the Zebra puzzle made me laugh, though -- it was like a visual punchline to this joke. "Here, you've been imagining something silly? It's even funnier than you thought."]

Finally, in my experience choosing the protagonist's gender in IF rarely does anything interesting, so I was intrigued to see that playing a female character made for some funny (or mildly disturbing) twists on the NPC interactions. The game manages to walk a fine line -- the narrative voice is never snarky or harassing about my gender, but some of the characters are, a little, and the result is a reasonably successful depiction of being a foreign woman in a culture of machismo.

If there's a drawback, it's the tonal inconsistency. It's a little strange to have these light, goofy forms of enchantment operating alongside serious social issues. But somehow I think it mostly worked, even so -- this would have been a much more depressing and less enjoyable game without its leavening of humor, magic, and cartoon violence. Meanwhile, the Bolivian history lessons were interwoven in the game in a way that didn't make them too overwhelming.

"Bolivia By Night" wasn't quite cohesive enough to become a favorite of mine, but it has a lot going for it, is fun to play, and introduces a setting I've never seen before in IF. My initially dubious reaction to the talking Che t-shirt wore off surprisingly fast.

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Last update April 30, 2005.