The One Room Game Competition is a competition for games set in a single location; entries are allowed in English or Italian. This year there were five English entries, though one was written in Quest, so I skipped that. My (somewhat spoilery) reviews of the others follow:
Marika the Offering
Since I enjoyed A Fine Day for Reaping but had problems with the parser, I was interested to try this game, in which the author says he deliberately set out to write a less ambitious piece with tighter parsing.
Does it work? Well — it’s not as headbangingly frustrating as AFDFR, in part because the scope of the game keeps there from being too many different options, and most of your activity is focused on the same few props. There’s less opportunity to get distracted by irrelevancies and red herrings. But I still ran into quite a few places where the ADRIFTiness of the parser let the game down a bit. For instance, LOCK DOOR WITH ROD produced the surprising
I grab the iron rod from the floor and charge at the door.
Screaming with rage I bring the rod round in an arc and into contact with the door with as much power as I can muster. There is a deafening clang and the rod is jarred from my hands and thrown across the room, just missing my head. I stumble back, hands shaking and ears ringing
That was plainly not what I wanted to do; perhaps the game was matching against [anything] DOOR WITH ROD, intending to catch all variations of hit, smash, break, destroy, etc. I admit that what I was trying to do was odd and a bit unintuitive, but the game did not cope with it gracefully.
And there were also just some missing synonyms or places where I was clearly trying to indicate an appropriate action but the game didn’t pick up on it: PRY FLAGSTONE or PRY FLAGSTONE WITH ROD for LIFT FLAGSTONE; PUT PARCHMENT IN FIREPLACE when I wanted to burn the parchment; etc.
I also felt that Marika didn’t play to Webb’s writing strengths: instead of the wry understatement and humorous imagery of AFDFR, he goes here for high-flown language and melodramatic emotional effects, and the results are sometimes not as compelling as one might hope.
Still, I enjoyed the game. Webb did achieve his goal to some degree: though some parsing problems did exist, they did not get in my way nearly as much as the ones in AFDFR did. The goal was straightforward and easily to understand; the puzzles mostly seemed fair; I sympathized with the protagonist and came to like the guard who was on her side. (I assume they get married and live happily ever after. It seems only fair. I was a little sad that there wasn’t a turn or two at the end in which I could express my gratitude myself — KISS ENRIC seemed like an obvious final move — but probably I am now just being a sap.)
I wish this game had been in IF Comp 2007: it has the ambition, seriousness, and story focus that I felt was largely missing from this year’s mix. I also feel a certain kind of proprietary interest in conversation games wherever they appear. The idea of having to make peace with a suspicious potential enemy provides lots of dramatic tension, and the realistic modern setting is welcome, too. I was particularly impressed by the descriptions of the weaponry, which sounded knowledgeable; I assume the author did some research or had some training in this area. (I know so little myself that I wouldn’t be able to recognize a completely nonsensical description of an AK-47. However: the author makes me think he knows what he’s talking about.)
That said, there were a lot of things that weren’t perfect about this. The protagonist’s back story felt a little too pat to me, and her big revelation did not really surprise. She never quite emerged for me as a distinct personality, as opposed to a kind of standard textbook case story about Why War Sucks. (This is somewhat similar to the problems with Jane.) There seemed to be some gestures in the direction of distinguishing her — her unexpected interest in Italian Renaissance music, for instance — but somehow these details weren’t quite enough to make her come together as a character for me. And I found the description of Julia’s academic career less believable than the stuff about weapons, because it seems inconsistent. Was she doing English literature or was she in philosophy? And why is she so vague? Most people who get to the stage of doing postdoc research have a little canned synopsis of their work which they can and will recite at the slightest provocation: it’s the “elevator speech” you give to potential employers, or to colleagues at cocktail receptions, or to students who ask about your specialization. I tried pushing her in that direction because I thought maybe by talking to her about a neutral subject which she felt comfortable about, and which reminded her of her time in the US, I could get her to regard me on the same terms as the Americans she used to know and work with. But this was only moderately effective.
Anyway, I’m picking excessively at this one little corner of the piece, which was not really my intention; but the point is that I didn’t always find Julia deeply-enough imagined as a character, particularly when it came to topics I know something about.
My character was also a bit under-delineated; we get a few bits about who my siblings are and what they do, stuff like that; but attempts to tell Julia about myself don’t go anywhere, and there was no room for me to articulate my feelings about the peacekeeping effort. There are two ways that could have gone — either the character could have been allowed to take a range of positions reflecting the player’s actual beliefs, or he could have had some specific and constrained remarks to convey a specific characterization — but either way, this was less a dialogue than it was a chance for my character to listen to Julia’s complaints, which then turn out to be rather stereotyped and reductionist.
Even if the intended form of interaction is to pay attention for keywords and then show an appropriate interest by asking about them, rather than engaging in an argument or exchange of views, the dynamics of the conversation are still a bit sketchy. At one point Julia names three causes of war — religion, tribalism, and something else I’ve now forgotten — but only the question about religion leads anywhere interesting, and she gives snappish and unhelpful replies to followups on the other two. Likewise, the digression about types of love seemed like it was supposed to go somewhere, but then doesn’t really.
Similarly, I sometimes felt as though I was groping uncertainly for keywords to move the conversation on, and that I had too little control over what the character got to say about specific things. These are complaints often leveled against my own early work, so I can understand where the design comes from, but I think that especially in a work that is so focused on being sensitive, tactful, and receptive, it would be nice to have the added control offered by topic-menu or TADS-3-style conversation system, where we can choose among several remarks on the same topic.
I also wanted to do more with the physicality of the location — at one point I tried to get up, walk across the room, and sit next to Julia, but the game didn’t understand any of the pertinent commands except STAND, and I quickly realized I wasn’t supposed to do this. Possibly I’ve been reading too much about the significance of proxemics in character interaction on the Greek stage lately, but it struck me that letting the player move around the room more would be another way to articulate the relationship we want to have with Julia — and she might let us approach only if she was feeling sufficiently receptive.
Other problems: I noticed a number of typographical errors, missing quote marks, and infelicities of spacing; several comments in the conversation can be repeated when they really should not be; there are a few actions that probably should be disallowed, too. (E.g.: the game happily lets me open Julia’s satchel, even though I’m sitting across the room from her and she has every reason in any case to keep me from touching her things.) These could be cleaned up in a post-comp release.
Still, despite these specific gripes, I was really pleased to see this piece, and I felt a distinct satisfaction when after being shot twice, I managed at last to get Julia to open up to me. It is less technically tidy than the author’s IF Comp entry, but I liked it much more, because it was attempting something considerably harder and more interesting.
This one is comparatively weak. The premise is that we are locked into a haunted room at the top of a house, and we must solve puzzles from a puzzle box in order to regain our freedom. This is supposedly a harrowing and terrifying experience, and towards the end of the game a “presence” manifests itself, but the framing story doesn’t intrude in any important way on the player’s interaction.
That interaction is mostly about scouring a large oil painting for signs and symbols that might be interpretable as the key to the code box before us. There are different kinds of combinations — sometimes there’s a shape sequence, sometimes a color sequence, sometimes, to really shake things up, a sequence of numbers. But essentially, this game consists of examining lots of things, over and over; finding one key sequence of symbols; and then laboriously entering that information via dials or switches.
When I say “over and over”, that’s because the oil painting changes; so the first time we examine everything, we don’t find the clues to later puzzles. We have to re-examine all the items when we move on to puzzle two, and again on puzzle three, and then… you get the idea. I suppose one could argue that this is a clever way to keep the player from getting confused by seeing too many different combinations at once. I say: no, it’s just boring.
Another frustration: as I said, most of the game is about setting a sequence of dials or switches or the like to display a combination of some kind. But if you set an incorrect combination and press the big red button (which basically means ‘try this one out’), then (as far as I can tell) you have to turn all the dials again before the game will acknowledge that you’ve keyed in a correct new answer. That’s true even if there are some elements in the incorrect answer that were right. So if, for instance, I tried 1 8 7, got it wrong, and then guessed 2 8 5, the game would still treat my answer as incorrect if I didn’t rotate the second dial between tries. That caught me twice.
For additional aggravation, the game has certain standard ADRIFT glitches: X TREE *tells* you it’s being translated as [x trees], but it actually produces a different response from X TREES. And then there’s one serious bug: on the last puzzle of the sequence, if you try to examine the painting, it responds that you “see nothing special”. I took that to mean that we had moved beyond the painting and that I should seek the relevant number combination elsewhere in the room; but no. That information was still concealed within the painting. I just wasn’t allowed to see the overview description of what was in the painting any more. I guess it’s dimly possible that the author intended this as a clever memory test (“Okay now! Let’s see how well you remember what all the objects are that you’ve been obsessively re-examining for the last hundred and fifty turns!”), but the game’s responses don’t really hint at that, and there’s no explanation in the story for why things should work that way.
So: no story, no atmosphere, not a lot of challenge to the puzzles, lots of repetitive/dull interaction, and the implementation seemed to be somewhat broken too. And there are typos. Hrm.
I’m reminded of a criticism a friend once received in a writing workshop: “The best thing about your story was that it was short.”
The critic meant that less nastily than it sounded, and so do I. I did complete the game, partly because it was brief and easy. And the *next* to last puzzle does involve a clever twist on the player’s expectations. But fundamentally I find the type of puzzle — examine every object thoroughly, recognize sequence, enter sequence, repeat — dull and unpuzzle-like.
Now this is what I like to see: a cool, entertaining magic system that fits together, where puzzles build on other puzzles and the player rapidly learns to control his environment more completely. And lots of fun responses, and ingenious ways that the different spells worked together, especially the sensi spell. I never knew that inanimate objects *enjoy* glowing.
Maybe it makes them feel pretty.
I did wish I could at the end have found out what the little creature really looks like. (I finished the game with 95%, having captured it and escaped the vault, so possibly if I’d found some additional points I would have been granted this boon.)
I did also get a bit bogged down once or twice — it took me a while to work out that I wanted to crack the vault door and not one of the walls (since, in theory, wouldn’t a door be more likely to include structural components other than stone?). I also didn’t immediately work the way to redouble spells, though I understood how to time them just fine. (I tried attaching to- and ma- to the front of spell names, but this didn’t always work so well.)
But leaving all that aside, this is a cohesive, entertaining puzzle game of medium difficulty. Hooray!
Edited later to add: