IF Comp 2011: Fan Interference

Fan Interference is a puzzle game concerning a historic baseball game (which makes October a particularly suitable time for its release, if you’re into that sort of thing at all). More details follow the jump.

I was pretty excited to play Fan Interference. The blurb suggested a puzzlicious but historically accurate take on a past baseball game, a bit reminiscent of Sean M. Shore’s Bonehead, which I really enjoyed. Fan Interference sounded like it was going to be more recent and from a more amateur point of view, but sharing some of the same advantages: a topic that’s not (yet) very heavily covered by IF, a grounding in a particular period, a coherent theme for the puzzles.

After most of two hours of muddling around, I’m less keen, more confused, and not remotely close to finished.

The prose is solid — grammatically sound, free of typos, interesting. The implementation shows work and care, the puzzles I’ve encountered so far are reasonably integrated with the setting; it’s clear that the author put a lot of work into this game and came to it with a real love and enthusiasm for the setting and situation he wanted to show. There is a lot of help apparatus to try to teach the rudiments of baseball to someone who doesn’t understand how it works: I wasn’t in need of this help, so I don’t know how useful it actually is, but its presence showed that the author had given some thought to reaching players who aren’t familiar with American sports.

So what’s the problem here? Direction, direction, direction. Fan Interference is cruel in the zarfian sense: it’s possible (unless I missed some alternative solution somewhere) to miss collecting important objects when you have access to them, or to get them in the wrong way, and not to know it at the time.

What’s more, the game writing at many points actively discourages the player from pursuing useful lines of approach. There are correct or partially correct actions to which the game provides discouraging responses when you try them, especially if you do them at the wrong time or with the wrong wording. I found it very difficult to figure out how to communicate with a critical NPC, and felt that the game had guided me away from taking certain actions that later turned out to have been mandatory.

Finally, a lot of the early part of the game (at least as far as I saw) is heavily dependent on adventure-game logic instead of being guided by its fiction. That is, there are a variety of tasks you need to do for puzzle reasons that aren’t at all motivated by the protagonist’s fictional goals. Either design strategy can work (though I tend to have an aesthetic preference, all else being equal, for games in which the protagonist has some sound fictional reason for doing what he’s doing at each stage). But if your design approach requires that the player think in text adventure game terms — contriving to acquire every object that’s not nailed down and doing a bunch of irrelevant tasks because they set up for later puzzles — then you need to inject a lot of clear guidance into the text. This game doesn’t do nearly enough of that.

Fan Interference did have credited beta-testers, but my guess is that it didn’t have a long enough testing cycle. I really think a lot of these issues could have been ironed out with more feedback and more revision: they’re not fundamental problems with the game’s writing or hook or puzzle concepts, they’re not unfixable, they just need time and love and most of all attention from people who don’t come to the game already knowing what they’re supposed to do.

So I’m stopping here. I could finish the game from the walkthrough, but I’ve chosen not to do so because I’m hoping that at some point Fan Interference will be revised and re-released in a more player-friendly edition, with better guidance towards the right solutions and gentler treatment of player errors. That’s a game I think I might enjoy playing, and I’d like to preserve the option.

A few specifics about what tripped me up after the spoiler space.

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Some examples of my problems:

I tried to buy both shirts, but the text made it clear that they seemed to be overpriced. Then I noticed the vendor was cold and tried to give him my shirt, like this:

>give shirt to vendor
(your white button-down shirt to the t-shirt vendor)
It’d be real Miami Vice to go shirtless with a jacket, but…Miami is where the Florida Marlins play ball. Plus, you’re not buff enough to pull it off.

>take off shirt
(your white button-down shirt)
It’d be real Miami Vice to go shirtless with a jacket, but…Miami is where the Florida Marlins play ball. Plus, you’re not buff or brave enough to pull it off.

At that point, I decided that swapping the vendor my clothes wasn’t going to help, so I went off to work on other things for a while instead — only of course I couldn’t get anywhere with the weird guy because I didn’t have the Cubs shirt. If I’d tried giving the vendor my blazer first, everything would have been fine, but I didn’t.

The problem here is that the player is trying something slightly out of the order the author expected, but that is the right basic idea; the response really needs to acknowledge the rightness and guide the player in a better direction, or else just accept the attempt as a valid one. The Miami Vice joke is cute, but not so cute that it’s worth misdirecting the player from the correct line of action.

Or again, trying to communicate with the “weird guy” who holds the plot token/agenda for the rest of the game: as I later learned from looking at hint/walkthrough information, I needed to be wearing the Cubs shirt in order to approach him successfully. But here’s the conversation I actually had with him:

>talk to weird
He says “Hey! Pal! You look like a fella who spent a lotta time yellin’ at the TV to help your team win! How’d ya like to do something REAL to help the Cubs win the pennant? I know stuff. Weird stuff. Might be a little demeaning, but nothing a fan didn’t do. I saw you trade in that stuffy old suit for a t-shirt. You look hungry, man, hungry!”

>yes
There’s nothing to get all yessy about at the moment.

>help man
I only understood you as far as wanting to help.

>ask man about pennant
Beat it, pal. I’m only talking to Cubs fans at the moment.

>talk to man
“Look, just get to the point,” he says. “You wanna help the Cubs win the PENNANT or not?”

>yes
There’s nothing to get all yessy about at the moment.

>pennant
I didn’t understand that sentence.

>say yes to man
[Use TALK TO to interact with characters.]

And so on, at some length. It’s a minor thing, but I was especially confused by this exchange:

>ask man about pennant
Beat it, pal. I’m only talking to Cubs fans at the moment.

There aren’t any quote marks or attribution here, so I wasn’t quite clear on whether this was supposed to be something the weird man was saying or whether it was a really confusing parser message or what.

On top of that, even if I read it as a response from the weird man, it flatly doesn’t make sense — the weird guy has just been talking to me and has in fact invited me to do something! But I’m not being allowed to respond to him. And to make matters worse, I am actually going to need to ASK MAN ABOUT PENNANT when I get my Cubs shirt on, but by that time I will have several times seen an error message that tells me to communicate with NPCs only using TALK TO.

I went back and forth with this stuff for quite some time before turning to the walkthrough.

One thought on “IF Comp 2011: Fan Interference

  1. Pingback: IF Comp 2011: Overview | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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