IF Comp 2012: Escape from Summerland (Jenny Roomy and Jasmine Lavages)

Escape from Summerland is parser-based puzzle IF concerning an abandoned fairground, and lists a number of beta-testers. As usual, the jump will be followed by non-spoilery comments; then if I have anything spoilery to say, there will be spoiler space.

The premise of Escape from Summerland is that something has gone wrong at a moderately shabby amusement park, and the last remaining beings there — a monkey, a ghost, and a robot — have a chance to escape, but only if they cooperate. The game’s core storytelling and puzzle gimmick is that the player can freely change between these characters, controlling first one and then another. Each protagonist perceives the world differently and has different capacities for interacting with it: a game-play concept reminiscent of Suspended, Earth and Sky 3, and (to some degree) Everybody Dies.

Writing a game in that form is not a trivial effort. Plenty of games swap the protagonist around from one scene to the next, but very few let the player control when to hop from one to another, presumably because both coding and design are substantially harder when you don’t know which body the player is going to be wearing when she encounters each thing. As soon as I saw that that was an option, I knew that the authors must have put quite a lot of effort into the piece.

All this takes place in a surreal, melancholy, occasionally grotesque setting: a war-bombed fairground featuring mirror mazes, roller coasters, a sinister sweetshop and an aquarium in which selkie skeletons swim.

Here I felt there was a bit of a missed opportunity, because though the setting concept is one with a lot of potential for engaging and evocative prose, only the ghost is really able to describe these locations in much detail. The robot’s descriptions are focused on size, shape, material and functionality, which is useful for puzzles, but doesn’t do a great deal to flesh out the narrative depth of the location. Jacquotte the monkey is characterized as childlike and inarticulate (as indeed why should a monkey be good with human words?); she uses emoticons and lots of punctuation and exclamation points. This was sometimes amusing (though it wore on me over the course of the game). But again, her limited communication abilities meant that room descriptions from her point of view tended to strictly less informative than those from the ghost’s point of view in almost every case, when it might have been interesting to layer in a monkey’s sensory perceptions, or more hints of her past experiences.

The result of all that is a sense of significant untapped potential. We get only a vague idea of what is going on in the background of the story: why there’s a war, where the robots come from, who owned this fairground and why, what has happened here in the past, why the ghost feels such a strong sense of protective loyalty towards Jacquotte (though there are light hints of this). The same structure and puzzle content would, I think, have offered a more powerful experience if those fictional aspects had been brought more to the foreground.

The puzzles are mostly fairly brief object-manipulation pieces, made more interesting by the fact that only certain characters can manipulate certain objects. I had to use the walkthrough a fair amount for these — not because the intended solution was that unreasonable as a rule, but in general because I wasn’t getting (or understanding) enough clues from the narration in order to figure out what to do. The failure messages one receives as the robot are often especially cryptic.

Comparison with other people’s reviews, after play, also suggests that I had a way less buggy experience than some, perhaps because Summerland was updated during the competition. My playthrough had a few infelicities, but nothing like the kind of stand-out problems and issues that some reviewers have mentioned; either I was very lucky, or it has simply become a more stable game in the past two weeks.

More about my specific puzzle woes after the gap.

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The hardest and least fair-seeming bit, to me, was a segment in which the robot is supposed to take a branch held by the monkey and attack the front of a cabinet door in which the ghost is sinisterly reflected. But the cluing and feedback about this are rather difficult. The robot’s way of reporting what it sees is so cryptic that I didn’t even really understand what “Friendly AAV” or “insurgent” were supposed to be referring to until the walkthrough told me; and then it also wasn’t clear that a robot would consider a branch an appropriate tool to use for this purpose. (The name of the branch is a clue — but you don’t see this until you either inspect it directly or have the monkey drop the branch on the floor. When I reached this point in the story, Jacquotte was still carrying the branch around, so I hadn’t realized that it was going to be something the robot also could use.)

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