IF Comp 2012: The Sealed Room (Robert DeFord)

The Sealed Room is a short parser-based fantasy piece, using conversation and NPC interaction as the basis of several puzzles. 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 The Sealed Room is that one day during a mundane walk, you encounter an old man on a park bench who, for reasons of his own, magically transports you to a room containing a dragon and a unicorn. You must talk to both parties, show them objects, and collect rewards in order to solve a series of basic puzzles and escape the room.

The puzzles themselves aren’t difficult, and the game is pretty heavy-handed about telling you what the answers are, to the point where at times playing the game feels indistinguishable from typing in a walkthrough of the game.

I had thought, when the story started, that the puzzle was just going to be a sort of contrivance whereby I would be forced to intercede between these characters, or explain them to one another, or come to understand why they must be eternally at odds, or something. That is not the case.

The conversation modeling is basic but usable: there’s an ASK/TELL system, but each of the major characters will list suggested topics of conversation if you seem to be floundering, which helpfully avoids guess-the-noun problems. On the other hand, the dialogue tends towards the mechanical, both characters will repeat things they have already said, and many of their remarks are of a kind that shuts conversation down rather than pushing it forward. There are some rudimentary hints of personality for each of them, but it remains fairly un-fleshed-out; and the conversation never reports the actual text of what the protagonist says, so “you” remain an entirely hazy personality.

The author gives the most care to the physical descriptions of the objects in the sealed room, the dragon and unicorn and their possessions; and also to the opening paragraph with the neighborhood walk. I couldn’t help thinking that I would have considerably preferred a game in which I sat on the park bench and had a chat with the old man.

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In fact, when the game ends, you’re told you can return to the park bench. At the time I thought, “okay, cool, now I get to go back to the park bench and confront the old man about why it is that he’s doing crazy wizard stuff with putting people and magical creatures into sealed rooms.” But I don’t; instead I just get a sort of cliffhangery bit about how now the old man has the power to summon me to play an NPC role in other people’s sealed room adventures.

I guess that’s a mildly amusing twist ending, but it’s not enough on its own to sustain the rest of the piece, in light of the fact that you spend almost the entire game typing in things that one or the other NPC has told you to type.

One thought on “IF Comp 2012: The Sealed Room (Robert DeFord)

  1. Hello Emily,

    Thanks for reviewing my game. I really appreciated your comments on the quality of the conversation, especially:

    “On the other hand, the dialogue tends towards the mechanical” and “the conversation never reports the actual text of what the protagonist says, so “you” remain an entirely hazy personality.”

    Wow! I read the paragraph I extracted those two comments from and it was like getting a new pair of glasses for my mind’s self-critical eyes. I suddenly I saw my IF writing in a new light, albeit a harsh one. That new light is greatly influencing my thinking about the way I am approaching being an IF author. Consequently, I must tell you that your review is worth all the bruises my ego has received from the 2012 Comp reviews. Again, thank you for the lesson.

    BTW, I am currently writing a much larger IF work. Hopefully, I can apply what I learned from you and create something that will end my losing streak with IF. Look for me in the Spring Thing. I would greatly appreciate it if you were to review that work.

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