IF Comp 2014: Transparent (Hanon Ondricek)

transparent

Transparent is a parser-based haunted house game with a mix of puzzles and exploration. I played it to an end, though I think there was a lot more to see; however, I’d run out of time at that point.

Transparent puts you in the role of a photographer doing a shoot at a historic mansion, where the lights are on the fritz and something keeps moving around in the darkness. You can photograph whatever you like, and be given an overall score based on the number and inventiveness of these shots, though there are some other things to discover around the mansion as well, as the walkthrough hints. But first, you have to wander around the mansion in the dark, trying to find light sources and husbanding your batteries. At any time you can leave again, cashing in for the photos you’ve taken so far.

The game is supported by a lot of nice extras. There’s a graphical map (which is helpful, because I at least found it difficult to picture the relationship between some of the rooms from the descriptions alone), a feelie brochure describing tourist services available there, and a friendly guide to play which lists some strategies rather than just giving a straight walkthrough of actions. The game file itself is augmented with images and sounds, which is why it’s more satisfying to play in a local interpreter than via a web browser that doesn’t support all the extra effects.

Design is a bit mixed. Transparent does a good job of handling things like photography of nameless objects and rooms, and there are several cool puzzle solutions using your camera, which quite appropriately becomes your primary tool in this situation. It’s hard to avoid having to travel through dark rooms some of the time, and this was handled in an effectively spooky way. There’s also changing lighting outdoors (and in a few places indoors) as the sun sets and the moon rises. There are various other things going on which I will not spoil here, but which I imagine took some coding effort.

On the other hand, there’s also a lot of fairly annoying fiddliness with no obvious payoff. The inventory limit is extremely low, so you’re constantly juggling stuff from hand to hand, and the system does not automate anything for you. The result is exchanges like this:

> i
You are carrying:
  your equipment bag (open)
     your camera
     a spare battery
     a charger (empty)
   a property key
   your coat (being worn)

> take picture
Since you don’t have a photographic memory, you’ll need a camera to record the moment.

> get camera
You’re carrying too many things already.

> put key in bag
(the property key in your equipment bag)
There’s not a perfectly-shaped hole for that in the equipment bag.

> drop key
(the property key)
Dropped.

> get camera
Taken.

> wear camera
You loop the camera strap over your head and let it hang.

> get key
(the property key)
Taken.

…which I found frustrating after the first few times. If this is meant as a puzzle, then it’s too conceptually simple and fussy a puzzle to be all that fun; if it’s meant to be realistic, well, I’ve definitely juggled more stuff than this in real life, not to mention that most camera bags I’ve ever seen have little zippered side pockets into which you could easily put something like a key. It was especially annoying when I needed to move everything around so I could plug in the charger and recharge the batteries, since then multiple objects needed to be put down, stashed, etc., so that I could get the battery out of the camera and into the charger and ARGH.

Speaking of which, you need to use your camera constantly, so the batteries run out really fast. Pro-quality digital cameras can often be fitted with battery grips that double the available charge and I kept wishing my protagonist had one of those. Still, battery resource management is a venerable IF puzzle type, and it did contribute to the game’s atmosphere in a way that the inventory fiddling did not, so I had more sympathy for this.

Overall it feels as though the game was designed as a space and simulation with certain affordances, rather than with a specific player experience in mind: not “the player will solve a first puzzle using the camera in way X and then the second puzzle by using it in way Y,” but “There’s a camera that can do X and Y, and this other object that can also do Y and Z. Do with that what you will.”

I really like games with multiple solutions and systematic mechanics, but it doesn’t let you off the hook of still doing some structural design thinking to make sure that the player doesn’t multiple-solution herself into a suboptimal experience. If there’s a cool way to solve something that makes things happen in a good order, and then a boring repetitive slow way that’s more obvious, then odds are good at least 60% of players will do it the slow way and then blame you, the author, for the tedium of it. Spooky though the empty-house-wandering was, I would have liked to lose less of my play time to stumbling about in the dark looking for light switches, which got a bit same-y after a while. I’m not sure whether there was something better I could have been doing here or whether I really was just intended to go through the same sort of routine in each of ten different rooms.

The same thing is happening at the structural level. Multiple outcomes are possible, but the game is coy about providing goals, so you need to find them for yourself. Several possibilities didn’t even occur to me until I checked the walkthrough document, but I would guess that those are the ones that provide the most interesting story. I appreciated the fact that there was a way I could walk out and win (for some value of “winning”) when I was starting to run low on play time, but on the other hand I would have liked to learn more of the mansion’s history, and I didn’t really have time to delve into that.

Structurally there’s a superficial resemblance to Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder here, in that there’s a big space that you can traverse in different ways, with various interesting things to find none of which are required on a given playthrough, and the end of the game gives you a score on what you’ve managed to accumulate. But CVP was actually very strongly directed: you have Verdeterre giving you explicit goals and commentary throughout, while the rising water forces you to keep moving up the ship, and the turn limit on the whole game means that it’s pretty hard to spend more than 15 to 20 minutes on a given playthrough. (Possibly a good bit less than that, once you’re past exploring the ship and into executing a grab-stuff-and-go plan.)

Transparent by contrast is eerie without being urgent. Despite the clear evidence of ghost presence in the house, I didn’t actually feel that the stakes for my character were all that high, since he could leave at any time. There were occasionally moments when I felt I ought to do something quickly — answer a ringing phone, pursue a shadow seen through a window — but I never actually worked out how to act on those impulses, so the moment passed and the tension dissipated without effect.

To the extent that there’s any backstory plot or theme at work here, I didn’t encounter enough of it to really comment.

So, overall: a lot of effort went into this, and some of the effects are pretty cool. However, I think overall it could stand a little revision focusing on player experience, both to loosen up some of the more annoying object behaviors and to provide a bit more focus and structure after the early game.

Other reviews: Elizabeth, Joseph Geipel.

3 thoughts on “IF Comp 2014: Transparent (Hanon Ondricek)

  1. Pingback: IF Comp 2015: The Baker of Shireton (Hanon Ondricek) | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

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