20 April 2009

Spring Ting Review, written 04/16/09.

In the "Spring Ting" (not to be confused with the wider IF community's "Spring Thing"), potential authors with unregistered copies of ADRIFT 4 flexed their creative muscles for a chance at earning a free registration. As one of the judges for this comp, the decision was partly up to me to say to whom the registration went. Results of the competition can be seen here; below is my Spring Ting review. The games will soon be available for download from the ADRIFT website.

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4th place/Disqualified: Homeless Harry, by Burblesnot.

[Disqualified for sexual & offensive content-- see rules.]

Homeless Harry is grotesque, grossly overwritten, offensive, and annoying— and even if that’s what it set out to be, it’s not a good thing to be. I get the feeling its author was the kind that, when handed a colouring book, will start to draw on the walls (and probably not with crayon).

HH is a game you dread starting up a second time because you know you’ll have to sit through a terrifyingly unnecessary fest of wait taggery & big fonts before getting into it. Once you do get into it, the presentation is incredibly messy & a huge turn-off. Descriptions throw up on your screen. The most insignificant details seem to get turned into gigantic infobombs. My first instinct as a judge was simply to mark the game “tl;dr”. If I had NOT been a judge, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it.

The story isn’t terribly compelling, either (in fact, it’s more repelling than anything). It’s linear, the protagonist is thoroughly unlikeable, and the experience feels unrewarding as a whole. While the writing holds to a very strong authorial voice & singular unity of effect, and (for those willing to wade up to their eyes in sludge) there really is some entertaining writing hiding inside those overblown infobombs, I just wouldn’t feel right actually recommending this game to anyone.

On a lighter note, morbid curiosity more than once made me wonder how a game like this might fare at the Erins.

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3rd place: Sandy’s Lost Doll, by Sandy.

The first thing any player will notice about Sandy’s Lost Doll is that although there’s some degree of detail in most of the room descriptions, absolutely zero objects are implemented. Aside from lack of implementation giving the player no motivation to use “look”, and providing no clue further to use the specific syntax “look in X”, the game is unwinnable due to a coding issue that should have been caught in playtesting (Winning task’s restriction is “Referenced number must be equal to 2” rather than “mom must be equal to 2”).

Really, anything beyond the above is just nitpicking, but I will mention one specific room. “Hallway” doesn’t even really have a room description, just a mention that it is the hallway, and the directions leading away. There is also nothing to signify to the player that they ought to type “look for doll” here (and no reward for them if they do so). Properly immersive room descriptions & structured, well-paced signification are keys to writing good IF. A little playtesting can help develop these things.

Overall, I’m inclined to read Sandy’s Lost Doll as a sort of Rybreadish poetic experiment in some ways, where the player enters believing from the title and room descriptions that they will play as Sandy, but where they later discover through bleak and hopeless exploration of an imposter house that the protagonist is actually Sandy’s doll lost in a roughly describable, but inaccessible prison-world with no doors, no windows, and no exits dominated by the vague presence of overbearing parental figures and abandoned by children. Then again, I also get the strong feeling that I’m the only one who interpreted the experience of the game this way & that it’s not what the author intended. Plus, whenever I have to interpret something that way, it pretty much automatically knocks five stars off on the conventional rating scale. Unconventionally, though, Sandy’s Lost Doll gave me a surreal & chilly frisson for a few minutes, which is perhaps all I can ask of any game or story.

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2nd place: Mr. Fluffykin’s Most Harrowing Misadventure, by Justahack.

The writing probably got perfect attendance at the same charm school where Homeless Harry was constantly & conspicuously truant. Structuring the game as a CYOA was a clever way to get around the task limit imposed for the competition, and allows for multiple endings (wins, losses, & otherwise) as a matter of convention. Clearly a lot of writing went into the game, and it was generally well-organised.

Still, the game suffered from some problems that kept it from taking first place. The story file contains a lot of spelling & grammatical errors, especially regarding the usage of apostrophes… “Fluffykins”, “Fluffykin’s”, “Fluffykins’”, and even just “Fluffykin” are all used inappropriately at least once. At times a player was given false choices or even no choice (only one page to turn to, or else the choice was simply forced on the player, as in the Candyland scenario), which I didn't think made for a very effective use of the medium as interactive fiction. One of the endings mentioned in the readme wasn’t properly implemented, so it didn’t work. It would also have been nice to just type in the number of the page you want to turn to rather than typing “turn to page X” every time.

A fun read, but it could use some polish.

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1st place: ESS Chance: Reactor 1, by Justahack.

Not without its problems, the player might notice spelling errors like “greenhouse affect” even from the introduction, and one of the endings especially had a few sections that obviously lacked some proofreading. Dialog with the Chief Engineer worked out a little strangely in that if one didn’t expressly quit the dialog, one was assumed to still be engaging in dialog… this could interfere with trying to raise the shields, since that action shared its command with a dialog option.

Still, for the strength of its story, its slick presentation, & its execution, ESS Chance: Reactor 1 stole this competition from the very beginning. It’s the only game in the Spring Ting that I felt was unquestionably worthy of a sequel (although any others who wish to make a sequel should not be discouraged). Command input was signified in a way that made the game accessible even to first-time players, and the sense of time, place, and above all urgency came on strongly (I specifically recall feeling alright about "greenhouse affect" because, hey presto, it's science fiction). It’s a tight game with few rooms, but several possibilities, and all a bit flabbergasting for a first game release. Two thumbs up, recommended.

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