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IFCOMP 2005 - Psyche's Lament

Game #4: Psyche’s Lament, by “Now We Have Faces”
Played On: 10/08/2005 (10:15 AM to 11:40 AM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 6.5 (6.5 base with no skew)

     Next on my list was the second of two games I beta-tested, so I moved on to Psyche’s Lament instead. Billed as “An Interactive Greek Myth”, and written under a pseudonym reminiscent of last year’s “Half Sick of Shadows”, I expected a lot from this one.

     The writing is good, and often clever. It’s an interesting story – something likely to be unique among all the other entries. The technical flaws are minor. These are generally things like an extra line-break here, a missing line-break there, an unnecessary comma once or twice. It isn’t a buggy game by any means.

     Even so, it has problems, and these problems are harder to define. The first weakness is a general lack of implemented scenery. At first, I thought it might be a way to keep the player focused on the tasks at hand, without becoming sidetracked by extras. Still, a short, simple description of those things could have achieved the same goal, and fleshed out the game world better than it is. Second – and this is where things get difficult – the puzzle clueing is... I don’t know... a little off, somehow. I do think the puzzles are clued, but often in an obscure way, or a one-shot mention that might be overlooked. Easier puzzles would have made the game far too short, but I wonder if a fun but brief experience is still better than a longer, frustrating one?

     Early on, the clueing worked for me. I figured out how to summon the Fairly Oddmother (that’s what “fullscore” called her) from a clue-seed planted a little earlier. It left me thinking, though, that this could just as easily have not worked. I give credit, because it did work, and sometimes we as players think in what-ifs. We criticize clues or puzzles even though they worked for us – the proof being in that we figured it out. Shortly after this, I couldn’t figure out how to use the wand. The clue was in what the Fairly Oddmother told me (I don’t think this is a spoiler – perhaps a kind tip for those of you yet to play), but I finally checked the walkthrough to get unstuck. The author could have hinted better at the proper action when trying to use the wand in incorrect ways. Although I don’t think guess-the-verb puzzles are always bad (some do, I know), it just didn’t fit here. What remained was already difficult enough. I guess my point is, the simple act of using the wand (for any purpose) didn’t really need to be a puzzle.

     What stuck me next was a misunderstanding about the items I had to work with. I can’t say much without giving a spoiler, but the counter device wouldn’t work as intended unless you do something with it first. I had figured out how two of the pieces related, and how this might achieve the task at hand, but I mistakenly thought the counter was bigger than it (evidently) turned out to be. I guess I just had a hard time wrapping my mind around the objects at hand. This, and the puzzles to come next, required (I think) a visualization that just didn’t happen for me. From this point on, I solved very little without referring to the walkthrough.

     I found it odd that, once the counting began, it wasn’t reduced to a single paragraph explaining what happened. I think this would have been just as effective – if not more so. I didn’t really need a play-by-play account of the entire process. With no way to interrupt it, I had to space through pause after pause of uncounted pages. After several, I really thought I had messed up. We’re counting grains, after all. I expected thousands – hundreds of thousands. Thankfully, the two-digit number given as a final result allowed the game to continue. Why Psyche was willing to jump through the hoops necessary to count it all by proxy, I’ll never quite understand.

     Then comes my next sticking point. In order to pass this information along to Aphrodite, a very specific (but IF-standard) phrasing is required. The bad thing is, it’s not intuitive. Showing her the counter could have worked. Telling her in other ways could have worked. This again turned into a guess-the-command puzzle that didn’t really need to be a puzzle. It’s also something I think IF newbies would never figure out, simply because this method of direct communication with NPCs (without using a verb – sorry if I’ve spoiled it) wouldn’t occur to them. It didn’t even occur to me.

     In the next part – fleecing the rams – I couldn’t even figure out what I needed to do. Maybe I didn’t try hard enough. That may be part of it, but the series of actions detailed in the walkthrough – while logical after the fact – didn’t really show how I might have figured this out on my own. Looking back in my transcript, I don’t see any clueing there. If I had applied the goal of the grain task to the fleece-acquiring task, I might have gone further before feeling so stuck. Even so, I never quite figured out what the triangle was for, even though it’s key to solving the puzzle. I give credit for a nice bonus to the puzzle – the “sleepy” bit – even though it all made sense only after getting through it.

     After this, only one more puzzle segment remains. It’s clever, but again, I was stuck. I tried referring to the cloud as “clouds” – which wasn’t recognized – leaving me to think it was just unimportant, unimplemented scenery like much of the game had shown. I stopped trying, never realizing my mistake. Once I peeked again at the walkthrough, I could continue. Thankfully, the symbol works symmetrically (otherwise it would have taken twice as long). I really liked this part, and it was more straightforward than the puzzles before. However, Windows Frotz 2002 – for whatever reason – did not show the diagram to me in a fixed-width font. Without the walkthrough, it would have been pretty difficult. Not impossible, but more difficult, and the effect was unfortunately lost.

     This was a difficult one to rank. My scoring definitions for the higher numbers were focused mainly on story and writing. This game succeeds there, yet the puzzles and sparsely-implemented scenery bring it down. I was forced to revise those definitions a little from last year, to better reflect my standards. I think it falls between 6 and 7, so I’ll base it at 6.5. Nothing triggers any personal bias – good or bad – so the score is not skewed.

     FOLLOW-UP: I looked up the Cupid/Psyche story online. Although what I read was pretty brief, I get a better sense now for the inspiration that went into this story.

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