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IFCOMP 2005 - Neon Nirvana

Game #21: Neon Nirvana, by Tony Woods
Played On: 10/28/2005 (12:55 PM to 2:25 PM and 2:40 PM to 3:00 PM)
Unofficial Score: 5.5 (6.0 base with -0.5 skew)

     Walkthroughs are a blessing and a curse. It’s easier to resist looking the first time, but once I peek, it’s harder to put any effort into problem-solving. Any obstacle that doesn’t present a quick solution seems to be a frustration that sends me right back to the walkthrough. That’s the curse.

     For Neon Nirvana, though, the walkthrough was entirely a blessing. Even though this has been the case several times this year, it’s very obvious here. I usually feel guilty in a game, after the first time peeking, because I know I might have solved the puzzle if I hadn’t been so quick to go back to the hints. Not here. No way would I ever have finished this game. Some of the puzzles – or parts of some of the puzzles – were solvable. Some were not. Some require such leaps of imagination that I’d wager only the author himself could complete the game unassisted. None of the puzzles seem hard in the sense that it takes good deductive reasoning, and they’re even logical after the fact. The problem is, certain aspects of objects weren’t described well enough to even provide all the information a person would need to solve the puzzle.

     Consider the next two long paragraphs as containing probable spoilers.

     Take, for instance, the propane cylinder. I had an image of a small tank, probably with a threaded neck and a valve on top. The walkthrough describes it as a torch. Its description said it could be used for welding, but a tank by itself is useless. You’d need to hook it up to some welding equipment, right? It turns out that (apparently) you don’t. Nothing in the description of the tank made me think of it as a torch by itself. To make matters worse, the phrasing to light it up was specific enough that trying to light it “on” the right thing didn’t work, but “with” did. Then, something is to be found under the porch of one of the houses. Again, nothing in the description gave me any indication that the porch even had an “under”. This is where logic fails. Porches can be any shape, any size, small, large, raised, flush with the ground… anything. My mental image of the porch obviously didn’t match the author’s, because it wasn’t clear to me that the porch was raised and open enough to look under. The loose bolt in the rusty shelf seemed to clue me to its removal, but that’s the opposite of the actual solution.

     The author tried hard to implement a lot of extras – including a few things shown in the “amusing” list at the end. This is one of the few games I’ve played this year that implements “XYZZY” (sadly, no “PLUGH”). However, for every cool extra, it cues the player to actions that don’t work at all. For instance, the graffiti says “type HELP for more information.” Well, “help” doesn’t work in the game. I’m in a dance club, but “dance” wasn’t implemented as a verb (of course, the PC wouldn’t dance, but some response was probably in order). The PC can’t attempt to kick down a wooden door. Again, it doesn’t have to work – but it should probably be recognized, given the PC’s profession in law enforcement. Gunfire in the club isn’t noticed at all by the patrons – which is unusual, since the music has been turned off and all eyes are presumably to the stage. The bouncer is described as being at the door, because the author hard-coded that into the room description. At times, the bouncer is actually in the alley instead. I was able to rack up three points over and over, just by pushing the blue button again and again. One puzzle can be solved by shooting a window, but shooting a glass door near the end doesn’t work. I can take Perron’s gun, leave the room, drop it, come back, and somehow he still grabs it off the table where it no longer rests. The button on the radio isn’t implemented. The button on the elevator is implemented, but not mentioned when looking at either the room or the elevator itself. The “key hole” in the elevator can’t be referred to as “hole” or “key hole”, because the author implemented a variation, “keyhole” (one word, not matching the text) instead. Earlier, I couldn’t see around in a dark basement. Later, I found a lamp that the PC is unwilling to take. I don’t need to see around in the basement, as it turns outs, but it seemed like a puzzle to me. Even the endgame is problematic, because it requires a completely unclued action.

     The writing was okay, in general. I found a few typos and a few strange phrasings, but it was good enough to be entertaining. The problem for me was the inconsistency in the tone of the game. It’s a pretty serious matter, arresting a drug lord, especially when people are getting killed. However, the author chose a comedic presentation for some of the narration. Here are three great examples:

>unlock door
This action does not unlock the door. You are sorely disappointed. You can stop playing NEON NIRVANA to go cry now, if you wish.

>enter car
(the sports car)
Carjacking is not the answer here. How horrible it is that you tried such a horrible thing...I'm going to go in a corner and cry now. You just stay here. And - um - do stuff. Yeah.

>get paper
Well, you don't think anyone is going to notice your little purloinment (is that a word?) and so you remove the slip of paper from the pocket. w00t!

     What this said to me, intentional or not, is that the author wasn’t taking his own game seriously. That in itself is not a problem, except that the rest of it shouldn’t have been written as a serious game if this was the case. It was this mixed tone – the strangely sophomoric narrative to a story that was otherwise serious – that really put me off. The problems in the game – especially the misleading or unclued puzzles – are why the game scores a 6.0 on my scale. I took another half-point off for those instances of unnecessarily comedic narrative.

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