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IFCOMP 2007 - Beneath: a Transformation

Game #9: Beneath: a Transformation
By Graham Lowther
Played On: October 14th (2 hours 25 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Merkís Score: 5-

     Gameís Blurb:
     An adventure based on Robert E. Howard's "Worms of the Earth".

     Ordinarily, I like these creepy, pseudo-surreal settings. That part of the game comes across very well. The writing is fine. I donít remember any errors or mistakes of the kind that have plagued most of the other entries to this point. Itís simple but effective, allowing for easy immersion. But... hmm. The game itself isnít quite so smooth.

     In Beneath, you are a nameless, unknown reader with a library copy of Howardís Worms of the Earth (apparently an anthology of short stories). Fact and fantasy blend, as it becomes clear that you (in the role of the PC) must be living in the world described by the very collection youíre reading. I played this late on a stormy night, which added to the mood, but not enough to cover up some serious design problems.

     Hard puzzles arenít inherently bad. They usually provide a higher challenge rating than Iím comfortable with, but I can usually recognize them as fair and solvable after the fact. The puzzles in Beneath (which, incidentally, had me thinking of 2005ís Beyond on title alone, despite dissimilarity otherwise) arenít hard -- theyíre obscure. Itís easy to make a little progress through the first parts of the game, but then it becomes nearly (if not completely) impossible. Success often depends on knowing or guessing things that seem entirely unclued and counter-intuitive. Some assistance is provided in the form of in-game hints that the game is in an unwinnable state, but the hints seem too sparse to cover all the ways the game might become unwinnable. Plus, itís never really clear why the game is unwinnable, or what might be done to prevent it.

     The following is an example (and a possible puzzle spoiler) right from the game. The PC can buy an owl, which flies away upon exiting the pet store. This turns out to be a good thing, but itís described as not really mattering (probably so players wonít think it was a mistake). But, because nothing happened, I didnít even bother with the owl when re-playing later. Further in, a certain item can be found and dropped as bait of sorts for this owl. The puzzle relies not only on having released the owl earlier, but in somehow deducing that it would be interested in this item. Even if you do figure that out, itís ultimately pure coincidence story-wise that the owl helps you escape a pursuer while going after this particular item. Itís just not the kind of thing a player could plan for and work out a correct solution. Thatís just one example among several.

     Guess-the-command problems only make it worse. The game is far too picky on what it will understand. Itís possible to take the right action but in a slightly wrong way, and never quite know that you almost had it right. I donít think an author has to account for everything a player is prone to try, but the more variations to an action that may exist, the more coverage that particular action should get. One spot that merits a mention involves a newspaper and a paper bag. The game doesnít ask for disambiguation on ďpaperĒ -- it just seems to assume the bag every time, and often without making it clear that the action you are trying for the newspaper doesnít work because it was actually routed to the bag instead. (I was close to kicking that darned dog, and it wasnít the poor thingís fault after all.)

     This issue was spread across the game as a whole, but the ďbuyĒ action is another easy example. Buying anything is particularly troublesome, as the game expects this to be handled in a specific (and frustration-inducing) way. Instead of pooling my money and allowing me to ďbuyĒ things by name, I must identify the purchase amount by bill or coin name, ďpayĒ it to the merchant or clerk, and then ask about the thing I intend to buy. Nobody makes change, so to spend your dollar (for instance) you need to find the one thing thatís priced at $1. At one point, this involved multiple levels of ďaskĒ (another instance of something I couldnít have solved without help, considering that this particular NPC seemed pretty unresponsive to a variety of things I had already tried to ask) in order to negotiate the price down. This isnít because you canít afford the asking price, but because the author has matched one buyable item to one or two specific coins in your inventory.

     Some of the design problems could be the standard author-knows-but-player-doesnít kind of thing that tends to work its way into interactive fiction when based on some existing work of fiction. I havenít read the source material, but if these puzzles are also based on elements of the Robert E. Howard stories, maybe the author just failed or forgot to make them meaningful for the uninitiated. Others have written veritable essays on the importance of thinking like a player, and itís just as important when adapting a story that may be unfamiliar to that player.

     An inventory management limitation was another sticking point for me. I think that if youíre going to do this in a game, you really have to make it smooth and automated. ďLook in bagĒ should imply that I intend to open it. I should be able to take coins from the bag and pay a merchant without hitting an inventory limitation just because the game intends to put it in top-level inventory before handing it off. The bag, for that matter, could have been given a larger capacity.

     Hereís a general tip for future IF authors. Keep things believable even when the story youíre telling is pure fantasy. Requiring that your PC order food and sit down where the lighting is just right in order to read from a book is somewhat unnecessary. There are two reasons this puzzle actually works in Beneath (the PC intends to read for quite a while so being comfortable makes sense, and the pieces/clues are in place to make it a solvable puzzle), but later itís as though he canít bring himself to read even a single page unless he finds the perfect light. If the town was that dark, it really wasnít portrayed well enough in the game, and if this was just a device to separate plot sections (as it appears to be), then it might have been handled in another way.

     I stopped at two hours, voted the game an optimistic ď6Ē (hoping that the parts I hadnít yet seen would justify it), and then ran through from the beginning with the walkthrough at hand. This is the authorís first game (according to the ďaboutĒ text in-game), and as such, itís not too bad. It has the potential to be a pretty good game, but itís not solvable in two hours (if at all) given what feels to me to be a poor design with clunky command-guessing and puzzles that rely on precognition. My review score drops a point after seeing that these issues seem to persist to the end. I have scored it a ď5-Ē (the minus being awarded for bogging down an interesting story with puzzle that canít realistically be solved without the assistance of the walkthrough).

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