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IFCOMP 2007 - Ferrous Ring

Game #19: Ferrous Ring
By Carma Ferris (Pseudonym?)
Played On: October 30th & 31st (2 hours 10 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Glulx)
Merk’s Score: 7+

     >xyzzy
     A word suddenly pops up in my mind. Xyzzy. Where have I heard that before? Something computer-related. Ah, I remember Leynard showing me some old text-only computer game - that's where I saw it. It was a very primitive game - from last century - and possibly one of the earliest ever made... I doubt that any computer games have been made in the whole of 2030.

     This is likely to be the longest of my IFComp reviews this year.

     The annual Interactive Fiction Competition is an interesting thing. It’s paradoxically a perfect way to get new game ideas out there for consumption by the IF community (and others who come around specifically to play and vote), while also being an arena that’s a little intolerant of wild departures in how IF works. I think many would probably disagree -- after all, games like Photopia made a lasting mark by being different -- but the line between “failure” and “success” seems in no way wide, and it’s placed as to disproportionately favor failure. To take even one risk in an IFComp entry can mean disaster. You are (a hypothetical “you,” I mean), after all, in a competition. To succeed among a crowd that likes IF because it’s familiar, you probably need to really nail your convention-twist of choice.

     Enter Ferrous Ring, an entry by Carma Ferris (a pseudonym, maybe?) that incorporates a number of unique design enhancements into what’s already a twist on the traditional IF narrative style. The author is aware of the risks (saying as much in the included “readme” file), but only the first point (about new features) is likely to be a sticking point to those who like their IF in a more traditional way. I don’t think the ideas are too ambitious to have been a part of the same game, as the author suggests. Rather, I just think she (or he?) underestimated what an impact the first point has on the enjoyment of the other two.

     I’ll consider these goals individually, one at a time.

     Goal 1: “As a technology demonstration: it contains some features that should be of interest to the IF community, including a menu system and a solution to the 'guess the verb' problem.”

     Ferrous Ring includes a number of new features, specific implementations of similar features found elsewhere, and other non-traditional design choices. I’ll subdivide this section to discuss each of them.

     Walkthrough mode. The game has an ability to supply the next command necessary in solving the game (right on the command prompt -- the player must merely press enter). This can be requested as a one-shot hint, or as a walkthrough “mode” in which each command is pre-filled in sequence (requiring that the player just press enter each time the prompt comes up pre-filled, to complete the game entirely). Of all the enhancements, this felt the slickest to me. It did fail on me a time or two (once in particular, it told me to do something with a rope I had previously dropped). I used one-shot hints this way a few times in my initial play-through, then went back through it once entirely on autopilot.

     Noun mode. This, apparently, is the author’s solution to guess-the-verb problems (as mentioned in the “readme” file). It’s called “nominal interaction” inside the game, and it means that players can type just object names (sometimes paired with other object names, to use two things together), and the game will determine what’s the most likely and rational “action” to take as a result (with “examine” being the most likely first action for a given object). The author describes it as analogous to graphical adventure games, in which you “pick” an object, always in pretty much a “use” or “examine” context. I used this a few times -- not because I intended to play the game this way, but as an occasional crutch when I just couldn’t quite figure out what to do next (and sometimes, just as a sort of shorthand).

     Here’s a simple example of nominal interaction in action:

     >computer
     The computer is probably the most valuable thing here. Normally I just can't live without it... but it looks like I'm going to have to. It makes me sad to think of leaving it here, where undoubtedly it will get stolen within the day.

     >computer
     I reboot from a flash drive and format the hard drive securely. Good.

     It always seemed to work, but often I didn’t really have a specific action in mind. I just wanted to see what the game assumed I would do with the referenced object. I think I actually solved (or partially-solved) a few puzzles this way. This is a lot like how point-and-click graphic adventures work, but it still felt awkward in a text environment. That’s probably why the author also included...

     Menu mode. This extends the “noun” concept by splitting the screen vertically. A wide column on the left becomes a clickable text menu of items in scope, with an ability to combine (or “use” items together). I didn’t use this much. It felt clunky at first, and there was a definite -- though relatively brief -- delay in response time. Some longer “use” options were too wide to fit in the column (due to my choice font and window size, I suppose), chopping off all but the first two letters of the second item name in some cases. When dialogue appears (using a similar menu) or a pause prompt is displayed, the game jumps back to full-width mode, and then splits again afterwards. It seems a little odd, but presumably necessary given what’s probably some tricky behind-the-scenes coding.

     I think I might have adapted to this, if played through entirely in menu mode. Another of the text-based IFComp entries works this way (strictly point-and-click menu options), and I did okay there. It seems competently designed and in the few times I did use it (including a partial re-play just to evaluate it), it works okay. Some shading or border for the sidebar (menu) might have helped. I did notice a couple of quirky results (such as the word “auto” appearing in a “you can’t do that” sort of response once).

     It just seemed... I don’t know... unnecessary, maybe. Graphic point-and-click adventures use this because they don’t have text and a command parser. While a large amount of work has doubtlessly gone into its design, I wonder at how useful it will really be to IF development in general (especially considering that many are moving away from Inform 6, toward Inform 7). I suspect that most IFComp judges won’t use menu mode, making it a near non-issue score-wise.

     Movement. Until a player-assigned section in the park (which is pretty slick), directions aren’t important. At least, they’re not supposed to be. This is a point I really struggled with. While you’re supposed to be able to move around simply by “going” there, I had a tough time figuring out where I could go. This is made easier in menu mode (where these options are listed), or by typing exits (where movement options are explicitly stated), but in trying to stay with the flow of the narrative, I felt that it was often unclear -- especially near the beginning -- just what my options were. This really felt clunky to me, and I found myself consciously wishing the author hadn’t opted to do it this way.

     Parser messages. Unrecognized or unsupported commands are replaced with a few specific error messages, instead of the more traditional “I don’t recognize that verb” or “I don’t see that here” sort of responses. This is supposed to fit the narrative -- and it does -- but much like directional movement, I found myself wishing for the standard way. At times, it was confusing and misleading.

     Take this example, from mid-way through the game:

     >enter house
     I'm not sure if any of these buildings are still used at any time, but with that bulldozer around I don't really want to try and get in them.

     >enter bulldozer
     I am suddenly struck by the compulsion to... do something. But my thoughts wash over it - drown it.

     First, it’s implied that the bulldozer is here (I’m at the “Impoverished Street” now). Then, I’m prevented from entering it (and this is the sticking point) with a message that I’ve seen dozens of times before in response to unrecognized commands. The problem wasn’t that it’s impossible to enter the bulldozer. It’s that -- for whatever reason -- the bulldozer had wandered off at the moment (or something -- I never was quite clear on this, even reviewing my transcript later). I was surprised, then, when I felt stuck on a particular puzzle, that the built-in hint had me do this:

     >enter bulldozer
     I wonder... if I can control it...
     I get into the bulldozer.

     Actually, it suggested the noun-only version (>bulldozer), but it’s the same result. This also makes me wonder if the customized parser responses are as much in support of the “noun mode” and the “walkthrough mode” as they are a narrative device. At any rate, I didn’t feel that this improved the experience, and probably served to make the game less playable and less solvable than it might have been otherwise.

     Conversation menu. This isn’t a new idea, and it works okay, but it did seem a little quirky. As previously mentioned, menu mode switches off temporarily while a conversation menu is up. Also, it appears directly at the bottom without a blank line above it, making it sort of “run on” with any text above it. It’s the same one used by the built-in help/about menu, and the ESC (escape) key doesn’t exit from it. I found that that the “Q” hotkey works, but this wasn’t immediately intuitive.

     Incidentally, clicking with the mouse doesn’t seem to work on conversation menus. So, while the game can be put into menu mode for mouse users, it still requires keyboard use whenever a conversation starts.

     Even though Ferrous Ring can be played without enabling or using most of these enhancements (noun mode, walkthrough mode, and menu mode in particular), it still feels sort of clunky. Directional movement and parser messages are a big part of that.

     Goal 2: “To make some (hopefully) thought-provoking, philosophical points.”

     I admit that I’m not entirely clear on what philosophical points the author intended to make. The story hints at issues of racism, tolerance, and the division of social classes (and I’ll get to this more when I talk about the story), but beyond that, I’m not sure. There is, maybe, a subtext dealing with the “rightness” of crime (both when the criminals do it for self-gain at the expense of others, and when they are left with no other choice for survival), but that might not be what the author had in mind.

     Goal 3: “And to tell a story.”

     I would have been perfectly content to experience this story in a more traditional way. I don’t mean the switch from second-person narrative to first-person (which seems to happen once or twice in every IFComp anyway -- seems okay to me), but rather, the other design decisions that kept getting in the way. I found it difficult to become immersed in the story (which I otherwise might have) due to the awkwardness of directional movement and the unhelpfulness of the parser messages.

     The story is where Ferrous Ring really shines. It’s set in what seems at first to be a post-apocalyptic society, but upon reflection seems to be something much more subtle. I may not have it all, and what I do have could be wrong, but it seems to be a society split along vague racial lines, and perhaps dealing with some sort of drastic climate changes. The “haves” have gone underground for safety, leaving the “have nots” above-ground, in squalor, and without the resources to survive comfortably. The world is rife with crime, poverty, suffering and terrorism, while those in shelter (never seen in-game) are safe and secure.

     The protagonist, “Erskine Ring,” keeps a few details from the player. This is done in the interest of setting up a mysterious “what’s going on here?” kind of setting, and it seems convincing enough that it works. Some of why Ring feels so strongly about following a clue left on his video recorder is explained at the end, but it still concludes with unanswered questions. If this wasn’t supposed to remain a mystery, then I missed some important bits along the way. I had a strong impression that I was supposed to understand something -- perhaps even in the specific wording used -- but I just didn’t. If it’s intentionally open to interpretation and speculation, I’m curious as to what others make of it.

     The game doesn’t have many complicated puzzles, although two do stand out. The first, involving the previously-mentioned bulldozer, might have been solvable if I hadn’t believed the bulldozer was off limits.

     The second is pretty clever (involving a special message found in a book), but somehow I just kept skirting the actual solution. At the risk of spoiling it for others, it involves finding a single passage when the clue seems to suggest three separate passages that should be located and treated as one. Maybe the clue doesn’t suggest this, but it relies on a leap in logic that I just never made (because, well, you have to make this leap in order to hit on the clue that lets you figure out how to solve the puzzle). It might have been smoother in menu mode (where maybe the right command was prompted -- I didn’t check), and walkthrough mode definitely worked, but I regretted being unable to solve it unassisted. There is sort of a clue when working with numbers that are too high, but it never inspired me to make the right connection.

     In addition to the first person narrative, room descriptions end with a list of things good and bad. This aspect of the story is also prominent in the game’s included cover art, but not only couldn’t I figure out why it was presented in this fashion, I never entirely understood how the protagonist could categorize these things so easily either. Much of it is obvious as I review my transcripts, but it’s a very intentional thing for the author to have included. It may have some deeper importance that simply eluded me.

     The protagonist also had a tendency to do things contrary to my instructions. At one point, I asked him to go north, which he did after attempting to follow his own map in a different direction. Another time, I asked him to take a specific tram, and he did, but only by accident after attempting to take a different one. In these instances, it’s as though direct control of the PC was temporarily suspended, so that my command controlled his destiny rather than his intentions. That’s not a bad thing. It seems to fit in with the story.

     A few fairly minor bugs (or quirks) are to be found in the competition version. When I retraced my path back through the park, there is a section where the game told me to go one way, and then back the other way again, over and over, seemingly without a purpose. Scavengers aren’t recognized as something animate. In limiting my directional movement, I noticed one place that gave two possibly conflicting messages. An important item was listed in a disambiguation message before I had actually found it (enabling me to realize it was there for the first time). In general, there just seemed to be several quirks probably related to supporting noun mode and menu mode in a game where normal IF commands are also accepted.

     The author has put tremendous effort into the game, especially considering that it includes a custom game engine within the standard engine. Despite the quirks, it’s well-implemented, and the various enhancements do fit together nicely. A nice level of detail is present, where most things (objects and scenery) seem implemented at least for examining. Even though it feels awkward at times, it’s still well-constructed.

     I’m anxious to learn how others have responded to Ferrous Ring. It takes a number of risks that seem good in theory, but don’t really improve the experience (and in some ways, detract from it). The story is just the kind that might have wowed me with a smoother, more traditional implementation. I voted it a “7” at two hours (and this was near to the end), and that’s the score I’ve kept for the review (with a “plus” for a very interesting story). It might be two or three points higher if only it worked more smoothly. I like the game, and I recommend it -- but its biggest risk is that it may bother or annoy some players.

     All things considered, it’s one of the most interesting and memorable games I’ve played in this year’s competition.

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