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IFCOMP 2007 - A Matter of Importance

Game #20: A Matter of Importance
By Valentine Kopteltsev (writing as “Nestor I. McNaugh”)
Played On: November 1st (2 hours 35 minutes)
Platform: TADS (Version 2)
Merk’s Score: 8

     Game’s Blurb: All significant modern capitals have been made the most dishonourable way.

     >xyzzy
     You recall a couple of your (now imprisoned) buddies who were relying on magic spells too much when splitting from the place of crime, and reconsider.

     Why is it that this title had me thinking of that recent Al Gore environmental documentary? Titles have a way of suggesting a theme, and I had a hunch this one would be a politically-charged semi-interactive essay. Even the game’s blurb (which turns out to be part of a translated quote from a book by early twentieth-century soviet authors Ilf and Petrov -- yes, that’s from Wikipedia) seemed to suggest political themes.

     While Ilf and Petrov’s Bender is a con man, McNaugh’s unnamed protagonist is a member of a modern Thieving Guild. I say “modern” to distinguish between contemporary themes and those more commonly associated with a Thieving Guild (medieval and/or fantasy), but it’s not too modern. People still amass large collections of VCR movies in McNaugh’s world, so it’s probably set a good ten or fifteen years ago.

     McNaugh’s satire isn’t politically-charged, and it’s not an essay. Rather, it’s a traditional puzzle-filled game inspired by a particular IF trope that ties into the title and forms much of the basis for the protagonist’s interactions with his environment. The author explains this in optional notes at the end of the game. That’s good, because until reading the explanation, this all felt a little quirky but not necessarily meaningful. If anything, it seemed perfectly reasonable given the PC’s dedication to the task at hand. I think the author had to trade off some of his concept in favor of playability. Really, it’s hard to imagine enjoying a game with a lot more of this particular gimmick. The level of exaggeration seems about right, even though it probably loses some of the intended effect.

     Some awkward phrasing was evident in many places, but it’s well-written (and perhaps well-tested) considering that the author isn’t a native speaker of English (so says the “credits” section). Usually, it was a variation on the same couple of quirky wording choices: using “got” where it doesn’t belong (“...had got no choice...” should be “...had no choice...”) and an awkward juxtaposition of words that differs from the norm (like “...every your move...” instead of “...your every move...” and “...only would lead you away...” instead of “...would only lead you away...”). It flows well otherwise, aside from a few minor mistakes here and there (“portersickens” should have a space in the middle; “more busy” should be “busier”; “just buy bying” is a mistake). This is all very nit-picky, and could easily be corrected in a post-competition update.

     Some puzzles seem more logic-driven than clue-driven. Several times, I needed to stop for a moment and think beyond what the game was telling me. That worked sometimes, but not others, and even required taking a moment to really pay attention to what the game was saying. The first instance comes in crossing the busy street. I solved it without hints, but it took several minutes of being stuck with limited options, trying to think just how I should go about tackling the problem. Somehow, I envisioned the PC stepping out, hand raised, to “stop traffic.” Other phrasings may work, and although this didn’t solve the puzzle, it did give me a pretty nice hint that allowed me to.

     At other times, it didn’t go so well. I ended up in a football kick-and-block competition with some kid I wanted to get rid of. Even with very limited options (you can’t leave the challenge after starting it, as far as I found), I didn’t solve it without hints. The author had the right idea in continuing to draw attention to the solution (or, at least, to the “thing” you use to solve it), but without the hints, I hadn’t realized that a distraction was in order (even though this is hinted as well, in that the boy is trying to distract you). And even then, this was a pretty obscure and specific distraction to create, so I would have needed the hints anyway.

     Getting the ball is a puzzle I had sort of solved -- I just overlooked one pretty obvious part of it (and this is probably more my fault than the game’s). The rest was pretty smooth, until I needed to make a quick escape near the end. This was definitely my fault, because I knew what to do (I got the Home Alone idea even before seeing it in the hints). I had just forgotten about (or overlooked) another room in the store. That was a particular shame, because it meant a pretty tense and urgent situation became a seemingly endless standoff with me scouring the store for a list of titles that didn’t even exist. The police repeat themselves, but it was entertaining (and maybe another nod to Ilf and Petrov).

     Others may get through those parts with less effort, although I think at least one or two puzzles are bound to trip up most players. At one point, I thought maybe the author expected the hints to be a necessary part in solving the game, and that it would somehow factor into the game’s twist or purpose. The kid even comments on this, after I succeeded in distracting him. Thinking back, nothing seems unfair or entirely unclued, so I don’t think the author intended that the hints would have to factor into things. The author has even put “guess the action” puzzles into a very limited scope, meaning you have fewer things to consider in the spot where they’re required.

     They’re probably perfect for skilled players that have good intuition and an ability to think outside the proverbial box. In loading a prior save to check on something that had me confused in my first play-through, I found that getting into the store actually has an alternate (and perhaps easier solution). Do other puzzles? It’s possible. Even though it seems too hard a game at times, it should yield to persistence, observation, and deduction -- usually.

     I was impressed with how the author, in several instances, crafted very logical reasons why very logical puzzle solutions wouldn’t work. It’s not quite the same thing as including those puzzle solutions, but I can agree with the decision not to remove the challenge altogether (which some obvious answers might have done). For example:

     >give money to boy
     You consider giving the boy some cash and tell him to go, but realize the brat would just get curious, hide somewhere and secretly watch you. No, such attempt of bribing only would make matters worse.

     I came away really liking A Matter of Importance. It’s an uncomplicated story that delivers a bit of IF-specific satire, and it ends with a nice little twist. The author uses some lengthy “suggested commands” CYOA-like near the end, perhaps as a way of avoiding more complicated interaction, but I didn’t mind this. It ends with a small puzzle, it’s told in an entertaining way, and even the time spent stuck wasn’t a big frustration. I recommend the game (including its built-in hints), and I’ve rated it an “8” on my scale of judging criteria.

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