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IFCOMP 2007 - Press [Escape] To Save

Game #26: Press [Escape] to Save
By Mark Jones
Played On: October 12th (1 hour 30 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 4

     Game’s Blurb:
     Not even that command works. or A story demonstrating society.

     Press [Escape] to Save is Mark’s first work of interactive fiction, marred by many of the problems first-time authors encounter. The author describes it as an experiment, in order to help him get a feel for game design. He offers that his future games will be better, although this suggestion trails off in a suspicious ellipsis, making me think he’s not entirely convinced he’ll write another game (but I could be mistaken). Entries by first-time IF authors have done quite well in the IFComp over the years, but many fall short -- as does this one. It’s usually foreboding when an author writes in terms of regret before the game has really even gotten underway.

     The story seems to be an attempt at surrealism. Although I’m finding this harder to buy into as I play more similarly-styled games, it’s still interesting in its own right. The PC and a bunkmate are rescued from prison by a strangely glowing “person,” taken to this person’s residence (converted from an old base on Mars), and sent on a mission into the “mind dimension” to disrupt an ad hoc siphon on the pool of knowledge. The game starts out with minimal (if any) puzzles, seeming to be strictly story-based. Once the actual mission starts, however, things get more complicated.

     Because the author is interested in design, much of this review will focus on that -- starting with what’s good. The story is pretty original, although at its heart it’s just “go on a strange quest for a strange person.” A built-in ASCII map to the “mind dimension” is a nice bonus, and it makes that area more manageable than it might otherwise have been. It’s also appropriately IFComp-sized.

     One thing I particularly like about well-designed IF is attention to detail. If something is mentioned in a room description, I want to be able to interact with it -- at least by examining, but preferably by whatever action the particular thing suggests of itself. “You don’t need to refer to that” is passable but not ideal. “You don’t see that here” is much worse. I like a degree of freedom to push at the boundaries. If an NPC asks me to follow him north and the room has two other exits, I will probably try not following just to get a better feel for how well the author has anticipated this. This is more common when I play to vote and review (I don’t do nearly as much of this in other kinds of games I play), but an author should always assume a player might try these things accidentally if nothing else. When I refer to a good or bad level of implementation, this is usually my measuring stick.

     P[E]TS basically fails here. Straying from the railroaded path (not that some railroading is necessarily bad -- it just needs to be handled well) sometimes results in blank responses. The only drawer I noticed to be implemented at all is the one drawer where an important item is hidden. All others simply don’t exist in the game world, despite their appearance in room descriptions. Scenery objects are rarely implemented at all, making it easy to know what’s simply not important but hindering believability and confidence in the game world in the process. Plus, it’s too easy to dismiss everything the author hasn’t explicitly drawn attention to, when the increasingly anticipated response is that you can’t see any such thing.

     Developing a rich game world that doesn’t confuse a player with non-essentials is tricky, I know -- but I don’t think the answer is simply to leave those things entirely unimplemented. Every game response is an opportunity to provide back-story and characterization. Every unimportant item is a chance to redirect a player’s attention back to what is important. One trick is to keep descriptions of unimportant scenery fairly short (otherwise it seems important enough to have merited a long description), and to avoid introducing new information in the process. It’s not necessary to describe the intricacies of a shower curtain if the shower curtain isn’t important. By keeping it brief and not mentioning extras that you might also have to implement for added realism (that it’s attached by rings to a long rod, for instance), players are less likely to mistake unimportant items as something more. At the same time, they’re rewarded with a richer, more believable experience. It’s a balance that happens more in the writing than in the design: draw attention toward what’s important and away from what isn’t. Help the player stay focused, but reward (in small ways) his or her attempts to push the limits of your game world.

     Actions suggested by what happens in the text don’t often work in P[E]TS. I tried to scream when an NPC did (just to see what would happen), but it’s not a recognized command. “Rest” isn’t a synonym for “sleep”; the game suggests the former but only understands the latter.

     Knowing the conventions of IF in general and the default grammar of your chosen development language helps. Several times in P[E]TS I was met with inaccurate or misleading responses, not because the author intended it that way but because he simply forgot about (or wasn’t aware of) the default messages.

     An example:

     >sleep
     Hoping that this a dream you climb up nimbly to the top bunk and decide to rest...

     State of Uncosciousness
     No light. No sound. No pictures. No people. Nothing.

     >wake up
     The dreadful truth is, this is not a dream.

     If intentional, the response to “wake up” might be telling. But it isn’t. Essentially, the PC does seem to be dreaming at that point. The author just didn’t anticipate that a player would attempt to wake up, and Inform’s default handling takes over.

     Another, given that the PC is in jail and can’t possibly feel self-confident and chipper:

     >x me
     As good-looking as ever.

     That’s perhaps nit-picky, given that many IF authors forget about “x me” (I’ve done it too). Here’s another example, in locations with water (or when carrying water):

     >drink water
     There's nothing suitable to drink here.

     Perhaps not, given what the water represents, but this doesn’t seem to be intentional. It’s just Inform letting me know that nothing has actually been implement as water. The game also lets you shoot yourself with the gun, but of course nothing untoward results from it.

     Suspension of disbelief must be helped along, especially in a story that requires an abundance of it. This requires a high degree of consistency in the story and the model of the world. P[E]TS seems accidentally inconsistent in several areas. For instance, a key that is initially described as “the weirdest key you ever saw” has an “examine” response that likens it to a magnetic hotel key card. That’s certainly not the weirdest key I’ve ever seen (or can imagine). The body of a decapitated person begins talking later in the game (the key here: no head equals no vocal cords), without even a hint as to how. The PC’s bunkmate is referred to as a “creature” (try talking to him when he’s asleep) without any indication as to why. Noises are described as a matter of routine in some places, but when you “listen,” you hear nothing (except the noises that repeat right after the default message is printed). The “person” is a super-genius, yet his dialogue doesn’t differ in any way (even to suggest a degree of mental superiority). In the “mind dimension,” an exit to the northwest is backtracked by going south (instead of southeast). That might fit with the curvature of the tunnels (or something), but it wasn’t really described in the game.

     After the fairly forward-moving first part, some tricky puzzles (most to do with good timing of actions) had me relying on the walkthrough. I was also stuck because I just didn’t know what my goals were. I remembered that I was supposed to shut down the pump somehow, but I had forgotten the rest of it. At the time, and because I had forgotten, it seemed that I just hadn’t been given guidance at all. It’s there alright, but it’s explained earlier in the game and never reinforced or reintroduced in any way later.

     If this is a story about society (as the author indicates), then I probably missed the point. As best I can tell, knowledge is power and power corrupts. But that’s reaching.

     The writing has an odd appeal, but it’s full of technical problems of various kinds (repeated words, missing words, misspellings, and uncategorized mistakes in general). What stands out more than these problems, however, are the odd choices in words or phrasing from time to time. This makes some of the story unintentionally amusing. It probably loses a little out of context, but here are a few of my favorites:

     The walls are painted with beige wallpaper.
     The room inherits features of regular master bedrooms;
     "Um, we can't start the mission without the key", you say in a common-sense tone.
     You sense a sinister presence in the atmosphere.
     "This is the sad example! Let me explain myself."

     How do you paint wallpaper on? Was this bedroom named as the beneficiary in the wills of several “regular” master bedrooms? What does a common-sense tone sound like? Just how well can this PC sense things in the atmosphere? And hey, I want the happy example! I’m stretching, I know, but these are the kinds of thoughts that popped into my head. The author probably wasn’t going for a comedic tone, but poor word choice can cause unintentional humor. I had an impression -- as wrong as this may very well be -- that the author is either very young or a non-native speaker of English (and maybe both).

     In addition to all that I’ve discussed are several honest to goodness bugs. The game begins in a fixed-width font, and I assumed this to be intentional -- for a particular effect. After viewing the map, however, it switches back to a normal proportional font. What I realized is that the entire game up to that point was fixed-width because fixed-width text in the intro simply failed to set it back. It’s possible to talk to people even though there are no topics to list. When not specifying the key in “unlock door” commands, the game always assumes the “sklorfel” -- even though it can’t unlock anything. Some responses are entirely blank. The game shows too many blank lines in some places, and no blank lines (where needed) elsewhere. Three of the same “programming error” messages are shown in a row when turning on the sink in the bathroom.

     As bugs go, these are minor. It’s just that the combined effect of all these things -- iffy writing, sparse implementation, inconsistencies and bugs -- result in a game that isn’t nearly up to the standards set by most of its competition. As much effort as the author put into it, and as much fun as it could be, I suspect it will still rank near the bottom in the final results. Even though I can find enough good in Press [Escape] to Save to keep it out of the “very bad” category in my increasingly obsolete* scoring guidelines, it’s still only a “4”.

     To the author: If you’re interested, email me for my transcript, which points out several things in a bit more detail. And keep at it. If you like writing IF, keep writing IF. I believe that your future games will improve.

     * In years past, I’m sure I wasn’t nearly so critical. A paragraph could summarize what I “look for” in a game at each score level. But these guidelines -- kept with minor revisions for this year but in serious need of abandonment in future competitions -- assume that most aspects of a game are on an equal level. In other words, for a game to be great, it should have a great story, great puzzles (if there are puzzles), great writing, a great concept... and more. If a game is average, then the story will be average, the puzzles will be tricky and sometimes unclued, the writing will have some problems... etc. In reality, that’s not always how it goes. A game with a wonderful story can have bad puzzles. A game with great writing can be based on a lousy concept. Getting down into the details of how each area fares without regard to the others might give me a more legitimate score, but I simply haven’t decided what kind of judging criteria I should adopt in future competitions. I need something to be sure each game is judged fairly and to the same standards as every other, but I haven’t yet decided what this should be.

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