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IFCOMP 2007 - A Fine Day for Reaping

Game #3: A Fine Day for Reaping
By James Webb (writing as ďrevgibletĒ)
Played On: October 4th (2 hours 50 minutes)
Platform: Adrift (Version 4)
Merkís Score: 7-

     Gameís Blurb:
     It's not all fun being the Grim Reaper. It's your job to usher five awkward souls into the netherworld or the universe stops existing. No pressure. Take control of The Man in Black and find out if even Death can get a credit card...

     A Fine Day for Reaping has the witty appeal that was lacking in the entry I played just prior to this. For a game about Death, it feels much warmer and more alive -- and thatís a good thing. The Grim Reaper is well done (and what is it thatís so comical about a well-written lisp? I imagined him as sounding like a cross between a cheesy Mike Tyson impersonation and Sylvester the cartoon cat). At a glance in the Reaper Man novel, I think revgiblet is right. His Death is different than Terry Pratchettís, seeming a bit like William Sadler in Bill & Tedís Bogus Journey. Anyway, I was pleased at how nicely the author crafted a PC with real character.

     This is a puzzle-fest of the sort I like best. Each objective has two or three alternate solutions (and itís evident that there are alternate solutions just in the way things are constructed, which is nice). Some solutions cross paths, making it likely that a player will find clues to solving an objective in the course of solving a different one entirely. I like this quite a bit, although the easiest of the solutions are probably the ones most players will find. This can leave the others to feel a bit like red herrings, unless youíve connected the proverbial dots to realize certain things are no longer relevant. I managed to complete the game without peeking at the walkthrough, although not within the two-hour IFComp time limit.

     And so, it was necessary that I decide on a score from a partial playthrough. My official vote is ď7Ē, which thankfully lines up with my review score. Iím finding that I really dislike the two-hour rule, though. There is such a big risk in getting it wrong, but it would be unfair to the review to stop entirely just to avoid deciding on a vote, or to rush through and not get a feel for how the game should play out. Iím a little bothered by reviews based on a few minutes of play that have been extrapolated to the game in its entirety. Those reviewers may just be more astute than I, but I find it difficult to write authoritatively about a game when I havenít explored more of it. Getting to the end can make a difference.

     It makes a difference in A Fine Day for Reaping. Even though the writing suffers from minor problems (the usual suspects like misplaced or missing commas and typos in general, but also an intentional but slightly jarring switch in tense during cut-scenes) itís by and large quite nice in this game. The author has a style (maybe a bit metaphor-heavy) -- whether original or borrowed, I canít say -- that really makes for fun reading. Thatís probably why I was more bothered that I had trouble pausing multi-page text dumps (a setting in Adrift that, for whatever reason, didnít want to stay) than I was that the game has so many lengthy non-interactive bits. None of it was dry. None of it felt unnecessary.

     Thatís also why I was so pleased with how revgiblet handled the ending. Itís a lot to read, but it makes the payoff for almost three hours of play much better than the ďcongrats - you wonĒ kind of ending I had expected. Different solutions lead to different wrap-ups at the end (according to the walkthrough -- although I have not played through again to see those endings, theyíre bound to be equally worthwhile).

     As much as I enjoyed what revgiblet has done here, a number of problems hold it back from being the truly great game it might have been. Almost all of them are implementation problems. The design itself is fine, with predominantly logical puzzles (or at least illogical ones that make sense in context) and pretty good pacing where itís hard to get stuck for long.

     The exception, as far as the design is concerned, is the twelve-hour in-game time limit. I never felt that it really added anything to the game. Iím not sure how many turns this works out to be, but itís plenty. For a game on a time limit, itís probably too long. To be fair, players will realize this from the beginning, and probably plan their saves (and multiple saves) accordingly. The problem for me was that the game didnít need a sense of urgency. The time limit was made long enough so that exploration and sight-seeing doesnít have to be cut down too much, but if youíre not forcing a sense of urgency, then why have a time limit at all? In my play-through, I ran out of turns close to the end of my last objective. Itís a nice little non-winning ending, but it just didnít add anything to the experience.

     Other problems are strictly bugs in the implementation. For example:

     Jimiyu Wangai's empty body is lying on the ground.
     >x table
     You look at the table.
     "Don't worry," says Jimiyu, "It's perfectly sturdy."

     Now, Death can talk to the dead, but in this case, poor Jimiyu had been reaped and departed. The ďx tableĒ reply had to have been hard-coded on the assumption that players would only be looking at the table while Jimiyu was still alive. I found this kind of thing in some other places as well, where static descriptions (for instance, not being able to approach one NPCís bed due to a protective spell, even though the spell was already gone) didnít take into consideration the changes in the state of the story.

     ďInĒ and ďout,Ē as standard commands in IF, didnít work in places where they might have been appropriate. Some of the more specific actions were a little guess-the-verb-y (I had trouble figuring out how to take something from the ďlucky dipĒ without finally resorting to ďuse dip,Ē for instance). There is no special way of entering a year into the machine (you just type the number as though it was a stand-alone verb, but it only responds with something other than an unrecognized command message if you enter a year that the game knows), which does make it a little confusing. These kinds of small frustrations happen frequently in A Fine Day for Reaping, but it probably just needs more testing and polishing.

     Then, there is a strange screen-clearing problem at work. Iím not entirely convinced Adrift is to fault for this, since it appears that room descriptions that shouldnít even be printed yet are shown just prior to the clearing of the display (and there is no forced pause, even with Adrift pausing turned on). This may be a bug isolated to this game. It seems Iíve been able to pause before forced screen-clears in Adrift games before.

     The ďhelpĒ built into A Fine Day for Reaping works more like 2005ís Beyond than most other IF games. Youíre whisked away to a whole new location, which is a good thing for any player to try as part of the overall experience. Once there, you donít actually have to get hints (I found it a little under-developed, anyway, where some of what I wanted help with didnít quite lead to answers).

     The ď7Ē I scored it at two hours fits with the game as a whole, thankfully. It does have problems, but itís an imaginative and fun story, and a worthwhile, recommendable game. Iíve tacked on a ďminusĒ because of the frustrations with pausing and screen-clearing, but the score itself is unchanged.

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