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IFCOMP 2007 - Across The Stars

Game #28: Across the Stars
By “Dark Star” & Peter Mattsson
Played On: October 14th & 15th (5 hours 50 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 9+

     Game’s Blurb:
     The Xulthe'en Empire recruited you for duty. But this enlistment will take you Across The Stars.

     >xyzzy
     You think you hear a fizzle and a pop, but ever since coming back from zero gravity training you've been hearing strange sounds every now and then.

     (Plugh and Plover offer the same response.)

     Wow. I didn’t expect this. I didn’t expect that the last game on my random play list would rival my former favorite for “top game” this year. It’s nice to end the competition on such a high note, with such a great (if oversized) entry.

     The biggest criticism I have of Across the Stars is that the authors forgot this was a competition for short Interactive Fiction -- or maybe they just ignored that. It’s not the longest game I played in this year’s IFComp, but I do wish future entrants would tighten things up and aim for a game that can be completed in two hours. I think the only way to finish Across the Stars in two hours is to use the walkthrough or “InvisiClues” extensively.

     The game comes with feelies: a “sample” transcript that makes for a good introductory primer for the IF command line (plus good back-story in general); a .PDF file containing a ship map, sign-up papers and so forth; a simulated blog (HTML pages) that make for interesting pre-game reading (without really spoiling anything or having any real bearing on the playable story); a printable crewman’s ID badge; a “synopsis.txt” file; desktop wallpaper graphics; a spoilery map of later game areas; “InvisiClues” in a separate zcode executable. I spent twenty-five minutes before making a single in-game move just reading through these things (except the full map and the “InvisiClues,” since I didn’t want spoilers). That’s a sizable bite taken out of the two-hour voting limit, but it definitely gives the game a more serious, professional quality.

     In Across the Stars you are a new crewman on a deep space vessel, part of the Xulthe'en Armada. The authors have developed an interesting back-story for this future galaxy, where humanity prospers after meeting an alien race known as the “Zal'tacs” some twenty thousand years prior to the start of the game.

     Assuming this is measured in Earth years (it’s never suggested otherwise, and this comes from “synopsis.txt”), that’s an amazingly long period of time (could just as easily be a million bazillion gazillion years). What I mean is that twenty thousand years should have changed everything. It shouldn’t feel like Star Trek, which is believably set just three or four hundred years from now. This is a peeve more than a complaint, but you can’t have humanity trade technology with aliens, thereby kick-starting us to a new era of enlightenment, and then still have things work pretty much the way they do now (plus space ships) after twenty thousand years of elapsed history.

     When I think about future settings, I use the past as a point of reference. Given the state of technology and society 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 300 years ago -- 1000 years ago -- at what likely point in the future could this eventuality come? Consider, too, that science and technology improve more rapidly now than in centuries past. How long does it take for empires to form and fall? How long before the past is forgotten, made all but irrelevant by twenty thousand years of new history? Even two thousand years is stretching it (just consider the state of humanity two thousand years in our past -- the year 7 AD).

     Anyway, that’s just a small peeve. It’s really all about this one adventure. Across the Stars is a puzzle-heavy game. The back-story gives it flavor, but nothing much from the introductory material makes it into the game. This is a shame, since it might have been interesting to meet Lucius Winterson, or to find that Mary Ann, Zed or the PC’s missing dad make surprise appearances later on. Malice Prime might be a nice place to visit...

     The puzzles, though, are what really make this game. As hard as the game seems at times, it works. Aside from using the “THINK” command a few times (which basically just confirmed whether or not the goal I thought I should be working towards was really the same one the game wanted me to focus on), I only needed the “InvisiClues” (hints) in one spot -- never the map, never the walkthrough. This one spot was late in the game, where I needed to figure out how to get past four spirits. I didn’t even need the hints to help with that -- I just needed to find out that I had missed a room due to overlooking the importance of a depression in a wall at the end of one hallway. That’s it.

     It’s hard to predict how well the game’s puzzles will work for others, but I found them just bordering on too hard without quite going beyond. This makes the reward -- the feeling of satisfaction after solving them -- all the better. At times, when a seemingly wild idea worked, I would “UNDO” just to see if I could determine whether success was only a fortunate fluke. Usually, I found that the game supported a larger number of alternate commands and phrasings, where having the right idea but coming up with a wrong way to express it was less likely. This smoothness failed me sometimes (most notably near the end, when I tried to pry a panel open to no avail, until I just realizing I could just “open” it without added effort), but not often.

     The game is richly implemented, where scenery actually works and things referenced in descriptions of scenery are implemented. It just gets deeper from there. This too failed me sometimes, but not often. This is probably how I found every important but hidden thing (except for the wall depression, which I mentioned already). Because there was so much to see, I looked everywhere. In a way, this is one of the keys to solving Across the Stars: be thorough and look everywhere.

     I also found myself doing the right things in the right places (aside from a little stumbling around during some timed sections that lead to death near the start), seemingly as if I could read the authors’ minds, even when these things didn’t seem suggested in the text. (STOP HERE and skip to the next paragraph to avoid puzzle spoilers.) These are things like throwing the torch at both monsters, pouring coffee on a malfunctioning machine, pushing a crate, lowering myself into a pit on a grappling hook, and setting the detonator at just the right place. Most likely, these things were clued, whether subtly or by way of being similar to actions that were encountered earlier. Whatever the reason, Across the Stars has some of the most satisfying yet solvable puzzles of any entry this year.

     Across the Stars also has one of the coolest tricks for PC gender determination I’ve seen. Instead of making the PC gender-neutral by way of having no name or a gender-neutral name, the PC’s name is found misprinted on an ID badge. The badge says “An Darington,” but maybe it’s supposed to be “Ann” or “Dan” or something else. Later, the player is allowed to choose between two sexually provocative NPC’s -- one male, the other female -- and this sets the gender of a different NPC that can join the mission shortly after.

     My transcripts have a few nit-picky comments about the game, but not many. Some are to do with implementation. When drink buttons and food buttons are labeled differently, why is it necessary to specify which machine the specific button you’re pushing exists on, as part of the command? There is a bug here, too, since the tea and water buttons seem to assume I mean coffee every time. The cleaning robot had potential that was never used. I also noted very few minor typos.

     Others are to do with possible plot holes. (STOP HERE and skip to the next paragraph to avoid story spoilers.) If everybody else was simply beamed off the ship by pirates, how was the PC spared? Also, why were there signs of a struggle? If that’s not what happened, and the crew really was taken by force, then the first question still lacks an answer, and it raises another: How is it that the pirates only arrive (seemingly for the first time) a few turns later, after everybody else is already gone? On the planet, if there is a limit to the creature’s illusion-inducing range (as there seems to be), why did the cave look like a temple from so far away? Why does the other Captain seem so incapable of taking action and making decisions, leaving everything up to an untried and untested cadet? If pirates don’t attack in this section of space (the OmniTrans says so), then why did they attack? Is it to do with the mysterious crates (one at the beginning, the other at the end)? If so, what’s in them? Why was the PC’s Captain given a transmission regarding an imminent collision marked for his eyes only? Isn’t this the kind of thing -- even if it involved pirates -- that some other crew members should be made aware of as well? It’s possible these things do have answers -- even answers within the game -- but if so, I missed it.

     If I could ask for anything more of Across the Stars it would be for a little more originality. Of the two creatures on the planet, one seems a little like Star Wars’ Sarlac pit and the other seems a little like a creature from Dune (even sharing the same name). Both are a little too similar to each other. Space pirates are standard stuff, too. It just feels like well-trodden territory, even in areas where it may not be.

     Some of the game is optional. It’s possible to overlook or bypass some areas and challenges, particularly on the planet, for a lower score. Somehow I found almost everything in my first play-through, earning 145 points of a possible 150. A tip in the end-game “AMUSING” list helped me find the final 5. The ending remains the same with 100 points, 145, or all 150, so I’m surprised that some sections can be bypassed or overlooked. This includes some of the game’s most interesting puzzles, so it seems like an odd decision to make it optional and fail to reward players with a different ending.

     Maybe because I’m a sucker for Trek-like sci-fi (despite my longing for something less derivative), or maybe because I found the puzzles challenging without being too obscure, or maybe because it was so well polished, I realized even at two hours that I really liked Across the Stars. I voted it a “9”. I considered a “10” at the end (as my unofficial review score), and it was a tough decision to keep my prior frontrunner in first place. Ultimately, as nicely done as Across the Stars is, my other favorite wins out with successful humor, a novel plot, and a well-crafted PC that never breaks character. Still, Across the Stars gets a “9+” from me, and that bumps the two games I had pegged for second and third place down one notch each.

     Every year, I seem to thoroughly enjoy one game that receives lukewarm responses elsewhere. Across the Stars might be the under-appreciated gem of IFComp 2007. I hope it ranks in the top five. I’ll be disappointed if it’s not in the top 10.

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