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IFCOMP 2007 - Varkana

Game #1: Varkana (A discreet pursuit in Arg Varkana)
By Maryam Gousheh-Forgeot (writing as “Farahnaaz”)
Played On: October 1st (2 hours 40 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Glulx)
Merk’s Score: 7+

     Game’s Blurb:
     An Interactive Fiction with a fantasy/sci-fi theme, with focus on the story.

     >xyzzy
     There, some kebab. You pick it up.
     >xyzzy
     The kebab glows a little. Other than that, nothing happens.
     >x kebab
     A morsel of tasty roast meat wrapped in bread.
     >eat kebab
     You eat the kebab. It was quite good.

     IFComp 2007 starts out well for me, with a fairly strong game from first-time entrant Maryam Gousheh-Forgeot. Varkana tells the story of a girl initially negligent in her duties, who begins to suspect that something isn’t right with a delegation of ambassadors from a distant land. Farahnaaz’s own town, the fortified Arg Varkana, is a beautiful place set in a land with a rich and detailed backstory. Through the course of an otherwise typical morning for her, a small mystery unfolds around Farahnaaz.

     Varkana has promise. I was skeptical at the start, when unfamiliar names and situations were shot rapid-fire from the first scene. It seemed overwhelming at first, but it made much more sense when I took the liberty of a second read-through after saving my progress a little further into the story. The author has put plenty of thought into the history of this fantasy world, but it isn’t easy to convey that level of backstory in a short game without overwhelming the player. This is a particularly difficult balance in a fantasy-themed game, because too little deviation from established norms makes it generic, while too much makes it hard to comprehend. What Varkana seems to promise is that this backstory -- and the scenario unfolding around Farahnaaz on such a nice morning -- will be central to the game’s conclusion.

     At the end (and with an attempt to avoid spoilers here), I’m not sure it came together that way. It’s almost as though a better story got misplaced along the way, somewhere between the promising beginning and the oddly disjointed ending. Farahnaaz, seemingly central to the story and certainly responsible for pushing the plot forward most of the way, encounters a turn of events (I’ll call it a “change in her condition”) that changes the perspective. The most complete ending (as it’s called in the walkthrough) introduces a wealth of backstory that wasn’t evident at all in the story proper. This includes an unlikely shift not only in the PC’s attitude toward the antagonist, but in the characterization of the antagonist as well.

     It wasn’t necessarily that these twists were unsatisfying (although that may be true to a small degree). I just read through the final text wondering how this was the conclusion to the game I had started playing. The rich backstory and the events of the day are usurped by revelations that really only depend on the earlier parts as backstory. I had hoped -- and the game’s promise seemed to be -- that this was all going to come together in an enlightening and clever way at the end. I’m not sure that it did.

     Still, the town of Arg Varkana is a beautiful, pleasant place to explore. The well-envisioned world and the well-developed backstory are perfect for an adventure like this. Most of the puzzles seem suited to the story, being neither difficult nor obscure. The writing is a pleasant mix of vivid descriptions and the right balance between brevity and verboseness (with some exceptions), although some obvious technical errors in the writing seemed more unintentional than stylistic.

     Where in prior years (as an entrant myself) I couldn’t vote, this year I’m honor-bound by the two-hour rule. I hit the mark during a particularly frustrating point in the game, where it’s possible to lose without knowing quite why (and without having what you need to avoid losing). I had already encountered a few other minor issues by then, but nothing major. I reviewed my own scoring guidelines and decided on an “8”.

     That’s the vote I’ll submit, and I played to completion afterwards. For all that’s good about Varkana, though, it suffers from a few technical problems that might have been resolved with a bit more time (and still could be, in a post-comp re-release).

     For instance, there seems to be one particular purpose for the art stand in the bazaar. It’s for a solution to a puzzle I solved in a different way (this is mentioned in the game’s walkthrough), but aside from that one purpose, it’s under-implemented to the point that I thought the game might be broken in a way that was keeping me from moving forward. It turns out I was wrong, but an exchange like this is still a frustration:

     >x stand
     Lots of art supplies for sale. You just love examining all those tools and equipment.
     >buy supplies
     Nothing is on sale.

     Examining the tools and the equipment results in the same message, and nothing is actually for sale (unless you hit on the one thing you can buy -- and it’s not paper).

     This exchange also had me wondering if the game was broken:

     >ask kids about paper
     Which do you mean, the simple, the bookshelves, papers, the paper or the papers?

     The work-around for the quirk mentioned in the game’s readme.txt doesn’t help, so I began to wonder if there was a disambiguation problem that would ultimately prevent me from getting what I needed. Fortunately, I found it elsewhere (and kicked myself for not remembering about it), but it was still a shame to find implementation bugs in an otherwise well-designed game.

     There were a few typos and grammatical issues (as mentioned earlier), including one typo early on where the NPC “Nivanen” was referred to as “Ninaven”. The exits from some rooms weren’t described, but this seemed limited to rooms where the missing exit was the direction from which you arrived. An in-game map was a nice touch later on (making navigation much easier), but I hesitated to use it at first for fear of getting spoilers just based on the layout or location names. All in all, it could just use some polishing.

     What bothered me most, though, wasn’t the minor bugs, small errors in the text, or even the plot switch-up near and at the end. It was the dead-end point during a key confrontation, and later, a puzzle that seemed out of place given the smooth flow of puzzles up to that point.

     In the case of former, it is possible to arrive in a no-win situation. The walkthrough, I found out later, advises you to “undo” out of the no-win, but I didn’t get a strong sense that the game was telling me enough to know I lacked something required to proceed. I thought about it and figured out what I needed to try (without the walkthrough), but I could easily have saved over my prior games or exited/restarted where “undo” would have become impossible. It may be hypocritical to criticize this, since my own Distress does this more than once, but in Varkana it seemed like a complete break from the game’s established flow. The game was generally forgiving prior to that (you could die by doing stupid stuff, but never inside a dead end this way), yet this was a situation where failure came a few turns later and in a way that’s impossible to avoid if you haven’t previously prepared for it.

     A little later, it’s necessary to command an NPC to take action. For this, I did use the walkthrough. I’m not sure I would have figured it out otherwise, because the game hadn’t introduced NPC directives earlier. Requiring a command like “John, climb the tree” (just as an example -- and a command like “tell John to climb the tree” works in this spot as well) isn’t unfair, but it probably should have been introduced earlier to establish it as a weapon in the player’s puzzle-solving arsenal. Re-reading the transcript, I can see that it was clued, but it seemed entirely to do with the NPC’s appreciation for the item in question and nothing to do with the NPC’s willingness to help. For that matter, the directive might have been unnecessary. This was an action the NPC, intending to help the PC, would probably have taken after obtaining the required item without even needing the PC to point it out (especially if this particular NPC wanted the item in order to help out).

     I found, too, that you can drop important items in the dark room, which you can’t retrieve. This is a minor issue, since players won’t ordinarily drop important items anywhere, but it can create potential no-win situations.

     The score for my review set is a point lower than the official vote I will cast for Varkana. This “unofficial” score is based on the rest of the game (played past two hours), and with more thought given to how it lines up with my scoring criteria. It’s a pretty strong entry with a few problems. I can recommend it even as-is. With a positive skew for such a detailed backstory in an enjoyable fantasy setting, it gets a “7+” from me.

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