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IFCOMP 2008 - Ananachronist

Game #5: Ananachronist (A puzzle in four dimensions)
Author: Joseph Strom
Played On: October 5th and 6th (2 hours)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:1 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 5

     Game’s Blurb:
     Have you ever wondered about lack of universe-destroying temporal paradoxes? The anthropic principle just not a good enough explanation for you? Here's a short game about how difficult it is to keep the universe non-existence free.

     Assuming that an “anachronist” is somebody who deals with “anachronisms,” there’s an extra “an” at the beginning of this game’s title. Then again, maybe that’s intentional.

     But maybe not. The text is full of little typos of the kind made when the writer is typing in a hurry (check out my forum and newsgroup posts; it’s the exact same thing). If the game wasn’t proofread then it probably wasn’t tested. And if it wasn’t tested, then there is a good chance that what the author sees as obvious and fair will turn out to be obscure and unfair. Beta-testing accomplishes more than just weeding out the bugs. It lets you find out -- before it’s too late -- how actual players are going to interact with your game.

     Ananachronist is probably trying to be a game like All Things Devours or Mobius (or even Orevore Courier with its multiple vantage points that require some trial-and-error), but it never comes together. I’m tempted to say that it never quite comes together, but in many ways it’s not even close. The story bit at the very beginning is interesting, but it serves the unfortunate duty of hiding the player’s goal behind some confusing purple prose. The introduction isn’t bad, but it causes a paradox of its own. It’s only possible to make sense of it after you’ve figured out what your goal is, but you can’t figure out your goal unless you know what the introduction is all about.

     For quite a while, I made modest progress exploring the game’s three different “overlapping” zones. “Exploring” is about all I managed to do, though. I had skipped the tips in the included “readme.txt” for fear of spoilers, but in looking back, I doubt I would ever have tried some of the things it suggested I try. The game gave me no reason to suspect that the three zones could be influenced by each other in those ways. If it did, I completely missed it. It’s probably something the player is supposed to “figure out,” but there has to be some kind of basis for discovering the rules of the game world.

     This is a big enough problem, but Ananachronist has more. When the game does tell you what to do (searching for something in the computer, for instance), it doesn’t actually accept the phrasing it suggests (you must “look up” things in the computer instead). An item that is supposed to work in “line of sight” with a panel actually works only if you “wave” it (and that’s not even something the text suggested). Keep in mind that all the while, the player really has no idea what he’s supposed to be doing. There are miscellaneous things to interact with, but it’s nearly impossible to deduce why you’re interacting with them, what it’s supposed to achieve, or how it all fits together.

     Worse, there is a bit of a problem with consistency that makes even trial-and-error difficult. Take, for instance, the following exchange:

     >touch canvas
     You feel nothing unexpected.

     >open canvas
     You push the flaps aside but they fall back in place. Nothing stops you from just walking through them however.

     >pull canvas
     The canvas simply disintegrates at your touch.

     This would be a minor complaint, except that getting the canvas to disintegrate turns out to be important. But, who’d have thought to even try it, given that it behaved in completely ordinary ways in response to ordinary actions? The game’s entire design proves again and again that the author has everything worked out in a perfectly reasonable way, but he just wasn’t able to translate it into a fair and fun experience for other people.

     One action that the player must perform many times -- putting things on the pedestal -- could benefit from more simplicity. It might have been re-worked as a much shorter action, for instance. It could also be implied that the player intends to remove the current item before placing the next, without requiring that the player do so explicitly.

     Despite the numerous problems -- unclued and misclued puzzles, a lack of discernable goals, unimplemented scenery objects, counter-intuitive actions, and even a few run-time parser errors involving attempts to open and unlock things -- I had high expectations that it was all going to pay off at the end. I finished the game on autopilot (i.e., a restart, and then a cut-and-paste of the game’s walkthrough commands), but it ends with nothing; no explanation, no big congratulations, no clever tying-together of everything that came before. If the journey is the reward, it never even took the scenic route.

     This is a tough one to score. Categories are a toss-up between 0 and 1 (but never 1 and 2). With testing, revision, better clues and a real ending, it could become a pretty playable game. It needs more, though. Even if, as the author says, everything else has been sacrificed for the sake of this one puzzle (and that’s not even accurate; it’s a series of puzzles just like any adventure game), it’s not interesting enough as-is.

     It has what could be a good core concept, but it’s marred by too many problems in the implementation. Rated on what it is, with the benefit of the doubt given for what it could be, I’m rating it a “1” in every category (without the bonus). That’s a composite score of “5.” My gut says “4,” but I’m sticking with my rating system.

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