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IFCOMP 2008 - Opening Night

Game #6: Opening Night
Author: David Batterham
Played On: October 7th (1 hour 15 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:2 + W:1 + B:1 = SCORE: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     You stepped off the streetcar moments ago, halting before the grand facade of the Marquis Theatre. You have come to see your idol, the Broadway star Miranda Lily, performing in all her dizzying glory.

     This is a pretty good game. I feel guilty for not simply leaving it at that, because much of what I’m going to discuss here would seem to contradict it.

     (A long rant criticizing my own scoring system snipped from here.)

     Opening Night is told in three acts, although they aren’t identified as such. The story moves seamlessly from what I think of as a traditional “adventure game,” into a middle where it becomes evident the author is up to something more than he seemed to be at the beginning, and finally to an on-rails bit with revelations and explanations. This type of story is probably going to feel clichéd to other judges, which is a shame because even though it’s been done in IF, it hasn’t been done to death. In fact, of several possibilities that occurred to me in the middle and toward the end, this particular twist didn’t cross my mind -- and I’ve done this twist (sort of). So, for me, it worked.

     Information the author provided states that it’s not supposed to be heavy on puzzles, but I still found the first act (and to a lesser extent, the second act) entertaining as a puzzle game. I got stuck in the second act trying to cross a large gap in the floor, and had to be more observant and revisit a prior location (as the hints suggested) to find the solution. That took so long to solve that the pacing -- especially since this was at a point where players will want to make quicker progress to find out what’s really going on -- came to a halt. This may not be a sticking point for other players, though. It might even be the first thing that comes to mind.

     (Another long rant, this time on pacing in IF, snipped from here.)

     Tonally, Opening Night isn’t consistent. It starts out as sort of a would-be romance. Then it’s kind of creepy in spots. One particular scene with the trappings of a slapstick comedy seems ill-placed in a game that later turns serious, introspective, and a little depressing. Should we pity the protagonist? Should we find the situation amusing? It’s hard to do both.

     If left at that, it would probably feel accidental and shoddy. Opening Night tells a story, though, that continues to bounce around in my head well after the last turn was taken. It’s comedy and tragedy -- the masks of theatre -- both fighting for dominance but separated by two distinct plot layers. The comedic layer is optimistic, light-hearted, and pleasant. The tragic layer is grim and mildly disturbing.

     On a technical level, it’s a moderately solid game. I noted a few minor problems in my transcript, but nothing game-halting. The puzzle with the trash can could have been smoother, allowing either for the two-step action that seemed logical or for a slightly different solution. A bit of painted-on text tells me I “might” be able to reach a window even after I’ve gone through and come back. Things that would seem movable are described as “fixed in place.” You can’t always refer to things in the game in the same way the game does (i.e., “x hole” works, but “x jagged hole” does not). Very near the end, it’s possible to go north into what’s probably an accidental, undescribed room. At one point, you can no longer go south even though nothing in the game explains why.

     A few plot points are definite head-scratchers. If the door leading out of the storage room is blocked by so much theatre clutter (props, costumes, etc), then how could anybody have left except by the same way I entered? It could be explained away given the ending, but it’s more likely the door was blocked simply because the player couldn’t be allowed to get into the theatre some other way. For that matter, I thought I might find passable clothes among the costumes, but the game never discounted the possibility directly. It just kind of ignored my attempts to find a better suit among the clothes on the racks.

     Be warned: The next paragraph can be considered a plot spoiler.

     Another head-scratcher presents itself after the ending, in regards to the protagonist being a young adult in 1917. If you pay attention to the ambient goings-on outside the theater near the end of the game, you’ll probably see what I mean. I guess it’s possible, but it begs the question of just how active the PC really was (and even could have been) during the game’s events. Given that you can’t actually reach the fire escape later in the game, maybe the answer is “not very” (except for some crawling).

     On individual merits, Opening Night succeeds as a story worth playing. I liked the relatively simple puzzles too, even though one left me stuck for quite a while. It’s solid enough to avoid major technical problems, and obviously had adequate beta-testing. That just leaves the writing.

     Nothing is “wrong” with the writing, per se. It’s good, solid adventure game text, unmarred by the kinds of jump-out-at-you mistakes often seen in IFComp games. Still, certain bits just felt a little off, as though the author was struggling for synonyms and came up blank. These are phrases like “filling it equally full” and “corridor ends in a dead end” and “brilliantly bright.” Simple re-wording -- for instance, “corridor dead-ends” -- might have done the trick. That’s an amateur’s opinion, but when even an amateur picks up on those things, it might be worth checking.

     My gut, as scoring goes, says “8.” The game isn’t perfect, but it won me over. The problem is, only the story scores a 2 out of 2 and even with the bonus point, that’s a “7.” This might be one I vote higher than the review score. Unless too many of its upcoming competitors raise the bar, Opening Night deserves a spot in the top ten.

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