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Now released for Spring Thing 2006, it weighs in on the light side (considering the competition's focus on medium- to long-sized games). As an intended IFComp entry, this makes sense. From chatting with Robb at his Hugo forum, I know that it took much effort and some sleepless nights even to finish for the Spring Thing deadline. Even short and perhaps rushed, Pantomime is a solid game with an entertaining story.
In Pantomime, you live on Phobos, currently a moon of Mars, but soon to break apart into an orbiting ring of debris. It's the last place anyone would choose to be, even before the crisis. It's a world where cloning is commonplace, robots named after Unix commands are a man's best friend, and being good at chess is cause for embarrassment. This is a vision of the near future.
I've only played the beginning of one or two Robb Sherwin games prior to this. That's probably why my reactions bounced between "whoa. did he really say that?" and "wow. what's it going to be next?" Somehow, even if he's holding back, it doesn't feel that way. Aside from a few typos - probably the result of the hurried effort to meet the deadline - the writing is great. It flows better because it's more casual. It's not just how Sherwin writes - it's also what he writes: the insults between characters, the one-off jokes, the clever descriptions and bits of back-story. I usually cringe at coarse passages and lowbrow humor in a game, but that's part of what makes Pantomime so interesting. Sherwin seems to write it in a convincing, honest way.
Pantomime is what an episode of Futurama might be, if the script came from Cartoon Network's Williams Street crew and it aired on HBO after hours. The little censor that lives inside Robb Sherwin's mind has a freedom not given most other IF authors, save maybe Adam Thornton. I mean, if a wacked-out robot needs to sport a cloned copy of a male porn star's money-maker, Sherwin will work it into the story. And it'll be funny.
The game is meant to be funny... I think. It's sometimes tongue-in-cheek humor. It's definitely black humor, where the absurd and the macabre come together. It might be an allegory for some of today's issues, but if so, I didn't really get that. More likely, it's just a strange but fascinating story.
The puzzles aren't difficult (generally just a matter of figuring out what action to take to move things along), and inventory is almost non-existent. Pantomime is very story-driven. The most difficult bit may have been passing the spiked gate, but even that obstacle yields to some creative but simple reasoning (okay, okay - I solved it by blind luck and experimentation, but it made sense afterwards). Even the second-to-last confrontation doesn't require anything more complicated than following instructions and listening to the bad guy's diatribe. This should be particularly appealing to anyone who prefers IF to be more fiction than game.
A few minor bugs remain in the competition release. They range from typos to an odd exit back to Kangaroo's Club - nothing game-killing. This seems to happen more toward the end. What's most likely to work against Pantomime, though, is that it doesn't seem long enough for a Spring Thing game. It also glosses over the additional detail in most places, when it comes to interacting with (even if only to "look at") scenery objects. Knowing Hugo, I think this could be fixed easily, even without real objects. Just add an "extra_scenery" property to each room, with lists of keywords that will cause a different reference message. It means the difference between something "not there" when it really is, and simply being "unimportant".
A few plot points left me confused. Who sent me the vial? What was the purpose of the seemingly unnecessary gate code? And how drunk was Sherwin when he came up with the interaction that helps the PC escape the airlock? Other than that, everything is wrapped up tidily at the end, where a couple of fitting plot twists are thrown in.
I enjoyed Pantomime, and I recommend it - especially if an update comes after the competition. Without hints, I finished in two and a half hours (plus some re-play of select earlier bits). It's definitely a game that wouldn't have been out of place in the annual IFComp, but even snack-sized by Spring Thing standards, it's a worthy entry.
My Spring Thing Score: 7