[Comp00] Lucian's Dissolutions (3/4)

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Lucian Paul Smith

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Nov 16, 2000, 3:00:00 AM11/16/00
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The third five:

Transfer (8)
Metamorphoses (10)
A Crimson Spring (6)
Shade (6)
The Masque of the Last Faeries (4)


Spoilers ahoy!


Transfer (transfer.z5)
Rating: 8

This was a solid little game. Many, many logical puzzles that stemmed
seamlessly from the situation and gameplay. And, er, one or two that
didn't. I mean, come on, I have to become a bat to find a mosquito that
I don't otherwise see because the doctor can't let me borrow a syringe?
Lame! (Yeah, I couldn't have gotten the professor with a syringe, but I
could have gotten the dog. Heck, I could have wheeled the dog
upstairs.) But, if you'll excuse the digression into game design for a
moment, the main problem with this puzzle was not letting the player see
mosquitoes before having to intuit their existence. Sad, because a
variety of approaches could have worked, including simply putting in a
view of the swampy area and, say, a cloud of mosquitoes from the
professor's balcony. The hint system could have been better here, too.
I *thought* the puzzle I was stuck on was getting blood from someone,
but the answer I got made no sense--'transform yourself into a
mosquito'. Huh? What mosquito? I randomly page through other hints,
and discover I can catch the bat. From *that* point, it's easy.

This was a late puzzle, though, and probably did not have the benefit of
as rigorous amounts of beta-testing. Contrast this puzzle with that of
getting the good doctor's room code. You wander around, find some
binoculars, then get on a lift with a sweeping view of the surroundings.
Hold the lift, peer around a bit, and--aha!--there's the doctor,
punching in her room code. Another bit of brilliance when the game
takes notes for you here by writing the code down on an index card.
Then you have to deduce the rest of the code from what you can look up
about her, and then you look at the clues because you can't figure it
out anyway. Oops, did I say 'you'? I meant me, of course ;-) But this
is the kind of hint I don't mind looking up.

Let's take another puzzle for analysis, just for the heck of it. Say,
the one where you're a mouse. This, to me, was perfect. If you've paid
any attention at all up to this point, you know what it is you have to
do; the trick is how to do it. So you splash around in the X-4, and the
doctor picks you up. What next? You're a mouse! Bite the hand! Aha,
a scalpel! Slice, jump in the X-4 again, hand looming all the while--
success! Whew! For me, at least, the pacing worked perfectly and was
quite dramatic. The elements are shown, the means to get them given to
you (or strongly implied), and the right amount of time to implement the
solution allotted. Not only that, but some added information (what
happened to your body when a mouse's brain took it over) was given on
the side, allowing you to piece together more of the plot puzzle, should
you have not figured it out by then.

And, so, we get to the plot. Overall, it was pretty basic--I guessed
the basic premise at the very beginning, and nothing ever dispelled that
notion. Some details were filled in along the way, and everything made
good sense as a whole, but no stunning reversals, twists of fortune, or
the like. It was fun, and it provided a solid framework on which to
hang the puzzles. The basic premise is a classic idea, and it was
handled competently here.


Metamorphoses (metamorp.z5)
Rating: 10

Very interesting. One of the first overall impressions of this game is
how sparse it is. Or, if not sparse, *tight*. Very few words are used
(perhaps 'wasted') on anything. One-sentence descriptions are the order
of the day for most everything. I haven't done an analysis, but I would
guess that these descriptions are even shorter than the old Infocom
games were, where every byte counted. I've grown accustomed to longer-
windedness in modern games, and this was one that definitely bucked the
trend.

But for all that the sentences were brief, they didn't ever feel like
they needed to be longer. The essentials were communicated efficiently,
and the terse writing conveyed the mood of the piece almost more than
the actual words themselves.

And this was more a mood piece than a grand sweeping plot. Bits of
details from the protagonist's past filtered in at opportune times (and
at seemingly random times, too), allowing one to gradually build a
picture of who you were and what (in vague terms) you were doing. The
'about' information told of multiple solutions to puzzles, and this made
playing the game a more relaxing experience. It also meant that the
provided walkthrough could be used as a source of hints and not
necessarily of solutions. I used it to discover how the hook in the
cistern worked, for example, but then was able to go back and discover
something else to put on it instead of the treasured ring.

And in general, all the puzzles were like that. Easy to conceptualize,
and usually there was something you could think of that would solve the
problem at hand. The one exception: Getting past the grating. The
walkthrough solution seemed somewhat arbitrary, which, I suppose, is OK
if there are other solutions. But the other solution I eventually found
(from a hint from a fellow player) was, I think, unfair. To be
explicit, the first time you say you want to enter the hole behind the
grating, it tells you that you don't want to. Then if you repeat the
command three times, it finally lets you do it anyway. I've seen this
puzzle a few times before, and once it worked and the other time I hated
it. The time it worked was in last year's game, "Hunter, in Darkness".
It worked for me there because there wasn't really much else you could
do at all, and the game had established a precedent of telling you the
results of the first time you tried something, hinting each time that if
you tried again, it might work. Andrew has gone on record as saying
that he wanted that puzzle to work for people only if they thought it
wouldn't work, and tried it anyway. I don't think the puzzle worked that
way--but I did think it worked. The game kept giving you new responses
to your repeated action, even though the responses were getting less
frequent, and the natural response, as a player, is to keep going until
you run out of new responses. The last new response, of course, solved
the puzzle.

The other time I remember seeing this was in an older competition game,
'Wearing the Claw'. There, you had to type 'south' three times before
it would let you go that way. But in that game (as in this one), there
were plenty of other things to do, so it wasn't nearly as likely that
you would enter that command more than once. And here, 'enter hole' is
an even rarer command than 'south', making it even more annoying.

So, overall, that puzzle suffered because one solution was arbitrary and
the other was deliberately misleading. But all the rest of the puzzles
worked for me.

And then we get to the case of the multiple endings. I'm going to talk
alot about them, and it didn't really affect my enjoyment or lack
thereof of the game, but it does make for an interesting discussion
topic, so here we go. You might be warned at this point that I will be
talking about the 12 different endings I eventually found somewhat
explicitly, so if you want to find them yourselves, skip on down to the
next review. You Have Been Warned.

So.

After finding the dodecahedron, I pretty much knew what I had to do. I
went back down, summoned the gondolier, went back to the mirror, and
managed to enter it. I got a satisfying ending, and I was basically
done with the game. The walkthrough talked of different endings, but
enh....

But I was on ifMUD and was home sick, so I decided to join the
Metamorphosis channel and ask about the multiple endings. I think it
was the text on the scroll that bugged me the most. That *had* to mean
something...

So the first set of endings that they gave me hints about and that I
quickly discovered was that you could enter other mirrors to go back. I
quickly found one, then found another, then found a third that gave me
the original ending again. Oddly, neither of these two new endings
seemed any better than the original. In fact, they almost seemed as if
they were hidden, obscure ways to *lose*. These endings, I was
informed, were not the 'scroll' endings, so I searched on some more. I
was stymied in my search by the fact that 'fly' wasn't recognized, and
by the fact that much of the beams of light in the game were not easy to
interact with. Finally, I got an explicit hint: Go to the paintings.
Bing! Four new endings. And then, with a little more searching,
another four endings. The disambiguation question to '>X PAINTING'
helped in no small way in this regard. These were the 'scroll' endings
I was after.

But...

Huh? It really made no sense. I still can't really figure out how the
scroll text relates to paintings. It just seems rather arbitrary. And
again, while they were interesting, I had basically discovered eight
obscure ways to lose (with the possible exception of the village one,
but that was pretty vague). If someone discovers these endings on their
own, I would like to hear how that was accomplished. I found out
because someone told me, and *he* found out because a beta-tester told
him. We're getting pretty close to 'read the author's mind' here. And
the question is: Why? Why hide obscure endings like these around where
few will find them?

Someone here might take issue with my stance that these alternate
endings are all obscure ways to lose. They might not be *my* idea of a
perfect ending to the story, but *someone* might find them better than
the 'default' ending. But really, most of these endings have little to
do with the character of the protagonist, or even deliberately wrench
the protagonist from her setting. They have no context; present no
fitting denoument from what has gone before. Think about the story they
imply: A young girl, raised by a magician, goes on a quest for the
magician, overcoming a variety of obstacles, eventually enabling her to-
--forget it all, and become an actor on an Elizabethan stage! Or get
embroiled in the politics of Italy! Or becomes omniscient but apotent!
Huh? They count as 'losses' in my book not because they end with the
protagonist worse off than she was in the beginning, but because they do
nothing to advance the story; to bring anything to some kind of
resolution.

The 'village' ending is the one exception to that, but I didn't see much
in it to make that ending any different or better than the original one.
Which seemed a bit odd again--why go through all the trouble of hiding
alternate endings if all you can do is end up about the same as the non-
hidden ending?

Then I was informed that there was yet another ending. Search, search--
nothing. Another hint--it involved the furnace. Transform, transform--
nothing. Another hint--it involved turning something to glass. My
entire inventory was glass, and still nothing. Then finally, the
revelation--it was the ball of yarn! Which, uh, I didn't have because
of the aforementioned bad puzzle where I turned it into a rock and
stopped up the cogworks. Sigh. So, I restored to an earlier game,
redid a bunch of the puzzles, got the hint that it was possible to enter
the hole after all, and made it to the ending with my ball of yarn
intact. Snip, blip, gaze--the 12th ending! And, wonder of wonders,
it's an ending that actually concludes the story, in a way that's much
more satisfying than the previous 10, and even better than the original.
One could argue, of course, that the 'village' ending could *also* end
like this one, but you weren't *told* that, so it didn't count. You
could tell yourself the story of the village plus the yarn ending, but
only knowing the yarn ending beforehand.

So *with* that last ending, the rest of the endings 'made sense' to me.
If you know the possible 'losing' endings, then this last 'winning'
ending is that much more meaningful--the girl could have left everything
behind and gone on to new things, but she instead chooses to return
home, but not as a servant anymore, but as an equal.

But without pretty explicit hints, who's going to hear or understand
that story? What if nobody had told me about the yarn ending, as very
nearly happened? The mirror endings alone make the 'default' ending
slightly more meaningful--the player has the opportunity to choose for
themselves if they think the 'inverted' ending might be better than the
normal one (I don't think it is), but... I dunno. My thought is, if
you are designing a game with multiple endings that only make sense in
context of one another, you should really give the player more to work
with by way of finding those endings. And especially not tell the
player in the walkthrough to throw away the one method they have of
getting the best ending!

And thus ends the aside about the endings. As I said above, they didn't
greatly affect my enjoyment of the game, which overall was excellent.
In a more disjointed game, the losing endings might have counted as
wins; I dunno. But this was a very tightly-packed and coherent game.
Aside from the few flaws, I greatly enjoyed it.


A Crimson Spring (scourge.hex)
Rating: 6

Hey, it's another gritty, slang-laced game from Robb Sherwin. Only this
time, most of the wacky puzzles have been removed, so what's left is...
a *lot* of text. Whole bunches of text. Boy howdy, there's a lot of
text here. Yup. Words.

I should note here that I couldn't get the Hugo engine working for
this game on my Win95 PC, so I downloaded the GLK engine instead, and
played without. I did manage to see the opening graphic, which was, uh,
pretty amateur. Then it crashed. It crashed on me again in GLK at the
end (which sent me for a momentary flash of deja vu--crashes in the
graveyard! Where have I seen this before?), but a quick replay (it goes
by ever so much more quickly when you don't have to read everything) got
me through unscathed.

I'm honestly not sure what I would think of this game had not Graham
Nelson unleashed the meme, "tying the player down in a chair in order to
shout the plot at him" upon the IF community. Nevertheless, I was in
that chair, and those bonds were tight. There was a bit of variation
possible (it seemed), but when various conversations you had in the
very first scene relied on doing things in a certain order (there were
references to 'going to a bar' even when you didn't know about the bar
yet), I kind of gave up and decided to go with the flow. Oh, and I went
south from the comic store at the beginning, and my contact there
scampered, so again, it seemed you had to do things in a certain order.
And [I keep thinking of new things as I type this] when I was in
Father's room, he was whisked away in a text dump, but still there in
the room description. You get the idea.

And though it was somewhat appropriate, I didn't really like the random-
combat fight scene. The one puzzle there was funny, but even if you
knew what it was, you could still lose.

So, what about the plot? Scratch that--what about the story? Given the
premise of superhero existence,... sure, it made a certain modicum of
sense. I must admit, though, that I have less and less patience as I
get older for angst. Growing up I thought it was associated with our
generation, and maybe it was, but it's also tied to the age--an age I'm
growing out of. So this angst-loaded story didn't work as well for me
as it might have at one point. Much of it seemed pretentious. And I
really didn't understand the character of my arch-nemesis at all. As
far as I could tell, his crime was to save me at an early age, break
into my apartment so he could remind me of that, and, uh, send me on a
spiritual journey to help people. This is the pinnacle of evil? I
would have imagined something a bit more... nefarious, somehow.


Shade (shade.z5)
Rating: 6

Not bad for a game written in a month. It was fun how the game played
with your initial expectations, though once you figured out what was
going on, the rest of the game proceeded fairly straightforwardly.

I got horribly stuck in the middle, until I was told to examine the
list. This is some sort of design flaw; I don't know what. Somehow,
the player should be led to realize that the list changes with time.

Overall the game was somewhat frustrating, but it was a fun play on your
expectations, and I enjoyed the bit in the middle where the protagonist
was busy turning everything to sand and enjoying it.

Obviously, however, the player should never start down this path,
because they die at the end. If they just futz around with the sinks
forever, someone's bound to find them, right?


The Masque of the Last Faeries (masque.z5)
Rating: 4

This could have been *such* a better game had it been play-tested.
Sigh. The premise was nice, the ending twist very fun (shades of 9:05),
and the poetry was... well, OK, the poetry was bad. I would like to go
back to this game to figure out some of the questions at the end. But
the bugs are really hard on the eyes. The odd thing was that I found
few gameplay bugs--the coding seems to be fairly competent. The
problems all arose from nobody ever actually seeing the text scroll
across their screen for the first time before it was released.

Um, wait. I seem to remember... [checks game's 'about' section again.]

OK, so the game *was* beta-tested. What did these people test? Did
they read the text scrolling across their screen and just not care? I am
reminded of an Andrew Plotkin quote, along the lines of: "When I say,
'Did this game have beta-testers?' that's not really what I mean. Of
course there were beta-testers. What I actually mean is, 'Can I meet the
beta- testers and *set them on fire*?'" I harbor no such great
resentement towards these testers. But it does point out the problems of
getting one's friends (who have never played IF before) to test one's
games (I'm guessing here. But I've seen it happen before.) Getting IF
novices is a wonderful way to test a game. They do all sorts of
interesting things. But getting an IF veteran or two to playtest your
game will reveal a host of *other* problems that your game has, as well.
Like always ending with a carriage return. Boy, there's nothing that
grates on my eyes more than a prompt right below text. I dunno what it
is.

But, back to the game: The plot played out as a game within a game that
was later revealed to have yet another layer of complexity to it. The
game on the basic level was decent, and pretty straightforward. The
hidden level was interesting, but could be a bit abrupt at times--the
pacing could have been much smoother. And having the woman send you off
to find the locket, and then immediately send the sheriff after you was
just wrong. There were hints that the two levels were connected, and
that the host knew all along what I was up to--the 'locket' riddle, the
thiefliness of elves, and the general plot of the story. But that was
all discarded at the end (or it seemed to be, at any rate) when the host
seemed as surprised as anyone about the turn of events.

Basically, a decent game I wouldn't mind coming back to after the bugs
are taken care of.

Andrew Plotkin

unread,
Nov 16, 2000, 3:00:00 AM11/16/00
to
Lucian Paul Smith <lps...@rice.edu> wrote:


> Spoilers ahoy!

> Shade (shade.z5)

> Obviously, however, the player should never start down this path,
> because they die at the end. If they just futz around with the sinks
> forever, someone's bound to find them, right?

Hm, you think so?

:)

--Z

"And Aholibamah bare Jeush, and Jaalam, and Korah: these were the
borogoves..."

Craxton

unread,
Nov 16, 2000, 3:00:00 AM11/16/00
to

"Lucian Paul Smith" <lps...@rice.edu> wrote in message
news:8v0986$dpc$4...@joe.rice.edu...

> The third five:
>
> Transfer (8)
> Metamorphoses (10)
> A Crimson Spring (6)
> Shade (6)
> The Masque of the Last Faeries (4)
>
>
> Spoilers ahoy!
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
>
> Transfer (transfer.z5)
> Rating: 8
>
> This was a solid little game.

People keep saying that, and frankly, I don't see it. It felt to me like the
world, NPCs especially, was shallow and stilted. Dialogue and exposition
felt wooden, like it was obvious the author was dropping informations in
your lap. The puzzles WERE nice, yes, but too many of them were reliant on
that "magic" machine...


> Let's take another puzzle for analysis, just for the heck of it. Say,
> the one where you're a mouse. This, to me, was perfect. If you've paid
> any attention at all up to this point, you know what it is you have to
> do; the trick is how to do it. So you splash around in the X-4, and the
> doctor picks you up. What next? You're a mouse! Bite the hand! Aha,
> a scalpel! Slice, jump in the X-4 again, hand looming all the while--
> success! Whew! For me, at least, the pacing worked perfectly and was
> quite dramatic.

Actually, you don't have to do all that... just BITE ME, then jump. Biting
the hand will buy you time, I think...

<snip>


>And I
> really didn't understand the character of my arch-nemesis at all. As
> far as I could tell, his crime was to save me at an early age, break
> into my apartment so he could remind me of that, and, uh, send me on a
> spiritual journey to help people. This is the pinnacle of evil? I
> would have imagined something a bit more... nefarious, somehow.
>

Nah... what happened was, you became the Holy Avenger, did the superhero
thing for a while, butting heads with your archenemy Red Wraith every so
often, then eventually the plot retconned a connection between you and Red
Wraith to give a plot reason for him to try and posess you.

At least, that's how Marvel always does it... ^_^

-Craxton

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