Friday, October 10, 2008

[IF Competition] A Martian Odyssey

I have already played 11 games in the IF Comp, but I've only written about 5 of them--so it's definitely time to crank out some more not-quite-reviews.

Lest the opportunity for small talk given to me by the necessity of filling this space with more or less meaningless sentences go to waste, I will now tell you that this competition will always be linked in my mind to the music of Meatloaf. I watched the Rocky Horror Picture Show a week or so ago, and now I'm putting on Meatloaf songs whenever I start playing IF. My reviews will probably suffer.

Here we go, talking about A Martian Odyssey by Horatio.

What is good?
  • Alien landscapes are good! Overwhelm me with daring feats of the imagination, and I'll forgive you many things.
  • Basing your work of IF on an existing story can be good as well. This territory hasn't been explored that well, and I welcome further exploration.
What could be better?
  • I said "overwhelm me with daring feats of the imagination", and that is exactly what I meant. You are taking me to Mars. You are presenting bizarre things. So the very least that you need is (a) interesting descriptions, and (b) deep implementation. Make sure that investigating Mars is as much fun as it could possibly be! This is something that the game doesn't get right at all. If you describe your locations like this:
    Mare Chronium, West (in the auxiliary rocket)
    Another gray plain.
    then you are not making me care about exploring the world. You are doing the exact opposite. Or take something like this:
    Thyle II (in the auxiliary rocket)
    Another orange desert. Twenty miles into it, you cross a canal.

    >x canal
    You can't see any such thing.
    You are taking all the fun out of the premise by not describing enough and not implementing enough. So that it my main advise: give us interesting description. Give us a deep implementation. Let us fiddle around with what we encounter in as many ways as you can think up. Then, you will have nailed the fun of exploring an alien landscape, and everything else will just be an added bonus.
  • Better testing is also sorely needed. Something like this just shouldn't happen:
    You aren't feeling especially drowsy.

    You spend the night sleeping under the Martian sky.
    This is a relatively mild form of a problem that crops up much more often: the player is supposed to magically know the command he needs to type in order to proceed. Getting through the final parts of the game is just impossible without the walkthrough. ("follow smoke" was an especially unobvious command, but there are many more.) We need more guidance, and we need a bigger range of actions to actually work.
  • The previous two points will, I think, be found in most reviews of this game. Exploration needs to be more fun, and it needs to be made easier and more intuitive. What I'm going to say next is probably more a matter of taste.
  • If you adapt a story to IF, please choose a good story. I started reading Weinbaum's original, and I gave it up after about 25%. It is dull, badly written and uninspiring; those faults will unfortunately also be present in the derivative work. Now many will disagree with me. Apparently, a 1970 poll among SF writers put this story as the second best SF story ever written. According to Asimov, "With this single story, Weinbaum was instantly recognized as the world's best living science fiction writer, and at once almost every writer in the field tried to imitate him."

    I don't understand these judgements. In 1920, fourteen years before Weinbaum published his story, David Lindsay published his A Voyage to Acrturus. The idea is similar: a guy goes to another planet in a rocket, wanders around, and sees all kinds of strange things. But whereas Weinbaum's story is (from what I've seen) badly written and inconsequential, Lindsay's book is brilliant, deep and thought-provoking. I think an adaption of Lindsay would have more chance of succeeding than an adaption of Weinbaum. (And didn't Asimov read Lindsay, and if so, why not?)
Post-competition release?

Well, yes, if the author wishes to invest the time needed to really flesh out the world. By doing that, I think it is possible to transform this game from boring to fun. But it certainly is going to be quite some work.

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