Saturday, October 06, 2012

[IF Comp 2012] J'dal

The second game: J'dal by Ryan Kinsman.

A dangerous quest through a fantastic world in search of a piece of treasure: that isn't just the summary of many Dungeons & Dragons scenarios and CRPGs, but also of a substantive amount of interactive fiction. And it is not hard to see why. IF is good at exploring a world and IF is good at puzzles that can introduce challenge into such a scenario. When done well, a quest game can be extremely satisfying.

Of course, an author has to do something to make the game interesting, fresh and memorable. Puzzles of the "you can only pass the door/goblin/chasm once you've found the key/sword/rope" type are as unlikely to impress as a bunch of tunnels or cellars set in some bland fantasyland. That has all been done to death, if it was ever alive to begin with. We want something more unique. Something special.

For J'dal, that special something is the party. You won't be entering the mine alone, but with three other people: your adoptive father, who seems to be just a normal guy; Roderick, the crude fighter; and Stolas, the artificer. It turns out that they all depend on you, because you are the only one with low-light vision (D&D's infravision, anyone?), and you'll have to guide them through the dungeon. At the same time, it's clear that you couldn't succeed without their help either: your father and Roderick are needed for their brawn, while only Stolas can handle the artifact.

I like the way the party is handled. Most of the puzzles revolve about somehow working together, or compensating for their weaknesses. These people are both your greatest asset and your biggest hindrance, which is an interesting social dynamic to explore.

It is unfortunate, then, that the rest of the game is not particularly strong. It is very small; the world is sparse and uninteresting; the puzzles are okay but not memorable; and there are a lot of (mostly cosmetic) failures of implementation. "Serviceable" is the word that comes to mind, and of course, that is not a word of high or even modest praise. It works, but does not impress.

And yet there are the seeds of something better here. I was somewhat impressed by the game's very first sentence:
Everyone’s staring at me, as usual - everyone else here is white.
Is this game going to be about racism?, I thought. That could be very interesting. Unfortunately, it is not, at least not in a meaningful way. Yes, there are some indications that the protagonist is looked down upon and discriminated against because she is black (and because she is female, and young -- yes, the author doesn't want us to not understand that the protagonist is part of a group with little social authority!), but these indications are no more than painted background for a story that does not explore discrimination. So a bit of a wasted opportunity there.

In general, the moments where the nature of the world and the relationships between the characters are developed are good. There are just so few of them.

J'dal inspires confidence in the abilities of the author. So I hope that Ryan Kinsman will just aim higher next time, for one feels that he can achieve greater things than he has achieved here.

Preliminary mark (might change as I play more games): 6/10.

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