[IF Competition] Channel Surfing

This is a spoilery post about Channel Surfing by Mike Vollmer. Please do not read on unless you have played the game! (And in fact I have to add some meaningless words here so that the real review doesn't show up on feeds; although frankly it's not the words that are meaningless, and indeed, not even the sentences; I'm reading Carnap at the moment, and he is way too quick in saying that a sentence is meaningless; for instance, "the moon is a city in Germany" seems to me false, not meaningless; but I guess that's what happens when you apply Russell's theory of types to our language about the empirical world.)

As I explained in a previous post, I want to write these comments on the form of advice to the author; not as reviews that end with a numerical mark. So:

What is good?

This game has a lot of ambition, and then some. It is a scathing criticism of television in general and stupid game shows in particular. It offers a cynical view on politics. And if that is not enough, it embeds this in a science fiction story about new technologies and a future dystopia in which we all become "hollow men". I like ambition.

What could be better?

  • Quite a lot, unfortunately. This game aims very high, but doesn't reach the heights it aims for. More about that later. But the game also fails to get the basics of good design in place: adequate implementation of objects, synonyms, and actions. That really is a shame. Let's see some examples.
    >x me
    As good-looking as ever.
    Changing the default responses to actions like "x me", "sing", and so on goes a long way to convince me that you have taken the time to polish your game.
    >kick tv
    The attack action gives no output in this game. Removing the standard message and not putting anything in its place is not good.
    What do you want to sit on?

    That's not something you can sit down on.
    Try to think of actions that people will probably try with the objects you have implemented. Sitting on a chair is not such a strange idea; I'm not the only one who is going to try doing that.
    >push remote
    You feel nothing unexpected.

    >use it
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >surf channel
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >change channel
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >choose channel
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >x remote
    A television remote control. It appears to be brand new, but the plastic seems a bit cheap and flimsy.

    >pull remote
    Nothing obvious happens.

    >change channel
    I didn't understand that sentence.

    >change channel to 16
    The light from the television grows brighter, and you squeeze your eyes shut.
    This is what we call a "guess the verb" problem. (I was only able to solve it by looking at the hints.) The game only accepts highly specific input. As a game designer, you should try to anticipate different commands your players might try and make sure that all of them work. (Getting the ice on the fire was even worse than changing the channel. There "put ice on fire" and "throw ice on fire" don't work, and you have to type "dump ice on fire"--a locution that I'm sure nobody will hit on without consulting the hints.)
    Also, please implement the nouns that you mention in your room. The world is sparse enough as it is; please implement the few things that you put into it. If there is turkey somewhere, let me "examine turkey", and "eat turkey", and so on.

  • The theme of the game is ambitious, as I've said. But the presentation doesn't work. There is, of course, a serious question about why people watch television programs that cause their brains to leak out of their ears. But that question is precisely not illuminated by having me play through television shows that are both extremely stupid and very badly produced. The shows within Channel Surfing would never be watched, so seeing them in action tells me nothing about why people watch TV. In order to succeed here, you (the author) would have to succeed at seducing me (the player) to actually want to play these shows, while at the same time (or at least at some point within the game) allowing me to look through them at the emptiness behind. This is a tough challenge, but it's one Channel Surfing doesn't even attempt to meet.
  • More or less the same thing can be said about the theme of politics and the power of large corporations over our lives and minds. These are important issues, that must be explored through art. So kudos for that. But, you cannot explore these issues by taking them to a completely black-and-white extreme and asking me to feel indignation at the stupidity of people who vote for this kind of (non-existent, fictional, made up by you and not true to life) politician, or the evil and greed of this kind of (non-existent, fictional, made up by you and not true to life) businessman. You make everything too extreme, and that is why it no longer convinces.
  • So in short, my advice is to tone down the sarcasm, the indignation, and so on. You need to get some realism into your world (and that includes painting it in shades of grey, or at the very least attempting to understand people who watch Big Brother and vote for George W. Bush instead of claiming that they are idiots whose existence can hardly be explained). Without realism, the confrontation with the issues cannot take place.
Post-competition release?

Certainly. I demand at the very least a version where all the basic, technical issues I have spoken of are solved. This game has obviously been a lot of work; so it should be worth it invest a couple of more hours to solve the "guess the verb" problems, implement the missing actions and the missing nouns, and so on.

It would be a massive amount of work to make everything more believable and really connect with the issues--but even that might be worth it. The game has potential. If you don't want to go that way, please keep my remarks in mind when you make your next game.


  1. This is an insightful report on the game's weaknesses and strengths.

    I also needed the hints for the channel-changing syntax. Though I had less trouble with the ice - the second command I tried was POUR ICE ON FIRE, which worked.

    I found the press conference slightly more complex than satirizing Bush voters; although the politician is obviously modelled on GWB, the satire seemed (to me) more directed at people who want politics to make them feel comfortable in their existing views. Picking the conventional righ-wing sentiments or the conventional left-wing sentiments seemed to have the same effect on your audience ratings. Only the 'seriously deranged' option changed things.


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