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Thursday, July 21, 2011

Spring Thing - Wetlands

Alright, after some helpful hints by some readers I decided to forge ahead and plow through the first entry early! The first game of the competition is Wetlands by Clara Raubertas. Unlike the IF Comp I'm writing this preliminary passage after playing through the game. I say that I "plowed" through this, but frankly it was more like playing morsel sized bites of it. I'd play it for a while and then put it down and do something else and then wander back to it. I really had to focus and force myself to work on it to completion. Not that it wasn't interesting, per se, but it didn't exactly have what I'd call narrative thrust, and no that's not a special term used by writers of erotica.

Final Verdict : Fun atmosphere and generally pleasant puzzles balance out nebulous storytelling.

But of course you crazy kids want to hear more than that, dotcha! Well you can read spoilers to your hearts content, AFTER THE JUMP!!

So you are a nameless, genderless (well, I'm assuming the protagonist has a gender, it's just not specified), person who has wandered into a soggy sparsely written (though not necessarily in a bad sense) swamp on the search for the "Crystal City". What is the Crystal City? Well... even after playing the game and having even been there, I'm still not exactly sure. There's this magical(?) city populated by, I don't know, aliens or elves or something that can somehow reasonably spend their entire lives living underwater, (I'm ruling out manatees because in the only description you get upon looking at one of these denizens is that they are soggy and gangly and one thing I know about manatees is that they are not gangly) but regular humans (I'm guessing?) came around and wanted to live in close proximity to the city but couldn't because the area surrounding the city was apparently a large moat. So using a system of convoluted pumps, the humans shifted the waters and forced the city to the bottom of a muddy lake (I'm still not exactly sure how this is supposed to work), though granted the Crystal City People for some reason agreed to the scheme. But now they've changed their minds, and need a "neutral party" i.e. you to trek through the swamp and activate all of the pumps and switches to make things right. I guess? Wait, what? What was all that? HUH???

I wasted a month of my life playing this game.
Frankly the whole thing didn't make a whole lotta sense and the only reason you're helping these underwater crystal city people is because of blind "curiosity" about the city itself. You see, you have a scrap from a child's story book with an illustration of the Crystal City and I guess that's all the motivation your character needs to flood one population out of existence in favor of another. Throughout most of the game you wander about solving bits of puzzles here and there until you sort of stumble upon what you're supposed to do next. Look, I don't have that much experience playing old school IF games. I couldn't get through Curses and the only Infocom game that I ever spent much time playing was Infocom's Sherlock: The Riddle of the Crown Jewels, which if nothing else gives you a very clear motive from the get go.

Wetlands reminded me of playing Zork, which was the very first piece of IF I ever played as a kid. You aren't given any direction and you sort of just have to work things out on your own. The descriptions of everything in the game were not unpleasantly utilitarian, which I have to say probably made solving some of the puzzles much easier (not that they were a cakewalk mind you). But the game as a whole definitely seemed like a throwback to an earlier age of IF.

For instance, let's start with the dialogue. There are a few NPCs throughout the game, but none of them seem to have much personality. They give you terse responses for most questions (except for the conductor. Do NOT start that guy on trains. He'll talk your freakin' head off). Then there are a couple of scenes in which they suddenly flood you with exposition. You aren't allowed to participate in the conversation, you're just forced to stand there pressing "z" until they stop talking which takes a while. The author literally puts you in quicksand during one of those scenes so you don't wander off while this secretary jabbers at you with vague info-dumps.

This is my best guess on what they look like.
I think it's because my background is in playwriting and theater, but for me dialogue is the breath of life in Interactive Fiction. In so many contemporary IF we've seen truly great and interesting characters. The work of Emily Short (Galatea, Alabaster, City of Secrets) is a monument to the creation of interactive characters, but just looking at last year's IF Comp, even most of the sub-par entries had interesting and motive-filled characters. I could not fathom the psychology behind any of the people in this game. The secretary and the conductor both seem strangely apathetic and powerless in the face of your attempts to flood their homeland, and don't get me started on the Crystal City people! Not only are they so ambiguously defined that I cannot even picture what they look like but for the life of me, I can't figure out why on earth they would have agreed to sink their city in the first place. The author certainly provides us with no theories on that count, besides helpfully pointing out that they've decided that they no longer like being forced to live underwater. The whole this is a muddled mess. Interactive Quagmire indeed.

Though honestly, I'm probably being overly harsh on the plot, because it seems as if the "story" (what little of it there is) is just a frame on which to construct intriguing atmosphere and fun old school puzzle solving. I enjoyed the environments. I looked forward to each time I got to explore new corners, or when new neighborhoods would open up to me. While yes, some of the puzzles were frustrating and I did have to consult the walkthrough on more than one occasion, I also concede that that was sort of the point. The game is unapologetically focused on puzzles and I'm probably tipping the scales by focusing on the story considering the game itself seems much less interested in story telling than world building.

All in all, it was a decent game. There were a couple of puzzles that had me pulling out my hair (I can't reach the rung of a ladder, but if I "Jump" I can suddenly reach it?????) and those train rides back and forth between both sides of the swamp became tiresome real quick, but the puzzles were fun and often satisfying when I figured them out on my own. But as far as storytelling goes, this game just misses the mark for me. But it's a well written and polished game and I really look forward to seeing what this author does in the future.

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