IFComp 2015: The Problems Compound   Leave a comment

By Andrew Schultz. Played to completion on desktop with Gargoyle.


Confession: I originally put off reviewing this game because I wanted to give it a longer-than-2-hour treatment (judging time during IF Comp is normally limited at 2 hours). I then found out from the author that there was going to be a second release. When the second release came out, I heard about some bugs (with the alternate endings, apparently) and waited a bit longer for version 3, which still isn’t out. However, with IFComp 2016 fast approaching I decided to check the GitHub for the game which has something called “release 3.” I went with that.

The main character, Alec Smart, has just finished rereading The Phantom Tollbooth when he finds a mysterious ticket inside leading to somewhere called “The Problems Compound”. Thus kicks off a surreal series of vignettes with a main objective to find the “Baiter Master”.

Second confession: I also put reviewing this game off because it is slippery. My brain just can’t seem to catch a hold of the prose, descriptions, or most of the characters.

Tension Surface
While there’s nothing here other than an arch dancing sideways to the north, you’re still worried the land is going to spill out over itself, or something. You can go east or west to relieve the, uh, tension. Any other way, it’s crazy, but you feel like you might fall off.

Some mush burbles in front of the arch, conjuring up condescending facial expressions.

Well. You start to feel good about figuring the way out of Round Lounge, then you realize that, logically, there was only one. You remember the times you heard you had no common sense, and you realize…you didn’t really show THEM, whoever THEY are. “Not enough common sense.”

What does a dancing arch look like? How does the land spill out over itself? What do you visualize when you see “mush” with “condescending facial expressions”? What does that third paragraph even mean?

I’ve played other Schultz games without this kind of stress and what feels like roughly equivalent prose. I think what pushed me over the edge here was the wordplay is more of a world feature than a gameplay mechanic; specifically, there are many “transposed word” phrases like “Meal Square” and “Vision Tunnel” that serve as places, people, and things rather than puzzle elements. Strip away all the verbal dressings and there are some very ordinary applications of objects to other objects to solve puzzles, and the language felt more like a burden than a legitimate obstacle.

Speaking of the puzzles: an early part I enjoyed involved collecting 4 “boo tickety” pieces for deviant behavior. There was room for creativity (spoiler example in rot13: Lbh pna trg n obb gvpxrgl sbe gelvat gb qebc lbhe obb gvpxrgvrf) and the overall design advanced the feeling of the world being a coherent whole. Unfortunately, most of the puzzles after veered between too easy and absurdly hard. This may have resulted from the lack of a central consistent puzzle idea. Many involved simply giving the right item to the right person. On the other hand, I wonder if anyone defeated the “thoughts idol” without resorting to the hints.

There was a character that I liked; it is the main character, Alec Smart, who might be the strongest I’ve seen in an Andrew Schultz game.

You’re reminded of the day you didn’t get a permission slip signed to go to the roller coaster park at science class’s year end. You wondered if you really deserved it, since you didn’t do as well as you felt you could’ve.

Small bits of attitude here and there permeate the game. Alec is nervous and smart and socially awkward in ways that feel natural and real.

[1] Boy howdy! This sure is an interesting place!
[2] For such an interesting guy, you sure have nothing better to do than stand here and block people going north.
[3] Can you let me north? Please?
[4] Um, later.

> 2
You’d like to say that, and someone with more courage can, but you can’t right now.

This is made doubly stark by the presence of a “cheater section” of foods Alec can eat that will change his personality. For example, “greater cheese” makes him bolder…

You manage to appreciate the cheese and feel superior to those who don’t. You have a new outlook on life! No longer will you feel bowled over!

…and you can just stroll to the “ending” from here, but this isn’t the most positive outcome. Despite small tweaks in personality making things easier, it’s clear Alec should be able to succeed just as he is. I think this game’s problems with rampant surrealism might have been mitigated by just letting Alec have a stronger voice, grounding events in ways that reflects the real world.

Third confession: I am fairly certain I am not doing this game justice. There are, according to the documentation, a lot of alternate solutions and branches. There is a command (“BROOK BABBLING” or “BB”) which will let you shorten conversations to just essential facts. As weird as it comes out, there was clearly a lot of thought to the character design. Possibly I am the wrong person to pry open all of this game’s secrets.

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Posted September 28, 2016 by Jason Dyer in Interactive Fiction

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