IFComp 2011: Calm, by Joey Jones and Melvin Rangasamy

This is the eighth game I am reviewing for the 17th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition; if you’re a judge, don’t read on unless you have already played and reviewed the game yourself.

Blurb: Since the spores came the future has been a happier place. How could it not be? For now stress is fatal and all who remain alive must remain calm…

I was assuming from the blurb that this would have some sort of stress-management system like Bureaucracy or Heated. I was kind of unprepared for the stylistic rockiness of being immediately greeted with a man in “white science clothes”, a comma splice, and “effects” being used (incorrectly, as it usually is) as a verb. Hey, if I were the PC, I would already be dead! By the time the prologue was over, I already had a short list of things which, as a beta-tester, I would’ve called to the attention of the authors. Oh, this isn’t an auspicious start.

Things got less problematic as I continued, although I couldn’t help but find things which seemed like the sort of problem some extensive beta would’ve fixed, like not letting me call the vicar “man” and surprising unresponsiveness to attempting to lift the latch in the cellar. And then there’s this:

The vicar grins inanely at you and gestures towards a rose-coloured canister. “Dig deep friend, the
spores are eternal but the lead on the roof is not.”
[…]
> OPEN CANISTER
That’s not something you can open.

> LOOK IN IT
You’ll need to open the canister first.

Container troubles continue:


> GET CHOCOLATE
You don’t need the chocolate pot, just its contents.

> EMPTY CHOCOLATE POT
Was there a better way of phrasing what you meant?


and besides, I didn’t even see the chocolate or coffee pots in the description of anything. I was trying to get a generic pot to boil water for tea. Going to the hints, I see that, in spite of the room description mentioning only pots, I need to refer to some invisible “saucepan”. Now, yes, a saucepan is an appropriate tool for heating water, but if there’s a reference to the room containing pots and not specifically pans, I’m going to think of a deep metal stovetop container as a “pot”.

And then there’s this, which I could swear can only happen if you break the parser:


> FILL SAUCEPAN
What do you want to fill the saucepan with?

> WATER
(the unidentifiable meat)
There’s no need to water that.

But, given that one of my primary tasks is to lay in a supply of water, this is where I get off:


> X CANTEEN
It’s your beat up old leather canteen. It’s bone dry in there.

> TURN ON TAP
You turn the tap on. Water starts gushing out.

> FILL CANTEEN WITH WATER
(the water)
You won’t be able to fill the canteen with the water.


OK, “PUT WATER IN CANTEEN” works, but, please, betatest, betatest, betatest. The fact that I kept bumping up into the edges of acceptable phrasings and wasn’t given any warning that my phrasing, rather than my ideas, were inadequate, indicated there wasn’t nearly enough people poking at this game unarmed with walkthroughs.

There are some elements of this that are good, although the worldbuilding’s a bit weird (the complete decay of all of society’s edifices and things like a functioning water tap and stove don’t seem to do hand in hand, and the game seems a bit nebulous about just how long things have been like this). I like some of the pick-your-attributes-and-goals, and the stress syystem, although things like that have been done before. Ultimately, though, this game is unplayably rough around the edges, lacking even fundamental acceptance of alternative phrasings and limited cluing of objects whose existence is taken for granted (e.g. everything in the kitchen) . It’s not compelling enough in itself to make up for these faults.

Rating: 4

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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