IFComp 2011: Escape From Santaland

It’s nearing Christmas, you’ve got last-minute guests, and you’re trying get get the heck out of the mall and get back home.  Unfortunately, the exit is somewhere beyond the commercial kinderpurgatory known as…

Santaland.

This is the first game I’ve played so far by a known veteran — in this case, Jason Ermer, author of 2006’s Moon-Shaped, a game that I have not played but which did well in the Comp and is highly-rated, so I’m looking forward to this one.

Spoilers after the break!

We’ve got a standard Inform help menu setup in response to ABOUT, with all the usual information plus a cool dedication.  Jason has dedicated this game to his father in memory of his family’s tradition of “Christmas puzzles”, something analogous to Caltech’s Ditch Day stacks, and a fun-sounding tradition that I immediately decided to steal for my family.  We’ve also got a status line compass-rose exit lister, with unvisited directions highlighted.  Even better, the exit list in the game’s room descriptions reminds you what room is in which direction, a nice touch that makes navigating the quasi-mazelike geography in the game no trouble at all.

At core, this is old-school, puzzle-focused IF, with lots of takeable objects, implausible mechanisms, and eclectic stage dressing.  Don’t get me wrong; the game is consistently thematic, and the writing is quite good at establishing your character and reflecting that character in the game’s descriptions and responses.  But it is fundamentally about making progress by solving puzzles.

It’s traditional in this type of IF to have a large number of random objects to combine and juxtapose, and this game shines here as well.  You’re carrying a number of Christmas presents, which have various degrees of utility, and there are plenty of other intriguing objects scattered around for you to pick up and manipulate.  It is essentially nonlinear — you have a number of things to accomplish before you can move into the endgame, but those things can be done in essentially any order.

It’s a short game.  Unless you really get hung up on the puzzles, it should take you less than an hour to solve it.  The puzzles themselves are intricate but not really tough, and there are enough intermediate steps on the way to a solution that the pacing works out quite well.  I’m not a top-tier IF puzzler, but I didn’t need hints or to refer to the walkthrough (although a browser tab pointed to Wikipedia does help).

The construction is really first-rate.  I encountered no bugs, and I recall only one word that looked like a typo (unfortunately, I didn’t note where it was).  Nouns are implemented thoroughly, verbs do what you expect with a minimum of finicky behavior, and in general the game mechanics just get out of your way and let you explore and work out puzzles.  This makes so much of a difference to how a player perceives the game, and it’s great to see Jason pull this off so cleanly!  The construction quality alone guarantees that I’m going to try anything he chooses to write in the future.

Escape from Santaland is hard for me to rate.  It didn’t grab me and completely suck me into its world, as I would normally expect from a 9 or a 10.  But it was very enjoyable, had me smiling and laughing at multiple points during gameplay, and executes so well in so many areas that giving it an 8 would feel like damning it with faint praise.  I’m going to give it a 9, and wish Jason the best of luck this year!

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