IFComp 2011: Professor Frank

Let me be frank about Professor Frank.  I can’t tell whether this is a troll entry or not.  It’s not a good game.  This is not a spoiler, because you will know it’s going to be not good from pretty much the millisecond you load it.  The game also knows it’s not good, and references that fact during gameplay.  Is it being self-deprecating, being wacky-silly, or taunting the player?  I suspect the latter, but… I can’t tell for sure.

I’m beginning to see the point of Emily Short’s refusal to play Comp games that are not betatested.  I’m trying to give every game a shot and give all authors the benefit of the doubt, but Professor Frank is putting that resolution to the test.

Spoilers (such as they are) are after the break…

Laurence Kilday’s Professor Frank is a very… energetic, very deliberately Scottish IF game about the eponymous newt-obsessed academic, his sort-of-pet parrot, and, well, food.  And machines.  And colored doors.

You start off locked in the library in Auldtoon, trying to find a way out (how you know you’re locked in is not very clear, as apparently the only exit to the building is through the boiler room in the basement).  The game is told in third-person… sort of — standard commands like INVENTORY result in “You are carrying nothing.”  The game is chock-full of typos, getting notably worse as the game progresses.  There are also lots of extra blank spaces between words and lines, along with other usual beginner Inform 7 coding problems (I’ve done some of these myself) — the intro text is linked to the VERSION command, and many commands result in no response but another command prompt.

Gameplay consists of exploring areas bounded by locked doors.  The doors are invariably colored, and respond to their color-coded keys.  In fact, pretty much everything is colored in the game — green notice, red book, brown table, striped door, etc.  All doors must be manually opened, of course, even if they’re not locked.  In between traversing the doors, you will face one of two types of puzzle:

  1. A machine that requires you to operate its (usually colored) controls to achieve some effect, or
  2. A crazy Scot or other capriciously hostile historical / fictional character who will attack you unless given the correct food item he, she, or it craves.

Never fear, however — if the attacker disdains your particular food offering, you are allotted a number of “rescues”, through which the game will override an incipient death and set you back on your feet again, ready to continue your journey.

Little about the game makes internal sense.  Near the beginning there is a room with a door on the north wall and a door (differently colored) on the south wall.  If you go north, you find yourself in a break room.  Going up a staircase from there puts you in a room with a mirror.  Going east from there puts you in a long hallway, east again takes you to a laboratory, and north from there takes you back to the original room with two doors.  Get used to it.

Some items that should be portable are, in fact, fixed.  This was amusing when it was the briefcase, as the game specifically tells you it’s been superglued to the floor as a prank.  It was just odd when a small fluffy rabbit toy (white) couldn’t be picked up.  Many items are referred to as “the” even when it’s the first time you’ve seen them.  “The electric torch is here.”  There are also one or two rooms where the game inexplicably prints out “Professor Frank is here” along with the other room description.

And, of course, the Inform debugging verbs are enabled.

It almost seems to me like this had to be deliberate, but then there are other factors that make me not quite so sure.  The game is winnable — the walkthrough is derived from the Inform 7 testing commands used to verify it.  Repeat — it was tested.  The game never really gets insulting, other than one reference very early on to “indolent game players”.  It pokes fun at itself more than it ever does to the player.  The author comes across as someone who has just discovered Inform 7 and who is so bursting to create something that every idea he ever had ended up in the game.

Eventually the player zaps out of the library and into other game worlds, including a fantasy world (spells!) and a pyramid (secret doors and mummies!).  The quality deteriorates markedly as it approaches the end, with text like the following being fairly typical:

Green Corridor
Frank is a green corridor, but he would not know this unless he  has brought some source of light with him. With the
torch switched on, Frank can see (and avoid) a dark hole in the floor. A green table is here.The red door is to the

On the green table are an ancient scroll and a white key.

Professor Frank is here.

Frank’s avian companion flutters in after him.

Note that the “Green Corridor” may as well just be called a room, as it has only one exit.

If this is a troll entry, bravo!  You got me.  But I actually tend to think this is a reasonably well-intentioned effort, in that it was honestly designed to give some enjoyment to the player.  It really does succeed at that if you’re willing to fight through the writing and construction issues.  Laurence Kilday, spend some more (OK, a lot more) time on design and testing instead of implementing yet more basic rooms and primary-colored objects, and you could create something pretty cool.  I’m giving Professor Frank a 3, because it’s not completely broken, it’s winnable, I chuckled some, and I think there’s a good chance that it’s not a troll entry.  But it also really, really shouldn’t have been entered in this state.

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