IFComp 2011: Four More Scores (The Life (and Deaths) of Doctor M, Cana According to Micah, Fan Interference, Last Day of Summer)

More play and shorter reviews seems to been working out so far, I’m getting through quite a few more games.  We’ve got quite a variety up this time:

  1. The Life (and Deaths) of Doctor M, by “Edmund Wells” (I know this is a pseudonym from discussions on intfiction.org — it’s apparently the name of an author from a Monty Python sketch)
  2. Cana According to Micah, by the “Rev. Stephen Dawson” (This one is pretty up front about being a pseudonym within the game)
  3. Fan Interference, by Andrew Schultz
  4. Last Day of Summer, by Cameron Fox

So let’s get to it!  Spoilers follow…

The Life (and Deaths) of Doctor M:  It’s pretty apparent that we’re in sure hands here, whomever Edmund Wells is in reality.  The introduction splash and initial locations do a great job of both hooking you in and setting the scene.  We arrive at an inn with a lot of mysterious and symbolic content, which gets slowly revealed throughout the course of the game.  There’s plenty of dialogue (using Eric Eve’s extension family, which works very well here) with three different characters:  a rather smarmy angel, a gruff devil, and an enigmatic man who seems to know a whole lot more than he’s willing to say.

It is revealed that you are “Doctor M”, basically Jack Kevorkian gone Hollywood.  You’ve “delivered” over 100 patients from their terminal diseases using your self-designed “Deliverance Device”, but now you’re dying (if not already dead) and you’re recapitulating your career to determine in which direction your ultimate afterlife destination lies.  You’ll revisit three of your most significant cases, and at the end….  Well, that’s apparently up to you.

Mechanically speaking the game is just about perfect.  It’s large and complex, and you’d expect a reasonable number of bugs and other omissions.  I think I stumbled across one spelling error and one or two irregularities in text output in my entire time playing the game.  It’s very clean.  Which is not to say easy.  There are some pretty complicated puzzle interactions here, and although they are generally cued well and there’s reasonable direction, it’s still possible to get bogged down on a couple of them.  Luckily, there are built-in hints that can help you with specific puzzles without blowing the whole game.

And really, from a storytelling perspective, I can’t find many flaws here either.  Your character is left deliberately opaque through your conversations with NPCs — only their side of the conversation is detailed.  But this is very appropriate, as you’re trying to piece together who you really are out of the fragments of your life you can sift through.  You end up getting a pretty clear picture of yourself through investigation of the copious notes and many topics you can ask others about that touch on your life.  Puzzles are plentiful, and if there is a flaw here it is that the game could easily take longer than two hours to finish.  I didn’t closely track my time, but I suspect I went over.

I found this game both compelling and satisfying.  It’s worth a 10 in my book.

Cana According to Micah:  We get a lot of material up front, here.  It’s positioned as a lost, apocryphal book of the Bible, but one that was written as and intended as the ancient equivalent of interactive fiction.  The status line keeps track of time with chapter and verse numbers, which is a subtle and original touch.

The story itself is an exploration of the wedding at Cana, a story from the Gospel of John that includes Jesus’ first public miracle, the transmutation of water into wine.  Although it’s not played completely straight, it doesn’t go for laughs in quite the same way as The Bible Retold:  Following a Star did, either.  The guest list at the wedding is a veritable Who’s Who of New Testament figures, from John the Baptist and his father Zechariah to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, including both Joshua (Jesus) and (ahem) the red-haired Little Orphan Anna.

So OK, he does go for the cheap laugh some of the time.  You play a servant, Micah, tasked with finding a missing jug of wine.  Finding it is just the beginning, though, since when you do find it it’s been transmuted into water to keep John the Baptist from getting drunk.  Now you have to figure out how to get some more wine to save the party.

The map is pretty limited, and most of the puzzles involve navigating proper conversations with people, or getting different people to interact.  Anna serves as a mobile hint machine in addition to a plot device; you can ask her about different people or things and get generally useful information.

For a game that’s focused so much on conversation and interaction with NPCs, though, I was surprised to see the default ask/tell conversation system used here.  It works, but it’s somewhat cumbersome and leads to “guess the topic” issues that might have been ameliorated with a different approach.  It’s also made more difficult by the need to know the Bible characters involved, and how they relate to each other.  All the information you need is given in the “background information” section in the help menu, but it’s a lot to absorb if you’re not already familiar with the story.  The fact that there are two Marys involved also adds difficulty — you need to distinguish between “Mary of Bethany” and “Mary of Nazareth”, which is not a commonly-used title for Jesus’s mother.

I had to hit the hints a couple of times to get past some stumbling blocks, and after I finished I was interested to see there were multiple solutions to some puzzles and a couple of alternate endings, which I tried to get (I never got to the one with Judas, though).  Mechanically it was fine, other than the conversational awkwardness.

I enjoyed this, and certainly respect the research and craft that went into it.  I can’t say it was one of my absolute favorites, but I think it rates a 7.

Fan Interference:  A baseball game (didn’t we have one of these already this year?) where the goal is to alter Game 6 of the National League playoffs in 2003, allowing the Cubs to win the pennant.  I’m not a huge baseball fan, but I have a few friends that are, and this game was obviously written by someone with great love for the game.

There’s a lot here to like — a detailed reprise of the game in question, complete with footnotes to inform the player of the intricacies of the sport.  The stadium at Wrigley field is reproduced, along with crazy antics from the crowd.  Puzzles are pretty creative, and there’s a variety of different types.  I especially liked the introduction, with the player as a child rooting on the Cubs in a previous failed run for the pennant.

Unfortunately, there’s also quite a bit to dislike.  It is crazy easy (or it seems that way, at least) to make the game unwinnable by not acquiring the proper items right up front, when you have no idea why you would ever want them.  And the actions required to solve some of the puzzles are extremely obscure.  You have to give props to a game where both puking and farting are required to complete it, but some prompting that such bodily functions were required would have been appreciated.

The game was winnable and had an interesting if somewhat thin story wrapped around the baseball, so I give it credit for that.  This one feels like a 6 to me.

Last Day of Summer:  It seems like I’ve played this game three or four times between this year’s and last year’s Comps.  A small, quick game set in a genericized, rustic past, with generally good writing and implementation, but with not much real story.  In this particular incarnation, you are a young farmer’s son or daughter with a basket of cranberries to sell at the village.

Once you get the village, you find that the greengrocer has deserted his stall.  You then have to locate him and figure out why he’s moping in the chapel rather than manning his stall.  And that’s pretty much it.

Implementation is good, with almost all scenery implemented down to the second level.  There were no obvious bugs I could find, either.  The only problem with this game is that it ends just as things seem to be getting interesting.

I’m giving this one a 6 also.  What’s there is great, but I’m not going to put it in front of more substantial games.

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