Thursday, October 07, 2010

[IF Comp] The 12:54 to Asgard

"The 12:54 to Asgard" -- that could have been a Viking-themed version of Harry Potter, but luckily, it is not. The player character is a grumpy studio technician who is called in the middle of the night to fix a leaking roof before all the expensive equipment short-circuits. Sounds like a bad job? It is a bad job.

The first thing I noticed when I started playing this game was the incredible amount of objects scattered around the studio. I felt my enthusiasm for the game diminish very rapidly. Solving puzzles is OK, but I want to be introduced to the game gently. Do not give me twenty objects and four puzzles in the first five minutes, because this discourages me.

Anyway, as I went on playing it slowly dawned on me that I had misunderstood the game. Most of these objects were just there for me to be grumpy about, and all I had to do with them was put them away. I found a roof tile, some nails, a hammer -- this was going to be easy. And the title of the game combined with the ever-present hints about how dangerous the situation was made me believe that it was the purpose of the game that I die attempting this stupid roof fix... which is a great premise. At this point I started really enjoying myself. I laughed (!) when the roof tile fell down into the bucket. Finally, it was with both apprehension and glee that I put a suitcase on the wet slippery plank, got on top of it, bended over backwards to get a good swing, and, YES, fell to my death! Weird pleasures are still pleasures.

Now I was transported to the afterlife. After a short chat with Death and a ride on the boat, I met a little girl. And it was at this point that my experience started to deteriorate rapidly. First, I no longer had any idea what I was supposed to be doing. My first aim was to repair the roof. My second was simply to kill myself. But now? No idea. I was lost in a new world. Perhaps the experience the author was after, but not exactly motivating to me as a player.

Second, the girl seemed very unresponsive. I couldn't talk to her -- at least, every subject I could think of got me a response saying that she found that topic uninteresting. (Death, me, herself, all uninteresting.) If I went anywhere, she would complain that I left her. If I tried to grab her train ticket, because this was seemingly something I needed and, hey, I'm a grouch, the game told me it belonged to her. It seemed that all I could do was wait for her to do something, then follow suit.

We quickly came to four coloured stiles. She asked me to choose one, but in the end, she chose one herself. I went through, and found myself harvesting grain. Disorientation complete. What is happening? We walked somewhere (at least I did, and then the girl suddenly turned up in the descriptions again), found some kind of oven, which was also a dragon -- I picked up a key, which was eaten by an insect the next turn, even though I still had it in my inventory -- then I walked through a stile, the girl had disappeared, and I was back in the room with the four coloured stiles. WTF? I couldn't go through that original stile again, though I could return to that world by throwing the grains I still carried with me in the air. Or indeed by dropping them. If I did so, I immediately got a message about some huge ventilators and I was back at the oven, wondering what on Earth had happened, and also wondering whether this was intentional or just the author forgetting to put in the right if-clauses.

Anyway, I walked into another stile. This time I found myself in some quiz, where I gambled my afterlife away even though I didn't know what I could lose and didn't know what I could win. The quiz masters started asking me questions, beginning with "Do you know what yes/no questions are?" "Yes," I answered, truthfully -- but the game apparently didn't, because it told me that nobody had asked me a question. WTF? Several other attempts at interaction also failed, and I finally decided to step through the exit stile.

Next I came to some kind of snow world. Confusing geography, unimplemented objects:
> x fence
You can’t see any such thing.

> w
You are almost too weak to climb over the fence. Somehow you manage.
but at least there also was a house. Not that they would let me in. So I decided to go to sleep in the snow:

The snow covers your head. You feel sleepy now.

> sleep
You aren’t feeling especially drowsy.

You close your eyes... just for a moment.
which is a really weird exchange. Anyway, I managed to die, and got back to the room with the four stiles. I decided to enter the snow world once again, with the walkthrough ready, because I was losing faith in both the game and my ability to do whatever was necessary to have it move forward. The walkthrough told me to "give blanket to beggar". I have no blanket. There is no beggar. The walkthrough told me to go south and enter the turnstile. I went south. There was no turnstile. In fact, I couldn't find any way to leave this world, and had to reload.

Well, maybe everything would become clear through the final turnstile! Nope -- it just brought be back to the beginning of the game. Okay, no problem, I'll just walk away. Maybe getting back to life was the aim of the game. But trying to leave the studio just gave me:

You’re not leaving until you finish your job.
What do you mean, I'm not leaving until I finish the job? I got myself killed! My brains were bashed out against the studio floor! I just managed to escape from some senseless afterlife where I don't ever, ever want to go again! You can be damn sure I'm going home, and if anyone complains, I'm sure there are union regulations against having to work in unsafe circumstances. I will not finish this job!

As you see, I got just a little irritated. How did a game that was so much fun suddenly turn into a frustration-fest? What is the aim of this game? Put me into incomprehensible situations and watch what happens? Why, oh why, didn't the author include a hint system that could have given confused player some much needed guidance?

And why does a game with five beta-testers have so many bugs -- and I'm not talking about obscure bugs, but about in-your-face bugs. "Wait, where’s the damn roof tile? WTF?" still getting displayed after I have found it. Getting a description of how I fall down the stairs in my haste every single time I go down the stairs. The unimplemented fence. The unimplemented tree. (If you turn some important object into a tree, what about letting me look at that tree?) The quiz master who asks me questions I cannot answer. The girl who disappears without a trace. The key that gets eaten after I have taken it. The chaff that gets blown away by fans even where there are no fans. (And by the way, "push sponge" should be a synonym for "wring sponge". Always assume that players will try the standard IF commands first.)

It makes me mad. I first had a lot of fun, and then, well, then I had a lot of non-fun. I guess that I'll rate the game somewhere between those two experiences.

This is one game where I really want to read a "My design decisions"-post after the competition, because I still have no idea what Mr. Wheeler was trying to achieve.


  1. I was amazed at the bugginess as well. In the endgame, which it sounds like you didn't reach, there's a bit where you encounter a certain deity (whose name you can perhaps guess from the title of the piece). If you try talking to him, you get an error message, and then a reply from the game show host.

    The walkthrough was a pretty perfunctory effort. It appears to be just the slightly-edited transcript of a tester who was fumbling around as badly as the rest of us. Many of the commands listed in there just give back default replies, and have nothing to do with the solution. Indeed, they just reveal the thinness of the implementation.

    As for the snow scene, if you still care, be persistent at the door to the house.

  2. I knocked three times, some guy came out, and he decided not to let me in. Should I have continued knocking?

  3. You have to just barge in.

  4. This was the first game I played in the competition, and I was completely drawn in by the first two hours of play. I've been less impressed after I passed the two hour judging time limit. This could be a really fun game if it would just go through some additional rounds of beta testing.

  5. The judging rules for the comp may lead it to get a higher ranking than it deserves (IMO). After two hours, I was enjoying myself, if a little confused, so I gave it a relatively good grade. By the end, my opinion had soured considerably, but per the rules I'm honor-bound to keep that good grade.

  6. I Googled up your blog post while looking for hints about how to finish the job after I got into the studio again, as the walkthrough is unusable for this situation. I too was happy to have died, then just confused (ran into one "error" style bug, too), then disappointed to be again in the same scene, apparently with some objects missing. I also had a difficult time discovering where to navigate around this scene. I didn't even discover there was a "closet room" in the beginning. Overall, it's a botched job.

  7. I'm afraid so, yes. It certainly looks like a game that was released in a half-finished state.