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IFCOMP 2005 - Tough Beans

Game #19: Tough Beans, by Sara Dee
Played On: 10/25/2005 (2:35 PM to 3:45 PM and 4:05 PM to 4:35 PM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (8.5 base with +0.5 skew)

     All in all, Tough Beans is a fine piece of work. It isnít often where a personís first game (assuming Sara Dee isnít a pseudonym) is so polished and playable. ďThis is Sara Deeís first game.Ē I kept thinking, though, that my entry last year was Sidney Merkís first game, too. Why didnít she say ďÖmy first gameĒ instead? Just semantics? Moving on.

     Tough Beans does a better job of describing a day where everything just goes wrong than does Son of a...(another entry in this yearís competition). The story hints at something deeper, which remained unexplored up to my 3-point ending. Was the early elevator scene a premonition of one possible ending (mishap with the firework)? Does Wendy have a mental illness, or some kind of tumor thatís causing her numbness and flashbacks, or is that just for narrative effect? What was her boyfriendís motivation, beyond the obvious? The walkthrough claims there are five endings, with variations to each. Does that include the firework mishap? If not, then I found only one. I did identify a key decision early on (itís pretty obvious Ė the game tells you itís a key decision, more or less). I played briefly into each, and settled on just one.

     The puzzles arenít complicated, but they arenít always easy. For puzzle experts, this is probably perfect. The clues are usually just right. I made it to the coffee shop before feeling stuck enough to peek at the walkthrough. I felt guilty here, though, because I should have noticed whatís important after Rhoda broke her pen. Some of it may still walk the border between fair and unfair Ė the form goes unnoticed, for instance, even when looking right at the spot where itís found. I guess if I visualize the scene, and consider what I might see walking up to my own desk Ė the orientation of it, and the angle of approach Ė I guess I can see how a form might remain unnoticed until further action is taken. I guess since it did work, and I found the form, then the puzzle worked.

     The bugs Ė what few there are Ė are minor. Looking at the kitchen table reports a bowl, but searching it states nothing is on the table Ė that kind of thing. Errors in the text are almost non-existent. The game succeeds very well as fiction, where the level of implementation is deep and the writing stands out as descriptive and emotional.

     Itís a story about breaking cycles and standing up for yourself. Some of that is obvious from a 3-point play-through, but the scoring hints in the walkthrough make it more clear. I couldnít quite decide what the story was meant to achieve, though. Was it meant to be a poignant introspection into Wendyís psyche? Should I have felt bad for her, or should I have resolved to be more assertive? Both? It wasnít easy for me to recognize decision points aside from the early one, and it wasnít easy to think like a weepy 22-year-old secretary. This game is going to hit the proverbial perfect note with some players, but I never quite connected with the PC.

     Fiction is less about writing main characters that are familiar to the audience Ė thatís a playground for stereotypes Ė and more about writing main characters that will become familiar to the audience. Games with a deemphasis on the PCís identity avoid this almost entirely, except where the PCís motivations are concerned. Whether or not Wendy is familiar to the author, she probably isnít familiar to many of us. The game succeeds in making her real, but not (for me, anyway) in making her evolve.

     I think more can be learned in the unseen, alternate endings. Itís a shame the author didnít include alternate walkthroughs, showing a ten-point ending. Iím curious about what other actions I might take as Wendy, and how this will reflect on those endings.

     My scoring scale fits Tough Beans in somewhere between 8 and 9, so I have based it at 8.5. I think itís a great game even though I couldnít connect with the protagonist, and I think itís going to do very well in the competition. It deserves a +0.5 skew for great writing and a convincing game world. Unofficial score: 9.0.

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