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IFCOMP 2005 - Space Horror 1: Prey For...

Game #3: Space Horror Part I: Prey for your Enemies, by Jerald M. Cooney
Played On: 10/05/2005 (8:00 PM to 10:00 PM, 10:30 PM to 11:30 PM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 9.0 (8.5 base with +0.5 skew)

     Space Horror Part I had two things working against it, even before I started. One, itís a CYOA-style game, which I havenít really enjoyed since I was kid. Two, the title alone suggested a weak story and a mind-numbingly dull couple of hours.

     Thankfully, it had plenty working for it Ė not the least of which is that itís a great game. Even when stuck briefly at a colored-lights puzzle, the game wasnít frustrating. Perhaps this comes from (a) being only my third game of the competition and (b) following a really frustrating ďtraditionalĒ IF entry, but I really enjoyed this. It has a few technical problems, sure, but these are minor. I encountered nothing that caused the game to break, or to play out in a way that might indicate broken or incorrect page progressions. Prey for your Enemies is a survival horror game, and even with limited interaction, it was effective.

     I hope the judges this year keep an open mind. To rank Space Horror low just because itís not traditional parser-driven IF would do an injustice to writing thatís superior to much of what weíre likely to see this year. The three main plot threads cross at times, maintaining consistency and appeal that really does build with each newly explored branch. Jeraldís use of multimedia is enough to bring variety without overuse of any one concept. A couple puzzles are even worked in Ė to good effect Ė but Iíll get to all of this in a moment.

     In all, I played for three hours. I enjoyed every minute of it, even though some (perhaps many) of the page runs were simply continuations without any choices. I was skeptical at first, but it really worked. Using my browserís ďbackĒ as needed, I never had to replay from the beginning. I never had to flip page after page just to try a plot variation, because the bad endings didnít stray far from the decision point, and because I could always back up just to the last major decision. I guess thatís probably how itís done with the books, but that was many years ago for me. I was really surprised Ė and impressed Ė at how well Jerald managed to keep the entire experience from becoming dull and repetitive. By the end, I was pretty confident that I had explored it all. No mapping was required Ė not even of the plot branches. The story was very clear, even when backing up and changing lines.

     I mentioned puzzles. This is accomplished by what seemed to be a long series of web pages. To the player, thatís invisible unless youíre eyeing the URL (like I was). I didnít understand the colored lightís puzzle until later. I solved it by trial and error, looking to see which URLs were ďnewĒ from the time before, and just going forward and backward. It probably sounds like a frustration, but it really wasnít. I guess my mind was still gnawing away at the problem, because I realized the solution later. I think the puzzle was made more difficult because the buttons pressed are (I think) zodiac symbols. It would have been more fair (requiring less trial-and-error yet still solvable if you figure out the trick) had the buttons themselves been colored. It would also have still fit the in-game explanation.

     Video is used twice. I encountered the long, recorded speech first. I was glad to see it in printed form, after continuing. The other instance is part of a puzzle, and I couldnít help but wonder if this might have been more fair to hearing-impaired players if this had also been included (somehow) in text form. A few still images are used, and thatís one area where I thought ďmoreĒ would be even better. One puzzle requires a real-world email, which was thankfully answered right away by an auto-responder. Tinaís website (especially the forum in her own plot branch Ė the first branch I found, incidentally) was further proof that this game really was going to work.

     It isnít flawless. I noted several typos, collected in a text file that I will gladly send to the author upon request. Several compound words (head on, rear ending, once over, more) were missing their joining hyphen. These instances were hardly a distraction for me, because the text was otherwise wonderful. Some of the plot choices rely on honesty from the player, to avoid hopping branches. I found it more fun to play fair, but I also wonder if the game could be improved with some kind of cookie or plot-tracking method. My biggest complaint, though, is that the story was entertaining enough to make me pick apart the plot. The temporary immunity to the aliensí method of abduction, for instance, just doesnít seem possible to sustain for the long period (years, maybe) mentioned in certain endings.

     All in all, I enjoyed the game. I recommend it, particularly if youíre open-minded enough to overlook the lack of a parser. Iím basing it 8.5 on my scale, with a +0.5 skew for exceeding my expectations. I hope the game fares well in the final results. Two of my favorites last year were generally disliked by the real judges. That was a disappointment, as would be a low ranking for Space Horror Part I.

     As an aside, Iím a little worried now, though. Last year, I remember no games featuring monsters (aside for the political satire, and that was only a figurative monster). If Iím wrong, it at least wasnít obvious like this year. Of the first three games Iíve played, two feature hostile alien creatures as a key element (Century Cauldron and this one), the third (Amissville II) mentions a creature, and even the one Iíve temporarily skipped (because I beta-tested it), Chancellor, has at least two segments with a murderous monster. The theme is central to my entry as well. Will it be so clichť for the year that weíre all marked down for a perceived lack of originality? At this point, thatís every game Iíve played.

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