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IFCOMP 2006 - Aunts and Butlers

Game #15: Aunts and Butlers (by Robin Johnson)
Played: November 5th (2 hours 25 minutes)
Platform: DHTML/JavaScript (browser-based)
Unofficial Score: 8

     Game’s Blurb:
     It's 1920s England, you're a near-bankrupt minor aristocrat, and your only elderly heirless aunt is coming to tea. A PG Wodehouse-inspired farce of bad Manors, good fortunes, and mysterious servants.

     XYZZY Response:
     Is that some sort of telegraphic cypher?

     What a strange, fun game.

     Criticism of home-brewed text adventure games is pretty predictable, maybe because the comfort and quality is no match for games written with the IF systems we’re more familiar with. I used to think these were petty complaints – back when I too wrote IF the home-brewed way. After all, each game is unique. Quality should be about the game itself, not the standards and extras and minor conveniences mostly attributed to the engine. That was my belief for quite a while.

     It was, as stands to reason, wrong. It’s as difficult to play interactive fiction that fails to allow “x” (for “examine”) or “undo” or “save” or any of the parsing power that shows an understanding beyond two-word phrases, as it would be to play a first-person shooter in which four unrelated buttons had to be pressed at once to effect a jump. It might work. It might even come to feel less clunky over time, but it would show that the game designers have paid no attention to how other first-person shooters are built. If the design serves no purpose, and could just have easily been built in a familiar and intuitive manner, it won’t be well-received by experienced gamers.

     Now, when I see home-brewed games that are built on the outdated models that gave rise to amateur-made adventure games of the 80’s (my own CoCo text adventures among them), I cringe. When I see games that are perhaps inspired by commercial-quality IF of years gone by, but which lack a full understanding of their design beyond just a basic “they have rooms and things to pick up and simple but obscure puzzles” I shake my head. It loses quality, like a photocopy of a photocopy. Where current IF development systems are able to model a more realistic game world, home-brewed games usually feel flat. They are crude pencil sketchings in a gallery of colorful canvas.

     So, when one comes along that manages to avoid most of the oft-seen failings, as Aunts and Butlers does, it’s a nice surprise. The implementation isn’t perfect (later, I’ll talk about that), but it’s good enough that only a few minutes of play were enough for me to sink smoothly into the story. The technical problems in Aunts and Butlers (not, as it has been mistakenly called on a couple forums I’ve stumbled upon, “Aunts and Cousins”) are usually the kinds of things that could turn up in any game. They aren’t a result of the game engine being custom-made.

     The story starts out in a normal way, and then introduces a mysterious butler who appears and vanishes when you almost make mistakes. It seems, at first, that it’s just a weird kind of “you can’t do that” message. It felt out of place, really. I didn’t have a sense that this stranger was really appearing, but at the same time, it didn’t even seem like something Ampersand (the PC) was just imagining. It just seemed like a strange response gimmick.

     Then it gets weirder with an accidental murder, a foolish police sergeant, and a butler that becomes more than just a system message. It gets weirder still when Ampersand opens the entrance to a world ruled by servants – essentially an underground hub that serves as access to seemingly unrelated one- and two-room areas. A tip: look at things that can show your reflection, when in these “other” areas. Interesting!

     The game worked well for me until the very end. In almost two hours, I made it to 99% completed. It’s the perfect way for an IFComp game to go – just the right length, crazy puzzles that don’t require telepathy, and a story that’s interesting enough to justify building a game around it. At the end, though, nothing happened. I ran out of things to do at 99%, and the game didn’t point me anywhere. The walkthrough said I should leave the flat and look at a specific object that I hadn’t actually encountered. This didn’t work, so I looked at the JavaScript source code. I found the right spot, which showed that I was supposed to have done something with the love-letter. I couldn’t figure it out, until I looked earlier in the walkthrough. It makes sense in retrospect, and the IOU even hinted at the answer. I might have followed through with the love-letter just as the walkthrough shows, and if I had, the game would have gone perfectly.

     Luckily, I wasn’t blocked off from going back to the part I missed, and I completed the game afterwards. The ending seemed a little buggy (103% and the unexpected repeat of a prior “game over” ending I had encountered earlier), but worth finishing nonetheless.

     Except for the problem with the ending, the bugs in Aunts and Butlers weren’t a big distraction to me. Most are minor. When later asking the butler about Alf, he gives a response that’s not longer applicable. You can leave clothing in the flat, making it impossible to return (maybe the butler should have warned me against it). You can re-enter one location, even after it has reportedly exploded. Too many extra blank lines at the end of the text area were sometimes shown. I could find no way to turn verbose mode off, after turning it on (maybe I overlooked something). There was a strange anachronism with the cousin (not to be confused with intentional anachronisms later), where the game used the more modern slang “like” instead of “says” – plus McDonalds is mentioned in the 1920’s setting.

     The successful JavaScript engine, and the way Aunts and Butlers as a game is designed, show that the author is familiar with IF. I didn’t notice anything that might be the IF equivalent of pressing four different buttons to jump. “Undo” is there. “X” works. The game can be saved to or loaded from browser cookies. The parsing works well enough to avoid frustrations, due in part to a good synonym list for object nouns.

     It’s good, but I’d like to see a few improvements. I usually sit away from my monitor, so I like to crank up the font size. Aunts and Butlers doesn’t allow a selectable font size. It offers very little scrollback (maybe for speed concerns), but I’d like to see more – maybe a pop-up window with the scrollback. A little more space between the bottom of the text and the command prompt – maybe a single blank line – would have been nice. A GUI-based load/save (to avoid having to remember the names of cookies, or maybe with system-named cookies shown as save slots) would be handy (I can use a javascript command in the address bar to figure out what I named them, provided there are only two or three of them). You can only “undo” a single turn, which could maybe be extended if the entire game state (the same data that goes into a cookie, maybe) was held as elements of an array. (I didn’t look at this in the source, so I’m not sure how it’s recorded.) Late in the game, something with the text area went wrong, and for a few turns I could see HTML “color=#660000” formatting at the top. At one point, “put coat on typist” showed that the engine was throwing out words, because the game assumed I meant for Ampersand to wear it himself. The parsing and grammar matching feels a lot like Adrift’s.

     I had fun with Aunts and Butlers, and it’s all the more impressive for being a home-brew that works. It’s an “8” on my scale. It gets a “plus” (for proving that traditional IF can work in HTML), but a “minus” for bringing me to 99% and then sticking me without a clue. The modifiers cancel each other.

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