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IFCOMP 2007 - My Mind's Mishmash

Game #25: My Mind’s Mishmash
By Robert Street
Played On: October 11th (3 hours 35 minutes)
Platform: Adrift (Version 4)
Merk’s Score: 8+

     Game’s Blurb:
     A mishmash of robots, psychic powers and "ghosts" in a game of action and survival.

     Robert Street burst onto the IF scene in 2004 (as “Rafgon”) with a short Zcode game for Dave Bernazzani’s C32 Competition -- a game called Turning Point, which I had the pleasure of beta testing. Since then, Robert has switched to Adrift (his The Potter and the Mould took second place in the 2006 Spring Thing competition), except for one excellent Zcode game (The Colour Pink), which placed highly in the 2005 IFComp.

     I’ve come to expect good things from Robert, and on most levels, My Mind’s Mishmash doesn’t disappoint. It begins in the last episode of a five-part story-within-a-story, before jumping back to the start after the episode concludes. This opener, however, is confusing and somewhat difficult to visualize. This might be intentional, and it’s at least solvable without a great understanding of what’s going on.

     The story centers on “surviveor” (short for “survive or die”), whom the game describes as “a precocious schoolkid who plans to survive again today.” The PC’s story is layered over the larger backdrop of a corporate-run world, in which the workers of a mining operation find themselves in conflict with another global organization. As interlopers, “surviveor” and his nemesis “memoryblam” (lowercase on purpose) become mixed up in the conflict (and in a coming war against aliens invaders). With a ghost-like ability to become invisible (a clever construction of the world they inhabit), the two kids move about largely undetected.

     This “ghost cap” plays a part in several of the game’s puzzles. When invisible, “surviveor” can’t interact with much of anything. When visible, however, he’s quickly caught (if anybody is nearby to notice). As he searches for an exit from the complex (hoping to avoid his arch enemy in the process), the backdrop story moves forward or backwards by way of a “node ripper” device. It’s a bit like time travel, but to say more would be to say too much.

     The game’s puzzles fit well with the story. Most are logical, although I struggled with a few of them. I couldn’t figure out what to do with the explosives (I needed a hint), but it made perfect sense after I saw the answer. In another spot (while suspended on a grating above an invisible “memoryblam” and an alien), I had the right idea but just didn’t perform the proper action. Another spot, involving the use of a “cold suit,” was made difficult because I attempted to control the thing with buttons and levers instead of a more direct imperative (I suspect better cluing might have been the key there). Most notably (and disappointingly), the endgame requires visualizing the area on top of a hill in order to take an unclued and unprompted action. My mental image was evidently off, because I needed another of the built-in hints here as well.

     The game has many puzzles, though, and most work pretty well. Even though the hints helped in those few instances, I never felt a reliance on them. Even after asking for help, I was able to progress quite a ways on my own until the next too-tough spot. What hurt most was just my inability to visualize several areas of the game. I don’t know if this was the writer’s fault or my own, but I haven’t had such difficulties in most of the other games this year.

     Something about Robert’s writing has always struck me as a little off, but I never can pinpoint exactly what it is. In prior games, it seemed to be long or confusing sentences, or maybe problems with punctuation. In My Mind’s Mishmash, nothing stands out as wrong per se. It’s just... lacking in color? Dry? Matter-of-fact without any warmth or excitement? His stories aren’t dull. His games are fun. He has a way with world-building and puzzles. But... something about the writing just makes it all less effective than it should be. I never noticed much technically wrong with this one -- just a few minor mistakes here and there -- but something about it keeps it from evoking the intended excitement of thrilling chases, epic battles, and awe-inspiring scenery.

     Although the game is well constructed in general (with a few bugs -- I’ll talk briefly about those coming up), two particular non-standard design decisions struck me as odd. First, rooms (or locations) aren’t given titles. Initially, this made map-keeping a little more difficult, but since room titles do appear on Adrift’s built-in auto-map, this might only be a problem for players with a non-standard Adrift runner. Also, the game never enters an “ending” state. This one could have something to do with the premise itself, but if so, I wasn’t quite convinced (and it seems to me that it would work just as well with a traditional ending routine). In essence, even when the game ends (or reaches an earlier losing ending), Adrift is still taking commands as if nothing happened. Granted, you can’t do much of anything (you’re given suggestions to reload, restart, or undo), but the traditional “game over” condition is oddly absent.

     It certainly feels polished in most areas, but a few bugs (or areas for improvement) are present in the competition version. Disambiguation difficulties prevent referencing a “node” when carrying the node ripper. The two sections of the complex are termed “northwest” and “southeast” at one point, even though on the map they appear to be “northeast” and “southwest.” I’m told to test out a mine cart even after I already have. The laptop can’t be called “computer.” The ghost cap prevents me from talking to “memoryblam,” even though he can talk to me. A few other small quirks are noted in my transcripts, but this one stands out as a disappointing bit of irony:

     memoryblam is blocking the northern exit and he raises his gun in your direction. Running away might be a good option now.

     >run away
     Why would you want to run?

     memoryblam shoots you before you can do anything else. You have not survived...

     None of these issues keep the game from being enjoyable and recommendable, although a post-competition update would be ideal.

     By the end, most of the two blended stories make sense. There is, however, a bit of a mystery shrouding “surviveor’s” world. The answers may lie in subtle clues encountered along the way -- a bit about homework, a bit about the scarcity of books, a bit about privacy, and the nature of My Mind’s Mishmash in general -- but I never quite worked it all out. I get the gist of it, and the game makes it clear what’s going on. That’s enough to enjoy the story, but I still wondered a little about the world not seen.

     I voted it a “9” at two hours, but a few more difficulties later in the game bring the “review” score down one point. A “plus” for some cool in-game gadgets, fun puzzles, and a really intriguing sci-fi premise make it an “8+” on my judging scale.

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