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Reviewed On: 12/24/2004 (Originally appeared in NCRP 2004)
In this sequel to Ditch Day Drifter, about ten years have passed since Doug Mittling graduated from Caltech University. Now in a middle-management position for a technology developer, you (as Doug) have tinkered with your company’s new super-computer for six weeks in a generic south-Asian hell-hole. For the sake of a successful demo, and with a potential sale riding on it, your immediate goal is to fix the machine.
This leads to a follow-the-leader bit, full of even more detail. A focused player could heed the prompts and finish the intro without delay. Still, I wanted to look around, experiment, and see as much of the extra content as possible. Even a quick trip across an unsafe suspended bridge was full of optional detail. On a whim, I asked my guide about the bridge, as we went along. The responses were well-considered and fitting – but something I might have missed entirely if I had rushed to the finish.
Even more striking than the detail in the introduction to Return to Ditch Day is the action-oriented nature of the text. After the slow start, the pace quickens. Although more puzzles are yet to come, the action keeps moving. It feels like an adventure – not just a series of text descriptions – because the writing succeeds so well. The introduction ends in an encounter with a representative from a rival company; an encounter that certainly begs for eventual vindication.
Flash forward to Doug’s next assignment. You arrive at Caltech, your Alma Mater, to recruit a brilliant engineering student. As it happens, the appointment is set on the yearly “ditch day” – a time when many seniors skip their classes and guard their dorm room doors with creative puzzles (called “stacks”) as a challenge for the underclassmen. To complicate things, the same egotistical, condescending rep from a rival company arrives in an attempt to recruit the same senior. Knowing this, the student has left a note for you both: he will accept a job with either company, based upon whichever of you can solve his ditch day stack.
For two hours, I did little but explore. An in-game map provides a location-to-location look-up feature. It continues to prompt toward the right route along the way. This is slick, but it felt more like a TADS-3 showcase feature than a useful tool. Where it’s needed most – the alleys to student residences and maybe the underground tunnels – the map isn’t available.
With a large area to explore – almost all of it accessible after accepting the challenge – the game began to feel overwhelming. Instead of directing myself to the goal at hand, I roamed the campus aimlessly. After referring to hints at least twice in the introduction, I was determined to solve the remainder of the game without them. In two hours, I didn’t accomplish much. I ended the session with a working sketch of the game’s map, and a general idea of the game’s complexity.
The game isn’t as hard as it seems. I didn’t know that until making extensive use of the hints (yeah, yeah, so much for a no-hints win). Only Stamer’s stack is important. The conspiracy sub-plot is optional (although I completed some of it – I ended the game with a score of 125 from a possible 150). Several times, I had to read the scrollback text for information I missed. With so much detail, it wasn’t easy to pick out the important parts.
The detail, though, is where Return to Ditch Day succeeds the most. Rushing through the game would have been a mistake. I found a few small bugs, but for a game with so much to do and see, the level of polish is amazing. It’s a fun romp with clever puzzles and an entertaining story. The puzzles support the story, and vice-versa. It all blends together very well. It was easier to think of this as a full-sized effort than a TADS-3 demo game.
For the past five years, I took a long break from Interactive Fiction. In October, I played thirty-seven IF-Comp games, followed by six even shorter C32-Comp games. This slant towards shorter games could be responsible for the difficulty I had in solving this one. In the end, I’m glad I played. It’s fun, well-written, and well worth the time.