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C32 Comp 2004 Reviews - Downtown Train

Game #5: Downtown Train (Z5), by Owen Lockett
Played On: 12/13/2004 (12:20 PM to 1:20 PM)
Score For Comp: 10 -- Unofficial Score: 9.5

     From an initial peek at the game, I was expecting something different and worthwhile in "Downtown Train". The introductory text was short and intriguing. This minimal setup was enough to spark my imagination, as I predicted what kind of game this might be.

     For once, I was right. I expected a game in which late-night encounters on a subway train would be more than they seem. I expected an interesting story involving an almost surreal, claustrophobic setting. "Downtown Train" delivers on the expectations set by its beginning text. It isn't perfect -- I'll talk about the problems later -- but it's still an incredible game to have found its way into a 32k contest. "Downtown Train" is forcing me to reevaluate my rankings. I beta-tested the next (last) game on my C32 list, and until playing Owen's entry, I was certain that the three I played in beta were going to comprise the top half of my rankings. In short, I now have "Downtown Train" in the top spot.

     Most of the game worked extremely well for me. I was impressed that "listen to music" (as my first move) worked with favorable results. I'm not a big fan of Rod Stewart, but I recognized the song. True story: my wife and I once saw him in some video clip on TV, and when I commented that I thought the guy was dead now, her quick response was "no, he's forever young." Anyway, the lyrics of "Downtown Train" have been weaved into the game -- not only for the setting, but for much of the action as well. When things happen just right, the result is amazing:

     ...groceries spill out (to the) floor.
     You watch... as they fall...

     "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
     ...on a downtown train

     Giving thought to the lyrics and some of the other responses, some very interesting and appropriate combinations are possible. If the song had persisted into the last scene, it would have packed an even bigger punch. I was disappointed that it didn't. I think it should have. This would have shaded the story with more meaning. As to the story itself, I can say very little without spoiling it.

     The game flows well for a while. I figured out what to do, and began trying the same thing with everyone. I made good progress without really knowing what I needed to do. I knew the goal, and I knew I was being prevented from it. I just didn't read enough significance into the other people's actions. It simply seemed a well-crafted set of behaviors for Owen's NPCs. A peek at the hint file (but not the walkthrough) showed me that this was the game's puzzle. Once I knew this, my frustration mounted for a while longer. I couldn't figure out how to solve it. I did, though, after starting the routine a few more times. I simply needed to note which people were distracted by which events, and then try a few variations of putting this all in order. I solved it without a peek at the solution. I'm glad to see (upon looking after I won) that more than one possible solution exists. I don't think the Dentist was first in my solution -- but I didn't write it down.

     The game is well-polished, but a few minor bugs remain. Skip the next paragraph, if you are inclined to avoid my bug report.

     Without specifying whose hand you wish to hold, it defaults to the frowning man. I found this out after trying to follow the gray-haired woman's advice. The line containing "...groceries spill out floor" seems to be missing "to the" between "out" and "floor". Inside the train, an attempt to "get out" of it claims that I'm not inside anything. "Listen to music" works. but so does "listen" to anything else. I tried to hold the dog's paw (no such noun), and then its "hand" (the game claims that it isn't an animate object). The game started with one turn already taken -- maybe that's intentional, but I couldn't see a reason for it. These nit-picks are the only technical problems I found in "Downtown Train".

     The only thing working against the game is the puzzle itself. I don't mean to say that it's poorly designed. That's not it. It's a great puzzle, and it isn't too difficult to solve. It reveals much of the story, and in a way that stays interesting. My problem was that I just didn't know that I was on the right track (excuse the pun). I was making progress, but things became repetitive and frustrating until I worked out a winning solution. I felt stuck in that loop, and it began to shadow the excellence of the story. Without the challenge, though, it would have been a mighty short game.

     I highly recommend "Downtown Train". I find nothing else by this author in a search of Baf's Guide, but this doesn't seem like the work of a first-time IF author. Owen Lockett is either an alias, or a great new talent. If the former, I really need to play his prior games. If the latter, I look forward to his next!

     Post-review wrap-up: I haven't played through "Downtown Train" again, since I finished and reviewed it yesterday. What surprises me most is that the game still sticks with me. Either its merits are growing in my mind, or it really was an excellent, unexpected entry for such a niche contest. This is the top game on my scale -- the "10" spot. If it had been an entry in IF Comp '04 (and a little larger to fit that competition), I would have given it a 9.5. It comes very close to being the "wow" game I hoped for, failing only when the puzzle began to interrupt the story.

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