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IF COMP 2004 - Stack Overflow

Game #11: Stack Overflow, by Timofei Shatrov
Played On: 10/10/04 (10:35 AM to 12:05 PM)
Unofficial Score: 6.5 (6.0 base with +0.5 skew)

     I'm not one to plead innocence in the crime of writing games where the puzzles are the entire point of playing. With "Stack Overflow," I'm not even sure that was the intention; but it seems to be the result. This game does have a story, and it's even an interesting one. I just think it's buried under too much uncertainty.

     I have tried to grow as an IF author, and I recognize now that sometimes a puzzle that seems completely straightforward and obvious to the author can seem impossibly difficult to a player. The puzzles in "Stack Overflow" aren't bad, they're just obscure. If you provide a puzzle, it's vital to offer clues. At times in this game, I didn't even realize I was facing a puzzle at all, nor would I have known to poke around enough to solve it. The puzzle regarding the table and the elevator comes to mind. Figuring out what to do with the cube (after feeling smug at figuring out how to use the hammer) is another. Regarding the cube, did I miss a hint? I only solved it with the help of the built-in hint system. Nothing in the game gave me any indication whatsoever that a made-up verb was required. I won't disregard the possibility that I'm just not observant enough to see it, but still, if not for the shove forward, I'd probably have been stuck there forever.

     This is the story of a mild-mannered (well, the game doesn't say he is; I just filled in the blank based on his need for inspiration before becoming destructive) research worker, late for work, abducted by aliens. Actually, I'm not too clear on that. He was either abducted by government agents and left to stew alone in a small room, or else the aliens are somewhat like government agents. At any rate, it was nice of them to leave a method of escape available for my use. Then again, my role to them does become clear later in the game, so it was probably intentional.

     I have the impression that the author's native language isn't English (the name, the email address, the obvious grammatical mistakes). I'm not counting off for that, because I can't claim to know more than a few useful words in any other language. Still, the problems in "Stack Overflow" go beyond the literary. Skip the next paragraph if you have no interest in this bug report.

     At the beginning, the "help" command says I need no help. Fortunately, I did solve the intro on my own, but I'm the best judge at whether or not I'm stuck. The "walkthru" command made reference to a revolutionary hint system, yet it's not actually available until after the intro. My character works in research on the SNUTFIX project -- so why would he casually disregard the project as meaningless ("...whatever that means...") when reading the SNUTFIX papers? It seems there are two papers (the papers from the folder, and some other note I never actually saw) at the beginning -- the second being exposed as existing when trying to look at the paper. The only way to use the tape player is to "turn player on" -- implementing "play tape" and "push play" and others might be a nice addition. At one point, my character reverts to hillbilly mode, when I "...ain't got any knowledge..." The gate that ultimately leads to the escape pod doesn't exist. What I mean is, no attempts to reference it with X or Open or whatever will show it. Further, you cannot leave the gate unless you "use" the cube in the same way you did to arrive here (the eastern exit is missing). When taking random papers from the research room, put one into the scanner followed by "take paper" will not only generate another one, but it will cycle through all inventory as if trying to disambiguate (you just have to try it to see what I mean). Oh, one other. After the title screen is (finally) shown, the walls continue to appear in the description, but attempts to interact with them again says they don't exist.

     Despite the problems, I enjoyed playing the game. I really think some of the puzzles were obscure enough to be unrecognizable as puzzles. I got stuck (even with the walkthough -- but that's my fault, not the author's) close to the end. The puzzle with the manual, buttons, dials and switches, I really liked. It just didn't occur to me to make the manual more scanner-friendly. Following the walkthrough then, I didn't quite understand the puzzle. I almost gave up and closed the game, but I really wanted to make it to the end. I gave a closer inspection to what was scanned from those pages. This is where using the walkthrough actually held me up a little. I just need to read and understand the pages to get the clues I needed.

     As I play more of the competition entries, I'm finding it harder to rank them. Multiple games are getting the same score, but for different reasons. I based "Stack Overflow" at a 6.0, not because of the writing or even the story, but because I think it would require telepathy to solve. I offer it a +0.5 skew (for a final score of 6.5) because I'm still a sucker for sci-fi. One word of advice to the author, though. If the point of your game is to explore the space station, it's self-defeating to follow a room description with "why oh why, are you stuck in such a boring place?" Also, I almost gave up before reaching the end, but your game kept me entertained and guessing enough to push forward. It's good that you offer multiple ending possibilities, but I guess I was just a little disappointed. I ended the game without knowing what my role as a research worker plays in the events I just experienced (if any). But maybe that's what you intended.

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