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IFCOMP 2005 - The Plague (Redux)

Game #17: The Plague (Redux), by Laurence Moore
Played On: 10/24/2005 (7:40 PM to 9:40 PM, 10:40 PM to 12:00 AM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 5.0 (5.5 base with –0.5 skew)

     Survival Horror is less scary when you’re taking care of a wailing infant. I admit I struggled with the first two hours of this game more than I might have otherwise, due to splitting my attention between the game and the baby. Later, I put on some Silent Hill remixes (from www.ocremix.org), which helped the mood.

     I had less trouble with the Adrift parser for this, the second Adrift game in my list. It still felt a little off, especially when Adrift is parsing multiple commands out of my ongoing commentary. Otherwise, it works pretty well. There were a few instances where the game thought I was referring to a completely different object, or where disambiguation was a problem. One instance kept asking me if I meant the “wall” or the “water bottle.” Neither answer would disambiguate. This is key to solving the game, as it turns out. After some frustrated repeating and undoing, the command somehow worked. This kind of thing can be a problem in other IF language, so I don’t think this is the fault of Adrift so much as just a bug in the game.

     Strangely enough, the “about” and “score” commands were mapped the same as “help”.

     The Plague (Redux) uses a first-person voice. Not to rest there, it’s also written in the past tense. I assumed the author was going for a narrative in which the PC, a twenty-year-old girl among the zombie hordes, is relating her experiences to someone at the end of the game. This didn’t happen (and later, I’ll talk about the ending bits), so I’m not sure if this was just meant to make the game stand out from the traditional second-person present tense or what. It slips a few times, where single events happen in the present tense seemingly by mistake, but overall it flows pretty well.

     I suspect that beta testing was either a low priority, or else the author just didn’t finish with time to respond to beta feedback. The “water bottle” disambiguation is just one among many bugs. You can enter the stall in the women’s bathroom, where a [F]ight or [E]scape choice is given. However, neither option works, and the brief room text makes no mention of the zombies quite plainly described as being in there earlier. They’re back, and the two options are gone (the fight is automatic), once you get a weapon. Names are given to NPCs before the PC should know. Toward the end, one puzzle requires learning an NPC’s name to build trust, which is difficult to follow when the game has already given her a name in reference to attempted actions. Late in the game, I began to experience an inventory limitation that kept me from carrying almost anything – even stuff I previously had. This too seemed unintentional.

     Harder to identify, but equally frustrating, are the problems that are attributed more to bad design than to bad coding. I hate calling anything “bad”, especially since I’ve done much of this in my own past games (although it was bad those times, too). When searching boxes in one area, the PC finds nothing. I tried moving the boxes, but couldn’t. Stuck later, I referred to the walkthrough (ultimately, I did so several times). You can look behind the boxes. It’s a spoiler, but you’ll thank me for it. The PC then shifts the boxes around to see what’s behind. If you pick a half-dozen beta-testers, at least one would probably have caught this. As it stands, I thought I had exhausted my options. It’s frustrating to see the PC described as doing something you explicitly tried, in response to a different action. Knowing this at least makes later parts easier. The game requires quite a few unprompted and unclued actions. Sometimes this can work, but at times I had to repeat actions I did before, without any indication that I might get a different result this time (finding the screwdriver, learning the girl’s name, returning to the subway exit). Again, sometimes this can work, but not without some kind of clue or hint that I should try again later.

     The game also requires close examination of everything. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but failing to investigate every piece of scenery can leave you stuck. Again, I don’t think that’s always a bad practice. With a large area to explore, though, it becomes a pretty big task to even identify each piece of scenery in every room. If I had been limited to a room or two, this would probably be a non-issue. Looking at everything becomes obvious.

     Then, there are the quirks that are neither bugs nor design problems. Okay – possibly design problems, but I’m not lumping them together because I understand the point of a puzzle game. First, the smell of decaying flesh is described. The plague struck only a few hours earlier. Does flesh decay that quickly, or was it brought in from elsewhere? I was sure the cigarette pack and the lighter (and perhaps the roll of tape) could help me make a torch. I don’t mind that it didn’t, except that it would have been nice for the game to tell me why not. It seemed pretty obvious. Perhaps the lighter could have been empty, and the PC discards it as useless. I don’t know. The great thing about beta-testing is that you don’t have to change everything testers try, to accommodate such varied solutions to the puzzles. You can leave the game and the story untouched, and simply add meaningful, legitimate reasons why those things won’t work. It will also help you identify where clues are lacking, to help direct the player to the proper path.

     What happened to the other three girls at the beginning? I expected to meet them again in Zombie form, if nothing else. What about Nick? Did he stay dead because he was never attacked by a Zombie? Carnage was all around, but the zombies were confined behind doors and in the train. Some might have reasonably stuck around, right?

     At the end, I realized how some of these earlier problems were introduced. The author had more planned for the game. The map (thank goodness for auto-mapping – I love that about Adrift) shows an exit “out” with no branch westward, yet the room text describes the exit as being to the west. I did that first, winning the game. I backed up. I went out instead, and found a whole new area to roam, complete with an unimplemented barrel and hose. The problem is, you can’t get back “in” when you do, and every way is a dead end. One branch leads to an empty room with no way back. Another room with no text can at least be exited. I think the author meant to seal off this unfinished portion of the game. This might also explain why the [F]ight or [E]scape bit earlier seemed totally unimplemented. The author made some last-minute decisions, to finish by the deadline.

     Other than that – and yeah, that seems like a lot to complain about – it’s a fine game. The writing is vivid and the game feels urgent when it needs to be. With some work, The Plague (Redux) (was there a first zombie plague?) could be a great game. I have a transcript with plenty of notes, available to the author at his request. I wanted to base this at 6.0 on my scale, but it slips a little more into frustration for a 5.5. I should skew down half a point because it’s too big for the competition. I won’t, because I didn’t do the same for the earlier games. What happened to all the short games, though? The half-point downward skew is because the game is apparently unfinished, and bits of the incomplete design still remain.

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