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IFCOMP 2005 - Sabotage on the Century Cauldron

Game #1: Sabotage on the Century Cauldron, by Thomas de Graaff
Played On: 10/02/2005 (3:00 PM to 6:45 PM, adjusted)
Unofficial Score: 6.5 (5.5 base with +1.0 skew)

     Even though I can’t vote, I used the competition website to view the game blurbs and generate a random play-list. Sabotage on the Century Cauldron is first up. This game’s blurb alluded to a story much different than the one I played. It’s possible that the blurb describes something in the ending. I can’t say for sure. I couldn’t finish the game.

     I tried. I played for close to four hours. The game does enough right to entertain, but what it does wrong borders on frustration. From the information provided, I gather this is the author’s first game, and that English isn’t his first language. In that regard, it’s a very impressive entry. In the context of the competition, though, I expect to come across more solid entries before I’m done.

     What it does right: The spelling and grammar are fine. I didn’t notice any misspellings or other mistakes in the text, more or less. Throughout, the use of “remark” instead of “regard” was a little jarring, but the usage is technically right (according to dictionary.com). I noted one run-on sentence – a very minor point. It’s an interesting sci-fi setting and an interesting story. The action sequences were effective, making the game feel more alive and real. The seemingly deranged actions taken by some of the NPCs – and in fact, the PC’s own obsessive desire to sabotage the Century Cauldron over the trivial matter of a forgotten pet – are explained effectively at a pivotal point in the story. The three-part dream sequence, while pretty sparse in details, did serve as an interesting break to explain a long period of sleep.

     What it does wrong: Inventory management became a frustration. I don’t think the concept is inherently bad – I’ve done it, although probably no more effectively than Thomas manages – but as the game progressed, I found myself leaving items behind that I later needed. Before I stopped, I had reached a point where I wasn’t even quite able to carry all the loot I knew I would need. Various bugs jumped out, too. Jersey kept asking me to find the medicine I had already retrieved, yet she’d accept none from me. A blokomo would follow me into the kitchen upon return, and with a dead one waiting, I found no way to disambiguate the “blokomo” from the “dead blokomo”. Worse, as it followed me away, I couldn’t attack it. The game told me that attacking it didn’t seem productive. The computer in office 032 shows a snippet of play from an in-game adventure, which I felt was a little tactless given the direction the plot had gone. In fact, I never was quite sure whether the game was meant to be taken seriously. At times, it seemed entirely humorless, and at others, bits of comedy spilled in. It almost seemed that the author wasn’t quite sure himself. The writing was fine, as I mentioned, but not particularly memorable.

     These are by no means the only problems with the game. I was disappointed that some scenery wasn’t implemented, where a short description might have been nice. I was confused by the cages and pipes, never even understanding the point of the small box. The walkthrough says I need to get the scientist’s photo, even though I was able to look at it just fine while he carried it around. Some NPCs wouldn’t accept or even recognize things that I might have expected them to – the apple and orange with the cook, being a prime example. The yellow button in the bridge control room gave a strange message. The result of trying to “open nightstand” at the beginning left me wondering if the resulting message was key to the story, or just a strangely customized parser response (made more mysterious when no similar messages were shown to any other actions later in the game). I kept a transcript during play, though, which I’ll gladly send to Thomas if he’s interested in releasing a post-comp update.

     I didn’t check the walkthrough until 45 minutes into the game. Until then, I hoped I wouldn’t need to. Like last year, I started this game with high hopes. Frustration set in later, when I realized how far over the comp’s 2-hour limit I had gone (if I were really judging, I’d have probably ranked it higher after just the first two hours). In the end, I couldn’t even beat the game. I sent an email to the author asking for advice. The walkthrough makes it a simple matter of doing this, then that, making sure you’ve done the other thing, and then deciding on two possibilities. I couldn’t even find out how to get there. I assume the locked “Top Secret” door is an answer, but the walkthrough doesn’t mention this and I found no way in. With a fussy baby and a wife I’d promised just a two-hour time-out to play, I couldn’t keep going. It’s a shame, because I am interested to see how the author wraps up the story.

     I can’t decide if the game fits my base scale at 5 or 6. So, I’ve rated it a 5.5, with a very optimistic +1 skew (because I really liked the setting, the game world seemed real enough, and it’s far too early for me to become a cranky reviewer with almost three dozen more to go). It seems like the game could be much better than it is, with some more work. I hope the author considers updating the game for a post-competition release.

     FOLLOW-UP: I finished the two different endings, with some information provided by the author. I probably could have figured it out, but for some reason, I had been walking past the appropriate area without even noticing. Although neither ending explains the game’s competition blurb, this at least put closure to the story.

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