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IFCOMP 2006 - Floatpoint

Game #5: Floatpoint (by Emily Short)
Played: October 10th (3 hours 5 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Glulx)
Unofficial Score: 9

     Game’s Blurb:
     Note: Floatpoint requires a Glulx interpreter; I recommend Spatterlight on MacOS X or Gargoyle on Windows/Unix.

     XYZZY Response:
     I didn’t understand that sentence.

     Having never played a game by Emily Short but knowing her high standing in the interactive fiction community, I started Floatpoint like a down-and-out boxer hoping to spot the weaknesses in a reputably superior opponent.

     It’s not the best way to start a review. In general, though, it feels like I’ve played every entry so far this year as though I’m beta-testing it. This may have been intensified for Floatpoint because I consciously played it as a concerned competitor would. Does it fail in any area that may count against it? Are there bugs that judges may notice? Is it hard to follow, and does the plot show obvious problems?

     These are good questions when evaluating a game, but I wasn’t only evaluating it for review. If I could find fault in Floatpoint, could I draw any conclusions from it? Would it be under as much scrutiny from other judges, whose expectations may be equally high? If problems do exist but they’re ignored by most reviewers, would it mean anything? If the same problems are found and criticized in other games by those same reviewers, what would that imply?

     In the end, it was all just wasted speculation. I found a few bugs and minor quirks (I’ll discuss these a bit later), but nothing of major significance. Floatpoint isn’t a perfect game, but I haven’t ever played one that was. At times, I wondered “how would I have found this thing?” or “what if I hadn’t thought to do that?” What’s amazing is that I did find or do just what I needed, every time, and that can’t be coincidence. It’s proof that it all worked. At no time (prior to my search for additional endings) did I feel stuck or lost or in need of guidance that could only come from the hints.

     Of the writing and the story, I may have expected something esoteric and poetic. Really, I don’t know what I expected. Floatpoint is a game like any other, and it was neither hard to follow nor over my head. The story is filled with interesting ideas that are expressed imaginatively, just as good IF should be.

     It was exactly the kind of science fiction I enjoy most. David Moskin is Earth's newest ambassador to Aleheart Colony, founded on a cold and remote planet. Earth has a reason to hope for the return of its long-separated and genetically-altered descendants, just as the citizens of Aleheart have a reason to abandon a world where a worsening climate threatens their future survival. The story begins with this much, but the details are worked into the story as David finds his way to the embassy and begins a day of familiarizing himself with the populace and their customs. He also prepares for the duty that is expected of him by the Aleheart ambassador, and this is where he learns that something so seemingly simple might make all the difference in their future relations.

     In the static fiction I enjoy most (books by Jack Vance, C. J. Cherryh, and others), what I find really fascinating are the strange customs of alien cultures – especially those cultures derived from an Earth origin. Vance commonly uses colors, appearance, and gestures as key features in describing the interactions and taboos of an alien culture. For instance, yellow clothing might indicate contempt for the elderly, or maybe jewelry can’t be worn during the day without inviting the taunts of children. I find that Vance uses this in an intentionally amusing way, but it also works in a more serious story like Floatpoint. This is important to the story (especially to the decisions that lead to a number of possible endings), and I would have liked to see even more of it.

     The game is structured so that players can see the sights of Aleheart Colony – the planet’s ring, the enormous glacier, the neglected buildings of old town – before the story moves into more enclosed places. It seems that more may have been planned for these outside areas, but maybe it was only meant as a scenic introduction.

     Each character has his or her personal viewpoint and agenda. It stands to reason that they should, but it sometimes doesn’t play out that way in other games. Different characters may offer conflicting advice, and the story involves learning what it all means and making informed decisions at the end.

     Until the end, I believed there to be only one possible “right” choice. I really only focused on how I might decide which NPC to believe, thinking that one way would work while the others would lead to failure. What I found is that all ways lead to different degrees of failure and success, but most result in an ending scene that could easily have been the only ending. After the first, though, there is no doubt others must be possible. It’s just a matter of combining the two different choices, before following through to the end. Somewhere in the process, though, I forgot to consider what the combinations might represent. It became just a matter of working out the possibilities, and then seeing what would happen as a result. That seems like the natural result of this kind of ending, but it may not have been what Emily intended.

     A few things (the little man, for instance) seemed to hint that there might be other endings that are a little more difficult to find, or which don’t directly follow the gift-giving ceremony. I’m curious to find out more from other players, after voting ends.

     Floatpoint includes some special features that, while not entirely unseen in other games, are pretty rare in the IF I have played before. A “MAP” command gives a list of locations already visited, which is then useful for the “GO TO” command. Glulxe pauses for a second or longer for the latter (especially when the destination is a good distance from where you start), but the path taken is described and it beats walking there location by location. I found this more useful in Floatpoint than I recall it being in the only other game I’ve seen it done (Return to Ditch Day by Michael Roberts). A “THINK” command shows David’s mental checklist, which works much the same way a list of objectives does in a mission-oriented video game. This list is updated and displayed automatically as needed, unless you disable it.

     As to bugs and quirks, I noticed a few. If not for my intentional prodding, it would be an even shorter list. Some of these are definitely bugs, while others could just be a partial misunderstanding of the game’s structure on my part. As I said in the introduction I wrote before starting the process of reviewing this year’s IFComp, it should be noted that these are my observations of the competition version. These problems may not exist in later updates (if any), released after the competition.

     I could “get disk from slot” but “get disk from computer” wouldn’t work. Equipment mentioned in the lab could not be referenced. When I found a yellow paper and referred to it as “paper”, the parser believed I meant the receipt I had already found. Garbage didn’t allow “trash” as a synonym. Putting anything into the chute in the private lab gives a blank response (although the item does go away). It seems that “hug” (as a verb) was treated the same way as “kiss”. Liam speaks tentative English, but I never was quite sure why David assumed he would be unable to understand a reply. A couple times, Liam didn’t wait for my answer (immediately after asking a question). The game described Pamela as leaving Aleheart’s edge (and I couldn’t “see any such thing” when referring to her), even though the text described her doing things that would imply she was still there. I couldn’t retrieve the personal float unit after accidentally leaving it behind in the private lab, since I was no longer authorized to enter. One of the things on David’s mental checklist seemed to remain near the end, even though it should have been marked off. In the writing, I noticed a missing word here, an extra line there, but nothing less trivial.

     The strangest bug – and one I wasn’t even sure was a bug, at first – happened when I entered the private lab. The line “She greets you with a stream of words you don’t understand, and bows deep” was repeated a half-dozen times, followed by “--> The scene change machinery is stuck”, and then the whole pattern again. At first, I thought it meant the scientist was a projection or illusion that had become stuck – like a skipping record. After every turn, though, the same sequence was repeated. Somehow, I thought to get off the personal float unit (which is how I accidentally left it behind), and then the “stuck scenery” would stop until I got back on. I don’t know how the two things were connected, but they seemed to be.

     Even that one is minor, in that it has no bearing on actual gameplay. What I learned from my heightened scrutiny is that Floatpoint shows a level of polish that most IFComp games won’t. It’s fun, it’s interesting, and it’s a game that’s difficult to dislike on any point. If you are already a fan of Emily Short’s work, you will probably find it faultless. If you are looking to prove it unworthy of this year’s top spot, you will find faults. Any other entry, though, when examined in the same way, will be no different.

     The “floatpoint” theme was worked into the story in several noticeable ways. The floatpoint “objects” were obvious, but maybe it also applies to the icebergs (which do float, right?), the doodad that measures three statistics to multiple decimal places, and maybe even the gift-giving decisions (the final and pivotal point in the story).

     It’s a great game, and even at such an early point in playing through this year’s entries, I suspect it will win. The pessimist in me says that an equally good or slightly better game won’t have the advantage that Emily’s popularity lends to Floatpoint. The optimist in me says that judges aren’t fools, and Floatpoint is as deserving of the top honor as any other entry is likely to be.

     It’s a clear “9” on my scale, which is functionally the same as a “10” except that a “10” will have hit me in an unexpected and more emotional way. Floatpoint will be the game to beat this year.

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