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IFCOMP 2006 - Moon-Shaped

Game #1: Moon-Shaped (by Jason Ermer)
Played: October 5th-6th (2 hours 45 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Unofficial Score: 8+

     Gameís Blurb:

     XYZZY Response:
     That's not a verb I recognize.

     Jason Ermer claims this as his first completed work of interactive fiction, and itís a great first effort. Moon Shaped was a perfect game to launch my play-list, and with luck, a good sign of the quality I might expect from this yearís IFComp.

     Most of my yearly IF-playing comes from the IFComp. In the interim, itís easy to forget how engrossing and powerful an interactive world can be. Moon-Shaped was successful in drawing me into the moonlit night, through the countryside and to grandmotherís house with a basket of goodies, as little Rosalind in her red cape.

     Yes, itís that story. As spoilers go, thatís a given. Itís clear from the beginning. Equally clear, though, is that Moon-Shaped is a darker telling, hinting that there is more to the tale. Ermer borrows from the Brothers Grimm again, crossing plots with another famous childrenís story. Then, he mixes in an element of Russian folklore. It never seems forced. The way it fits together is clever and inspired, giving importance not only to Rosalindís lineage, but also to the more fantastic and grisly elements of the stories that are stale and unquestioned in a traditional fairytale telling.

     It works because in all likelihood you are familiar with the source material. You know the basic plots, you know whatís involved, and you know how these stories end. This makes it easier for the author to introduce some twists along the way, without making it too obvious too soon. It was only after taking a day-long break half-way through (I started playing too late the first night) that I started to mull over the story thus far. What I suspected proved true by the end, and a bit more.

     On the technical side, the problems in Moon-Shaped are few and generally minor. You can put the story into what is probably an unwinnable state from the start (in the competition version, anyway), although itís by taking an action that is obviously contrary to how the story must go. Itís also an obscure thing to try, and something that is otherwise prevented Ė you can leave home without the basket of goodies if you put it all on the table. In a few cases, the text assumes a condition that isnít true (the bucket attached to the roof of the well, even after you lower it). I noticed very few typos (few being more than none), but otherwise, itís a well-written work.

     All in all, I was very impressed with the detail in Moon-Shaped. Ermer missed a few chances to include bonus actions, but not to the point that it feels under-implemented. The bigger problem is with the clueing of some puzzles, and to a lesser degree, with the recognition of synonymous actions.

     Of the former (clueing problems), entering the cave was particularly troublesome. There is a clue, but itís easily missed in one of the visions Rosalind encounters. I went to the hints, and itís the kind of puzzle that may force most other players there as well.

     Of the latter (unsupported actions), I had the right idea for opening the grandfather clock. I even knew the specifics to make it work. I gave up after a few failed attempts, only to later learn (via the hints) that what I tried was right. In one case, I had been told ďI donít understand that sentenceĒ where additional feedback along the lines of ďplease be more specificĒ would have helped. In the other, reasonable equivalent actions might have worked, but didnít.

     Thatís not true of every puzzle, though. most work very well, with perfect clueing that still leaves a sense of accomplishment afterwards. Opening the locket was a favorite moment. Finding the cage (and taking candy from it) was another. Most of the puzzles are fair and rewarding.

     The ending branches in eight ways (theyíre numbered), but theyíre separated by only two or three moves at the end. Nothing that happens earlier seems to affect this, although some of the endings may be impossible if you didnít bring a certain item or two. I had it all, so I worked out the eight possibilities in only a few minutes.

     This is a step above choose-your-own-ending, but just barely. I would have preferred a single longer ending, but it was nice to find all of them easily. It seemed a little like a collectible card game, but it was fun.

     Maybe because it was the first game on my list, or maybe as a credit to an engaging, well-told story, it has stuck with me through the additional day it has taken to start the review. When a work of IF is memorable in a good way, the author has succeeded. I hope Moon-Shaped wonít be a one-time offering from Jason Ermer. With such a strong, well-written entry, I expect him to place highly in the competition.

     I ranked Moon-Shaped as an ď8Ē on my scale. Some of the puzzles didnít seem well-clued, but it didnít seem severe enough to drop the score. Because it was an entertaining and well-written start to the competition, it gets a plus.

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