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IFCOMP 2007 - Slap That Fish

Game #21: Slap That Fish
By Peter Nepstad
Played On: November 3rd (4 hours 50 minutes)
Platform: TADS (Version 2)
Merk’s Score: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     This time, those fishy bastards are finally going to get what's coming to them.

     You invoke the magic word of prayer your grandfather once taught you. But nothing happens. Some secrets are lost, from generation to generation.

     From the game’s blurb and a quick peek earlier, I was looking forward to Slap That Fish on the pure absurdity of its premise. My fear was that this might turn out to be a joke entry -- one intentionally bad, hastily written, playable in only a few minutes, and perhaps entered to intentionally garner a low ranking. It seems like every year’s IFComp sees at least one (often several). Being so far along in my random play list without finding an insincere entry yet, I thought maybe this would be the one.

     At first, it seems to be. On the surface, it’s an RPG where you, as the title suggests, simply slap a series of suspiciously behaving fish. Actually, four main actions (kick, punch, slap, and backhand) are used to dispatch each of the “fishy bastards” in what’s essentially a one-room, back-alley brawl. Although it’s funny in its absurdity, it begins with repetitive commands and not much challenge. New players are likely to think “okay, is this it?” As each challenger takes the place of his fallen aquatic comrade, it becomes a matter of figuring out which attack works (because, for instance, slapping a tuna won’t hurt it). Still, it’s just a series of attacks and recoveries, over and over and over and...

     Then, at a point where one might wonder if this is really the same Peter Nepstad who wrote the respected work of commercial IF, 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery, the formula changes. You still slap fish. You still meet another in the series of challengers. However, puzzles begin to take shape. Things to interact with appear. Tricking the fish and making use of previously defeated fish become important aspects in advancing to the next fight.

     Moreover, a story begins to take shape. Where no story was evident before, clues are given as to what’s really going on. This is potentially misleading (and that may be the point), but it brought me from thinking the game was completely silly and pointless, to thinking maybe the PC had been traumatized on several past occasions, and this was either a bad dream or a hypnotherapy session.

     By the last three battles, what started out to be a simple and repetitive RPG has become a puzzle game, with a backstory and a purpose. It’s still absurd, but this demonstrates that it’s not a joke entry. Fish are far harder to defeat, requiring more trickery, skill, and actions outside the established arsenal of melee commands. The strangest twist of all is that it seems to have no twist. The story is exactly as it appears.

     At the end of an initial play-through, though, I was still left feeling that the game required too much repetition. It’s also pretty difficult to think creatively, because the game often references things that seem important (the “thing” on the head of the anglerfish, for instance, as well as tails and fins on most of the fish), which can’t actually be referenced at all. This limits potentially creative combat.

     It also suffers from a few specific and hard-to-guess actions (I’ll discuss this below). These aren’t always guess-the-verb situations, because figuring out the action itself is the hard part (not the specific phrasing of it).

     A few places do seem a little guess-the-verby too, though. Here is one relatively spoiler-free example:

     ...The force of its fall causes a brick to dislodge, revealing a dark opening. ...

     >look in opening
     It is too dark to see inside.

     >enter opening
     The opening is much too small for you to enter.

     >put hand in opening
     You can't put your hands anywhere.

     >x opening
     There is a small opening in the brick wall where a brick has been dislodged, large enough to reach into, but to dark to see inside.

     >reach into opening
     You reach into the dark opening. It is a narrow fit. Feeling around, the first thing you find is...

     The “search” verb works too, but it’s possible to dismiss the attempt when told that you can’t put your hands anywhere. I managed to get through the entire game with only two (I think) peeks at the walkthrough (which, really, is a series of hints with spoiler space). First, I needed help in defeating the shark in the second half of the battle (having figured out the cool first half myself). Then, I couldn’t figure out how to get an item I knew I needed from the delivery boy. This turns out to be very guess-the-verby, and it’s even something I was thrown by -- with the same complaint -- in the first game I played from this year’s IFComp.

     I found a few typos (and noted them in my transcript), but it’s pretty well written otherwise. Usually, the text consists of silly but often-clever one-liners in response to fighting and defeating each fish.

     In addition to minor problems in the text, I did find a few bugs. The biggest involves reading a tablet (probably before the author intended for it to have been read) and then performing the first action listed. During a battle, a strange TADS parser error message and error number are shown, and the actual text is truncated. Also (and to avoid a spoiler, I can’t be specific), using a certain item in a certain way always references the trout first, well after the trout is defeated and gone. I’m sure I noticed a few other minor quirks, but not many. It sometimes felt unpolished due to unimplemented scenery (or “fish parts”) and some guess-the-verb commands, but it turns out to be solidly constructed.

     I completed the game (with those couple of hints from the walkthrough) in one hour and twenty minutes. This allowed me not to freeze my vote as I would when going beyond two hours (as required in the IFComp rules). I stepped away thinking it involved too much guesswork, tedious repetition, and mindless combat. I stepped away for a while, though, and then came back intending to spend another forty minutes looking for the “perfect” 20-point score solution to each fish.

     If I hadn’t, I probably would have rated it lower. What I found, though, is that Slap That Fish is a puzzle RPG. It can be played the brute-force way (and most players are likely to do this -- I know I did), but there is a challenge in defeating each fish quickly and with a minimum of combat. It requires figuring out a certain attack combo (necessary in several of the fights), optimizing your moves, using “extra” turns (some fish can still give a full 20 points even if you “waste” a couple of turns) to preemptively rest for the next battle, and more. What seemed haphazard and poorly conceived on the first play-through seems incredibly clever on a second. It requires replays, multiple saves (because when you get it right, you might not want to start over entirely when trying another approach), and some note jotting of what works or doesn’t (how much stamina was spent versus damage dealt, and how many turns are spent resting or taking any non-attack actions which also heal stamina). It’s in many ways much more fun as a mind game.

     Finally, I completed it with 239 points of a maximum 240. The ending didn’t change (and I only scored 92 points the first time), so working through the game on a more challenging level seems to be its own reward. Surely something changes with 240 points, but it will take a player more clever than I to figure out the ideal solution.

     The game works on both levels -- defeating each fish individually and with less finesse (fewer points) and as a tightly-timed series of puzzles forming a single greater challenge. The first way is sort of a prerequisite (in understanding what’s ahead and how the game is constructed) to the second way, though, and the first way isn’t incredibly exciting. It’s a pleasant farce, but it’s a little rough in the spots where specific phrasings or unclued actions are required.

     I think it will be mistaken as a joke entry, especially by any judge who doesn’t recognize the author’s name. And who knows? Maybe it is, and the author just doesn’t know how to write a game that’s purposely bad without making it pretty good in the process. I ranked it a “7”, and considered either a “minus” for the frustration and repetition of the first play-through or a “plus” for the fiendishly challenging second. Ultimately, I haven’t added either to the review score.

     It’s not deeply moving or epic in scope. It’s just an absurdly farcical puzzle game, which can be played for higher points to provide a greater challenge. I recommend it as such.

     Note: I have posted my 239-point walkthrough here.

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