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IFCOMP 2007 - The Immortal

Game #11: The Immortal
By Rob Anthony (writing as “Just Rob”)
Played On: October 17th & 18th (2 hours 5 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Zcode)
Merk’s Score: 4+

     Game’s Blurb:
     An interactive sci-fi mystery.

     I once read somewhere that the opening scene in Men In Black is perfect, because it summarizes the story without spoiling it. The camera follows the flight of a bug as it weaves and dodges danger, only to go splatt at the end. Since then, I’ve begun to pay more attention to opening scenes, whether from a movie, a book, a video game, or interactive fiction.

     What struck me first about The Immortal is how much it says in its first few paragraphs without ever actually seeming to say anything. At the first command prompt, I think I furrowed my brow and muttered “what was that?” I suppose it’s not easy to write about abstractions, but a good opening of this sort should give players something to latch onto and remember later. The intro to The Immortal goes for surrealism without quite achieving it. The ending doesn’t cast it in a new light, because it’s pretty clear what is happening all along.

     I’m either becoming too picky, or I’m forgetting how many seriously broken games are submitted each year. The alternative is that this is the Year of the Untested Game. I know it can be hard sometimes to interest people in playing a potentially buggy, unpolished game (and beyond that, to actually run transcripts and report back what they’ve found, and even beyond that, to actually fix what’s wrong), but believe me, it’s vital. Nobody writes a perfect game. This is true whether you’re a first-time author or an author with dozens of games to your credit. As a dare, check the credits and/or documentation for the top five or ten games in every IFComp. I bet you’ll find at least three testers credited (if not more) for most of them. So decide. Do you want half a dozen potential judges to see a bad version of your game and not be able to vote on it at all, or do you want a hundred and twenty actual judges to see the same version and vote low? I’m stressing the point, I know, but testing is vital. You can’t know how well your game will hold up to real scrutiny unless you have it tested. Most of your recruits should be very familiar with interactive fiction, with a novice or two thrown in for good measure.

     This is why it’s so disappointing to find a game that might have been magnitudes better with testing and revision, as is the case with The Immortal. It has a fairly interesting, imaginative plot. It’s about the right size for the IFComp. Some interesting ideas are involved, where science fiction meets myth and fantasy.

     But boy is it broken.

     It has problems upon problems, in nearly every category that a game can have problems: misspellings and typos; comma splices; wrong word usage (opaque is the opposite of transparent); objects without sufficient noun aliases; actions that are triggered by other unrelated actions; actions that trigger always, even when it’s no longer appropriate or not appropriate in the present location; actions suggested in the text merely for effect, without any verb to support it if actually attempted by a player; enterable things that can’t be entered unless you use the “in” verb; seemingly important inventory items that can’t be used in any obvious way, anywhere in the game (I’m looking at you, samurai sword); poor world state management, where descriptions are hard-coded without respect to major changes that might invalidate what the descriptions say; disambiguation problems (just try looking at the book on the “dias” while already holding another book); unsupported “optional” actions associated with likely objects (a sofa “isn’t something you can sit down on”); instant and unclued death of the “take this seemingly innocuous action and you die” sort (thank goodness for “undo”); items picked up by the PC without explicitly saying so. At least it has no quirky inventory limit, maze or hunger daemon. I guess that’s something.

     Two specific issues do merit a separate mention. First, in at least two places (talking to the soul that follows you around, and entering the eastern hallway) you can continue to rack up score points well beyond the game’s 11-point maximum. Also, when I came close to the two-hour judging limit and switched over to the walkthrough, I found two mistakes. In one spot, it directs you to go “up” to leave the library, when you really must return to the antechamber (northwest) first. Also, you are directed to use the “enter” verb near the end, but only “in” appears to work. This is true in other places as well, but here it was specifically mentioned in the walkthrough. (Thank goodness the available exits are listed in the status bar.)

     The puzzles in The Immortal don’t seem particularly original or clever (generally requiring a specific single-use item for a matching task), but they’re not really difficult either. Rather, I don’t think they were intended to be difficult. Your job as a player is made harder by the many bugs in the game. I found it possible to work around the problems and still make a good deal of progress without help. I might even have reached the end without the walkthrough, except that I reached a point where I hadn’t realized what I could do to avoid death in trying to move past a large “thought bubble.” I might have figured it out, except that my confidence in the game was so shaken by all the problems encountered to that point that I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t made the game unwinnable in some way. Up to that point, even with the problems, I had made steady progress. The game is playable. It just requires looking past the multitude of problems that continue to suggest otherwise.

     It’s even fun, to a degree. Although my time was divided between enjoying the game on its own terms and commenting on its various problems in the transcripts, I still came away liking the game. It’s an ambitious game attempting to tell an even more ambitious story. The author seems to lack the experience to pull it off right now, but it could be improved. The ending seems set for a sequel, although I got the impression too that the author might have had more planned for the game that he just lacked the time to finish. Whether improving The Immortal or writing a new game entirely, I would recommend to Rob that he keep at it. Too many IF authors seem to stop at one or two games, before ever becoming better at it.

     The Immortal feels a lot like A Light’s Tale and On Optimism, two previous IFComp entries by Zach Flynn (entered as “VBNZ” and “Tim Lane,” respectively). Nothing really suggests that Rob Anthony is a pseudonym, but if it is, then that would be my guess. Even if the similarities in style and the types of problems encountered are coincidental (as most likely they are), it’s enough to say that if you liked those games, then you might enjoy The Immortal as well. I had enough fun to make it worth the effort, but it’s not really a recommendable game in its present state. It fits in at “4” on my scale, with a “plus” for the weird but interesting sci-fi setting.

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