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IFCOMP 2008 - Cry Wolf

Game #12: Cry Wolf
Author: Clare Parker
Played On: October 13th (2 hours 45 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Glulx)

F:1 + T:0 + P:1 + S:2 + W:2 + B:1 = SCORE: 7

     Game’s Blurb:
     You are awoken, startled by a sound in the night. Still bleary from dreams, you turn on the light to chase away the shadows. But there, beyond the safety of your room, something moves in the darkness. It is long past midnight, and a wolf is at your door.

     This will be a hard one to discuss without plot spoilers, but I’ll try to keep it vague.

     Cry Wolf starts out in a pretty large house, in the sense that there are nine or ten different locations, each populated by the kinds of things you’d expect to find there (kitchen stuff, bedroom stuff, bathroom stuff, living room stuff, office stuff, and so forth). It seems at first that this will make up the entire game. That’s not a bad thing; a multi-part puzzle involving the safe tending of an injured wolf would make a nice two-hour game. In fact, this opening act took long enough for me to get through that I fully expected a winning ending after I’d done my part.

     And then the game goes on.

     The second act (as categorized by the walkthrough), too, could have been the last. It definitely takes the story in a new direction, but by then, there was no great mystery as to what was going on. If the game had ended there, I can see no notable loose ends to tie up. The problem is that the protagonist, one Peter Marcus (a veterinarian), has the unfortunate disability of being unable to put two and two together. While I, as the player, am wondering if he’s really that dense, he’s constrained by the real-world rationalities of a real-world person. It’s hard to translate that into a story without making the protagonist seem incapable of exercising simple logic. Of course, Peter Marcus has no idea he’s a character in an adventure game, where anything is possible.

     The third act, too, would have been a fitting conclusion to the game. Things get weirder, but in a way that’s consistent with the story and perfectly reasonable given deductions that any player is likely to make. By the fourth act, though, it’s evident the author intends to carry the story to its furthest possible conclusion, and this is confirmed in the fifth and final act. Revelations made in the fourth act almost seem superfluous, because it pulls back the shroud of mystique surrounding a plot that was really only a mystery to Peter Marcus. In effect, everything revealed by Marissa is just extra shading on an already-recognizable sketch.

     This works more heavily against the story than one might think. The fourth act is supposed to be a pivotal point, where Peter comes to grips with certain facts, begins to reconcile this with his own views of the world, becomes conflicted by exactly what he’s feeling, yet is truly amazed by the possibilities. This would be incredible if in some way it was possible to get the player to really put himself in Peter’s place. I never felt it, though. The author wrote it well enough, and maybe it was just the late hour at which I played, but I just wasn’t able to share the protagonist’s wide-eyed wonder, doubt, enthusiasm, affection, confliction -- any of it. Unfortunately, that made slogging through the dialogue more of a chore than it was probably intended to be.

     Even with these problems, Cry Wolf has a very memorable story, and some of the most memorable scenes I’ve experienced in IF. I’ve never played a game quite like this. The experience is often marred by convoluted puzzles that don’t work smoothly at all, but the cumulative effect of the story ends up being a very positive one.

     The game has minor bugs, other more serious implementation problems, and puzzles that often fall apart due to just a general lack of user-friendliness. The story is imaginative and entertaining enough to make pushing through the problems worth it, but it’s a shame that the author’s ambition didn’t translate into a more solid game.

     I’m about to describe some of the implementation problems I found, so skip over it unless you’re the author or you care about bugs.

     To (presumably) compensate for the difficulty in typing the long names of five different kinds of medicine, the author channels “get bottle” into a multiple-choice menu. However, one of them doesn’t work, and I still found myself referring to them by name for other commands. At one point, I’m supposed to get dressed, but “clothes” always assumes Celia’s clothes, and that won’t work. The answer is to simply “get dressed,” without actually being in possession of your own clothes. The game refers to the girl as “Marissa” well before she has been introduced to the PC. “Read books” in the office gives a blank response. Looking “in” the bag puts the article “a” before every listed item -- even the plural ones (for instance, “a gauze bandages”). A painted cabinet “hides” the television, even when it’s open. “Get all” in most places attempts to purloin every implemented item in the room, portable or otherwise. You can look at Marissa while parked, and the game assumes you’re still driving. The office at the clinic has exits to the south and southeast, but they’re the same exit. During a surgery, the game obstinately refused to assume I meant to use the scalpel for making an incision, unless I said so explicitly, despite it being the only thing in my hand. Using some of the objects in the game -- the phone, for instance -- was clunky due to command-grammar rules that failed to cover some obvious possibilities.

     The author did a good job of giving descriptions to most of the things mentioned in the text (avoiding the dreaded “you don’t see that here” problem), but put so much extraneous “stuff” in the game world (to better flesh it out, probably) that most of it is only implemented for examining.

     In the fourth act, I chose what I thought to be agreeable, polite questions among those offered; yet I broke the game. Marissa was finally ready to talk -- she said so -- but any attempt to talk to her just repeated the same thing with no dialogue choices at all. At that point, I had to reload a prior save and play forward again. The second time, with only minor changes to my dialogue choices, it worked fine.

     I said in the review for a prior game that the PC was able to expertly perform a task that he probably had no prior experience in (incidentally, this was the act of using a bamboo stick as a blow-gun to shoot a pill into a coffee cup, presumably from across the room). Well, Cry Wolf does the opposite. It makes the PC seem like a complete imbecile at a task that should be relatively straightforward for a veterinarian, by making the player micromanage the entire procedure without any guidance. Fortunately, I’ve played a little of Trauma Center and I’ve actually been in the room where this procedure was performed (twice), and that was good enough to let my intuition guide the way. The bigger challenge for me in this puzzle was that the gloves and mask were hidden away! I figured it out after restoring a prior save and watching what my associate did, but prior to that I would have sworn the game was broken because I was fumbling around like Jerry Lewis in a black-and-white comedy, yet nobody in the room seemed to care. A friendly “hey dummy, check the cabinet that’s easily overlooked with everything else that’s here” after a few turns might have helped. Better yet, my assistant could have had everything ready for me. I checked the built-in hints while stuck there, but its unhelpful advice on the subject was simply that I needed gloves and a mask -- something I already knew from trying to pick up the scalpel without them.

     That was by no means my only problem with a puzzle, but it stands out most because I spent so long fumbling around in a scene that was supposed to be urgent. Scissors (with one rounded point, but presumably a sharp one too) couldn’t cut the plastic wrap on a package of meat. I had to find a newsletter to look up details about the medicine, when a presumably working computer (with access to Google, perhaps) was also available. I had trouble doing what I needed to do with the steaks, because it wasn’t clear that I needed to do a couple of other things first in preparation. A puzzle involving making and serving coffee seemed kind of glitchy, but again, I think this can be chalked up to inadequate game grammar (even approaching “guess the verb” territory). In many cases, the game just didn’t give enough feedback to explain why something that should have worked didn’t work.

     Long text dumps (and there were a few) didn’t bother me. In the end, the story really won me over, despite problems in the implementation.

     I was honor-bound to set (and not change) my vote before playing beyond two hours, but that’s difficult to justify with my scoring guidelines. I’m comfortable giving the game a “2” for writing, and after some mental back-and-forth about the story, I’m also scoring a “2” there. The puzzles and the implementation, however, don’t fare as well. The puzzles need work, but earn a “1,” while the implementation just seemed broken and frustrating at times. Obvious effort went into the game, but a review of my transcript shows way too much frustration with it on a technical level. I’m giving it no point for implementation, but it gets the bonus point for being unlike anything I’ve played before (in a favorable way). That means my review score is one point less than the vote -- in short, a “7.”

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