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IFCOMP 2008 - When Machines Attack

Game #19: wHen mAchines aTtack (A Technological Horror)
Author: Mark Jones
Played On: October 26th and 27th (6 hours 15 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)

F:1 + T:1 + P:1 + S:2 + W:0 + B:1 = SCORE: 6

     WMA (or maybe HAT, given the odd capitalization of its title) is the second game (or at least the second IFComp entry) by Mark Jones, the author of last year’s Press [Escape] To Save. Although his second effort is marred by many of the same problems found in his first, it is an improvement overall.

     For some reason -- and despite the game’s subtitle -- I expected more whimsy than horror. The title suggests a parody of When Animals Attack (or something similar), yet WMA isn’t going for humor. It starts out strange, gets creepy, then creepier, and progresses through various scenes of the macabre and horrific. Despite its plethora* of problems, I found WMA oddly riveting and not quite the chore to slog though that might be typical of a game with these issues. It has a style and gusto that, while seriously undermined by its broken writing and non-intuitive geography, I was able to appreciate for what it intended to be.

     Of last year’s P[E]TS, I said that “The writing has an odd appeal, but it’s full of technical problems of various kinds…” The same is true for wHen mAchines aTtack. “Your” and “you’re” are sometimes used correctly, but often interchanged. (Tip: pronouns aren’t made possessive with the use of an apostrophe. “Your” means “belonging to you” just like “its” means “belonging to it,” while “you’re” is a contraction of “you are” and “it’s” is a contraction of “it is.”) The text is riddled with grammatical problems -- missing words (“seems to refrigerator” is missing the “be a” that would make it “seems to be a refrigerator”), incorrect word usage (“fowl” when the author meant “foul,” and how does singing “ease the attention?”), typos (“down with” instead of “done with” for instance), and even inconsistencies in the game’s own made-up words (sometimes “integratron” but sometimes “integatron”). Rarely a paragraph goes by without several glaring problems of the kind that could have been caught if somebody other than the author had proofread the text.

     Even when the writing isn’t too technically flawed, it often feels rough-edged, too simple in form, or difficult to mentally parse. Sentences like these stand out in a negative way:

     “A drinking fountain is present on this side of the room, next to a closet door which is to the south of it, directly east of you.”

     “The receptionist talks some more.”

     “And because you said something, that also must have made Wong afraid of something.”

     “Resting on the shelves seem to be tons and tons of glass containers.”

     “The jars and the myriad of them makes your bones feel brittle and makes the atmosphere in this room seem really dense, in addition to being very eerie.”

     “You breathe a slight sigh of relief, although you aren't completely.”

     “You look around to see if anyone is in the current location and run off to the northeast.”

     It isn’t always easy to look past these problems, but some of the imagery conjured up succeeds surprisingly well when you do. The author has created a truly creepy scenario, although too often he resorts to telling the player just how unsettled he or she is supposed to feel by a given scene. This all makes for a strange balance. The story is often gripping, yet it fights for dominance against the poor way in which it’s written. It does lapse into accidental camp sometimes (especially when the author cranks up the weirdness knob to a level that’s way over the top), but the drive to see more is what kept me motivated for the more than six hours it took to complete.

     The author does a better job describing actions and interactions than in describing some of the game’s locations. The factory’s main area, comprised of several open “rooms,” was particularly difficult to picture. For instance:

North Side of Large Room
This is the northern edge of the very large room and is part of a side hallway that leads west towards the western edge of the room and east towards the eastern edge of the room.

Looming overhead, the presence of the catwalk platform covers your head in light shadows.

Dozens of manufacturing machines of various sizes fill the area in the of this room all over, in addition to a fairly large machine that blocks a main portion of your view.

A railing separates the machinery area from the rest of the room, and runs the length of the area in a square.

     The problem is often that the author has envisioned the scene from a certain angle or vantage point, without successfully relaying that information to the player. Sometimes, things are described as being just “in front of” you when a direction might have been better. Or, directions are used, but in misleading or confusing ways. This made navigation incredibly difficult until I took pen to paper to make a map.

     This, too, was a challenge. Sometimes, the author describes things to the east that are actually to the west, or vice-versa. Worse, room exits aren’t consistent. In many areas, coming back from an adjacent room isn’t as simple as just reversing the direction (in other words, when you go southwest, you can’t always return by going northeast). Some of it is evidently accidental, but sometimes it’s the author’s attempt to create what he probably feels to be a realistic geography. As an example, the player’s position in one particular hallway is probably its center. That puts the door to the player room southwest of that position. When inside the room, however, the door is due east. It makes sense rationally, but it relies on the player understanding that movement from room to room isn’t always a straight path. This is common throughout the entire game, and in areas where the relationship between the adjacent rooms isn’t even obvious.

     The next paragraph, detailing various other technical problems, will probably prove boring to everyone but the game’s authors. Feel free to skip ahead.

     Other problems are manifold. Some descriptions are painted on (for instance, the rope is always described in relation to the bathtub where it’s originally found). Vital objects are sometimes unmentioned in room descriptions (the game expects interaction with a “panel” at one point, but uses the word “pad” in the text; “machinery” is necessary at one point, but isn’t mentioned in the text). It’s possible to “examine” the note with the locker combination, but “read” fails. An exit south, back into the reception area, is blocked by a concern over what the receptionist might think about shirking your duty, even after such concerns are meaningless. In fact, it’s possible to get stuck there later in the game after re-entering the building. It’s possible to get completely stuck in other ways too, especially later in the game (for instance, a quirk with the fire pit left me in white smoke with no options), requiring multiple UNDO’s or a RELOAD. When the tension ramps up, the player is said to check the exits (to make sure the proverbial coast is clear), yet this pre-movement message continues for the duration of the game, well beyond the point where it no longer makes sense. The robot’s eyes “sink in” even though he has no eyes. Certain events are triggered only by taking a non-intuitive action, without additional prompts or clues or triggers (one example comes early on, when it’s necessary to be wearing a suit that some players will probably have already done an “UNDO” out of when its seemingly detrimental properties are clear; another comes later, where the only way to get through a door is to examine a box, thereby triggering a countdown that actually only counts down while you take additional turns in the same room). Doorways that don’t exist are described in the cave. A creature continues to act fully alive a turn or two after he’s rendered dead on the floor. Things dropped in a dream aren’t automatically returned to inventory. I even encountered engine-level “programming errors” at two points (attempting to go west when already at the cafeteria counter, and again when trying to put an eyeball on a sensor).

     At one point, the author is so anxious to develop a large chunk of the story that he resorts to a text-dump that is nineteen pages long.

     The game’s early puzzles are usually simple and straightforward. I really enjoyed figuring out how to use the protagonist’s assigned machine, for instance. The beginning seems more focuses, and the player is usually given goals (a definite improvement over last year’s entry). However, as the game progresses, the puzzles are increasingly obscured by bad design decisions and implementation problems that make them difficult or impossible to solve without hints. The hints helped in most of these cases, although a time or two they didn’t cover the situation. A walkthrough was also included with the competition version. I didn’t use it while playing, but it does appear complete.

     This is a game that’s likely to rank very low in the competition, although it has a shot at an upper-middle position if other judges agree that it somehow manages to be a little more than the sum of its parts. It’s a game that snubs its nose at the “two hour” target, though, which it would probably blow by even in a perfect play-through that required the player to merely read its text. At two hours, I hadn’t encountered some of the game’s more obscure puzzles and progress-halting bugs. I voted it a “6” -- which is justified by my self-imposed scoring guidelines by adding the bonus point (for being more than the sum of its parts). It’s a game for IFComp completists, but it needs extensive work to be recommendable in any other context.

     Like last year -- and as with all of this year’s entries that support it -- I kept transcripts (with comments) of the entire play-through. These are available to authors upon request. They’re no substitute for beta-testing (testing is supposed to happen before the competition), but they might be useful for a post-competition update. My advice remains unchanged: have several people play-test your game (and keep transcripts) in two or three phases after you think you’re finished with it. Add to this, however, a more serious adherence to the “two hour” rule. Some judges may be tempted vote a game down when it goes on and on and on in a competition where many other games have to be worked in before the deadline as well.


     *My apologies to Jefe and El Guapo.

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