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IFCOMP 2008 - Recess At Last

Game #21: Recess At Last (An Interactive Restlessness)
Author: Gerald Aungst
Played On: November 2nd (55 minutes)
Platform: Inform 7 (Glulx)

F:1 + T:0 + P:1 + S:0 + W:1 + B:0 = SCORE: 3

     Gameís Blurb:
     After endless months of indoor recess, an eager student's plan to try out his brand new sneakers is thwarted by one missing assignment.

     I donít know how Recess At Last went wrong. The in-game credits give thanks to several IF community regulars, yet anecdotal evidence suggests that either none of those people were given a chance to actually test the game, or the author didnít have an opportunity to make sufficient changes based on their findings.

     But letís back up. Itís a very simple story. Recess At Last is aimed at players in the protagonistís age group. A fourth grader wants to try out his brand new shoes during recess after many days of indoor confinement due to bad weather. The teacher expects his homework, though, and the young protagonist canít find it. He must locate the missing page or redo it, before the recess period ends.

     Iíve noticed a recent rise in the demand for IF targeted to (or at least suitable for) children -- or else itís simply something that has finally appeared on my radar because my own kids might become interested in IF when theyíre older. This is the kind of game that might make a good choice or recommendation... if it wasnít such a beating to play through.

     The author seems well-intentioned, and he put obvious effort into Recess At Last. Despite these efforts, the game is riddled with design and implementation problems.

     Before I launch into those things, though, the story itself deserves some discussion. Successful childrenís literature (and the same is true of movies) will have aspects that may appeal to adults as well. In my experience, these stories tend to be fantastical in nature. Even ďslice of lifeĒ stories (for children) tend to have exaggerated premises or unreal aspects. For instance, one of my three-year-old daughterís favorite books, Pinkalicious, features a little girl who turns pink after eating too many pink cupcakes. (Sheís also a big fan of Dr. Seuss books.) If these elements are missing, the story could still be something exciting or foreign in nature: stories about life in another country, for instance, or stories that feature things the young reader (or in my daughterís case, the listener) may never have the opportunity to experience. Itís a perfect time to spark their imaginations.

     The story in Recess At Last is a double whammy. I canít imagine it being of interest to most adults. Those days are far behind us, and a homework simulator doesnít rekindle that youthful spirit. For reasons unknown to me, it has been easier to fill the text-rendered shoes of a vampire, or a detective, or a spaceman, or even an animal than to step into the role of a fourth-grader who has to turn in his homework so he can go out to recess. Nothing is remotely fun about that. The kicker is that Iím not sure this would be fun for fourth-graders either, hence the double whammy.

     Letís move on to its implementation.

     The more complicated the actions required of the player, the more robust and comprehensive the command grammar should be. One of the easiest ways for any work of IF to fail is by requiring non-standard actions and then recognizing only a very small range of possible ways the player might express those actions. Many hours of development can be sunk into working out all these possibilities (and adding more as a result of beta-testing), but itís important to do so or the game will suffer.

     As a generic example, imagine a game where a puzzle involves tying a string to a heavy medallion and then hanging it from a hook to trigger some sort of trap door. If the game only allows the player to TIE the medallion to the string, then HANG the string on the hook, itís going to be a serious sticking point for players. Thatís traditionally called ďguess the verbĒ, and itís among the biggest reasons IF isnít taken seriously by many who have tried it in the past. Suppose the player first wants to ATTACH the string to the hook, and then LOOP the string through the medallion. If your game triggers on the action of hanging an already-weighted string to the hook -- and especially if your grammar definitions are lacking -- youíve just given the player a legitimate reason to complain.

     These problems plague Recess At Last. In one example, the game doesnít know how to parse an intended target from the ďwriteĒ verb. Iím guessing this was a little tricky to code, but even so, itís not what the player is likely to expect. Paper was on my desk, which is where I would expect it to be before attempting to write on it. Yet:

     >write on paper
     In your best cursive handwriting, you write "On paper" on your blue jeans.

     >get paper

     >write on the paper
     In your best cursive handwriting, you write "On the paper" on the clean sheet of paper.

     Even more guess-the-verby was this:

     >x buzzer
     A small gray box with a small button and speaker so that visitors can buzz in to the office to be let in.

     >press button
     It is fixed in place.

     >push buzzer
     It is fixed in place.

     You still have the same two options. Wait, or try the buzzer.

     >try buzzer
     You press the buzzer and wait nervously for the secretary to answer.

     Incidentally, >buzz in also works, but >buzz buzzer doesnít.

     The gameís design and implementation problems arenít limited simply to actions that arenít nearly as smooth as they need to be. A piece of paper is described as blank, even after youíve written on it. After telling the teacher I didnít need another copy of the worksheet, she told me to ask again if I changed my mind, yet I wasnít allowed to bother her again for it after that. I didnít realize I needed to mention the library to the teacher to get permission to leave the room, probably because Iíve forgotten that such things are mandatory in the fourth grade (thereby sticking me there in the classroom until I checked the hints). It wasnít clear that the protagonistís brother wasnít in gym class; until I played a second time using the walkthrough and took an action where itís mentioned that the brother is sick at home, I couldnít understand why I couldnít refer to or see him in the gym. Attempting to open the letter from mom gives a misleading response, and this sort of sabotaged my understanding of what the envelope was for. >search binder says the binder is empty, even though itís not. Sam continues to look for his worksheet, even after he finds it (in fact, he doesnít even express interest in it after I borrow it and attempt to give it back).

     The game sometimes even refuses to honor actions it understands:

     >x unfinished worksheet
     I only understood you as far as wanting to examine Sam's unfinished Henry Hudson project.

     The problems seem to continue ad nauseam, but the most frustrating of all is some sort of engine error that happens every single turn after playing for a short while:

     *** Run-time problem P12: Too many activities are going on at once.

     I have no idea what activities are going on, because from where I sat, nothing much was happening. I tried updating WinGlulxe, but no joy. Even starting over didnít do the trick, as the problem simply started in a different place. Yet this didnít appear to interfere with gameplay, other than the unfortunate side effect of separating my input on a different line than the > (prompt symbol).

     After a time, I relied heavily on the built-in hints. After completing the game one way, I checked the walkthrough and was pleased to find that both of the possible objectives for turning in the completed worksheet were valid solutions.

     So no, I donít know how Recess At Last went wrong. The writing seems error-free and appropriate for the target audience, and the puzzles (although made more difficult by implementation problems) are interesting enough to give the game merit outside its bland plot. The game even has a nice title graphic. In most other ways, though, it falls flat. The author could have imagined a story far more interesting than this. More testing (especially by people more familiar with the workings of interactive fiction) would certainly have helped make this story smoother and more playable than it is. It probably still wouldnít appeal to an older audience, but it might be something kids could enjoy more.

     I have scored Recess At Last one point for the writing, one point for the puzzles, and the base ďfreeĒ point. Anything more -- especially since I feel more guilty than usual at the amount of criticism Iíve heaped onto this game -- would be dishonest. Thatís a score and vote of ď3.Ē Although thatís not an encouraging score, I do hope that the author stays interested and motivated enough to play and write more interactive fiction.

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