IFComp 2010: Aotearoa

Dinosaurs! I can’t escape them! I don’t really want to! Aotearoa is a work of alternate-prehistory sci-fi, positing a microcontinent in the place of New Zealand that was unaffected by the Cretaceous extinction event. Spoilers follow the break.

First off, it’s clear that the author of this game has been paying attention to recent trends in IF UI design, particularly those seen in Blue Lacuna. We’ve got optional highlighting of significant keywords. We’ve got noun-only commands. We’ve also got a “name” command, allowing you to create nicknames for the creatures you encounter — an idea as old as Beyond Zork, but not used much since. I recall it being particularly useful in BZ because there was a pterodactyl there, and naming it let you refer to it without having to type the word “pterodactyl”. It fulfills more or less the same function here, letting the player avoid long dinosaur species names, but nicknames also help to endear the fauna to the player. And it’s definitely meant to be endearing. One of the high points of my session was waving at a nanakia, a small monkey-like creature that we’re told is actually a flightless bat, and having it wave back at me.

But this leads into aspects of the game that I didn’t care for at all: the player character’s remarkable empathy with the strange and archaic wildlife of Aotearoa. Why does this bother me? The player character, Tim Cooper, is a twelve-year-old boy. Twelve-year-old boys are inherently annoying to start with, in fiction as in real life, but authorial choices can make it better or worse, and the surest way to make it worse is to make the story revolve around fulfilling the twelve-year-old boy’s emotional needs. This story manages to make Tim the center of attention on an island full of dinosaurs. There’s a significant flashback about his father. There’s a puzzle about overcoming Tim’s fear of heights, which he manages through the calm advice of a strong, paternal figure who’s counting on him and believes in him. (He’s even a Maori warrior, making this as much a sign of Tim being accepted by the exotic as when a ceratopsian lets Tim scratch its back.) And in the end, Tim saves the day like Wesley Crusher, outsmarting a bunch of grown-ups with guns.

But even if the story isn’t for me, I recognize it as well-crafted. It’s a rollicking adventure, rather linear and gentle on the player, but full of action. And it’s just the right length for the Comp — I finished it at about the 1:50 mark, leaving me ten minutes to leaf through the voluminous help menus explaining everything about the premise and setting. But this is mostly because of where it chooses to cut off, just after the dramatic confrontation with the dinosaur poachers. It really seems like this is Part One of a longer story, the rest being summarized at the end. There was a point when I found myself grumbling about how much the game was turning out to be about Tim and how little about dinosaurs — I had been promised dinosaurs, and all I had seen was one little oviraptor! By the end, you get a larger dose of the beasts, but you still see only two species over the course of the game, 1Unless you count the moa. Birds are in the dinosauria clade! And moas are more dinosaur-like than most other birds, being huge, flightless, and extinct. and no large carnivores, which I suppose would have been too difficult for Tim to befriend.

Rating: 6

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1. Unless you count the moa. Birds are in the dinosauria clade! And moas are more dinosaur-like than most other birds, being huge, flightless, and extinct.

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