IFComp 2007: Packrat

Bill Powell gives us a twist on Sleeping Beauty, sending a more typical adventure game hero to lift the curse after Prince Charming fails. Spoilers follow the break.

One of the oldest and most persistent features of the adventure game genre is the advice to “take everything that isn’t nailed down”, because you never know what might be needed for a puzzle later. This game is based around hanging a lampshade on that: the player character is a compulsive collector with a house overflowing with garage-sale clutter. The starting inventory even includes a doorknob collection. In fact, he’s so compulsive about it that picking up a discarded beer stein in the first room sends him into a collection mania in which he automatically tries to pick up everything in every room he enters and refuses to drop it. (This reminds me a lot of this old Usenet post.)

I like the concept here, but the implementation is lacking. In packrat frenzy mode, he tries to pick up some (but not all!) obvious backdrop items, such as the grand staircase in the castle’s vestibule, and you’re told of his unsuccessful attempt to pick up such items every turn you spend in their presence. In one case these failure messages were the first way I became aware of an object not mentioned in the room description, leaving me thinking “Huh? Painting? What painting?” The game really could have used more testing, and this is just one example of that. A few other examples I noticed:

  • You can’t refer to the doorknob collection by the phrase “doorknob collection”, even though that’s what the game calls it.
  • You start the game carrying a lit lantern in your pack.
  • There’s a chest in a guest room that’s described as being full of pantaloons, but if you search it, you’re told that it’s empty.

Little things, but they add up. There’s one part that I don’t know whether to describe as a bug or not: if you bring that chest into any other room, it moves back to the guest room as soon as you leave. Now, one the one hand, it’s hard to see how this effect could have been produced accidentally. On the other hand, there’s no obvious reason for a wooden chest, even an enchanted teleporting wooden chest, to have a teleport-when-unobserved trigger on it. But who knows, maybe it’s being carried back to where it belongs by shy gnomes.

I’m afraid I can’t really say much about the game’s content: I didn’t see most of it, having given up after an hour and a half because I couldn’t solve even a single puzzle. I tried the author’s walkthrough toward the end, but the first puzzle solved therein — curing the player character’s collection mania by making a sleeping kitchen boy more comfortable — just convinced me that I was going to need the walkthrough for everything, which makes the whole exercise pointless. One of the remarkable things about interactive fiction, in contrast to static media, is that it can actually require the audience to understand it. A reader of a book can read the whole thing and still miss the author’s point entirely, and may not even realize this, but players of adventure games can’t make it to the end without having their understanding of the gameworld and how it works — which is to say, their understanding of the author — repeatedly tested. Bridging the gap between player and author is to some extent the point of IF, and it requires effort — collaborative effort, in which the player tries to understand and the author tries to be understood. When that effort fails, we say that the game requires “reading the author’s mind”. That’s what happened here.

Rating: 3

5 Comments so far

  1. Dan Shiovitz on 9 Oct 2007

    I got the sleeping boy right off the bat (it says he fell asleep with the window open, and looks cold), but then later I was reading the walkthrough for something else and saw you could pick up the beer stein, so I did — unfortunately, putting the blanket on the boy is the only thing that reverses the compulsive-pickup effect of the beer stein, so helping the boy first makes the game unwinnable.

    The chest was pretty mysterious. You’re supposed to use it as a boat in the moat (and then it drifts around the castle), so maybe this is related to that somehow — I didn’t see any indication in the game that the chest was meant to be magic, except that it held all those pantaloons.

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 10 Oct 2007

    Seems to me that having the chest disappear when you leave it alone makes sense when it’s in the moat. So that’s an explanation for how the behavior I observed could occur as a bug: the author just forgot about the possibility that the player might drop the chest on dry land.

  3. jepflast on 17 Oct 2007

    Another for the bug list: if you drop the rug in the chest, you can’t get it out, thus ruining the game.

  4. ralphmerridew on 31 Oct 2007

    I emailed the author, and he said he’d tried to get it tested, but couldn’t find any testers.

  5. Merk on 6 Nov 2007

    I thought about starting VIFTA.org — the Volunteer Interactive Fiction Tester’s Alliance. But I never followed through.

    I just found it *really* buggy. There’s a game-crashing bug when you tie the rope to multiple things. It happened twice, so I kind of gave up looking for the exact steps to reproduce it.

    I got the boy and the blanket right off too. I think the game would only become unwinnable if you then switch to the walkthrough (which you’re likely to do) and see the part at the very beginning with the stein. Presumably, you’d never be able to get into the chest in the moat (since you can’t be holding anything except maybe the keyring), but it was annoying enough to attempt an auto-purloin on everything that I actually undid that part and continued without it entirely. I got 100% without auto-purloin.

    It’s just a shame, though. With more polish and better-clued puzzles, I think it’d be *too* short. But as-is, it’s nearly unplayable. A stairway leads up from the laundry and then up again, but it’s never really clear that the stairway mentioned in the scullery *is* the one leading up (or that it goes up as well as down).

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