IFComp 2007: Beneath

Beneath: a Transformation by Graham Lowther is apparently based on Worms of the Earth and other Bran Mak Morn stories by Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan. Spoilers follow the break.

A couple of days ago, someone said online that he had found the game with the best status line in this year’s comp. I’m pretty sure that this is the game he was talking about. In addition to listing your current location and the number of moves you’ve taken, it says “A segment of your brain is atrophied”. Now, there’s an introduction! It sets a tone for all that follows, and makes it easy to think of the player character as slightly damaged. It may be my imagination, but the descriptions seem to reflect this: they’re just a little off in tone, all short declarative sentences and a little disconnected. The game develops this unease further: sneaking into a police station (for no reason other than that I can), I overhear some sinister plotting including comments like “That thing shouldn’t have any contact with the human race. It should be dropped into the earth, back where it came from, and walled off permanently…”, shortly before being captured and locked in a dark cell with something that drives me insane, ending the game, when I touch it. Just when I was starting to think that this year’s comp was all lighthearted comedic stuff, too.

Now, at this point you may be asking “Police station? In a story about Bran Mak Morn, ancient Pict king?” Well, I’m not familiar with the original stories, so I can’t say how much it really has to do with them. There’s some kind of ancient, slumbering sentinel on the opposite side of town who might be a character from the book, but the setting is roughly modern. The prices in the stores are oddly cheap, suggesting that it might actually be set several decades ago, possibly during the 1930’s when Howard was writing, but maybe the author just doesn’t know how much things cost in America. A futon in the PC’s house makes the latter seem more likely.

Now, the rest of this post is going to consist mainly of complaints. Maybe I’m being too harsh on the games this year, giving up too soon. I just really dislike resorting to walkthroughs. It’s a sign of a communication failure, and if I’m going to trust a game after that, I need some sign that the failure was on my end.

The first communication failure in Beneath happened at the very beginning, although I didn’t realize this until well after rating it for the comp. The game starts with the player character emerging from a library with a copy of Worms of the Earth, and the introduction mentions that you want to finish reading it. But I found that any attempt to read it simply repeated the same brief description of the book, so I dismissed that as mood-setting, not an indication of a goal. It turns out that I was supposed to use the verb “open” rather than “read”. Doing this introduces a goal (find a place with better light), and successfully reading all the way through it might even provide the player character with additional motivations. Having missed this, I had to play with a completely unmotivated character. This is not necessarily a bad thing — plenty of adventure games expect the player to explore just for the sake of exploring, and I’m willing to do it. But here, it meant that I wasn’t getting the story that the author wanted to tell.

That’s just the beginning of a trend of unreasonably narrow expectations of what the player will type. There’s a pet shop that seemed at first oddly devoid of pets — all it had for sale was a cage, a fish tank, and a box. But when I tried to buy the tank, it turned out that I was actually buying a tadpole that I hadn’t noticed when I examined the tank because I hadn’t specifically said to look inside it. And in the same pet shop is the thing that made me abandon the game. After an hour of no progress, I finally looked in the walkthrough and saw that I was expected to spontaneously type “ask man about expense”.

I can see what the author was thinking. The cage contains a dog that you need (although I still don’t know what you need it for), and you can’t buy it with the money you have. The author even provides an indirect hint by having a customer in a different store successfully haggle a price down. The thing is, the price isn’t really an issue. The asking price is only 80 cents (as I said, the prices are bizarrely low), and you have access to a dollar bill. The only reason you can’t buy it is the exact-change-only policy imposed by the interface. (Commands like “buy dog” produce the response “Just pay the man the right amount”.) And even if you did think of arguing with the proprietor, it’s pretty certain that no one is going to think of “expense” as a conversation topic. And it does seem to have to be that specific word; other commands, like “ask man about price”, “ask man about cost”, and “haggle” don’t produce the same result.

If anyone reading this has in fact bought the dog without hints, I’d like to hear about it. My suspicion, based on a couple of odd word choices elsewhere, is that English is not the author’s first language, and that the word “expense” was chosen as an English equivalent for a foreign word that would have been more guessable. The lesson here is to provide multiple ways of doing things. Synonyms are good. Alternate actions are better. Would it really hurt the game to allow me to buy the dog with a dollar bill? It could hardly hurt it more than not allowing me to do so did.

Rating: 3

3 Comments so far

  1. malkav11 on 8 Oct 2007

    Frankly, I completely missed the purpose of almost everything the walkthrough has you do, with one exception (the coffee shop is a well-lit place that allows you to read, but you have to buy something to make use of it). It was nicely atmospheric, but so badly suffers from “guess the author’s intention” syndrome that I would have found it quite uncompletable without the walkthrough.

    The expense bit does follow on from the conversation the walkthrough expects you to have, kind of, though. How I’d be expected to know to have that conversation…well.

    This is, incidentally, why I don’t have much love for the venerable ask/tell conversation interface.

  2. Carl Muckenhoupt on 8 Oct 2007

    Hm. Looks like you’re right: the word “expense” is used in the shopkeeper. So you don’t have to spontaneously think of the word “expense”, you just have to ask the shopkeeper about every noun he uses. Personally, I think I gave up on the shopkeeper as a conversationalist when he failed to respond to “pets”, “cage”, “tank”, and “box”.

    Also, now that I’m trying his own words on him, I find that “parrot” produces the same response as “expense”.

  3. Merk on 15 Oct 2007

    I never thought to haggle the price down, no. I got almost the entire solution to the whole game out of the walkthrough. I *really* relies on a lot of precognition that most any player can’t possibly know.

    Also, my review’s up at the infiction forum.

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