IFComp 2008: A Martian Odyssey

An author known only by the name “Horatio” gives us an adaptation of the 1934 sci-fi story by Stanley G. Weinbaum. (A seeming violation of Rule 1, but apparently it’s in the public domain! Project Gutenberg has a copy.) Spoilers follow the break.

The funny thing is, the game gives no indication that it’s an adaptation. I hadn’t heard of the Weinbaum story (or, indeed, of Weinbaum), and didn’t realize that this wasn’t an original story until I glanced at Victor Gijsbers’ review. But even before I knew, I got a distinct golden-age-of-sci-fi vibe from it. It’s got the band of scientist/explorers braving the unknown with the rocketships they invented personally. It’s got the hostile alien fauna that can be driven off with simple violence, and the unexamined sense that violence is the appropriate response to it.

The story is this: In a flyover observation of Mars, your personal rocketship suffers a malfunction and goes down. You have no alternative but to trek back to the mothership on foot. On the way, you save a birdlike Martian from a tentacle monster — naturally, the things that look oogiest to us are the bad guys — and it becomes your companion on your journey as you sightsee more weird lifeforms. (And there is some nicely inventive stuff in this fictional biosphere.) Eventually, you get rescued and leave your alien friend behind.

Apparently in the original story the companion was called “Tweel”. When I played, this name was only mentioned once, towards the end, prompting a “Huh what?” reaction. Replaying it a bit, I discovered that you can in fact learn this name as early as your first encounter by talking to it, something that I didn’t even try at that point, on the basis that we didn’t share a language. Yes, communication is mentioned in the subtitle of this game, but I was trying to communicate with my actions, handing it objects and so forth. And anyway, communicating with a bird didn’t seem terribly important to progress in the story at that point. I only started asking “Tweel” about things when, in a later scene, it startled me by spontaneously uttering the word “rock”. Where, I wondered, had it picked up this word of English? Had it met an earlier lost expedition?

What I’m getting at is that we have here one of those communication failures that I talked about in last year’s Comp notes. Horatio wants to tell me a story, one that assumes I’ve been talking to Tweel all along, and I’m not getting that story. I’m getting a different one. But unlike last year’s examples, this lack of understanding is not an obstacle to completing the game. I can’t decide if that makes it better or worse. There’s a certain amount about the endgame that I didn’t understand at all, such as why I need to go into the barrel-creature hive in the first place, and now I have reason to suspect that it’s because I missed the explanations. As usual for adaptations, the whole thing is probably best appreciated with knowledge of the source material.

On the technical side, the game really needs to handle commands better. I was stuck for about forty minutes at the very beginning because when I tried to cut some straps off a chair with a “portable laser emitter for cutting rock samples”, I got the default “Cutting that up would achieve little” response and gave up on that approach. It turns out that you have to shoot the straps. Later, when the sun set and the game refused to let me walk any farther, I found that the game wouldn’t let me go to sleep either. Apparently the author didn’t know that the default Inform command set includes “sleep” and expected us to signal an intention to sleep with “wait” instead. I don’t mind that “wait” works in this situation, but I’d like “sleep” to work too.

Rating: 4

1 Comment so far

  1. Skeet on 23 Oct 2008

    Where, I wondered, had it picked up this word of English? Had it met an earlier lost expedition?

    There’s a throwaway line that I nearly missed… as you set out across the landscape with the Martian in tow, it says something to the effect of ‘you talk to the Martian (despite the language barrier) out of sheer boredom.’ I assumed that this is where it picked up the few fragments of English. Shame the PC was too dim to pick up a few word of Martian (Tweelian?) in exchange.

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