IFComp 2010: Pen and Paint

Owen Parish, author of last year’s out-of-Comp game Cacophony, brings us more surrealism. Spoilers follow the break.

As you doubtless noticed if you followed that link, I had some problems with Cacophony: it was a game based on often-unclear dream logic, and it had major bugs that seriously got in the way of divining the author’s intentions. Pen and Paint gets on a better path pretty quickly, giving the player a reasonably clear set of goals. It doesn’t spell things out completely, mind you. It provides some overall direction and lets you fill in the gaps by experimentation. Best of all, it manages to do this while keeping some of the surrealism that made Cacophony so promising (and, ultimately, so disappointing). For example, in the starting location, there’s a seashell that’s been retrained to produce birdsong instead of ocean sounds. The bathroom has a mechanical musician, installed to accompany you when you sing in the bath. And so forth.

The player character is a writer who lives with a painter. In the middle of the night, something malign gets into the paintings and set things subtly askew. You have to set them right from within, using the power of prose to project yourself into the worlds depicted. But before you can write, you need inspiration, in the form of evocative sensations. For example, to get into the painting depicting goblin miners, you need the smell of damp earth and the sound of rhythmic tapping, both of which can be found somewhere inside the house. This is an interesting technique for making the player pay attention to sensory descriptions, and in particular to go around smelling things a lot. There are four paintings to be processed (in whatever order you choose), which means there’s a certain amount of repeated structure, which, in moderation, is generally a good thing in adventure games — particularly in surreal ones, where it gives the player something other than reality to build expectations around.

So there’s some good stuff going on here, but unfortunately, I can’t ignore the bugs. I only noticed two, really, but they’re fairly big ones. First, and relatively benignly, one of the puzzles seems to be already in its solved state when you first encounter it. There’s a part where a certain action results in the death of “the dancing plants”, which confused me when I first saw it, because it was the first time any dancing plants had been mentioned. There was, however, an adjacent field full of plants that were already dead. Well, at least this doesn’t get in the way of playing the game; it just means that the players miss out on some of the intended content. Probably some people won’t even notice the problem. For my part, it provoked an “Uh-oh” reaction. If this slipped through, what else might have?

And indeed there was a worse problem to come. I spent the last half hour or so of my session scouring every inch of the house for the final bit of missing inspiration that would let me into the last remaining painting. It turns out to be an object that’s not mentioned at all, nor is its presence reasonably guessable: some flowers located in the dining room. After consulting a walkthrough to find out what and where it was, I conducted a particularly thorough search for any mention of it within the game, looking inside and under everything for some some bit of descriptive text that I had missed, but no, it’s just not mentioned at all. My best guess? There’s one object whose description contains an extra period at the end. That could mean another sentence that wasn’t showing up for some reason.

I was inclined to like this game at first, and I really hope it gets fixed. But in its current form, it’s basically unsolveable. This game credits three testers. Did they not get this far or something? Perhaps the bugs I noticed were only installed in the process of fixing other bugs? Notably, even though the game is unsolveable, it doesn’t seem to be unwinnable. Automated testing scripts, of the sort that Inform 7 makes easy, won’t notice niceties like missing descriptive text, as long as the commands work like they should.

Rating: 2

[UPDATE] It turns out that the game actually is solveable, provided you notice another bug. Every painting requires two inspirations, but if you’re missing one, you can use the other one twice instead.

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