IF Comp 2012 – Andromeda Apocalypse

Last week was a tough one for IF: I’d played through a few underimplemented games in a row, and I was getting grumpy. I’d rather write positive reviews than rant on about poor grammar and unexciting plots, so the good news is that I just played Andromeda Apocalpyse and Irvine Quik and the Search for the Fish of Traglea, and both have restored my faith in IFdom.

Both stories were fun. Yeah, game theory is great, but when you come down to, as much as interactive fiction is an art form, I don’t really appreciate it unless it moves me in some way. One of the most effective ways to move me is for me to have fun and really get interested in the plot. Then, I’m not just plowing through screens spotting typos, but actually engaged in the story and looking forward to seeing what will happen on the next screen. It’s the difference between reading a novel through to the end because it cost $11.95, and dammit, you’re going to get your money’s worth, versus that feeling of regret when you hit the last page of an engrossing novel all too soon and know that there’s no sequel.

Starting with Andromeda Apocalypse, I guess the good news is that there may be a sequel, because Andromeda itself is written in a shared universe that builds on prior works. I’ll admit that I didn’t play the earlier games, but I did read their reviews on IFDb. The backstory is helpful to know, but I thought it was reasonably laid out in the current work, so it would be fine to just jump into it directly. The other good news about Andromeda Apocalpyse is that there is no mention of Kevin Sorbo.

More Apocalyptic Comments after the spoiler break

I know that a lot of reviewers don’t like sci-fi themes or think that they are overdone in interactive fiction, but this is what I eat up: space ships, aliens, and technology. Within that genre, I’d say that Andromeda leans towards serious space opera, while Fish of Traglea takes a more lighthearted and eccentric approach, more in the vein of Hitchhikers Guide.

Andromeda’s author has a large, detailed world in his head, and we’re clearly scraping the surface in this story. These details are a lot to take in at the beginning of the piece, and it is challenging to keep it all straight and know what will be important. Nonetheless, at the end of the story (or, of this installment of the story), most of it does make sense.

My first impression of the game came from the graphics that are included in the package. Rummaging through the zip file, I found reminders of my vogages to date — a postcard and a train ticket. These two items are faux-aged, and the author must have spent some effort on the excellent photoshopping of these items.

I took a leisurely spin through the game, not really sure where it was going at first because it starts with a back story flashback or day dream. What’s impressive about this scene is how deeply implemented it is, even though it’s not really part of the action/adventure portion of the game.

I wandered on the beach and did whatever came to mind. Typical actions such as digging, entering the ocean and taking shelter from a storm were well-handled, but the game also did a great job with more exotic inputs. Clearly, some clever beta testers have beaten fiercely on this game and the author took their feedback to heart.

The game has a limited approach to conversation, but it is adequate to expose information in a helpful and natural-feeling way. The protagonist, Ektor Mastiff, has two conversation partners in the course of the game: his uncle Oren and the ship AI, Logan. There’s not much you can say to redirect Oren, but that’s not inconsistent with these scenes being more like fixed memories.

The AI provides information that is absolutely vital to the game’s progression. I appreciated the game’s nod to language differences between the alien AI and Ektor — the AI does not magically understand English, but must learn it from sampling the Voyager recording and Ektor’s speech. It does this with incredible speed and ease, but for the sake of not spending months playing the game while the computer studies irregular English verbs, I can accept this narrative shortcut.

The AI rolls out a huge list of interrelated topics, which gradually make sense. This certainly beats trying to guess an entire universe of topics. Beyond that, Logan has location and context-specific things to say, which point the player in the right direction and keep the plot moving effectively.

The plot unfolds alongside the player’s exploration of an alien ship’s layout. The alien ship is supposed to be huge, and I had that feeling while playing the game, even through most of the areas of the ship are not accessible. The game map is larger than most in IFcomp 2012, but none of it is padding.

Pacing is brisk but not forced and accelerates towards the end of a the story with timed elements that raise the stakes and test how well players have mastered the ship’s geography. Pacing is regulated in the earlier game by interconnected location-based puzzles; once one is solved, the player can get a little further and then has to solve another. I found the difficuly level just right. Because the puzzles have you chasing all over the ship, you come to know the ship well by the end of the game. There’s probably no need to draw a map because it will be drilled into your memory.

Story: 9

Sometimes individual episodes in a grandiose galactic history are incomprehensible to anyone but the author, but that’s not the case here. This plays well as a self-contained episode. In this story, Ektor must escape the alien ship, but first he has to understand it. While he is puzzling out how to get off the ship, he is also mulling over some bigger issues – the loss of his homeworld, the mysterious nature of the Hyerotopes, and the morality of destroying the alien ship and its AI to fuel his own survival.

Voice: 8

Although this is primarily an action story, the writing is evocative. Sometimes the writing sounds awkward or overly formal, but I think that is a byproduct of English not being the author’s first language. Despite that impediment, the author’s intentions are clear, and the imagery sets this work apart from a simple dungeon crawl in space. The protagonist has limited opportunity to develop a voice, because he spends most of his conversation time asking questions. The real star is Logan, the AI, who repeatedly states that he is limited by his programming, but manages to convey a number of emotions. Logan may be a strong contender for best supporting NPC in the XYZZYs, and one of the few I’ve encountered so far in this year’s IFcomp (a zombie’s left foot being the other).

Play: 10

I played the game end-to-to-end in about an hour and a half, and I always had new ideas to try out and new areas to explore. The story kept me engaged right up to the end, and I went back a few times and played from saved positions to try out various permutations. I did die once without warning, but that’s forgiveable since I was able to undo my way out of it.

Polish: 9

It was refreshing to see detailed descriptions of items that included all senses and to be able to drill down through descriptions and find out that mentioned items themselves had detailed descriptions. Beyond just location and item descriptions, the story provided some narration of how the protagonist felt, and what his actions could mean.

If the author is planning a post-comp revision of this game, it would be great to have a few native English-speakers run through the text just to smooth out a couple spots, for example, to fix some false cognates that must have gotten past the spellchecker, but that don’t make sense in context.

Technical: 9

I don’t recall encountering any bugs; certainly, nothing that mattered to the overall story. The game included a number of extensions, some more helpful than others. From a navigational perspective, I loved the exit lister that capitalizes directions that haven’t been explored. I wasn’t as crazy about the sounds, although I did like the final song quite a bit.

Average: 9

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