Review – What Once Was

This Quest game is spread out in four dimensions. It is set on a university campus, and the protagonist is an OWUPSOABD (over worked, underpaid, stressed-out graduate student), who discovers that his mentor is missing and suspects that it has something to do with their experimental time travel project.

For those that haven’t played, I have some advice to offer: first, check out the help command. The response is short, but note that this game includes the verb “use”. Most of the time, the game is looking for a more specific verb and when a non-standard verb is required, it is usually clear from context or suggested in the wording of a prompt, but if nothing else seems to work, the game might be looking for “use”.

I was stuck for quite a while at one point because I forgot about “use” — the walkthrough is more conceptual than procedural, so it doesn’t help with specific phrasing. I only managed to keep going by watching Lynnea play through that part of the game on her twitch stream.

The other piece of advice: wear physical protection from the puns in this game. I prefer sharp wit, but puns are almost by definition bludgeoning.

There are a lot of puzzles in this game and many are people-centric, i.e., they revolve around finding the right person to help with a specific item and then figuring out what motivates that person or what you need to give that person to get the job done.

If I recall correctly every NPC encountered has some relevance to the game, so it behooves players to examine everyone they come across and to take in their surroundings. Talking to NPCs is also helpful in some situations, but only if you nail the topic exactly. Otherwise, responses will be unhelpfully generic or you will just be ignored.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

The difficulty of the puzzles runs the gamut from obvious to “needs walkthrough”. Some of them will be difficult for some people, but not others. I found the puzzle to get into the lab difficult, but fair. I just wasn’t thinking in the right vein when I approached it. Maybe on another day, that puzzle would have clicked. At the other extreme, I would consider the puzzle involving the boulder to be a possible roadblock in the game. The solution isn’t too bad, although it’s a bit magical in an otherwise fairly realistic world, but there is no cluing that it is a puzzle at all. Getting past that puzzle is required for game progression, though.

Regarding general implementation, the game goes broad but shallow. Not all objects are implemented, and neither objects nor NPCs are described in detail. Dialogue is brief and speech topics are limited.

In general, this level of detail does not impede game flow, but at some points it is a liability. For example, when the game calls for some sort of small metal object to shim the cartridge into the time machine — that’s pretty vague. I don’t think I would have guessed the required item without looking at the walkthrough. I would also argue that for such a generic purpose, any number of items in the game might have fit that description, and perhaps should be allowed.

The university campus is large, and mostly open for exploration. Like first day on most campuses, it seems overwhelming, but after playing for a while becomes manageable. A map feelie would have been appreciated, but is not strictly necessary.

The story would benefit from additional proofing for spelling (“You consider these traps rather cruel, so you decide to caerphilly unset the trap”) and punctuation.

Since it’s sci-fi and set in an academic setting, a pass from a technical consultant might also be in order:

* The plush toy “in the shape of an Ecoli virus”? E. coli isn’t a virus. Or is just how a physicist views biology?

* The “small super-computer, the size of six filing cabinets in a row. Controlled by the temporal algorithm cartridge they make thousands of calculations per millisecond”. The original IBM-PC ran at 4.7 Mhz, surely a modern supercomputer would manage more than a few million calculations per second.

* Not real science, but as a matter of internal consistency — how does Professor Weck enter the temporal field without a time suit?

Finally, I’d like to address the use of online hosting for this game. It’s not the game’s fault, but I found the platform annoying. I played this game slowly with a lot of breaks. From time to time, I hit the wrong button and changed webpages, losing progress since the save point. Similarly, a few times I timed out and had to re-enter a substantial number of moves. Eventually, I got the hang of saving frequently, but it’s kind of a pain.

One drawback to playing parser-based games online is the inability for the user to generate transcripts. I like to have the transcript so I can remind myself of what I did if I come back to the game after taking a break. They are also useful to have on hand for writing reviews! Most importantly, they are a helpful source of feedback to the author.

I did run across one program bug. I am used to the convention of issuing indirect commands to NPCs by using the form “[NPC], do something”. It looks like the game treats this as indirect speech, and is expecting a routine that would handle it:

> phil, come

Please choose which 'phil' you mean:
1: Phil the PostDoc
2: Scribbled note from Phil
Error running script: Error evaluating expression 'DynamicTemplate(defaulttemplate, object)': No template named 'DefaultTellTo'
Error running script: Unexpected menu response
Error running script: Unexpected menu response

I had to lean on the walkthroughs and some external help, but I did enjoy the game. I would have liked to have seen more exploration of time travel, but also recognize that the game couldn’t have been much longer as an IFcomp entry.


Story: 8

Voice: 7

Play: 7

Polish: 6

Technical: 7


Preliminary Score: 7




2 thoughts on “Review – What Once Was”

  1. Dear Jack, love reading your reviews. Would you review my interactive fiction? It’s a choice based, dark humored survival horror game and has just been released on Steam. I would be happy to supply you with a Steam Key!

  2. Sure, I’m by no means a professional reviewer, but I’d be happy to take a look and write it up. Could you send me an email and point me towards it (dhakajack ++at++ gmail ++ com)?

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