Review – Word Of The Day

This is an obsessively detailed parser-based sci-fi story that took me the full two hours to play, albeit not all in one sitting. The richness of the game’s background, character backstories, and the number of rooms and detailed objects in them more than makes up for however many stories I have criticized as under implemented in this IFcomp.

The amount of detail is at first overwhelming, but I am sure it is only a fraction of the world that this author has generated. I don’t doubt that in creating this game, the author generated extensive histories of each alien world and extensive character sketches for each character, but had to make some tough choices about how much of this material to hold back on in order to condense the story to two hours of playing time.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

The main character, Kareene Veet, starts the game on the bridge of a starship, disoriented by whatever disaster has just befallen the ship. She is trapped under a dislodged panel and can’t focus on anything else, so the player has an immediate sense of urgency, and instead of examining every object on the bridge and snagging all the knick-knacks within reach, Kareene is forced to focus on freeing herself. After that, surrounded by bodies of other crew members, she can begin to try to piece together what went wrong.

During the first part of the game, the player spends a significant amount of time exploring the ship, which provides the author a chance to gradually fill in background: what is this ship, what was its mission, who are the people on it, what are the larger political and cultural settings, and what current events in the world could influence the story on the ship?

It is a ton of exposition, but it is all interwoven into description of objects or mentioned in Kareene’s thoughts. The reader is never confronted with a solid wall of dense text; all the necessary background is broken up into digestible bits. Not all of it ties together immediately, so there is some burden on the reader to file it all away for future reference, but even at a fairly early point the reader can sense that the various threads will eventually come back together.

Nonetheless, at the start, the game world seems to expand exponentially and the reader may be anxious about keeping track of everything. A few minutes of wandering the ship is enough to understand that it is huge and that some sort of map is going to be necessary. A map is not included in the feelies, so I initially presumed I would need to draw one. However, the game’s extensive help system indicates that there is a “map” command. I tried it and got no response — it turns out that just a few turns later, the player comes across an in-game map, and from that point forward, the map command displays the map in the interpreter.

There is a lot of running around the ship in this game, and until the map burnt itself into my memory, I found it indispensable to have the map available for reference. The map command is a nice feature, but on my laptop screen I could only see the map for one or two moves before it scrolled away. To make my life easier, I screen captured the map and kept it open in another window for the rest of my sessions. I’d recommend doing that.

What seems like a sprawling canvas becomes manageable over time, and the game does its part by literally gating progress by locking or unlocking sections of the ship. Whenever I had explored all that there was to see and do in one section, I would hear a distant clanking denoting the furtive movements of another survivor. The mechanism is transparent, but works well enough in terms of story.

In addition to the game map there are two other classes of items that players need to keep track of: crew members and messages. Until the final part of the game, all of the crew members that Kareene encounters are dead, and their deaths do not look accidental. Every time she runs across a body, we learn not only their name, but what what Kareene remembers about them. As we search the bodies, we find out their role on board their ship, bits of their backstory, and gain insight into their personalities. The game also keeps track of how many crew remain unaccounted throughout the story, as this is one of Kareene’s top priorities.

On an television show, twelve crew members would not represent an unusually large cast, but any given episode would only be able to focus on at most a few of them. Over a season, the crew could gel into an ensemble, but we don’t have that luxury in a two hour game. So, I would like to suggest that the game would benefit from some sort of customized tool to keep track of the crew in the same way that the map command helps the player organize the physical space. Since this is a futuristic story, such an aid could be implemented as an in-game object, for example some sort of duty roster listing name, rank, shipboard duties, planet of origin and perhaps an area where Kareene has jotted notes as she learns about each crew member.

Along similar lines, Kareene finds a ream of interstellar messages as she searches the ship. As a body, they are a major source of information in the game. Each one is time-stamped, so the player is able to read throgh them and piece together a timeline of events up to the explosion on the bridge.

I picked up the first few messages in game, read them, and not knowing what to do with them, stuffed them into my carryall. After a half hour, I began to wonder if this was what the author had in mind. My carryall was stuffed full of the things. Once they are in inventory, they are jumbled up with everything else, which makes for a long and disorganized list. Here again, I think the game would have benefitted from some sort of assistive technology to put them in order — for example, if each printout had a QR code that could be scanned into a device that would then sort by date and list them by topic like emails, they would be more manageable.

These are fine points, though. The player doesn’t know it, but it really isn’t necessary to track all these details — the story will play out, regardless.

As written, I found the game enjoyable and very playable from start to finish without reference to the walkthrough. The author does a great job conveying Kareene’s (not all that likable) personality. She is alone for most of the game, but when we do finally meet other characters, the dialogue flows naturally. The plot is not elaborate, but it is strong because it plays on the background that the player discovers in the course of play. I did enjoy the ending that I reached, maybe not an objectively good outcome for society, but a brilliant success from Kareene’s point of view.

Evaluation

Story: 7

Voice: 8

Play: 8

Polish: 9

Technical: 7

JNSQ: 0

Preliminary Score: 7.8

Transcript: wotdScript

 

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