Review: The Owl Consults

By Guillaume Brocker - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1041705
Photo by Guillaume Brocker

This is a lovely premise: what’s worse than a crime lord? A crime lord consultant! Compared to a convention of consultants, lawyers, or lobbyists, the the Mos Eisley Cantina is a kindergarten. Dr. Owl has an ideal job for someone whose stock in trade is pure cunning: he provides advice at a distance so he can reap rewards but not expose himself to danger.

The consulting mastermind does, as I had predicted, bear some resemblance to Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, Dr. Moriarity, although in this case, Dr. Owl is not so much evil as amoral. He maintains a laser focus on his bottom line. He’s not out to ruin anyone’s day, but if there is some collateral fallout along the way, it’s not his problem.

[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]

The game falls into a category of parser IF in which the player controls multiple agents and can shift perspective between them. The brilliance of this implementation is that the player is actually controlling one player character, Dr. Owl, who within the framework of the story is merely providing advice to two other actors. In game terms, I suppose that they are NPCs, but they are so fleshed out that they feel like co-PCs, if that term makes sense.

It’s a mechanic that could have gotten hairy, but I think the authors found an ideal way of carrying it out. By convention, giving advice to someone over a communication link could have been implemented as a conversation (talk to, tell, etc., versus some sort of menu system) or by indirect command, as in “Dirk, shoot the robot”. However, in this game, the player sees a prompt, “Line 1>” or “Line 2>”, which makes it intuitively clear that they can directly control either client, with the implicit understanding that the clients are smart enough to do exactly (as well as they can manage) what Dr. Owl recommends. It took a moment to get used to the idea that when I typed “inventory”, I was not looking at the main character (Dr. Owl’s) inventory, but that of the client “in focus” at the time.

The writing is solid: not as highbrow or period as that seen in Chandler Groover’s Eat Me, but it sets every scene clearly, conveys a sense of motion and progress, and integrates description of all of the game objects without feeling mechanical. This game will be a strong contender across several categories of XYZZY award including awards for characters and puzzles.

The two clients are unusually well realized. There is no mistaking one for the other. Each has quirks and abilities, but what is most striking is that they see the world differently. The fantasy setting is a little hard to place along a time line because Dirk RADON (great name) sees the world through the thick, leathery goggles of an early ATOMIC era scientist, while Amelia approaches the world with a Victorian perspective (albeit one more in keeping with steampunk traditions of strong female leads).

The game makes use of some standard parser IF puzzles, such as unlocking doors and drawers, obtaining incremental access to the map, and acquiring color-coded cards to gain privileges, but all of these things are done smoothly within the text, and most of them require that the player exploit the central mechanic of the game: switching perspective between the clients. After reading a few room descriptions from each client, it’s clear they not only see the world differently, but they are capable of seeing different things looking at the same place. Dirk, for example, knows the ship down to its rivets. There are no secret places on the ship for him. On the other hand, Amelia sees nuances that he doesn’t and not being so constrained by ego, she is willing to do some things that he is not.

Each character also has one unique ability, which is introduced immediately and which is essential to make progress and ultimately win the game. For Dirk, it is his quirky superpower of being unirradiable. Is that even a word? For Amelia, her ability to briefly take on characteristics of animal matter that she eats.

Timing is everything in this game — a lot of the actions are necessarily sequential, and some require quick switches between perspectives. There are points where player needs to conclude that they’ve gone as far as they can go with one character or where the player needs to envision a sequence of events where one client sets up the action of the other.

A real joy in this game, which is especially well paid off at the end, is that Dr. Owl is manipulating everything that is going on from his armchair. He can never let his clients meet (although the player should, because those scenes are fun), and of course, Dr. Owl has his own plans and is really playing his own game at a higher level, wherein Amelia and Dirk are his pawns.

Stepping out of review of the story, I’m curious about the writing process for this work: there are three authors. After IFcomp, I would like to hear the story about how they collaborated on this to divide the work and what tools they used.

Some random final thoughts:

1. Amelia is introduced as a famous cat burglar. She also gains the ability of any animal she eats. Just saying.

2. The Telepathic God-Slug of Madagascar. This story was going to get a “Je ne sais quoi” point anyhow, but as I am very likely the only judge living in Madagascar to play this game, I appreciate the shout out on behalf of the country. And our slugs, telepathic or otherwise.

3. It would not be horrible if there were a sequel at some point.

Evaluation:

Story: 9. A fun tale with strong setting and characters.

Voice: 9. Take your pick: Owl’s, Amelia’s, Dirk’s.

Play: 9. Some of the puzzles are difficult, but none are unfair. Perhaps some could be clued just a bit more or hinted at adaptively after a while. Adaptive hints, i.e., ones that only appear as needed, would be preferable to a static help menu, which gives some spoilers about challenges yet to come.

Polish: 10. This game has been extensively proofed and must have gone through heavy play testing as well.

Technical: 9. Everything including POV switching works well.

JNSQ: 1

Preliminary Score: 10.2

Transcript: owlTranscript

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