Earl Grey Review

Okay, I really do not like tutorials.  I don’t like them because they’re on rails, because they’re usually tedious, and because they’re generally either presentations of things I know or I don’t care about, yet.

This game starts out with an unskippable tutorial.  But, the tutorial is part of the story.  And it’s entertainingly written.  I still didn’t like it, though.

Earl Grey is a fractured interactive fiction of manners.  It starts off like it’s going to be an IF of manners, but takes a hairpin-turn and becomes a spoof.  And it’s pretty impressive that it can successfully spoof an IF of manners, that it can convey that to me, when I’ve never played one.

Still, I didn’t like it.

I didn’t like it because, first, it’s on rails.  I have really no options other than to follow the script given to me.  And I have to follow that script in a very linear, persnickety fashion, where generally only one command (besides taking inventory and looking around) is available to me at any time.

Second, more often than not I couldn’t figure out what that next command was.  I eventuallly resorted to the walkthrough, and the walkthrough very quickly failed me.  It apparently anticipated that the state of the game would change in a way it didn’t change.  So I was stuck.

That is, I might not actually have been stuck; the game might still be winnable.  But I have no way to understand how to proceed.

Worse than the on-rails, guess-your-one-next-move difficulty, alternate commands that really should have been considered only give you, “Something holds you back.”  As in, you try to walk through an open doorway, but something holds you back.

At first, there were reasons given for these mysterious holding-backs.  But they got more and more tenuous, until finally I was just getting “Something holds you back,” with no in-game explanation whatsoever.

So, basically, you have no agency (at least, not for the duration of game-play before I got stuck) and you have to read the authors’ minds.

For all this, in the little grade-book for IF that I keep in my heart, I have to give this game a failing grade.  But that’s really too bad, because clearly the writers worked their collective butts off and the game is really very clever and well-polished.

So I want to talk about what the authors did right.

There’s a new game mechanic, a kind of magic based on word-play, that reminds me of Geoff Forty-Two’s magic trick in last year’s Comp.  The community response to that one was, generally, that it was really cool and under-implemented.  Even though it would be a killer problem to implement it thoroughly, the problem was that you kept trying to use the magic trick on things that the game wasn’t programmed to allow.

_Earl Grey_ implements its magic far more thoroughly; and yet, not really thoroughly enough.  That is, the asserted system — the way the magic is supposed to work — is more flexible than what the game has been programmed to allow for.  And, what it has been programmed to allow for is obscure enough that it’s really tough to get without some leading.

(At least, that’s what I found.  But it relies on a kind of crossword-puzzle-esque cleverness with language that I’m not good at and that I never found interesting.  Some people really do like this kind of word-game, and might feel entirely differently about _Earl Grey_.)

I’m not sure how to make a magic system like this work in IF.  The color magnet in _Lost Pig_ was probably about the right level of restrictiveness and freedom:  that is, it was apparently free, but there was a natural limitation on how you could use it (an object’s color), that allowed the author to control and direct the player’s efforts.  And it allowed for some cleverness and problem-solving while still being hinted.

So, the magic system is well-implemented, but not sufficiently limited in-game for the player (me) to wrap his head around the actual limits of the programming.  And I’ll say that could well be half my fault, for not being crossword-puzzle clever.

In general, the writing is very good.  It’s clever and funny without being spiteful; you and another character play mean tricks on one another, and it’s light-hearted rather than viscious.  Altogether, the action of the game is zany in a way that really dovetails with the mechanics of the magic system.

It’s very well-done.  I didn’t like it.

I didn’t like it because it was zany without susbstance.  There wasn’t anything going on that I cared about.  The PC’s goal was a stupid one, which is fine, but it was a stupid one that the game itself didn’t take seriously.  The initial, apparent obstacle was stupid in a way that distanced me further; and then when things went wrong, such that the actual obstacle showed up, that did nothing for me either.

So, I didn’t care.  I don’t know exactly what it is about zany humor that makes it catch, but, reviewing different zany movies I liked in my head, I think there’s usually a fundamentally serious topic.  The humor comes in a serious matter being treated frivolously.

When a frivolous matter is treated frivolously, it doesn’t catch.

Finally, the whole game struck me as kind of … gay.   This may just be how I interpret the men-acting-frivolously thing the game is doing, or it may be deliberate, men acting vaguely gay often being considered funny in our culture.

You start off getting instruction from Eaves, an elderly monastic-looking man; he teaches you how to turn big, hulking, menacing gladiators into *doors*; when you do magic, your fur-covered runebag leaps and twitches in your hands — yeh.  Kinda gay.

Overall, the authors can definitely write.  They have great control of tone.  I’m pretty impressed by the way they put words together.  And, they can code.  Until the walkthrough failed me, I had absolutely no problems with bugs.

But, IF must be written broadly.  There must be room to explore, either physically, or conversationally, or in the mechanics of the magic system.  That means the player must be given free-range over some territory, even if limited.

Without that, the thing isn’t a game.  That was the problem here:  the story was very restrictively on rails.  Also, I had no emotional investment in the story.

But, with the level of writing and the (over-) cleverness of the puzzle design, I have great confidence in these guys’ further efforts.  And it’s very possible someone who’s better at this kind of word-game would enjoy _Earl Grey_ tremendously.

Published in: on October 6, 2009 at 5:49 pm  Comments (1)  
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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. As far as I can tell, there’s no way to actually get stuck. :)

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