Gator-on review

This is an imperfectly good game.  But it’s so good that its imperfections don’t hold it back much.

Gator-on has one particularly ingenious puzzle, involving the clever combination of the behaviors of several game-things.  The solution is sensible, creative, and conveyed without being hinted, not obvious without being hidden.  It’s really cool.

This puzzle is just good logical thinking on the author’s part, of exactly the kind that IF rewards so well.

The following puzzles, I felt, weren’t quite up to the same (very high) standard.  They follow the same apparent pattern, being very lightly hinted — but a little too lightly, I felt.  There were times that I didn’t quite understand what was happening.  Once I had switched vehicles in a manner I didn’t understand until resorting to the walkthrough.

The author makes great use of the simulator:  the behaviors of in-game world objects are carefully modeled and the game results are logical follow-throughs of the coded physics.  This is all very impressive.

This focus on game physics has some powerful results.  For one thing, it means that you can very easily put yourself in an unwinnable situation.  (In the About text, the author likens making such mistakes in Gator-on to making environmental mistakes, and urges the use of UNDO.  If only environmental mistakes were so easily undone!)

For another thing, you can break the narrative.  You can get into a certain vehicle, and then get into it again, with the result that the engine tells you you put the vehicle in the vehicle, so that it’s there next to you, and then gives an Inform error about infinite regress.

Also, there’s a device you can remote-control, the full ramifications of which the author hasn’t accounted for.  But you know when you’re playing outside the narrative, and the narrative is so fun that you’re quite willing to go back to it.

There’s another class of problems the author, Dave Horlick, had with Inform.  The default messages were often unhelpful, and apparently Dave had great trouble over-riding them.

This goes a bit beyond the usual trouble Inform makes for its authors, with things like:

>sing
Your singing is abominable.

and:

>think
What a good idea.

Here, we have some new trouble with Inform 6 default behavior.  To avoid spoilers, I’ll change things around a bit:

You are carrying a box (which is open), inside which is a do-dad and a thingamagig.

–Now, I couldn’t figure out why on Earth the thingamagig was in the box.  It didn’t make any sense.  And, what was worse, I couldn’t get it out.

Finally, I realized that the game engine was trying to tell me:

You are carrying a box (which is open), inside which is a do-dad, and a thingamagig.

–In other words, I was carrying the thingamagig as well as the box.

Sometimes such insufficient management of the default engine behavior was a bit intrusive:

In the fuchsia-colored vehicle you can see a fuchsia-colored helmet.

>x helmet
It would look like an ordinary fuchsia helmet if not for the coils and integrated circuits that decorate its interior.You see nothing special about the fuchsia-colored helmet.

Also, I got some ending text that ran something like this.  I’m heavily editing this to de-spoiler it, both changing the objects and munging the writing style.  But the nature of the thing makes only so much de-spolierization possible. 

S
P
O
I
L
E
R

Highlight it to make it visible:

>kill enemy with weapon
You deliver the enemy a decisive blow with the weapon! It thrashes and dies.  It looks like the good guys have won this round.
Violence isn’t the answer to this one.

    *** You have won ***

— As you can see, violence *was* the answer to this one.  The default comment is badly out of place.

But for all that this was a persistent problem in the game, it was minor.  The game carried it.  More problematic was the unhinted nature of the solutions to the second half of the game.

At one point, you’re operating heavy machinery that will kill you if you do something wrong.  This is learn-by-dying, which is largely considered bad game design.  Gator-on is built to require lots of undos and save-restores, but I think this could have easily been avoided, for example by having the threat of death come gradually closer and giving the player a few minutes to panic, rather than blatting him out in one turn.  Also, while the solution to that one was technically fair, I thought it really ought to have been hinted, at least a little.

There’s a combat scene, which is nicely descriptive and engaging, but utterly unforgiving, so far as I can tell, in terms of what you do when.  You simply must do what the author has in mind at the time he has it in mind, and in one case this involves a new verb which, again while it technically makes sense, is a made-up word and not real English.

Even worse, while the author has very strict expectations of you, there’s again almost no leading to direct the player to those behaviors.  Frankly, I don’t think the game is solveable without the walkthrough.  Not even with exhaustive use of the hints.

Now, that’s a serious game-design problem.  And if the game weren’t so much fun and if the earlier puzzles weren’t so ingenious, it wouldn’t be able to carry it.  But it is a remarkably well-written and well-thought out game, and it does carry it.

There is, however, a more serious problem.  This is a sin of omission:

There are no conversations in the game!  Even though there are quite a lot of NPCs, they *all* refuse to talk to you, for one reason or another.

For one thing, the game badly needs a conversation to vary the pace and the style of interaction.  For another thing, you have no idea what you’re doing or why you’re doing it until the very last scene.  Even the barest motion toward filling in those blanks early — through a conversation with a talking extra who, like Batman’s butler, is just there to have conversations with the main character, perhaps — just the slightest hint that would give you a notion of the general direction of the story — would give this game the sense of story development it needs to be really satisfying.  And also, it might give us a sense of the stakes involved:  Why are the Everglades important and how are they being threatened by the enemy?

This is not the best game in the Comp — Broken Legs was better — but it has some of the best puzzle design and physical simulation I’ve seen in a long time.  So far, I can certainly say that it kicks the most ass.  I strongly urge the author to take care of the custom messages, to cover those loop-holes in the physics, and to flesh out the story a little, and enter this in Spring Thing.  I think it’ll do really well.

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Published in: on October 9, 2009 at 6:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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