The Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man review

I didn’t like this game at all until the end.  Then, at the end, I saw what the author was doing, and I laughed.

That didn’t quite make up for the troubles I went through to solve the game, which overall I consider to place pretty unreasonable demands on the player, but I was glad I stuck it out, as bailing out early would have left me with a wrong idea of what the game was about.

The overall problem with this game is that the puzzles are too random and unclued.  You have to go a lot of different places, where you have no particular reason to go, and work very hard to attain common objects for unlikely solutions to outlandish problems.

The game-world isn’t coherent.  It’s not fractured or illogical; any one thing that you run into is acceptably possible.  But when a whole bunch of things that are, any one of them, “acceptably possible,” are piled up together, without any connections between them, the result is weird and random and disconnected.  This could have been avoided by placing important locations and items in the player’s mind:  when I look outside the apartment window, I might see a certain building, and so on.

To some extent this randomness is deliberate — I believe the author is going for a kind of zany.  But if you want the player to get to the part that’s zany, you have to lead him through the rules and the system.  Show him how things work normally, and show him again and again, before you expect him to take advantage of them in a zany way.

At some point in the game, it was so random that I commented, “Do I get a babelfish in my ear by the end of this?”  —  But, remember, the babelfish puzzle was well-clued.

Three times is a pattern; if you’re going to have something happen in the background, show it happen three times and I’ll probably pick up on it.  Otherwise, have something non-obvious happen in response to something obvious the player can do (like push a button).

There was a very nice puzzle having to do with something in the trays on the secretary’s desk — which was ruined for me because I didn’t notice the trays as something important, and then the hint file immediately gave the solution away.  But, that was right puzzle design.

Wrong puzzle design was when, just before that, I had to unwittingly kill someone to advance the plot.  The hint file made it clear I had to kill him; I steeled myself to slaughter the virtual innocent.  But then, despite having the advantage of being invisible, I couldn’t do anything.

The correct solution involved doing something I had no reason to believe would have lethal effect.  And when I did it, my PC expressed surprise at the result.  I could accept that as a contingency that the game’s prepared for, in case the player does something weird, but not as the primary means of advancing the plot.

There’s nothing wrong with a game about a character who’s an accidental killer — it could be an interesting premise — but here, it reflects an author who wants to talk out of both sides of his mouth.  The PC is a killer — but he’s not one.

Particularly, it was a problem because the PC keeps talking about his long-considered plans.  Then, to have him so unprepared that he has to accidentally kill someone to move forward with those plans…  it just didn’t work for me.

Can anyone tell me — what is it with IF, where the author tells you you have a master-plan, and then refuses to give you access to it?  Even well-respected games do this.  It bugs me.  Am I in the PC’s head, or not?

In movies, there are generally two kinds of plan-based stories, both exemplified in heists.  One is where the audience is only given the barest hints as to what the plan is — you are told what will be accomplished, and with what tools, but not how it will be done.  This for the purpose of getting you to exclaim, “How ingenious!” when you see it done.  And the good ones are pretty clever.

The other is where the audience is told the plan up-front, often these days with a computerized zoom-through, so you can see how it’s supposed to work.  Then, things go immediately wrong, and the heisters improvise cleverly.  And you’re prepared to appreciate just how clever they are, because you know how things were supposed to work out.

This second kind of plan-based story I think IF could do quite well, provided that you could come up with an alternative for the computer zoom-through to establish the plan firmly in the player’s mind.  The first kind of plan-based story I think is a serious problem for IF, in that it relies on the author deliberately withholding information the player *should*, by the rules of the narrative, have access to, in order to make the player’s life more difficult.

In the case of _Believable Adventures of an Invisible Man_, we had a plan-based story where the PC had to improvise his way into a position where he could implement his mysterious plan — at which point it was taken care of automatically.  But as players, we can’t understand that that’s what’s happening, so the PC’s plan looks random and incoherent and weird, and we have no means of understanding what’s going on.

I think most people will be intolerant of the PC, because he’s so weak and mean-spirited.  A strong writer might be able to make that work, by setting up a distance between the PC and the player with clever use of  the narrative voice.  But this author seems to want to put the player directly into the head of such a character, and players will resent that.

Finally, I see what the author was getting at with the ending, but the problem is that the effect of it is out-weighed by the accidental murder and the business with the dog.  For something like that to work, you really need it to be the strongest effect in the story, or anyway to have the other stronger effects support it, rather than fight against it.

Overall, the programming was fine — no bugs that I could see — and the writing was effective in its tactics (the PC comes across as intended), but not in its strategy.  Similarly, the game design and presentation of puzzles work from a bad strategy.  A word on that:

The author needs to have a strategy for communicating to the player the player’s (usually the PC’s) strategy for winning the game.  That means that, when the player does something approximately close to the intended behavior, the game responds in an interesting and encouraging way; and that the game lures the player into behaving those ways that get them to the initial feedback.

The good news here is that, with the proper design strategies, I think the author will do really well.  He already has the programming and putting-words-together skills to make some pretty good games, and from the tray puzzle I can see he has a knack for applying clever logical thinking to physical situations.

Published in: on October 12, 2009 at 5:12 pm  Leave a Comment  
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