Beta Tester – review of IF Comp reviews

Beta Tester, by the otherwise unknown-to-IF Darren Ingram, is an interesting game to start surveying the reviews on. 

The opinions differ widely.  I speculated that it was a troll entry.  Two Swallows didn’t like it for the reasons I considered it a troll entry.  Yhlee bailed out, for those same reasons.  And Islemaster largely dismissed the game, calling it broken and talking very little about it.

On the other side, Pissy Little Sausage thought it was entertaining, but not a game; but she doesn’t mention the bugginess or find the humor remarkable.  Gamesjournal liked the game thoroughly.  Second Truth had trouble playing the game, but basically seemed to enjoy it.  Gruelove enjoyed it, even though, unlike Pissy Little and Gamesjournal he had real trouble with the game and didn’t like the pausing.

We’ll say that Pissy Little liked the game, as did Gamesjournal, Second Truth and Gruelove.  Their full positions are more complicated than that, but these seem to be the basically positive reviews, while the others — myself, Yhlee, Two Swallows, and Islemaster — were basically negative.

So, the decisive factor seems to be the player’s emotional response to the humor and the tone.  Including Islemaster is difficult in this analysis, because he says so little.  But, apart from Islemaster, *all* the reviewers who disliked the game mention disliking the tone.  And *none* of those who liked the game had a problem with it.

There were a few other issues that came up consistently for this game.  The player does not have a clear goal; the game has an irritating way of pausing; some considered it buggy or even broken; and there were complaints about the accessibility of the help system.

Let’s break it down.

humor/tone

pissy little sausage (-) doesn’t mention the tone, but she has a similar kind of aside-based humor.  For example:

Awww, little hamster with a little hamster head! I bet he’s also got a little hamster face and LITTLE HAMSTER FEET!
…sorry, I just finished menstruating. Let’s blame that.

Also, like the game, she can be pretty caustic.  I infer she didn’t notice the game was doing anything a player might find objectionable.  Gamesjournal *did* notice, and commented on it:

gamesjournal (+) wrote:

What pulled me into the game and kept me engaged was Beta Tester’s witty style which features a kind of good natured snark.
… While some players might be turned off by this snark I felt it was genuinely funny. The game is filled with many humorous asides and while a lot of the jokes are cheesy (the stand-up comedian in the restaurant stands out as such), and the corporate humor flat, most of them worked quite well.

gruelove (+):

All in all i think this is a very funny little gem of a fluff-ball – no higher praise is possible, trust me – it’s quite consistently amusing, xyzzy is implemented, which is always a must in any IF, it doesn’t take itself seriously but doesn’t overdo the silliness too much, but…
second truth (+):
This game has fairly clever text and I was pleased by it at first for that reason. It drops me in a puzzle room and gives me a puzzle to solve about ringing a bell. Not too hard to figure out and seemed to be implemented okay.

two swallows wrote (-):

For some reason, you’re also wearing a bunny costume. This does not add to the experience. … I feel like I’m being treated like an idiot. This theme continues; to make the experience even more unpalatable, the parser is abusive…

yhlee (-):

Yeah, I don’t think I can take the combination of puerile humor and endless. pausing. so. the. game. can. mock. you. or. say. annoying. things.

me (-):

We might call the style of the game pseudo-ironic.  It pretends to be ironic, but it’s not.  If you remember the adverts in Zork 2 for Frozzbozz Magic this-or-that — Beta Tester is written very much in that silly-advertising style.  But in this case, the player is being persecuted by the writer of that silly advertising, and it’s done in a way that seems to indicate that the author of the game intends for you to take it to heart as much as possible. 
 

pausing

gamesjournal (+):

The game uses a pause function which stops narration until the player hits a key. This allows Ingram to infuse his narration with a sense of timing that helps to punctuate jokes and gives the game a unique voice.

PLS (+): 
(not mentioned)

second truth (+):
(not mentioned)

gruelove (+):

Those god-forsaken pauses are a real killer. (final summation of an extended rant)

two swallows (-):

I can understand breaking up chunks of text, but when each section is one sentence long, I feel like I’m being treated like an idiot. This theme continues; to make the experience even more unpalatable, the parser is abusive, e.g.

yhlee (-):

Fuck, not another pause??? *stab stab stab stab stab* NO MORE PAUSING!  I have this bad feeling that this “feature” will be all over this game.

me (-):

There are too many cut scenes, even broken up as they are by the judicious use of the -Pause- feature… 

brokenness

islemaster (-) (islemaster isn’t mentioned in the other sections because this was his only comment on the game):

This isn’t cartoon logic – this is just not logic. Sorry, a game that’s going to play at being broken needs to be obviously not-broken… does that make sense?

gamesjournal (+):
(not mentioned)

PLS (+):
(not mentioned)

second truth (+):

This is the part where the game doesn’t seem as well-constructed all the sudden and I wonder if I’m experiencing bugs, or if the bugs are designed to be “charming” parts of the half-broken logic of the game world itself. The ‘Fun N Games Room’ has a lot of stuff that seems broken. Is it really broken or “charmingly” broken?

…Talking to Hellaine, or trying to, also nets really confusing responses. The game calls me “illegal object number.” Wait, is that a fake bug or a real bug?

yhlee (-):

None of the code was broken that I could see, but frankly, with the pause-and-read to actual action ratio of this game, it’s not like I have a good sample.

two swallows (-):

The following section of code will hopefully illustrate why I found this game almost unplayable:  (transcript excerpt snipped)

This is more than enough to make me want to stop playing. (Also, it’s parquet, not parquay.)

me (-):

This is especially a problem because the first puzzle (“get out of this room”), apparently though bugginess, doesn’t solve easily.  And the last thing you want when you’re trying to solve what is looking more and more like a stupid puzzle design is the parser mouthing off to you.

unhintedness

gamesjournal (+):
(not mentioned)

PLS wrote (+):

Oh, wow, this walkthrough is pretty great.

me (-):

And, although there are things to do, there’s not much meaning to them, because they’re cobbled together and they’re organized in a gauntlet:  only one series of room-solutions is available (at least, to the extent I played it — I think halfway through).

Also, there are no hints, help, or about.  (updated in the comments)

twoswallows (-):

The play is frankly boring and frustrating: puzzle after puzzle, in a world that feels like a hallucination and that doesn’t respond to simple queries. …

There’s also no ‘About’ text, only a set of basic play instructions which, as with the cut scenes, are divided into one-line sections that you read through by pressing any key. Interminable. I read on another blog that you can access a walkthrough by typing ‘walkthru’, but that’s naturally not documented anywhere. It feels like a spoof or a joke at times.

purposelessness:

PLS (+):

It’s interesting how people will create goals when given none. If I can get fed and boozed, then exit the game, I will consider myself to have won. Oh, man, dinner theater! Bonus!

If you’re going to bother to give me three different consumable food items for no real reason, you could at least give them different consumption text.

gamesjournal (+):

Beta Tester by Darren Ingram is a strange one. It’s a goalless game with an emphasis on just exploring its environment. There’s a couple puzzles and a couple games. All are fairly easy. I ended up liking it quite a bit.

The virtual world allows for surreal and illogical environments an any number of bizarre things. CogCo is presented as all encompassing but not malevolent. The game is just about exploring and experiencing the world Ingram has created.

second-truth (+):

After solving the hamster puzzle, I move in to what I guess is the free-roaming portion of the game. It sets me free to solve various puzzles in the environment if I feel like it, and want to, I guess. There’s not really a specific goal here but I can figure out that I probably want to get drinks and food.

gruelove (+):
(not mentioned)

yhlee (-):
(not mentioned)

two swallows (-):
(not mentioned)

me (-):

Fundamentally, the big problem with this game is that the user has no goal, other than perhaps “escape the virtual environment you’re trapped in.”  But that goal is implied only in passing.  You don’t feel it as a priority.

 

After reading the other reviews, and in retrospect, I’m more firmly convinced that this was a troll entry.  What makes it especially effective as one, unlike last year’s _Absolute Worst Game_ is that it’s not apparently a troll entry.  You’re left in doubt as to whether the author intends the game seriously or not:  What does the bunny outfit mean?  The mean humor starts off clever; and you’re game.  But it gradually comes around more and more to talk about “you.”  And, here, “you” is a character who’s beta-testing a game — just like you are.

Now, it may be that I’m just paranoid.  But it looks to me like the game is intentionally frustrating and badly specified.  But it sucks you in, because you’re not certain whether the bugs are intentional or not.  Then, if you have a lot of trouble with the first puzzle (which I did) and manage to solve it without the walkthrough (which I also did), you feel that hey-I-just-solved-a-riddle rush.  So now you *want* the game to be real.

I don’t know what the deal is with people playing it and not seeing that the game is hostile to them.  It seems to me those -pause-s are a dead gveaway.  But some seemed to really dig the hostile humor; one reviewer even argued for it.

It seems that what I’ll call “toxic” emotion is something like discordant music.  You can develop a taste for it; an appetite for it, even.  So to people whose emotional language includes a goodly dose of vitriol, _Beta Tester_ is business as usual.

Conversely, some just lucked out and didn’t hit the bugs.  But that didn’t seem to be the determining factor:  when reviewers didn’t find bugs, but objected to the tone (like Yhlee), they had a negative view of the game; when reviewers found bugs but thought the game was funny (like Second Truth, who blamed problems from bugginess on his own playing), they had a basically positive view of it.

So, there are at least two things that cause variation in a game’s interpretation.  We can call these objective differences in players’ perceptions of the game, and subjective differences.

Objective differences in perception depend on your literal view of the game — did you encounter a lot of bugs?  Did you get to the part where a particular thing happened?

Conversely, subjective differences in perception depend on your emotional language, and whether it matches with the emotional language in your playthrough of the game.  Notice that this could vary with your objective view of the game — different playthroughs could have different emotional tones.

For _Beta Tester_, it seems the player’s subjective perception trumps their objective perception.  If the game speaks the player’s emotional language, they’re more forgiving of any bugs they encounter.

Based on my experiences as a hypnotist watching people rationalize around their behavior, and seeing that even people like Pissy Little, who profess to hold technical excellence as a priority, liked this game when it matched their emotional language, I’m going to guess that _Beta Tester_ is not remarkable in this fashion.

Probably — I’m guessing that — _Beta Tester_ is remarkable only because it’s relatively clear that this is going on.  It is *extremely* hostile to the player without, however, *declaring* that hostility.  So players can respond to the hostility without acknowledging it.  And that emotional response tends to trump the response to the technical flaws.

And, it might do pretty well in the Comp.  People who were the most frustrated quit before playing the two hours required by the Comp rules to rate the game.  So presumably the people who rate it will be skewed toward those who missed the bugs and liked the tone.

A pretty clever troll entry.

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Published in: on October 31, 2009 at 9:43 am  Comments (7)  
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7 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. People who were the most frustrated quit before playing the two hours required by the Comp rules to rate the game. So presumably the people who rate it will be skewed toward those who missed the bugs and liked the tone.

    I’m not going to offer a comment on any individual game here, but as a general point my understanding of the Comp rules is that two hours is the maximum time a judge can play before voting, not the minimum, so that in principle people can quit and vote after 30 seconds if they wish.

  2. Eric is right: two hours is purely a maximum.

  3. “I don’t know what the deal is with people playing it and not seeing that the game is hostile to them.”

    I can’t say I enjoyed Beta Tester: the “brokenness” to some degree, and the “pointlessness” to a major degree, threw me off; I quit shortly after solving the first puzzle. I’m not quite sure what to make of the humor. Still I’m not sure I quite agree that the game is hostile. Or to be more precise, while there clearly is hostility going on, I thought the game actually satirized the hostility, rather than took part in it.

    For instance (inventing a modified example to avoid spoiling for anyone):

    “> flip switch

    You can’t just flip the switch. This Approved Flippable Switch just isn’t like that.

    PAUSE

    Obviously.

    PAUSE

    Instead, you have to mount the cannon upon the specially designated pad, put the special Switch-Flipping-Approved cannon-ball in it, light the cannon’s fuse using the gas stove with the automatic lighter, and don’t forget to plug in the stove to the generator which runs on solar power, so you’ll have to poke a hole in the roof to let the sun in.

    PAUSE

    THAT is how to flip the switch.

    PAUSE

    Obviously.”

    The incongruity of this — on the one hand, being told to do the most ridiculous things when one tries perfectly sensible actions; on the other, being told in a condescending or even hostile tone, as if one were very foolish or deliberately stupid — suggested to me that it was humor, in particular the brand of humor called satire.

    To tell the truth, it seemed to me to be commercial satire — satire of big business and government agencies — and I tended to interpret everything that way. The bunny suit, for instance, recalled to my mind the interfaces, levels of access, ‘contracts’ made by modules, and versioning procedures that are involved in any large-scale software project.

    Of course it could be — and perhaps this is your point — that the game is satirizing, not government agencies or big businesses, but you, the player. In which case it would be a troll entry. And as I think it over, I can see that plenty of points could go either way. Still, I’m not entirely convinced either way yet…

    But I’ve written too much already, especially given that I only touched on the last third of your post, so I’ll stop here.

    Newbot

  4. I have trouble seeing this as any kind of satire, or anything other than hostility to the user:

    (You’ll have to imagine the pauses.)

    >get on stage
    You step up on stage, the room goes dark and a spotlight appears out of nowhere shining directly at you.

    Pause.
    You stand dumbly for a moment in silence until you hear an old man yell, “Hey look! It’s someone new! Must be starting at the bottom!”

    Pause.
    Then a different old man yells, “And it’s been downhill ever since!”

    Pause.
    They laugh and begin again…

    Pause.
    The first old man starts in, “Aw, really, we’re glad you’re here! We’ve been thinking about you all day!”

    Pause.
    The second old man chimes in, “Yeah…we were at the zoo!”

    Pause.
    They laugh and laugh.

    Pause.
    The first old man reloads. “Why don’t you say something? You must be lost in thought.”

    Pause.
    The second yells, “That must be some very unfamiliar territory!”

    Pause.
    They laugh some more, the light fades and you’re left standing there.

    Pause.
    Humiliated.

    Pause.
    Alone.

    >

  5. For what it’s worth, the “illegal object number” bug appears to be something that only happens when you play in Parchment. (It happened to me in Byzantine Perspective as well.)

    I’d describe some of the other problems that two-swallows and second-truth mentioned as underimplementation rather than bugginess, if that distinction makes sense.

  6. I guess if the game was seriously trolling me, I never caught that exactly. I played this one pretty early on. My review is not “mean,” but I actually gave it a below-average score mostly because I thought it was buggy, and there didn’t seem to be much of a story to it.

    I didn’t realize the bugs I hit with the one NPC were Parchment bugs. I did play the game on Parchment as I mentioned during the review so that was probably why I was the only one to hit that wall.

    These meta reviews are pretty interesting!

  7. I think everything wrote was very reasonable.

    However, what about this? what if you were to create a
    awesome headline? I ain’t saying your information is not solid.,
    however suppose you added a post title to possibly get people’s attention? I mean Beta Tester – review of IF Comp reviews | OneWetSneaker is kinda plain. You might
    peek at Yahoo’s front page and note how they write article titles to grab people to open the
    links. You might add a related video or a related picture or two to grab people interested about what you’ve got to say.
    Just my opinion, it could bring your website a little livelier.


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