Reiko's Ramblings and Writings

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IFComp 2015 Review: Koustrea’s Contentment

Posted by Reiko on November 30, 2015

This is a review of a game from the 2015 Interactive Fiction Competition. Scoring criteria can be found here.

Koustrea’s Contentment
Author: Jeremy Pflasterer
Format: TADS

This is a dreamy Myst-like tale of a strange house and its stranger occupants. Draydee sits eternally waiting for a door to open. Zeolt listens to music. Quaichloy endlessly watches football. Towsimoom meditates. Lubandhu…well, nobody’s really sure what he’s doing. And Syorcia is missing.

I had two problems with this game, one of which would have been less of an issue outside of the time constraints of the competition. The house isn’t really that big, but there’s a lot of back and forth talking to people and uncovering clues and looking for objects and such. I found it to be both a bit tedious and a bit aggravating when I was just trying to figure out what something did and what connected to what. Plus there are a lot of hidden objects and interactions. When I got stuck and turned to the hints, I eventually found that there were items hidden all over the house, including in the starting area, buried in descriptions of things I never thought to examine because they looked like scenery, or buried behind actions I never thought to take because they weren’t cued by the descriptions.

Motivation was also an issue. At the very beginning, I got the impression that my goal should be to get the door open so that Draydee could stop waiting. The door’s relevant (although I’m still not sure what effect triggering it actually had) but it never opens. I remember entering the house and thinking the transition from a beautiful stone hall to a sports bar was rather jarring. That’s just the nature of the house; it’s rather a patchwork. But even after I explored the house, I still had no idea what I was actually supposed to be doing. I talked to all the people, asking them about each other and some of the things in the area, but wasn’t enlightened. I turned to the hints and started accomplishing a few things but without knowing why other than “because I can”.

I think the intention was that I was supposed to talk to the people more and get information from them on where some of the items were, but they were sometimes unresponsive about topics that seemed relevant, so I had a lot of trouble finding which topics would elicit information from which people. I’ll use Quaichloy as an example: he’s only interested in his football, so he’ll talk about the other people in the house or about his teams, but almost nothing else. For instance, he has nothing to say about the door, which seemed very odd at the beginning when I thought opening it was my goal. In that same area, the bar will provide beer and cigarettes if you order them, but that’s completely not obvious because there’s no bartender; it just looks like an ordinary empty bar. But if you ask Quaichloy about the bar, he’ll tell you it’s automated and you can order what you want. In other words, there’s no way to figure out how to use the bar just by examining it; the information is buried in the NPC’s knowledge. Maybe some people would randomly try “order beer” just to see whether the game will complain, “There’s no bartender here to take your order!” and then be pleasantly surprised to find it inexplicably works, but I’m not one of them. Anyway the beer is mostly irrelevant, but the cigarettes aren’t.

Eventually I started following the walkthrough because the hints weren’t giving me anything to work with. I’m sure I missed some backstory somewhere; this is a very subtle game, too subtle for me. For many actions, I never saw any way to know what I needed to do before I did it. For instance, (minor spoiler here), the walkthrough talks about “activating the beacon”. What beacon? How was I supposed to know there’s a beacon? How was I supposed to know that activating the door did something with the beacon? The walkthrough says at least once, “skipping the clues that lead to this…” Since the walkthrough did include some early commentary on gathering clues and talking to the NPCs, I would have liked more direction on understanding what was going on later in the game, too.

There’s also a lot of waiting and examining needed in a few places, so much so that there’s an extended “wait more” (zz) command to run a bunch of turns in a row. There’s no time limit or anything, but it’s an indication of the subtlety of the piece. One particular object must be examined literally thirty times to get all the needed information from it. That’s…kind of excessive. It seems like there could have been a better way to handle that. Either make each of the pieces individually examinable with more of a description, or only require one or two extra examine commands to get the PC to look at it in enough detail. All you really need is enough of a sense of what the pieces show so that you can recognize them in another context. That doesn’t really require memorizing all thirty of them.

TADS is used to good effect with sounds and sometimes objects detectable from an adjacent room. Actually, since most parser games don’t do this, I got a bit confused early on in the bar when I was trying to interact with Quaichloy but he was in the adjacent TV area. I didn’t find any bugs, though, and I never had any guess the verb problems. The only issue I had at one point was having trouble getting down off something I was standing on without going to another room. The response to “down” in the cellar was “you can’t go that way” even though it worked when standing on something elsewhere in the house.

So overall, this game is very well-written, with quirky NPCs, interesting puzzles, and a lot of amusing responses to optional actions. It’s just not at its best in the comp where I’m trying to play it in two hours after having played twenty-some other games. It needs to be read through very carefully and thoroughly, and it’s too dependent on finding the right conversation topics with the NPCs in order to get critical information. Maybe Spring Thing would have been a better place for it to be released? I hope it will get the attention it deserves and not get buried in the sea of shorter, more straightforward pieces in the comp.

Time: 2 hours+
Scoring: base 7, +1 for puzzles, +1 for interesting NPCs, +1 for amusing optional actions, -1 for lack of motivation, -1 for information buried in conversation topics
Score: 8

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