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IFComp 2016 Review: Steam and Sacrilege

Posted by Reiko on November 29, 2016

This is a review of a game from the 2016 Interactive Fiction Competition. Scoring criteria can be found here.

Steam and Sacrilege
Author: Phil McGrail
Format: Glulx

The blurb makes this one sound pretty awesome, like a steampunk missing-person mystery with a female protagonist looking for her husband. But right at the beginning I found myself confused and rather underwhelmed. You start in the lobby of the Automatic Hotel as the husband, who has the default “x me” description. The wife, Theresa, is carrying jewelry but there’s “nothing special” about the jewelry. At one end there’s a desk with a clerk automaton, but the clerk isn’t examinable. The desk description has an “it’s” error. Argh.

There’s also a curiously-dark stairwell to the north. Naturally I tried to go exploring up the stairwell since there was a clear compass direction. I couldn’t go more than one step before the game said it was too dark, and anyway, I’m not going to carry my own bag up the stairs. Okay, that’s reasonable. Then I forgot which direction was back to the lobby, so I flailed a bit. For some reason I can’t go down again. Then I got this response to “out”:

“The caretaker stands only a few feet away.  If you try to stand now, there will be a confrontation for sure.  Maybe you should continue to act as a captive until he leaves the room.”

What? I have no idea what this means. I can’t see any caretaker. There’s been nothing about being a captive yet. I think this is a misplaced message from later in the game.

I finally notice there’s a bell on the desk and try to manipulate it in various ways, but only “ring bell” does anything. The clerk activates and asks me to put a paperweight on a window corresponding to the number of people in the party. I do this and then it asks me to put it on the window corresponding to the number of nights to stay. I wasn’t sure, so I started with one, but Teresa just mutters, “Cheapskate” and nothing else happens. I moved it to two, and Teresa says something longly about wanting to stay for a whole weekend. The clerk didn’t respond until I put it on three. Clearly this plot is railroaded and I have to find the “right” answer.

Then the clerk produces a pencil and asks me to sign another window. I try “sign name” and it just says “The mechanical man probably wants you to write your full name.” Well, okay, but I can’t find any way to do that. I try numerous commands like “sign full name” or “sign last name” but the only response is, “I didn’t understand that sentence.” Even “sign” by itself isn’t understood. This is “guess the verb” territory at its worst. The explicitly telegraphed phrase isn’t even recognized.

I finally turn to the walkthrough in exasperation. There are multiple files. One of them gives a cheat command that will skip the player past this introduction. It even says, “Bored with all the railroading?” Bored isn’t the right word, and it’s not just the railroading. I’m exasperated with the thin implementation and guess the phrase requirements. Aside from that, I can’t tell from the names which walkthrough file will help me with the intro. Once I open one, I see that there seem to be five endings, so each file details how to play through the game to get each of the endings.

Anyway, I found the intro help I needed. I’d seen that there was a business card in the wallet in inventory that gave the PC’s name. But the author wanted the player to look at that and then write the actual name. As if the PC wouldn’t know his own name. Come on, this isn’t an amnesia plot (for once). Finally I stumble through getting the mechanical bellhop to take the suitcase, and the intro is over.

Now we start chapter 1, with an entirely new character, Miriam. I’m a little curious about the hotel, but I just don’t know if I can push through an entire game with this much fiddliness.

Miriam has a travel mug of coffee. I can drink from it once and the room description shows it as “partly drained.” Then I try to drink from it again and it says, “There is no coffee left.” And then it’s described as “empty.” So that’s incongruous. The response to “out” is still the completely nonsensical thing about the caretaker. And there’s an inventory limit, and a bag that can be used to hold extra items, but no automatic shuffling of items into the bag when you’re trying to pick up something else when inventory is full. Later I also found several places where compass directions didn’t make any sense. There are a lot of little things like this. It’s just not a very pleasant experience.

I used the walkthrough to reach an ending, but even so it wasn’t a true ending because the game allowed me to keep playing and exploring the hotel. The description of the room where I reached the ending didn’t change to reflect the reality of what I’d done, either. At this point, I’m really not very interested in trying to find more endings. This game is giving me a headache. It’s very ambitious, but needs a lot more testing and polishing before it will be fun.

Time: 1 hour
Scoring: base 7, +1 for multiple endings, -1 for guess the verb issues, -1 for inconsistent compass directions, -1 for spelling/grammar errors (its/it’s, etc), -1 for awkward inventory handling
Score: 4


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