So I finished! Won! Yay!
(No, you don’t understand. That was REALLY HARD. I don’t remember the last time I was playing a game with this degree of obsessive absorption… “Blue Lacuna” was also absorbing but in a different way, as I spent a lot of time kind of floating pleasantly around and/or inactively stuck. Here I spent a lot of time actively stuck, trying and retrying solutions…)
Anyway, some only-very-mildly spoilery remarks after the cut.
This is a murder mystery, sure, but you soon realize that more is required of you than finding odds and ends of clues under the beds. And when that happens, a huge vista opens. Jon has five very active NPCs at work, all of them with their own ideas and their own abilities to affect the outcome. Not only that, but the protagonist needs to work out a strategy for himself, and he needs to stick to it in detail.
In terms of design, that’s both awesome and scary, and it imposes a number of requirements that “Make It Good” only partly copes with.
One of those requirements is for really extensive and rigorous testing. There are a lot of things that work really well, and then some others that didn’t, at least in release 1. (Release 4 was a significant improvement; there are probably more improvements yet to go.) I completely sympathize with this, given how many times I rereleased Savoir-Faire during its first week of existence.
But it was unusually frustrating to play with in this particular case because the bugs interfered with figuring out what was going on, and the field of potential for the player was so very wide; so any time there was a buggy moment in the NPC behavior it shook my faith in my ability to work out what was really going on.
A second requirement is that, when the player’s attempt fails, the reason for that failure needs to be clearly enough indicated that the player can effectively revise his plan for next time. “Make It Good” partly accomplishes that: your sidekick policeman helps you sort the implications of your evidence (just as your sidekick does in the considerably briefer, easier, and less grim “Act of Murder”), and there are some helpful nudges from many of the wrong endings. But it’s still very possible to get yourself 95% of the way to a winning solution, have found just about everything there is to find, and yet somehow not have it click into place and work.
People sometimes remark that writing IF is like playing IF (all that puzzle solving) and in a way that’s true.
This game builds that the analogy in the other direction, though: playing “Make It Good” is like writing a program. You try your solution, it doesn’t quite work, you debug and play through it again. And again and again and again. And again! and again and again.
It is, in my opinion, harder than “Varicella”, where you’re ticking off puzzles on a list and you get closer to having them all solved on each playthrough; in “Make It Good” the whole plan has to be orchestrated to work, and you can get amazingly far in putting together a completely ineffectual solution before deciding to scrap the whole thing and try a different approach instead. (This is also like programming.)
I used a lot of saved files — but that ultimately wasn’t nearly as helpful as using Zoom’s built-in Skein function to pick a particular point earlier in the game, replay to there, and then take things in a new direction. “Make It Good” had some moments that were like debugging a really heinously annoying project with unspeakable problems in it. I just wanted to scream.
But, you know, I kept playing.
There’s a lot else that could be said here: that it’s very odd to play an “American” detective noir story in which the spelling and some of the diction is insistently British; that I don’t understand how certain events didn’t make even more of a mess than they did; that a few of the human emotions involved seem a little flatter and more convenient than I can quite believe in. Also, that Jon Ingold has strange notions about where to put a semi-colon.
I also spent a lot of time thinking about how challenge and complicity interact, and the fact that if a game makes it hard to do something, you may be drawn to keep battering on at that goal even after you’ve realized that it is not something you, the player, approve of.
At the end of the day, though, this is a piece with a really, really clear sense of what it wants to accomplish, what it’s trying to do, and part of that involves a wonderful sense of openness to the player. There are puzzles, but solving them doesn’t feel like doing something the author laid out for you to do. It feels like making a plan. It’s a brilliantly effective illusion when the bugs and a few irritating design choices don’t get in the way.
And I’m pretty sure I would have liked this game rather more again if I hadn’t spent those final 4 or 5 hours of frustration on it — if there had been some hints to turn to to get over the last hill. It will be even better when some of the remaining bug/quirks have been ironed out.
(Speaking of which, my general guide to solving the game is in the comments here — scroll down to the end of the page. But really, don’t look at it until you have to; it is well worth putting a fair fight into this game. There’s a ton to get.)