IF Comp 2009: Earl Grey

EarlGrey2As has been my practice for the last few years, I’ve set my RSS feed to truncate entries so that I can post reviews without spoilerage. Within an entry, there is a short, spoilerless discussion (though the comp purists may want to avoid reading even that before playing for themselves); then spoiler space; then a more detailed discussion of what I thought did and didn’t work in the game.

I’m also pursuing an approach I came up with last year: I’m playing and reviewing games that have listed beta-testers, and skipping those that don’t. Last year that turned out to be a pretty fool-proof indicator of which games were going to end up scoring 4 or less on my personal scale. I’m hoping this will mean I have more time to devote to the remaining games, which in turn will (I hope) be of higher quality, and you, dear reader, will have fewer rants inflicted on you.

Now up: Earl Grey.

You too can play it if you download the comp games, or even try it online.

Synopsis: a highly surreal wordplay game in the general spirit of Nord and Bert, where you manipulate objects by adding and removing letters. Lots of inexplicable and unexpected events, mostly linked by commonalities of words.

It’s sufficiently surreal, in fact, that I don’t think I would have gotten through it without a walkthrough, because the things that you’re allowed to do/supposed to attempt are so startling.

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I like the mechanic here. My sense was, though, that some things weren’t accounted for (why couldn’t I turn the lance into a lace, for instance? I guess perhaps because it’s too improbable a thing to be pierced with). And there were many moments where I couldn’t act because the scene hadn’t cranked around to producing the object I needed to act upon — but I didn’t realize that the right thing to do was talk to one of the characters another six or seven times.

The unpredictable puzzles and surreal setting, together with a plot that brought new things into and out of play constantly, and the opportunities to die if you miss the timing of an event, made for a situation too strange for me to manage by myself. Though I kept trying to get away from the walkthrough, I returned to it again and again.

That said, there were a lot of things about this game that I did like: the writing has a lot of charming asides, there are some evocative moments (though the whole sea ion collection sphere business was… really weird), and I liked the gimmick of the internal commentary at the bottom of the screen. Narcolepsy did something a bit similar, but few other games provide a running update on what the player character is thinking. Here it acts both as a source of jokes and as a series of hints, and in this game I felt like I could very much use any kind of direction or hinting that might happen to come my way.

5 thoughts on “IF Comp 2009: Earl Grey

  1. On positive to losing-by-death is that the game doesn’t end. The PC reconsiders his actions, and you jump a few turns back automatically. This happens multiple times at the end, and I found it a nice alternative to having to spam multiple undos, or manage separate saves.

    As far as I can tell, you can’t lose *or* make the game unwinnable, although I get the impression (now that I’m reading other reviews) that there isn’t a strong enough in-game push to make it clear that’s the case.

    • I think you’re right about the deaths; the thing is, though, that the player needs to *know* that he’s safe in order to be able to play on that assumption, and I didn’t feel confident for all of the game. In particular, I let the sea lions drown the first time by accident and was then afraid I’d ruined things for myself.

  2. My lack of comprehension actually worked to my advantage in that scene, because I had already been through several day/night “ion” scenes and never developed a sense of urgency. So when the same thing happened with the lions, I was more interested in how Eaves’ lice came back rather than what was going on with the sea lions. By the time I was hinted toward doing “more” for them, I’d already established that the cycle was simply going to repeat anyway.

  3. I wanted to like this, especially because the overall mechanic reminded me in many ways of a punnier Adventurer’s Consumer Guide. But, like Emily, I just constantly found myself wanting to do things the coder hadn’t thought of. Sixteen play-testers seems like a lot (as a player and not a coder, I don’t really know), but perhaps even more would have helped.

    I really wanted to make the ogreling more deferential by turning its deep brow into a deep bow. I did laugh out loud at the glance/lance joke, though.

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