IF Comp 2009: Broken Legs

Screen shot 2009-10-04 at 7.46.18 PMAs 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.

Currently: Broken Legs.

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

Hrm. There’s a lot I like about this: the situation is novel, the writing is pretty entertaining; after a while the protagonist started to grate on me, but she was supposed to. (Why is this a different situation from another game I recently played and quit early, where the protagonist was also arrogant and cruel to other people? I’m not sure. Believability may have something to do with it; possibly the quality of the writing.)

There’re lots of clever crafty things going on here, and the NPCs must have involved a lot of work. It reminded me a bit of Sting of the Wasp (similar amorality and social manipulation puzzles), but more credible, deeply implemented, and polished.

However, I found it way too hard. I knew what I was supposed to be doing in general, but the specifics weren’t clued well enough for me to formulate and follow up on my plans. I turned to the walkthrough a lot, and finally followed it verbatim. I wish I hadn’t had to do that, because I liked almost everything else about the game.

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Given a workable premise, some amusing puzzles, and good implementation, the design is the biggest problem. To break it down:

1. There is too much content here for two hours. It’s possible to get through the walkthrough in that much time, but not to figure everything out. Without the time constraint of the comp, I would probably have spent more like four or five hours on this game; perhaps more.

2. It’s quite difficult as the player to figure out what to concentrate on at any given point. There are two aspects to this:

A. All the NPCs are available at once, so you can talk to them and try to mess with them, and call your mom and ask for hints about them, simultaneously — but in fact you aren’t in a position to work on all of them at the outset. I spent a while working on Rosanna, and called Mom for some advice about her; but it was far too early for me to take her out. So I wasted a bunch of interaction time dithering around with the backpack, trying to tell Rosanna to take it and such-like. A design that made it more sharply clear that you had to get rid of each character in order would have eased the difficulty somewhat.

B. Important objects aren’t always flagged up enough in descriptions, and this is especially problematic because this is a very verbose game. The protagonist’s logorrhea is fine — it’s part of her character — but it means she notices and complains about lots of things, and it’s not always clear which of those things is remotely important. E.g., why should I know that the foam matters when the peeling paint elsewhere doesn’t? That Alexandra’s character shoes are more than a personality motif, when her pants, her hair, and her makeup aren’t implemented? Similarly I didn’t notice the existence of the insanity motet until the walkthrough drew me to it, and since examining Audrey II didn’t give me the idea it was likely to have contents, it didn’t occur to me to try SEARCH.

Finally, 3. A few of the logical chains are a bit too tenuous, and the hints don’t help enough. I realized I needed to get Rosanna to intervene with Kassie, and Mom gave me some cryptic hints on the phone that she… needed to know what to lie about, whatever that meant. But why should I assume that she needs the orientation memo to do this? It presumably would be possible to make up a plausible lie without it. Things like that. Likewise, setting up Kassie to do the swap of Alexandra’s shoes: I tried telling Kassie what to do, I tried giving her the alternate shoes and motet, etc. None of that worked, nor did it make it clear why it failed to work. It did not occur to me that Kassie would be more cooperative if the props she needed were stacked on the couch.

So… yeah. I wish this had been easier, because it had a lot going for it, and I would have enjoyed solving some of these puzzles myself.

On the other hand, I still think this one of the best games I’ve played so far in this comp. The twist at the end was unexpected and satisfying. Moreover the gameplay positively sparkles with ideas: calling your mother for hints, being able to replay the game with the commentary from the other judges, the multiple layers of walkthrough where you can get just the gist or a specific list of instructions. And it’s very welcome in a competition where a majority of the other entries (even the fairly well-executed ones) are rehashing settings and premises seen many many times in IF.

Plus the cover art is awesome.

8 thoughts on “IF Comp 2009: Broken Legs

  1. I was a beta-tester on Broken Legs (and also drew the cover art, so thanks for the comment) and I think of it as a game in the tradition of Varicella–a scheming PC, lots of people to manipulate, challenging puzzles–so it never seemed to me as though this was something that had to be solved in one go. (And the writing is so strong you can play through two or three times without getting tired of it. I still have four games yet to play, but I’m pretty sure “Why isn’t your shining working?” is this year’s funniest line.)

    I think the difference between this and Invisible Man is, in a way, the quality of the writing. Broken Legs‘s narration is clearly, consistently the internal narrative of a particular narrator whose judgement isn’t reliable. There’s a little of this in Invisible Man, but there are also a lot of default responses and other generic interactive fiction bits, so the nastiness seems to extend past the PC to the entire game and even into the walkthrough (which seems to think “bums” are universally evil).

    For example, when you arrive in the Invisible Man’s office, the secretary is listed as though she were an inanimate object (“You can see a secretary, a dustbin (in which is some shredded paper), a desk and a small table (on which is a coffee machine) here.”) Maybe it’s meant to indicate that the PC doesn’t think any more of her than he does of the dustbin, but because this is Inform’s default behavior it looks like the opinion of the game itself.

    • I think of it as a game in the tradition of Varicella–a scheming PC, lots of people to manipulate, challenging puzzles–so it never seemed to me as though this was something that had to be solved in one go.

      Yeah, that’s completely reasonable. This is one of those games — like to some extent Nightfall last year — where I think it would have been a better play experience if it had been released outside the competition: the expectation that you’re going to be able to finish a game in two hours leads a person to approach it differently.

      I would have played in a different way, and probably solved more and enjoyed more, if it had been presented outside of comp as a medium-length game where replays are expected.

      I think the difference between this and Invisible Man is, in a way, the quality of the writing. Broken Legs’s narration is clearly, consistently the internal narrative of a particular narrator whose judgement isn’t reliable.

      Yeah, fair point.

  2. I sensed that this game was very strongly influenced by last year’s Violet, but is of course in its way much more ambitious. I wasn’t quite as taken with Violet as were most judges last year, and my objections to that game are largely the same as my objections to this one: what begins as a charming and unusual narrative voice eventually becomes long-winded and grating (for me, anyway), and (most importantly) the game is just too damn hard. We managed to derail the first girl (Kassie) with help from Mom, but had no clue what to do with the second girl (Alexandra), even when making use of Mom. When we finally consulted the walkthrough, we were irritated enough by what we found to just quit playing.

    None of which is to say it’s a bad game at all. It’s one of the strongest I’ve played so far, in fact; I gave it a 7. But if the puzzles had been a little bit more fair and the writing toned down and edited just a little bit (without losing its distinctive voice), it could have had a 9 or a 10.

  3. I didn’t even discover calling mom until I’d played for at least 2 hours, and when I realized the actual premise of the puzzles and that they were order-dependent, I got frustrated and gave up.

    But I loved the narrative voice (obviously I have no problem with annoying female protagonists) and I’ll definitely at least go through the walkthrough after reading the comments here.

    (The “shining” line is totally great.)

  4. This is the first IF I have ever played in my life, and I love it. Love love love. I did find it incredibly difficult and I did have to resolve to use walkthrough a lot, the whole time I just assumed it’s because I am so new at this sucking is part of the learning curve.

    The writing is whip sharp. I can see that the protagonist could grate on some players, in my case it is so refreshing to be able to play such someone that I can’t sympathise in any ways of what so ever, I loved the removal of reality.

    SPOILER WARNING

    My only complaint regard to the plot is the ending, and this is something I don’t think I can do better in either. Lottie is a callous, manipulative person, so I don’t understand why she’d take the risk of physically assault Mary especially now that Mary had been emotionally disturbed enough to not be able to do well. It was so out of character for Lottie to take such a risk. Having said that, beside a lapse of judgement I don’t know how would Lottie get her just dessert, and I just don’t want her to succeed at all. Oh, conflict.

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