Spring Thing 2011 is now on, with six entries. Which means that there are reviews! Today’s is Bonehead, by Sean M. Shore.
Short summary: Bonehead is a very cleanly constructed game about the tragicomic fate of baseball player Fred Merkle in the 1908 season, likely to appeal to people who like sports and historical pieces. It’s also got an interesting narrator/protagonist relationship and a structure of some theoretical interest. Implementation is solid, with classy period photographs and lots of polish. New actions are clearly taught to the player and behave very smoothly. If this is indeed Sean M. Shore’s IF debut, I’m impressed. I estimate it took me around 45 minutes to play, and I needed the built-in hints only once, near the beginning. Strongly recommended.
Strong writing, strong structure, strong setting. I liked this piece for a host of reasons, from the way it plants the player thoroughly in 1908 to the way it sets the player’s goals (win the game) against the protagonist’s (avoid a humiliating outcome). From the outset, the narrator warns us that any kind of failure would be better than the humiliation that we’re fated to experience. And every losing ending reinforces this idea; cut scenes in between the action flash forward to what’s going to happen and how it’s all going to go wrong. The result is an effect sometimes seen in movies and books but less frequently in IF, one in which we are working both forward and backward in time towards a particular moment of crisis. But the interactive effect is different and intriguing, because the more successfully we play the game, the closer we carry poor Fred Merkle towards disaster.
The weakest part of the game, I think, is the opening passage where the player has to solve rather arbitrary puzzles to get rolling. This portion does establish the setting and our own character a bit — gone are the days when cigarettes were allowed to sell themselves quite that obviously to the very young, for instance, and our protagonist comes across as a friendly fellow. All the same, the obstacles in the early game feel a bit arbitrary and the solutions to them are not immediately obvious; the only hint I needed all game, in fact, was the guidance about how to use the cigarettes to my advantage, because I had assumed my goal should instead be to get past the boards and retrieve my dropped ticket. In this respect it reminded me a bit of Christminster, whose first puzzle blocked me for years from getting through to the much more elegant game design beyond.
All this stands out in Bonehead because the main structure does work so well and the puzzles there arise naturally from the story.
Once the player reaches the ballpark, he gets a long, relaxed training — as much time as he needs — to familiarize himself with the commands; then there’s a series of tight little set pieces to ratchet the tension up. My one complaint about the pace of teaching: there’s a huge wall of text explaining early vs late swings and pull vs opposite field swings. I am not sure exactly how I would have structured this, but I think I would have broken that bit of conversation into two pieces and given the player the chance to practice and learn one of those concepts before adding the other.
Each of the timed scenes during the actual ball game worked very well for me. Sometimes I lost them on the first try, but because the losing endings contribute to the narrative, I didn’t find this frustrating, and there were always enough clues that I was able to get things right on the second pass. By the end, I’d built up quite a lot of dread about poor Fred’s misfortune (and I’d also become paranoid about his shoelaces, because they’re frequently mentioned — I stopped to make sure they were tied probably a dozen times). By the time the inevitable ending rolls around, we’re prepared for it, prepared to completely lose agency over the situation and watch the disaster play out.
After all that, the ending and the concluding notes are… kind of touching, really.