Francesco’s contention is that I severely underrated Andromeda Awakening, and, in doing so, unreasonably harmed the chances of the first new Italian IF author to come along in many a moon. Francesco also argues that it was unfair of me to review the game without playing it to completion or at least at much greater length.
So a couple of things here.
First of all, I don’t think it is, in fact, unfair for comp reviewers to stop playing after some period of time and explain why a game didn’t grab them. Playing comp games is something like reading a slush pile; there’s a certain amount of stuff that is difficult to get very far with, and an experienced player often is able to tell after a short period if a game is just not working for him. Faced with a game you can’t or don’t want to finish, you have two choices: move on without saying anything about the game (which is what typically I do in contexts other than a competition) or write some words about why the hook didn’t work for you. The latter is traditional in comp reviewing, and is one of the reasons why the IF comp tends to produce vastly more feedback (even if some of it is negative) than other modes of publishing a game. Comp “reviews” include reader reports as well as full-length reviews in the proper sense.
That said, I’ve known Francesco for many years (via email and internet postings only, but still) and I respect the guy enough to take his distress seriously. So I went back and played through the rest of the game.
My initial reaction doesn’t fade in light of this further evidence as much as Francesco might have hoped. Andromeda Awakening is an ambitious game in many respects, but I continued to find it a challenge exactly at the point where writing and implementation intersect. That is, there were descriptions that left me not clear about how the room was set up or where the exits were; there were command phrasings that I don’t think I would have guessed at from the promptings of the text; there were important interactive objects that I didn’t realize were important at all until the walkthrough guided me to them. One of the commands in the walkthrough is something I’m not sure a native English speaker would ever type as a first instinct.
Overall, though I acknowledge that there are a bunch of cool ideas, in practice I found it a high-friction experience. It took a lot of effort to make progress, I had to hold a lot of ambiguity in my head at once, and I fell back on the walkthrough many many times. Since I tend to get a bit stressed by games where I have a hard time parsing the text into things I can envision clearly, I was never more than half immersed in the story and environment. To change this would require revisions both of writing style and of implementation. Other people may react differently, but that was my experience.
That said, Francesco has a reasonable point in the following respect: Italian IF conventions, like Italian prose idioms, are simply different from the ones that pertain in English. I’ve frequently felt this when I’ve played translated games. My experience of this is that Italian IF often rewards the player for imaginative guesses about what to do next to move the story forward, in contrast with English, where the player is expected to spend more time extracting exposition from environmental hints, and any non-standard syntax and actions are likely to be heavily clued by the game text. From my perspective, in Italian IF it often feels like there’s a lot of guess-the-verb work to do and sketchy implementation of supporting objects. From the Italian perspective, I don’t know how this feels, obviously, but I assume it’s a positive rather than negative experience — if an Italian IF player would even agree with me about the differences. (But I think from my reading of the Italian IF history article in the IF Theory Reader that I’m not alone in thinking there are differences in how communities of players approach playing.)
Given that the things I found hard in this game are exactly the things I often find hard in translated foreign IF, the difference in idiom may mean that I had a drastically different reaction to Andromeda Awakening than an Italian IF player would have done. With that in mind, I open an invitation: if an Italian reviewer — Francesco himself, or someone else — would like to write a review (in English, or that we can translate into English) about Andromeda Awakening, I would be happy to host that review on this blog as a counterpoint to my own experience. That way it will reach the same audience as my own opinion, and perhaps the contrast will be instructive.
I’ve also moved Andromeda Awakening from Not Recommended to Not Rated in my overall list, to allow for the possibility that I’m not really in a position to review it fairly. (Even if I was before, this discussion has certainly complicated my feelings.)
There’s one other point that Francesco brings up that I want to address, and that’s the role of my reviews in the community. He asserts that I’ve singlehandedly damaged the prospects of Andromeda Awakening in a way that only concerted upvoting by the whole Italian IF community could hope to offset. I doubt I have that strong an effect — I’ve disliked some games that placed high in past years, and admired others that came in solidly in the middle of the pack — but the perception concerns me. It goes along with other feedback I’ve received from authors in 2010 and 2011 that has a different tone from feedback in earlier years. I’ve heard from people who were very concerned to see that I not skip their game for any reason, or who expressed disappointment or frustration if I got to them late in the queue, or mentioned that they’d been waiting for my review with trepidation bordering on fear; or told me that they felt my disinclination/inability to cover homebrew or ADRIFT games did significant harm to those sub-communities; or suggested that my “no beta-testers = no review” policy should be highlighted on the IF Comp website, as though a review from me were in some way a formal feature of the competition.
That’s not a healthy role for me to have. IF Comp is a community event, not an editor-led publishing venture. Lots of other people are writing reviews, and their voices deserve to be heard; meanwhile, I’m not capable of singlehandedly providing the wide range of things the community needs from comp reviews.
As a matter of fact, it’s logically impossible for all those things to occur in a single review set. I’ve heard that I’m too discouraging to new authors, and also that I don’t do enough to raise quality standards in IF; that I don’t give enough specific feedback about points authors can act on, and also that my reviews are pedantic to the point of bludgeoning authors with the nitpickery; that some players won’t play comp games at all until they’ve seen my best-of list, and that others think I’m overhyping stuff that doesn’t represent us well to the wider indie gaming community; that I need to work harder to set a proper tone for other reviewers and name-and-shame those who write hurtful things; and that if I’m criticizing someone’s work, I really ought to be willing to beta-test or work with the author on his next release.
I take a bunch of that reaction with a dose of salt. Reviewing is an inevitably personal process; there is no such thing as an objective review; and I try to write the most illuminating things I have to say about each piece while staying informative to players and courteous to authors. I’m sure I don’t say everything or meet every need and that sometimes I misjudge what the author is ready to hear, and I just have to hope, in that case, that someone else’s review will pick up the slack.
But I do want to change the dynamic around my reviews. I’m not going to alter my approach midstream this year. I’m sure that too would produce ill-feeling, and I am still thinking about what would be best to do. But I’m not, in the rest of my life, an amateur at this any more. Possibly it’s time to review the comp like a professional also — which is to say, much more selectively, with more attention to each game I do cover, and in a paid venue. Possibly some other change would be suitable. I will think.
Right. Enough of that homily. A few final spoilery thoughts about the end of Andromeda Awakening:
For me the best aspect of this game was its interest in an alien past, together with the imagery. Sometimes that was vague, but when I did understand what the author meant, as I mentioned in my initial review, it was often pretty cool.
Re. the walkthrough command I mentioned feeling a bit off, it’s PUSH WAX SOAP ON OBJECT. I haven’t run into the expression PUSH SOMETHING ON SOMETHING much in English, except in the sense of making a hard sell, like PUSH REPLICA WATCH ON NAIVE TOURIST. If I did read it as a physical action, I’d expect it to mean “push across,” like an air hockey puck sliding over the surface of the table. But what’s actually intended by this command is more like PRESS INTO — we’re to take an impression of the object with the soap. There were some alternative phrasings accepted — I think I also tried PUSH ONTO, and that did work — but I had the strong sense of the author’s expectations being at odds with mine.
I had mixed feelings about the twist ending. It approximates one of the absolutely standard tropes of twist science fiction, in which The “Aliens” Turn Out To Have Been Earthlings All Along; it’s not exactly the same as, but pretty close to, 9b in the Strange Horizons list of overused tropes, with a little initial garnish of 9g. Still, it’s a more interesting outcome than “congratulations! you saved the planet!”, which would have felt out of place; the beginning (in which we helplessly watch another subway rider die) and the ending (in which we are forced into the same view of the planet as a whole) are thematically linked. And I did like the graceful melancholy of the ending concept, which reminded me a little of The Endling Archive. I suppose I felt like in the final paragraphs the author was trying simultaneously to make a statement about mortality and the passing of civilizations (good, fitting the rest) and also surprise me with the reveal that the ancient probe had Earth origin (which is comparatively a cheap trick). The Earth origin does have some relevance thematically, but in that case maybe it should have been introduced interactively and just a bit earlier?
I don’t know. It’s possible that in this regard also I am reading the text at odds with the author’s intent. Your Mileage May Vary.