J’Dal is a fantasy cave-crawl with a few non-standard features, written in Glulx. Per tradition, I will have some non-spoilery content after the jump; then if there’s anything spoilery I wish to discuss, it will be separated from the rest of the review with spoiler space. The fact that I am covering J’Dal at all means that it does feature listed beta-testers.
J’Dal tells the story of a party of people who go into an abandoned mine in order to rescue an artifact of significant power — starting from their joining forces at a tavern and continuing through their descent into the mine, encounters with monsters, and use of unconventional light sources.
The puzzles are generally stock sorts of one-off object interaction, so much so that the game does a lot of your inventory management for you, forcibly discarding items it knows you aren’t going to need later. In general, they don’t conform very well to my #1 design criteria for puzzles — that they should remain engaging from the moment you encounter them to the moment you solve them — because there’s not much feedback on failure. Several are timed, so you have to keep trying things and undoing when they don’t work; this adds to the friction and sense of exasperation.
Implementation is often sketchy. At one point the game asked me to disambiguate whether I meant “the rope, rope, rope or rope”; at another point, the hint system ceases to say anything useful just at a point where guess-the-verb kicks in. (Or, more specifically: the verb was what I expected it to be, but only one particular syntax out of several plausible ones was recognized at all, while the others received misleading error messages.) The game would be a much better experience if rigorously scrubbed of these things. Assuming that the author is able to look at the Glulx transcripts from online play (those are being preserved, right? I hope?), there’s an opportunity for some clean-up here.
I think this is a game that wanted to be rescued by its setting, to have something to offer beyond generic fantasy trope themes. The imagined world has bad hotels and sinks and mines: it’s shabby-modern rather than faux medieval. But it does very little with this fact, and many of the rooms are minimally described and almost anti-evocative.
Then there’s the thematic content.
There are also hints from the beginning that it may have something to say about racism, as the first encounters of the game involve your character being discriminated against for her dark skin. But I mostly flinched at the handling of this issue. We don’t see enough of the society to really understand whether their racism is similar to ours or different. There are some implications that the protagonist has special powers (perhaps a dark elf or something?) but at other times the slurs used against her are straight out of the unhappy history of racism in the United States. The use of the word “darkie” in the final moves caught me particularly off-guard, given the very negative associations it carries and the total lack of in-world context about how to process it there.
Likewise, the game also repeatedly emphasizes that J’Dal is female and that other members even of her own party don’t necessarily treat her with much respect; she’s ogled and sometimes mocked, and there is no ambiguity about her lower relative status. When this happens, it does dimly hint at the miserable sinking feeling you get when someone who is supposed to be your friend and ally turns out to hold the exact prejudicial attitudes you’re trying to get away from. The scene where a puzzle solution requires you to undress, and then to be stared at by party members, was fairly uncomfortable and drove home the sense that the protagonist might need to protect herself at any time from any person, including her supposed friends. And indeed that turns out to be true, though not for reasons of sexuality.
That said, the scene at the opening of the game, in which the protagonist is mistreated by people at the tavern and then protected by members of her team, does help in establishing who is who in this story. And it is interesting to set up the idea that she is somewhat at the mercy of their protection in the outside world, before inverting that situation and putting them at her mercy in the underground passages where she is able to see and they are not.
But I think that in order for the game to have been successfully about those issues, it would have needed to go into more depth and make the interaction involve them more thoroughly; also to communicate better whether it’s describing fantasy alternate-universe racism or trying to express something about the real experiences of people of color in our world — in short, to be a significantly different game than it is. As things stand, the racism and the culture unsafe for women feel like they’ve been added for the sake of dystopian flavor.