IF Comp 2012: Changes (David Given)

Changes is a parser-based science fiction puzzle game, fairly challenging and longer (at least for me) than the average comp game. As usual, the jump will be followed by non-spoilery comments; then if I have anything spoilery to say, there will be spoiler space. The fact that I am reviewing it at all indicates that there are beta-testers.

The very opening of this is a gory description of a crash and death, but it fairly quickly switches to interesting world building. It’s apparent that, after your crash, something transformative has happened to you; that you’re now part of an unusual ecology that is reminiscent of Earth while having some very different features. The vast pauses that occur in Parchment every time you take an action indicate that something significant is going on under the hood, quite possibly autonomous NPC behavior calculations to make all the animals you’re seeing run around and take action. It’s plain that somehow you’ll have to use all this to your advantage.

That “somehow” is the problem. While Changes is intriguing and explorable, it is really not great at communicating goals to the player. I repeatedly found myself at a loss about what I was supposed to be doing. There’s a HINT command that dispenses contextual suggestions, but they’re really very vague, sometimes on the order of “now you should look for something helpful!” And there’s no walkthrough linked from the comp page.

So, a little hopelessly, I tried typing WALKTHROUGH into the game.

This succeeded, to my surprise, though with warnings about how reading the walkthrough would ruin my enjoyment. It didn’t: on the contrary, it gave me the first clear information about what I was supposed to be doing in this piece. I played through the majority of the game by glancing at the walkthrough whenever the game became too opaque about what I was supposed to be working on next, which was frequently. And I made progress, slowly but surely, in Parchment, before some fat-fingering managed to send me away from the webpage. When I came back it had started the whole game over.

So that was extremely frustrating, as I had used up almost all of my comp-judging time. Still, I’m pretty sure I saw the majority of the game, which was a science fiction puzzler relying on a consistent mechanic of, well —









…killing telepathic animals and possessing their bodies so that I could use them to accomplish the next step of my mission.

I found this disturbing. My protagonist doesn’t seem to have any significant ethical qualms about it, but I do. I’m not a vegetarian, so evidently I don’t have a real-life ethical issue about killing animals for my own convenience, or allowing them to be killed on my behalf. But in this game, your protagonist is telepathically linked with the animals killed; there’s communication, understanding. Several of the creatures are depicted as having complex feelings about one another and their place in the world. It felt really very creepy, after that, to kill them off and use their bodies as husks: more like killing a chimpanzee or some other creature capable of quasi-human communication levels.

I did end up sorry that I didn’t get to see the end of the game, which is a vote in favor in a sense. But I felt that, given the obvious effort, worldbuilding, and coding complexity, Changes could have been a much better experience if it only had more guidance and better hints. Oh, and it should probably have suggested people download the game if possible rather than playing online, because for online play it is S L O W. (If there was any message to this effect, then I managed to miss it.)

3 thoughts on “IF Comp 2012: Changes (David Given)”

  1. The HELP command tells you that the WALKTHROUGH command works (but the HINT and ABOUT commands don’t, so there’s a bit of guess-the-verb there). Unfortunately I promptly forgot about it until I’d been playing for about an hour and fifty minutes.

    So I didn’t see hardly any of the game content — I had figured out that you need to do that thing that you say immediately after the spoiler space, and (with bits gleaned from other reviews) I figured out what my first goal was, but I was nowhere near figuring out how to do it. I had made a few attempts at another way of doing it, but executing those attempts was very fiddly and I was never sure that my attempt was completely wrongheaded.

    This made me think of three general design principles:

    1. I really get frustrated by enormous open-world maps combined with linear puzzles. The sort of thing where at any given time there’s exactly one thing in the twenty-five rooms that you need to use on some other thing in one of the other twenty-five rooms to make progress. OK, that’s not a general design principle so much as “something I personally can’t stand” but I don’t know that it’s completely idiosyncratic. It might be related to my mapping phobia; as Ghalev said in a completely different context, I’m not into IF for the homework. In this case at least it gives you reason to look all over everywhere and find the elements that will be used in later puzzles.

    2. It seems really important for games to keep down the quotient of (time and effort it takes to implement a prospective solution to a puzzle) divided by (amount of useful feedback you get from failed solutions). In this case implementing prospective solutions was very hard and fiddly, at least in the first stage which I never got past, because the fox kept showing up and it takes something like a minimum of four turns to lose it, more if you’re in the wrong place. (There was another fiddly thing or two involved in getting the whole process started.) And the particular solution I was trying — yhevat gur bggre bagb gur hafgnoyr yrqtr — didn’t give me much feedback, after the first time or two where I discovered that what I was trying was going to get me killed pretty fast* — because guvatf gung unccra ba gur hafgnoyr yrqtr nera’g ivfvoyr sebz gur arkg ebbz. That may have been idiosyncratic to that particular attempt, though.

    3. But, this may really be a general design decision, patrollers are hard to do in a way that’s not frustrating. Another quantity that needs to be kept down is (time and effort it takes to implement a prospective solution to a puzzle) time (probability that a patroller will show up and wreck your stuff while you’re doing it). Last year’s Death of Schlig had the same problem, where getting something done was usually a multi-turn fiddly process involving picking things up with my eyeballs and sending them to the next room, and most of the time a guard showed up in the middle and sent me to cold storage. (Though this game’s remote-sensing apparatus is a lot friendlier than Death of Schlig’s.) If the puzzle is actually figuring out the patroller’s pattern and avoiding it, that’s great; also if there’s a multiple/emergent solutions thing where you can react to patrollers without necessarily disrupting something else that you’re trying to do. But in this game I found that I spent about seventy-five percent of time dropping whatever I was doing (sometimes literally) and dealing with the fox.

    I feel bad about saying some of these things, because this is a well-written game with an excellent world and also because programming in all that animal behavior must have been really difficult. Also, I gather from other reviews that there really is some at least implicit raising of the ethical questions you’re thinking about. Still, this wound up as a game where I spent a lot of my time doing stuff other than the stuff I wanted to be doing (and much of the rest not knowing what I was supposed to be doing, which may not be entirely the author’s fault).

    *but not, I think, fast enough to justify the author’s claims about the cruelty scale.

    1. I really get frustrated by enormous open-world maps combined with linear puzzles.

      Yes. Though I think this particular game makes enough use of multi-room geography that you need at least some openness, it could have done a much better job of signaling where the Next Thing You Can Work On was.

      Still, as a general design rule — and I find this coming up all the time, in project after project, IF and non-IF — as a designer it is really really really easy to make the opening of your game too hard and space your early rewards too far apart. You know how the mechanic works; you have a sense for how often there will be substantial payoffs in the main body of the game. But it’s key to teach the player the mechanic before letting him loose. I think I would have revised this so that the player had to perform the core mechanical task at least once just to escape the vicinity of where he woke up — make it a one- or two-room puzzle.

      patrollers are hard to do in a way that’s not frustrating

      I agree — at least, I agree in IF. The Arkham Asylum/Arkham City games are among my favorite AAA console games, in large part because I derive endless pleasure from finding new ways to hide in the darkness and take out patrollers unexpectedly. But all that stealth potential goes away when you’re dealing with a spatial granularity of no less than one room. (Between comp2012 and Ectocomp, I’ve actually played a lot of IF with wandering monsters lately, and it’s easy for this to be irritating, especially when there’s a multi-room escape sequence you have to perform just right.)

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