IF Comp 2013: Ollie Ollie Oxen Free (Carolyn VanEseltine)

Ollie Ollie Oxen Free is a parser-based true-to-life game about surviving a disaster. It’s one of the longer games I’ve played in this comp, and may take the full two hours (or more, especially if one resists the urge to check walkthrough and hints).

Ollie Ollie Oxen Free begins with the protagonist, a teacher, coming to in the moments after his school has been bombed. He has to find six of his students and help them get out of the severely damaged, burning school building. Some students are frightened, some wounded, some have more frustrating or kid-like reasons not to want to leave where they are, so the puzzles chiefly revolve around helping the kids get out. To make things worse, the teacher has himself been gassed, and cannot manipulate things properly, so most steps require asking the kids to do the physical manipulation.

This is a premise I found compelling: the stakes are high, the protagonist is acting nobly, and the situation is about as bad as it can get. The kids and their space are sympathetically drawn, and although they have various quirks that are mildly frustrating (the better to provide puzzles), they come across as endearing and also as having distinct personalities from one another. The protagonist also gets a few touches of personality: he is gay, married to a husband who is currently likely to be in danger. These facts affect how he feels and even (in small ways) how he relates to the students.

Most of the puzzles involve physical manipulation of objects — pushing things with sticks, dragging things around, climbing and stacking things, and so on. Conceptually they’re fair enough, if not mostly what I would call inspired. In execution, many of them break one of my fundamental rules about puzzle design:

A puzzle should continue to be engaging from the moment the player encounters it until the moment it’s solved. While the player is trying to solve a puzzle, she should get plenty of feedback about failed solution attempts. Once the player has figured out HOW to solve the puzzle, she should not have to spend more than a move or two executing the solution.

OOOF breaks this rule over and over again. Large objects have to be pushed around, laboriously, through many rooms. Puzzles can be partially solved, but still need an object from another location that the player hasn’t seen and about which she has no information yet. There are puzzles where you have to repeat a command that has previously failed several times in order to succeed. There’s a puzzle that fakes you out, where you think you have what you need, but actually you don’t, and the real solution is somewhere else entirely.

There’s inventory juggling, only it’s exponentially more irritating because it’s combined with a fiddly hand-holding mechanic. You can’t carry stuff yourself, and the students will only follow you if they’re holding your hand or the hand of another student who’s holding your hand, so you spend a lot of time telling students what to pick up or drop or give to another student or put in a knapsack. And some students insist on carrying particular objects, so they can only hold a maximum of one hand. And so on. For the first couple times you have to deal with all this, it feels realistic and sort of significant, having to manage the connections between people. After enough iterations it just becomes really frustrating.

There’s even a puzzle that might be construed as a maze.

To be clear, this isn’t a case of a good story being held up by some ill-thought-out puzzles. The puzzles are necessary to the story being told: it’s important that the protagonist has to work hard to rescue these kids, and important that they all have to club together to get things done. The puzzles are much of the substance of the story, not a pointless gating mechanism. With a bunch of polish, they could perform their storytelling function without being unnecessarily onerous for the player. I don’t think these issues are insoluble. In many cases, it would suffice to simplify a puzzle to require fewer steps of execution, or give the player a shortcut phrasing (like PUSH FOOBAR TO LOCATION, rather than PUSH FOOBAR WEST half a dozen times over).

As things stand, though, the game’s playability undermines the other things it has going for it somewhat. Several times when I looked up the walkthrough (and I did this a lot, because I kept getting stuck and I really wanted to finish the piece in its allotted comp judging time), I groaned when I saw how much fiddling was going to be required to resolve a given situation. It’s a testament to how much I otherwise liked this game that I stuck with it despite these issues.

End-game discussion follows, so don’t go on until you’ve either finished or decided not to finish.









It turns out, ultimately, that this is a Sixth Sense scenario. The protagonist is dead, and this explains why he can’t move anything, and also why Samir (correctly, it now appears!) refers to him as “the ghost” during early stages of the game. The protagonist’s husband is also dead.

I was sucker punched by this. I guess maybe I should have seen it coming, but I really didn’t. There was nothing up to that point that telegraphed any supernatural content. I’m not sure I care for it as a story feature, mostly because it seems unnecessary. But I’m still thinking about that.

I did feel it was fair enough from a gameplay perspective, though: throughout, our objective has been to save the kids, and we did accomplish that, even if the protagonist and his husband don’t make it.

6 thoughts on “IF Comp 2013: Ollie Ollie Oxen Free (Carolyn VanEseltine)

  1. I mostly didn’t mind the laboriousness of some of the puzzles, personally. It seemed to fit with the general feeling of how the player character was experiencing his world – with every motion feeling like a great deal of effort. That said, I do agree that allowing movement by saying “go to room” or “push X to room” would have simplified things. The hand-holding and inventory management also didn’t frustrate me so much, perhaps because of my real-life experience as a teacher – especially on outdoor ed trips, distributing equipment and making sure the group sticks together! It did have bugs, though. It annoyed me when I held a student’s hand and tried to leave the room with her, only to leave her behind because she was sitting down and I hadn’t explicitly told her to get up.

    • I think I’m going crazy with (maybe?) the first real puzzle.

      V unir gb bcra gur ybpxre gb trg gur cnagf.
      Trbetr (svanyyl) gbyq zr uvf pbzovangvba.
      V tb gb gur ybpxre, ohg abguvat jbexf:
      ragre pbzovangvba
      haybpx ybpxre
      haybpx xrl
      hfr pbzovangvba ybpx
      haybpx pbzovangvba ybpx
      bcra ybpxre
      ragre ybpxre pbzovangvba
      rgp, rgp, rgp

      The “Error” messages it gives me (such as gur ybpx vfa’g ybpxrq) are infuriating, and make me think that this isn’t actually a solvable puzzle.

      Obviously, V cebonoyl whfg unir gb tb naq xrrc nfxvat Trbetr, but I’ve already invested over an hour at this point trying to explore and getting frustrated.

      I love the premise, I love the writing, but this game feels very rough in actual implementation. Granted, I’m still playing it despite that, and going to score it quite well, but I am really hopeful that the author will review the anonymous play logs and make fixes when necessary.

      • Now that I’ve finished the game (I hadn’t read your spoiler!) I mostly feel awful about complaining about any part of the game.

        This is an incredible game hidden by some *very* rough implementation. Some of the problems I ran into were insanely difficult, even using the hints and full syntax/verb list. I had to resort to walkthrough a few times to finish it in a reasonable time frame, although I felt gratified that the walkthrough was (mostly) what I’d figured out but been unable to type.

  2. Pingback: IF Comp 2013 Roundup | Emily Short's Interactive Storytelling

  3. This IF game sucks. It lacks the I part of IF: we play IF to interact with the world, especially in ways impractical for a graphical game to implement. OOOF provides a world where the protagonist can’t even pick up a piece of paper. The character’s debilitating weakness isn’t even consistent: for instance, he can “with great willpower” pull open the girls’ bathroom door, yet no amount of willpower on earth will let him pick up a stuffed rabbit? The game isn’t even up to par with “Choose Your Own Adventure”. The basic premise would be better suited for a point-and-click adventure game, where you don’t EXPECT to be able to pick up every random object you see described. OOOF’s idea of giving orders to characters is nice (though certainly not the first example of such) and could have been turned to great comedic effect, but the implementation totally failed to get off the ground. The Jude character, refusing to move without her rabbit, was the last straw shattering what little suspension of disbelief was left even by that early point. Oh, it’s a bombed out crisis situation, better endanger every other student so this girl can get her macguffin!

    0/100, should NOT have gotten 3rd place, the IFComp judges are corrupt and should be deposed by some sort of IFComp Arab Spring

    • The peculiarities were eventually justified in the course of the story. You may not have enjoyed it (and many people did find some aspects of the implementation sticky), but I don’t think you can justifiably accuse the author of not thinking of the issues you raise.

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