Jesse Stavro’s Doorway is a parser-based story of time travel and time-travel-related mysticism. I played to the end, though I relied heavily on the walkthrough to do so.
This is the story of a guy looking for his time-traveling friend across multiple decades. The premise is that there are certain doors in the world that, activated with the right keys, can transport a person to another place or another time. There are also several different groups interested in employing these doors in different ways for different purposes. So far, so good. The story also has us visiting a Grateful Dead concert and a grubby 1970s junkyard, which are not settings typically overused in IF.
The execution is a little on the fragile side, though. I had situations where people were only introduced to me after I’d already been talking to them for a bit, or after they’d already been referred to by name in the text. I had a moment where I asked someone a question and then he only answered me three turns later after I’d done some intervening stuff, because apparently the game assumed that I would go a direction immediately after asking and it was that movement, rather than the question itself, which cued the conversation to go on. There were several points where the action seemed to dry up and I needed to wait a couple of moves for something to happen again, and it wasn’t obvious that that was what was going on. In another scene I died randomly several times before going to the walkthrough to work out how to proceed.
Overall, the sense of instability and non-direction was just great enough that I went to the walkthrough early and (despite several attempts to play freestyle) kept coming back to it for the rest of the game.
Fundamentally, I felt like there was a design struggle going on here between the way the author wanted the story to work and the way he wanted to implement the interaction. This is a story largely made of up scenes of either suspense or conversation: the protagonist is talking to people, looking for someone, sneaking through a dangerous space. These are tightly paced sorts of sequences in which repetition and delay both damage the experience. Choice-based games are sometimes better than a parser for this, but if you do want to do a parser game focused on those sorts of events, it’s often a good idea to constrain the verb set pretty tightly and/or make your NPCs extremely proactive so that the scene keeps moving forward in some fashion even if the player is busy staring at the scenery. Some of J. Robinson Wheeler’s games, especially The Tale of the Kissing Bandit and Four in One, demonstrate how this can be made to work.
Jesse Stavro’s Doorway, on the other hand, has a lot of suspense and conversation narration happening but often also wants the player also to be investigating and solving object puzzles, and sometimes these were basically working at cross purposes to one another: I could either be advancing the conversation or I could be hunting around trying to solve the problem with objects, and when I was working on the latter, the NPCs would fall silent and the scene would go dead, from a pacing perspective. To get into a few specifics:
When trying to help get the bus started, I had all these people I could be talking to, but as soon as I started trying to investigate the situation, they were all silent, weirdly inactive. I also wasn’t allowed to try to put the thermostat into the bus myself, and the game didn’t acknowledge this as a sensible attempt.
Another point where the puzzle and the pacing were at odds with one another was the junkyard. When trying to escape with the gas, I got caught and lost the game several times. A big part of the problem was that it wasn’t clear enough how the Camino was moving through the maze; in contrast with Chemistry and Physics, which also has a chase maze, this one didn’t give clear enough messages to make clear when the danger had moved on, while the maze was designed in such a way that it was easier to get stuck. When I went to the walkthrough on this, it told me that I should wait at a particular point. That did work, but while waiting I didn’t get any kind of message that it was now safe to move in a previously unsafe direction. Having to battle with this sequence and eventually peek at the walkthrough diminished my sense of actual suspense here and made the scene work less well for me.
There are spots where the narrative and puzzle integration did work better than this. While I was hunting around the concert, for instance, I did get some timed event content about things going on up on stage, which helped a lot. But the treatment was uneven.