ParserComp is a competition for parser-based IF games only, run by Carolyn VanEseltine and continuing through the 14th of March. It is designed to encourage this form of game, and also to provide detailed feedback: games are ranked on multiple categories, and judges must submit textual feedback along with their scores. More judges are welcome, so please check it out and share your own thoughts as well.
Below, some thoughts on Terminator Chaser (not to be confused with Terminator, also entered in this comp).
Terminator Chaser (Bruno Dias). This game takes place in a mining colony on Mercury, just before sunrise; and as daytime on Mercury is going to be long (several Earth months) and brutally hot, your job is to shut the colony down for the time being, and get out. It’s a neat inversion of the “get this abandoned base working again” trope, and as you work your way around the station you learn some additional backstory, about a long running labor dispute over how to run colonies like this, and whether the management is acting in good faith. The first few puzzles involve relatively straightforward exploring and pushing buttons on machines, and I trucked along happily for a while.
Then I ran into a rather fiddly puzzle and things became less fluid. The base has multiple garages with multiple airlocks, and in order to accomplish one of your main tasks, you’ll need to manipulate these using some verbs and objects that I hadn’t initially assumed would be useful. (Tip: remember that Inform has a PUSH [THING] DIRECTION command, even if you’ve hardly ever had occasion to use it in a game.) To complicate the problem, there were hints, but the hints were sort of written for someone who already knows what they’re trying to accomplish. Specifically (rot13‘d for spoilers):
Gurer vf n oebxra ebire naq n jbexvat ebire, naq V fgneg bhg xabjvat gung V arrq gb bcra hc gur oebxra ebire va beqre gb ercnve vg. V nyfb xabj V pna bayl bcra vg vs V pna or va gur oebxra ebire’f tnentr jvgu zl jbex fhvg bss (juvpu zrnaf cerffhevmvat gung nern). Gur uvagf qrfpevor ubj gb cerffhevmr gur tnentr jvgu gur jbexvat ebire svefg. Vg gheaf bhg va gur ybat eha gung V qb arrq gur ernpgbe bhg bs gur jbexvat ebire va beqre gb ercnve gur oebxra bar, naq fbzrbar jub nyernql xabjf nyy gung jbhyq cebonoyl fnir gvzr ol svefg cerffhevmvat gur jbexvat ebire’f tnentr, pnaavonyvmr gur arrqrq cnegf, gura cerffhevmr gur oebxra ebire’f tnentr naq chg gur cneg va. (Lbh pna bayl unir bar cerffhevmrq ng n gvzr.) Fvapr V qvqa’g xabj gung, gubhtu, V sbhaq gur uvagf snveyl zlfgrevbhf naq ohzoyrq nebhaq sbe dhvgr n juvyr.
So I found myself doing puzzle tasks more or less on faith that they would result in something I wanted, rather than having a clear goal and then trying to figure out how to accomplish that. Which is a bit non-ideal.
I wouldn’t have minded just a bit more information about the backstory, either. The social and political situation is vague enough that I wasn’t quite sure whether I wanted to just escape the station or do something more destructive before I left. Having multiple endings for the player to choose — and having those neatly integrated into the game’s mechanics — is swell, but this was a case where I genuinely wasn’t sure which I would prefer because there wasn’t enough context around the probable ramifications. Clearer stakes make for a better story.
Everything I’ve just described I think could be resolved with some changes to the hint content writing and some elements of the description text of the game itself; though I sympathize a bit with Sam Ashwell’s criticism that some parts of the puzzle solution get repetitive, I didn’t find that as severe an issue as just not quite being sure why I was going through some of these hoops.
Despite this griping, there’s a lot to like here. Implementation is pretty solid. The in-browser presentation is handsome and shows more effort than is typical for Parchment-run IF games; the science fiction elements feel fairly realistic, which is unusual for interactive fiction. (Though see also Stephen Granade’s Fragile Shells for another near future, hard-SF take on the escape game.)