IF Comp 2015: Onaar (Robert DeFord)

The 21st annual Interactive Fiction Competition is currently on, through mid-November. Voting is open to the general public; the only prerequisite is that you not be an author, not vote on games that you tested, and submit votes on at least five games. (You emphatically do not have to have played them all! In a year with 55 entrants, it is very unlikely that most judges will get through anywhere near all of them.)

Onaar cover artIf you are looking for other reviews, this ifwiki page contains a list of places currently carrying them.

Onaar is interactive fiction at the role-playing end of the spectrum: there’s a large world containing a lot of interchangeable resources, a number of possible goals that are presented explicitly as side missions, and interactions that are less about puzzle solving than about gathering and crafting. Objects respawn in some locations. I did not finish the game in two hours, though I didn’t ever really get stuck or turn to the walkthrough. It’s just that there’s quite a bit to do here, and a lot of the progress is slow.

I wasn’t able to play this using the hacked Mac Gargoyle interpreter included in the game package — that refused to launch for me — but WINE did run the hacked Windows Gargoyle.

“Here, eat this enhanced radish.”

The Baker of Shireton is set in an MMO world, and deals with that world as a programming construct that can be changed. Onaar is set in an RPG world in which ability stats and health levels are not an abstraction, but are known to everyone and are openly discussed. A guard will frankly tell you that you probably need a Chameleon level of 70 to sneak somewhere. Other characters will note that your health must be getting low, and tell you to eat a +84 health banana. It’s as though you’re constantly surrounded by veteran dieters who know the calorie count of everything — but also the price of everything, the Ghost stat of everything, etc.

Indeed, most of the dialogue in the game consists of exposition about its systems: a man you meet in a clearing will start off conversation by teaching you how to scavenge spawn points for additional materials, for instance.


“Hello, young lady. My name is Huntorus, and this is my sister Artemis.”

The prose itself is plain and unadorned, the locations generic, and the fantasy names eclectic in a way that suggests no particular culture. There is a standard town square with a standard fountain from which you can gather standard coins, giving yourself +8 gold in your gold stash. The coins respawn in the fountain, though I never saw anyone throwing them in.

Then, too, the story is not (as far as I got) especially inspiring. You’re a young orphan shipped off to Onaar because your alchemy powers make you a target in your home country — but that’s all explained in a quick info dump, and the underlying politics and worldbuilding are not explored. Once you arrive in Onaar, your ship is scuttled by wreckers and looted, in a move straight out of Poldark (well, okay, magical Poldark). And then you can begin your journey of becoming an apprentice alchemist, by walking up to the door of a woman who has an “alchemist apprentice wanted” sign up. Commence a series of fetch quests that serve as a tutorial in the game’s magic system. It took me pretty much the whole two hours to get to the point where she felt I’d learned enough to be given tasks of any real significance.


All this may sound as though I’m not enthusiastic about this game, but actually I had a fine time playing it. It’s true that the gameplay involves a certain amount of wandering back and forth over the same maps, but there are some shortcuts and some quirks to this, and I didn’t find it becoming so repetitive that I got bored. The amount of attention I had to give to each individual command wasn’t always that high, and I found myself developing routines for finding ingredients.

Along the same lines, the game is really good at communicating which objects are interactive and what topics can be discussed with the characters: it’s a bit artificial, but it means not having to work terribly hard to come up with more conversation topics. So I felt the same kind of relaxed engagement that I associate with a casual time management game, more than the intense focus I typically associate with puzzle IF.

The alchemy system is not as mystical as the one in Hadean Lands and the descriptions are far less specific and evocative; on the other hand, we’re given a system that works consistently and that allows us to make up our own potions if we want to. This is something that HL rarely permits.

I would have liked to have seen this mechanic go even deeper. Coming up with a new potion in Onaar means identifying two ingredients that both share a relevant aspect and combining those ingredients. That means that most of the mastery depends on finding out and then remembering a grid of ingredients and what they do; once you’ve done that, you’ve fully solved the potion-formulating space (though there are some potions you may not be able to construct until your Alchemy skill has reached a certain point, through experience). A system requiring additional steps, or one that had some further complexities, would have added to the pleasure of discovery. (Again, I should add a disclaimer: it’s conceivable that some extra twists on this system appear in the game after the point where I had to stop playing because of comp time running out.)

The stats and inventory output feel quite mechanical at first, but soon come to feel familiar and usable. The various blockages are specific about how much of a given stat (strength, dexterity, etc.) is going to be required, leaving the player to come up with a simple plan to find the necessary ingredients, make a potion, boost that stat, and overcome the obstacle. It’s a fair and explorable system, even if it doesn’t lend itself very frequently to surprise.

At any rate, this is a game that has a very clear understanding of what kind of thing it is, communicates that concept, and sticks to it. That gives it a kind of aesthetic coherence even if from a story perspective (at least as far as I got) it’s not attempting anything ambitious. I suspect that it won’t be everyone’s favorite thing, but for those who do like this style of gameplay, it does a solid job.

2 thoughts on “IF Comp 2015: Onaar (Robert DeFord)”

  1. Thanks for your review, Emily. I was very interested in hearing your opinion of the game and it really bugged me that you couldn’t play it on your Mac. Down through the years, I have learned a lot about authoring IF from reading your reviews and essays. I hope that you find the time and energy to finish playing Onaar to the end someday. I would like to hear from you if you do, be it positive or negative. I learn both ways.

    BTW, I developed the conversation system used in Onaar because I have come to dislike the guess-the-topic looping that many parser-based IF games require.

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