As part of the ongoing project to get new reviewers talking about IF Comp games, Janice M. Eisen has written about Brain Guzzlers from Beyond! Janice is a long-time player of parser IF who beta-tested for Infocom.
“Brain Guzzlers from Beyond!” is a delightful parser-style puzzle game set in the world of 1950s monster movies. It’s polished, funny, and well designed, so I wasn’t surprised that it won this year’s IFComp.
The attention to detail in the game is truly impressive. From the opening, in which you set up your character by taking a magazine quiz, its voice and personality show through. The parser itself responds to you on occasion with a rather scolding tone. (The funniest response came when my PC got angry enough to get the option to say “the F-word,” which turned out to be “Fiddlesticks!” This is the era of “Leave It to Beaver,” after all.) The comics-style drawings of major NPCs that appear the first time you speak to them are a great use of illustration to set the mood.
Props your character finds, from a yearbook with entries about most of the characters to the book of terrible poetry you may end up with, are thoughtfully written, funny, and even occasionally helpful. (In the yearbook, your character’s quote is “Go west. Take all.” No, that’s not helpful, and too much self-referential humor can certainly be off-putting, but the game has just the right amount.)
Dialogue with NPCs has always been a weakness in parser IF, but the system used here is good enough to support a great deal of interaction, which is necessary for solving the game. Several of the NPCs are used only to send you on fetch quests, but in some cases the dialogue and the puzzle are cleverly integrated, particularly in one very funny puzzle for which you must create the right kind of poem. The dialogue system displays the same careful attention as the rest of the game, with options changing as the conversation continues so that you don’t find your character repeating the same sentence over and over.
The game doesn’t understand HELP or HINT, but it is otherwise as friendly as possible to the IF newbie. The puzzles are not very difficult, but solving them and discovering more about this world are great fun. I literally laughed out loud several times.
While never preachy, this is also very much a feminist game, from the personality quiz throughout both the plot and the racially inclusive cast of characters. The era-appropriate sexist attitudes of the characters (including the parser) are played for laughs, and by featuring several distinctive NPCs with different personalities and strengths, the game shows that there’s more than one way to be a kick-ass heroine, even if you’re also the Pine Nut Queen.
A few glitches with commands that don’t give the appropriate response will I’m sure be polished out in later versions. (For example, LOOK UP [NPC NAME] IN YEARBOOK gives the response, “You discover nothing of interest in the yearbook”; you have to READ YEARBOOK to get into the proper dialogue menu.)
I particularly liked the puzzles that played off the personalities of the various NPCs. For example, there is one character who won’t give you the crucial info you need until she is convinced that you like science fiction, which means you must find the comic books and read them. More puzzles like this, and fewer simple fetch quests, would be welcome.
I got stuck twice at points that could have been clued better: I didn’t make the connection between a perforated silver membrane and the movie screen, and I couldn’t find Jenny when she was in the kitchen — something as simple as having your character see her cross the living room and enter the kitchen would solve that.
Steph Cherrywell deserves a great deal of credit for the careful construction of the plot and puzzles, the sheer amount of detail she has included, and the humor that almost always hits the mark. “Brain Guzzlers” is a solid, funny work, which with a little more polish would be a great choice for introducing newbies to IF.