As part of the project to get more reviewers talking about IF Comp games, veteran IF reviewer Duncan Stevens has shared his thoughts on Koustrea’s Contentment. Duncan is one of the prolific reviewers of IF in the late-90s newsgroups, and has previously taken a look at Map for this series.
Koustrea’s Contentment is a strange beast. Sufficiently strange, in fact, that I can’t decide whether its most interesting features are virtues or faults.
For example, and by way of introduction: at the beginning of the game, you find yourself in a house with a bunch of other people who seem to know you–but you’re not given any clear explanation of where you are, or how you or anyone else got there. (There’s a vague implication that you’re in a cult of some sort, but it never really gets spelled out.) Nor do you know what you’re supposed to be doing, and indeed the game is somewhat misleading about that: your first impressions of the situation are likely to give you the impression that you’re trying to achieve a particular goal that is not, in fact, achievable. In a way, that’s very clever and toys with our expectations; viewed another way, it’s sort of frustrating, and asking all these other characters who know me already basic questions about characters and things I (seemingly) should know about, with no raised eyebrows in response, strains realism a tad.
Eventually, you do find a goal to achieve, but you could be forgiven if you miss the significance of that discovery, as it’s presented in a matter that could be charitably described as oblique. It amounts to “no one seems to have much information about a certain person/thing, so I should go in search of him/her/it.” And the way you go about it amounts in significant part to “here are some strange objects that I should fiddle with until they do something.” The fiddling itself is cleverly done and has some logic to it, but much of the connective logical tissue was missing.
Or perhaps it was there all along but I didn’t discover it, owing to another peculiar feature: a lot of the relevant information comes through–minor spoiler here–interrogations of a person who seems to be spouting silly trivia about his personal entertainment obsession. Noting some of the trivia and running it through a couple of references leads, in a wildly unforeseeable way, to important clues about what’s going on. That’s a pretty original piece of design, but it could also be viewed as burying clues in places where only the very, very persistent will look (particularly because the trivia-spouting person has lots of trivia to spout, and only some of it is relevant). Of a similar ilk is the character who plays obstacle until you scare him away with an apparently innocuous object; if you happen to ask another particular character about that object, you’ll get a hint to this effect, but as there are a lot of characters and a lot of things to ask about, you could go quite a while before encountering that hint. And then there’s the object hidden very deep in scenery that you need five largely unhinted tries to extract, and the object that’s not useful to you until you interact with it, in a not very satisfying way, thirty times, and the “practice” dynamic that takes a solid 50 turns to master and…you get the idea.
And yet there are a lot of nice touches along the way. There’s a nicely creepy moment in a dark room; there are some well-done clues along with the obscure ones; and the various characters in this might-be-a-cult illustrate a bunch of plausible ways people could be expected to handle their shared situation (and you, the protagonist, appear to represent another). More generally, there’s a lot of depth to the setting–everything is implemented, everything reacts with everything else in a reasonably logical way–and it made me wish that the plot had been as thoroughly implemented. So while Koustrea’s Contentment wasn’t an entirely satisfying experience, it was a sufficiently intriguing one to make me hope that the author returned to the ideas introduced here.