As part of the project to get more reviewers talking about IF Comp games, Duncan Stevens has shared his thoughts on Final Exam, a dystopian science fiction parser piece by Jack Whitham.
Final Exam is an impeccably coded little game with a clever solution that involves seeing through the initial façade you’re presented. The fly in the ointment is that the game makes it all too easy to think that there’s no way to see through the façade–in other words, that the game doesn’t actually have the clever solution it has. That’s unfortunate: players shouldn’t be left thinking that the apparent solution is all there is.
It appears that you’re a low-level functionary in a totalitarian state of some kind, and you’re hoping to better your station in life by passing the titular exam. Something has gone wrong for the regime, however, and the “Central Administrator” needs you to bail him/her/it out. The early section of the game is given over to describing the trappings of the state, and getting access to the point where you can start solving the problems; thereafter, you can, in fact, solve the problems, demonstrating your mettle to the powers that be, and—that’s where the game ends.
Or appears to. In fact, there’s a much more interesting solution that involves striking back at the regime, but it’s very easy to miss that the other solution exists. One of the steps you can take toward that solution simply doesn’t work if you haven’t made a specific earlier discovery, but there’s no logical reason for that—the discovery and the steps have no obvious connection. A player who didn’t make the earlier discovery but is still trying to find an alternative solution might well give up when that specific step doesn’t accomplish anything. It’s all the more disappointing because the premise is set up rather subtly: you pick up a newspaper with an account of recent events that doesn’t square with your own knowledge; the walls are festooned with murals that are just heavy-handed enough to feel like propaganda; there’s a museum of pre-regime life that lays it on just a bit too thick,; there’s an interview about the scientifically tested nature of the present regime’s philosophy that manages to be unsettling without overdoing it. When that skillful setup doesn’t lead to anything, it felt like a bit of a misfire, and my initial reaction was that this would have worked as the prologue to a longer game (in which you use some of the knowledge and goodwill you’ve earned to work against the regime). I still can’t help thinking that longer game might have been better than the shorter game whose preferred ending is so easy to miss.
I give Final Exam kudos for a lot of things: the writing is skillful and unobtrusive, the coding of some complex ropes-and-straps objects flawless, and the backstory, once it’s discovered, is well thought out. The game simply needs much stronger hinting that the suboptimal obvious ending is not all there is.