Spring Thing reviews continue with The Story of Mr. P, an Inform game by Hannes Schüller.
Early impressions are a super-important thing for any game, but particularly a game entered into a comp. The first few minutes of play are where the expectations of the player will be set for the rest of the game, and if those expectations are ‘this game is crap and boring,’ the author will have to do a great deal of work to overcome that impression.
The Story of Mr. P starts out with the most generic first scene in all of IF: a man wakes up in a nondescript bedroom. In short order you meet your generic wife Margaret, leave your generic suburban home and go to your generic office job. But a calendar indicates that it’s 1959, which (as the designated Era of Awful Conformity) suggests that something more is at work here. In fact, the calendar should be the first thing you notice in the story, but (obeying the principle that if it’s humanly possible for a player to miss something, they will probably do so) I didn’t actually check it until the second day.
By that point, things have started to go a little weird, suggesting that this may be a Shade kind of story. The lunch your loving wife has prepared turns out to be rotting meat. Work crosses your desk that you have no idea how to deal with, yet everyone thinks you’ve done similar things many times before. An ice-cream cart vanishes, to be replaced with a piece of paper with ‘ice-cream cart’ written on it. Other people comment on your strange behaviour.
The game was originally made in German, and the translation is technically fluent but fairly awkward in places. The first room description:
Here you spend your sleeping hours. Margaret was, just like for the rest of the house, responsible for decorating and arranging the room when you moved in. Without a doubt, she did this with her very own eye for detail. Once or twice, she hinted that you have been insufficiently appreciative of this. Maybe, but you do recognize the things of real practical value, like the calendar on the wall, at least!
The general aim of the description is sound – use the surroundings to give us clues about the player’s relationships – but the execution is very shaky, and it goes out of its way to avoid specifics. The first sentence is redundant if we already know that this is your bedroom; we’re told that Margaret did the decoration, but nothing about the results.
I first got stuck when I couldn’t dispose of the bag of rotten meat in order to go to bed. This was kind of a mimesis-breaking moment. I wandered from room to room, pitifully trying to find the dustbin. I couldn’t enter my own garden because the door was locked and I didn’t know where the key was. I decided that the meat symbolised the simmering resentment at the core of my dead marriage, that my reluctance to abandon the bag was a fear of divorce and my refusal to touch the meat was a horror of sexuality. >FUCK MARGARET, I commanded. That isn’t the way your mother brought you up, responded the game. Ah, now we get to root causes.
Ah. I did have the keys to the back door, I just didn’t have them in my inventory for some reason. Curious. Oh, okay, they were in my wallet. Who keeps keys in their wallet? Germans in the 1950s? What sort of dystopia is this? I decide that the rotten meat symbolises suppressed guilt over silent culpability in the Holocaust. Immediately afterwards I discard the meat, and this interpretation.
So I think that the vague dullness of the world probably does, ultimately, have a purpose, but it takes long enough to get to that purpose that the payoff is going to have to be very good to justify putting the player through the dullness. And if my suspicions about the game are correct, this is territory that’s pretty well-explored in IF, particularly in works from the Early New School period, say 1998-2001 (I’d give a list, but obviously just listing them would be spoilery); the chances that it’ll be something earth-movingly brilliant, therefore, don’t seem high.
This means that when the gameplay slows down a bit, as it did on the morning of the second day, I don’t have a huge amount of motivation to keep going. The game doesn’t come with hints or a walkthrough; there are some hints on the author’s German-language website (I’ve no idea why they’re not included in the game), but, perhaps due to the weaknesses of Google translate, they’re unhelpfully vague. After the sequence where the ice-cream cart turns into a sheet of paper and you pursue Harold up a tree, I didn’t have any idea what to deal with next, and nothing seemed responsive. I played through a second time to see if I’d missed anything – there are supposed to be a whole bunch of different endings, so maybe I’d got myself down a dead-end fork somehow – but nothing seemed any different.
Ultimately, this falls down on one of the biggest principles of game design, in much the same way as did The House at the End of Rosewood Street: if you want your audience to stick around for long, you have to offer them something. I don’t care how brilliant your ending is: if getting there requires an hour of boredom, you need to rethink. The slow build is totally legit, but if you’re doing that, you need to occupy the player with something else that’s cool in the meantime.