The Hornet’s Nest, by Jason Lautzenheiser, opens with an it-was-all-a-dream sequence. I have Strong Feelings about the use of dreams in fiction, which boil down to ‘unless you are a writer of magisterial brilliance, don’t.’ They’re worse yet as the opening to a game: when a game opens, you have a limited amount of space to win the reader’s interest. That space is precious. Unless dreams form a substantial element of the plot, It Was All A Dream is a fumble, a ‘no, wait, throw all that out, I’ll start again…’
What you wake up to is a screeching wife demanding that you do the chores. The protagonist is an unremarkably inept Middle American, who really just wants to sit and have a beer. This is a tired old comedy pairing, a story that’s been in decline since… come to think of it, since no-fault divorce. Back in the day, I suppose the reaction to this kind of story was to have a hearty ain’t-that-just-so chuckle, and maybe pity the feller his rough luck. Nowadays a more likely reaction is ‘shit, they plainly can’t stand one another; if they can’t fix it they need to break up, and if they don’t break up then something ugly is going on.’
The other thing is that the screeching, chore-demanding, fear-inspiring wife not just an old gag, it’s a sexist one. It’s a joke that serves solidarity of men against women (‘ha-ha, guys, the old woman’s always nagging, ain’t she’) and an admonishment to women (‘but you’re nothing like this… right?’). It’s a trope that comes from an attitude that the job of a wife is to make the home pleasant for the husband, that a woman who doesn’t defer to men or who stands up for her own interests is monstrous.
This is mostly a problem because the character isn’t really anything except a nagging shrew. She’s not really a character – just an off-the-shelf stereotype serving a convenient plot function. I don’t know whether the author set out to write a story about the awfulness of nagging wives, or if it was just a convenient motivation for the protagonist, but it doesn’t really matter. When you create a character who fits a stereotype in an uncomplicated way, you’re making an argument for the importance and reality of that stereotype, whether you mean to or not.
OK. Rant done.
This aims to be a slapstick ineptitude comedy in the vein of Gourmet or Fine-Tuned: you have to get rid of a hornet’s nest, going through series of ill-considered, physically dangerous blunders in the process. (This is the sort of game that, I suspect, that my former-EMT partner would refuse to play on grounds of life-imperiling stupidity. Alas, there is no CALL EXTERMINATOR command, nor are there any EpiPens in evidence.)
Comedy’s hard. (Text-based slapstick is harder.) If comedy fails to make you laugh, or at least smirk, it becomes boring or inane very quickly. Hornet’s Nest didn’t really do it for me; my guess is that this is because it was too safe, because it didn’t go anywhere unexpected. But it’s just a guess. It could be a matter of delivery, or it could be because the opening made me less willing to approach the game on its own terms.
I was able to figure out two puzzles (read: inept failures), but was kind of stumped thereafter; the game went from being fairly solicitous about its guidance, to complete silence. I wasn’t sure if this was the end of the intro, or if I needed to re-use stuff from a previous puzzle, or if I hadn’t got the smoke puzzle right yet – except that the failure of the smoke puzzle suggested that smoke wasn’t going to work at all.
Do I want to keep playing? Eh. The wife thing aside, I’m not hating this one, but it’s really only got one aim, and that aim doesn’t quite click for me, so there’s not very much to build my enthusiasm.
Great Evil: Minor. The game’s tested, but I’m unsure whether it has an ending or just runs out of material.
Little Evil: Well, there’s two sides to this. On one hand, it seems pretty clear what the game’s going to be about: we’re going to be fumbling about with puzzles, trying to deal with the hornets and failing again and again. On the other, I’m not convinced that this is a premise with very much more mileage left in it. (Well, I’m sure that Laurel and Hardy could have spun it out into a feature-length piece, but it’d take some brilliant comic chops to keep it entertaining.