IF Comp 2014: Building the Right Stuff

spaceyouarehereBuilding the Right Stuff (Laura Mitchell) is a choice-based game about space exploration.

gene1Where Caroline‘s presentation declares smooth professionalism, Right Stuff‘s use of graphic design declares ‘student Flash game.’  It’s presented as the
command console of a spaceship; the aesthetics feel crude, but the really annoying thing is the fade time in between menu screens. And the fact that choices at the end of the menu tree take you back to the main menu, rather than popping you out one level to the relevant submenu. And that most of the menus initially don’t do much, but some of them change slightly as time progresses, so you’re expected to trawl through them looking for stuff that’s changed. All in all, I would have strongly preferred either a much plainer, simpler interface, or else one which displayed more of the information on the main screen rather than squirreled away in a submenu.

The spaceship, Endeavour, is on a survey mission, though it doesn’t seem like a very exciting one: your role is to go into stasis sleep, wake up automatically when the ship reaches a planet, deploy the survey robot, then read the survey robot’s report and move on. It is not a role that makes you feel confident that the presence of a fragile, expensive, dirty bag of intermittently-sentient meat is really required – particularly since you’re very clearly working for sketchy employers who are more focused on cutting costs than on your well-being. The big ESCAPE link at the bottom suggests that you’re just awaiting the opportunity to get out of this crappy situation.

The ship’s computer contains an AI of sorts, GENE. GENE is kind of chatty in a stupid-computer kind of way, and later on…malfunctions? and gets angsty and emotionally attached to the protagonist.

The deal here is that space exploration is meant to be super-exciting – it makes up such a big part of science fiction largely as a substitute for a frontier that no longer exists – but here there are no marvels, no exciting adventures, no opportunity, no big-sky freedom, just the inside of a tin can and a robot-compiled précis. So we’re immediately confronted with something that is way, way more boring and limiting than genre expectations. (The planets you survey aren’t randomly generated, although their descriptions are so simple that they easily could have been.) Even ‘sea monsters attack the spacecraft!’ is delivered as a bland second-hand report. “More boring than you expect” is a tough sell; it takes something very strong to overcome it.

And Right Stuff doesn’t really offer anything to make up for it. The writing is unexceptional – certainly not enough of an incentive to keep digging through the menu system to see if anything has changed. The protagonist is an AFGNCAAP, the story develops in predictable ways. The tone it’s going for is darkly deadpan institutional comedy, and it has some OK ideas here – GENE tries to make light conversation by scraping your social media accounts for your interests, and this is creepy rather than personable – but the key to comedy is delivery, and that isn’t quite working here.

The first time I played it, it froze early on: on the second playthrough, I tried to escape too early and got a death ending; on the third, it froze at what felt like a fair way in, and I abandoned it. (Also, it lists the author among the beta testers, which is kind of… odd, unless Laura Mitchell knows another, different Laura Mitchell, which I suppose is not excessively unlikely.)

 Score: 3

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