IF Comp 2014: Jacqueline, Jungle Queen!

junglequeenJacqueline, Jungle Queen! (Steph Cherrywell) is a parser-based game made in Quest.

I am biased by some existing familiarity with (and slightly-bemused fondness for) the author’s webcomics Intragalactic and Gorgeous Princess Creamy BeamyA feature of those is a tendency to go for dense, zany detail, kind of like an R-rated version of Calamity James in the brief, glorious window before it got messed up by adding colour. (And you can probably determine my age within a couple of years based on that one.)

The world of Jungle Queen has a similar kind of enthusiastic cornucopia feel:

The Green Shrine
You’re standing on top of the plane, high up in the canopy, a castaway in an ocean of green. A strange idol, about the size of your head, is embedded in the trunk of the enormous tree–you could walk right up to it if you balance on the left wing of the plane. All of the trees surrounding you are overgrown, but the one you’re stuck in seems particularly saturated with life, dripping with vines and bromeliads, the bark almost taut over the burgeoning wood. The branches are heavy with golanuts and thousands of flying squirrels. Most of them are out of reach, but one golanut is hanging low enough that you might just be able to take it if you stand on your toes.
You can see a mossy idol.

Not all the room descriptions are quite as overstuffed as this, but it’s a pretty good indicator of what the game feels like: packed full of over-the-top detail, and a little short of completely conversant in polished implementation. This is a bit more text than you’d usually consider ideal for a room description, but it’s about right for the purpose here.

The plot, in brief: Jacqueline McBean, a journalist for the Fresno Bee, is assigned to cover somethingorother in the earthly paradise of tropical Golanaland; instead, her plane crashes in the jungle. Here, she must become the Jungle Queen by acquiring the magic powers of various ancient idols, primarily the ability to gain the powers of animals by mimicry.

The story is thoroughly reliant on Jungle Adventure Stories, particularly Indiana Jones and King Kong. A standard feature of those is a small number of white heroes (Good Native sidekick optional) who hero shit up while a horde of Superstitious Natives cower in the background and carry things. Jungle Queen mostly avoids the issue (there are no human NPCs whatsoever) but isn’t really interested in directly addressing it, and doesn’t escape the deep roots of the genre (Jacqueline is still basically a white chick who becomes god-royalty by fortunately stumbling into someone else’s ancient religion). So, nowhere near as bad as it could have been, but short of exemplary. On the other hand, Jacqueline is a woman of distinctly non-Lara Croft proportions who gets to do action-hero things, so yay for that.

In general, it struck me as containing a lot of savvy design decisions that are likely to set it up well in the comp. A good portion of Cherrywell’s work, for instance, is… not exactly smut, but it involves characters who are massive horndogs, have a bunch of fetishes and are not shy about it. Apart from a mild hint or two, this is absent from Jungle Queen – which bodes well for its placing, because that’s precisely the kind of thing likely to divide a voting audience:

bimodal

Phwoar, look at the bimodal distribution on that.

Similarly, the game’s tone is upbeat and fun, and while there are some light puzzles, the design is very good at shepherding you through the game – you get a new power, think ‘hey, I could try using that on X’, and then it generally works. I only needed hints for one element of the monkey temple puzzle; for most of the game things rolled along smoothly, delivering a regular stream of wacky new content while still requiring some thinking about stuff. It’s not completely linear – there are multiple solutions for a handful of things, and the puzzles don’t all have to be solved in direct sequence – but I was never confused about what the next thing to tackle was.

While the design is pretty good, the implementation has some rough spots – it’s not awful by any means, but the main way that the game could be improved is with better work on synonyms, automatic actions and auto-disambiguation. Unlocking the picture frame, for instance, took me considerably more tries than it should have. I’m not sure how much of this is author error and how much is intrinsic to Quest.

Cherrywell’s comics rely a good deal on wacky reversals of expectations, so I was unsurprised to discover that the game enjoys having gentle fun at the player’s expense. For some time you’ve been chasing a parrot, with the implication that this would give you a critical ability to fly; several times it has flitted out of sight before you can do anything, and when you finally reach it:

> mimic parrot
As you focus on the parrot, you feel your mind opening to a new ability. You see yourself listening to common short phrases and, after sufficient repetition, to repeat them. You now have the ability to talk, just like a human!

Hey, not every box of Crackerjack has the prize you want, you know.

However, old-school Things Going Wrong For The Player comedy is much easier to stomach in a game where you’re not generally stuck on anything for very long; you’re being snarked at, but you’re not being snarked at for being too stupid to solve abtruse puzzles. The delivery helps a great deal, too. The following is a gag based on a long-standing topic of nerd-pedantry, but ah, the comic timing:

As you step into the hallway, your feel a pressure plate sinking beneath your foot. You hear the rusty screech of machinery somewhere. Forty-five seconds later, a sawblade slowly slides out of a slot in the wall and lands on the floor at your feet like a dropped pizza.

Jungle Queen has zero aspirations to be anything more than a tropey, zany good time; it is, however, a great deal better at actually doing this, both in terms of writing and design, than the great majority of works which try to. That feels like a straightforward 7.

Score: 7

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