ParserComp: Chlorophyll

chlorophyllChlorophyll (Steph Cherrywell)

Story: This is an SF piece about a species of photosynthetic plant-humanoids and the ways their biology affects their technology and culture; it’s not hard SF by any means, but it does take its speculation seriously enough to make it feel grounded. The protagonist, Zo, is tagging along with her astroscientist mother on a mission to reactivate a derelict terraforming base; an accident incapacitates the mother and separates the pair, and Zo has to get things working again and carry out a rescue.

This is a coming-of-age story, and a story about a girl’s relationship with her mother; neither of these are particularly unusual in their details, but the handling is effective and contributes a good deal to what might otherwise have felt like a very orthodox explore-the-empty-base game. The exploration of the xyloid culture is also pretty neat – nothing earth-moving, again, but enough detail that it doesn’t feel like a cardboard cut-out.

I think some things could have been managed a little better: the monster could have been foreshadowed a little more effectively, and I wasn’t entirely clear how Zo’s mother made it to the north side of the base after having passed out earlier on. But overall this is – I glance at my standards – both a compelling plot and one with strong narrative integration, so I think this is a 5.

Writing:

You look like a pretty average girl your age; maybe a little shorter and skinnier than usual, but not enough so that you stand out. You’re in an awkward stage of metamorphosis where your skin is half covered with embarrassing blotches of bright green that make you look like you’re still a little kid and half covered in stiff, sore patches where it’s hardening into adult bark-plates that itch like crazy. Plus your leaves are coming in all different sizes, and growing so fast they get in your eyes. You’re wearing an Acorn Junior Solar Vest that you’re way too old for.

A certain amount of the material is gags about transpositions of contemporary stuff into the plant-people world, but this is managed with a light enough hand that it doesn’t completely turn the world into a Douglas Adams-y pastiche:

>READ ENCRYPTED FILE
(first guessing the shockingly poor choice of password)
It’s a story your mother wrote set in the universe of the Stardredger series. She never lets you read anything she writes. This one is about two of the exotic males that Captain Jula encountered in separate adventures. In this story they’re growing together, with their roots intertwined and their pollen constantly blowing on each other, which seems like it would be annoying. Captain Jula is not actually in the story.

This is writing, I should stress, which really understands the importance of rewarding the player. It’s a big deal for me if a passage of writing can make me grin – here it’s not so much a matter of razor-honed prose as it is of wittily deployed concept, with the prose itself mostly doing an understated job of letting that shine.

I felt that the descriptions didn’t always tie the map together as much as I’d have liked. Overall, though, this is confident, enjoyable writing that evokes occasional moments of pure glee; a strong 4.

Puzzles: This firmly occupies the venerable Explore An Abandoned Base And Get Shit Working Again genre, but it does an excellent job of making a well-worn premise feel fresh.

There’s some very effective use of pacing around puzzle elements to get reactions out of the player. Early on, your ability to move about is constrained by the need for edible light, which means that you can’t spend much time in certain areas without retreating – but just as this was beginning to seriously grate, I discovered an upgraded light vest that rendered this moot. (Not letting a puzzle mechanic outstay its welcome is so important, and this game really gets this.) That moment’s also a point with significant story investment – the too-feeble earlier vest formed a focal point of Zo’s sense of parental neglect – so this is an all-round neat effect.

There’s another moment, close to that one, where you see the shape of a puzzle – there’s an item trapped inside a punitive confinement tank, so you have to misbehave enough to get thrown in the tank by the automated security. And when I realised that this was what I had to do, it was a delicious moment – I get to mess things up! that meshed nicely with what Zo’s own feelings would be – this is a kid who, you sense, feels kind of constrained by being good, and could really use a little rebellion.

By the standards again, this is a 5.

Technical: Mostly this is decent, although I think it needs another testing pass or two to get everything linked up to synonyms and do some smart-disambiguation (SNAG BEAM should always go for the support beam, not the weapon). Reading things could stand to accept more phrasing, in particular; it took me some time to work out how to read the warning on the shack door.

There was enough of this to make for a demerit, and the game occupies such orthodox design territory that I don’t think it gets any bonus points for ambition. So a strong 3, I think.

Theme: This is the most interesting use of the theme I’ve seen thus far in the comp; while technically it ends up being about light/hunger puzzles, the importance of light becomes such a big thematic element that it makes things work. This is a world where light has flavours. 5.

Overall: The most enjoyable game I’ve played in ParserComp thus far; not likely to echo down the ages, but a good solid piece of craft. 5.

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6 Responses to ParserComp: Chlorophyll

  1. epbeaumont says:

    This sounds totally intriguing. How might one get access to this game?

  2. leeloodm says:

    Hi, author here! Thanks for the review, and I’m glad you had fun with it!

    There is an explanation for Zo’s mother moving–the nockbeast can move around freely, but has no source of food, so she went outside, retrieved the Planet Roller, and carried off the inhabitant to store for later. You can find evidence of her scavenging earlier in the game (the broken-in toy store with blocks of organic modeling stuff take, the smashed water machine) but Zo never really learns much about her activities herself. (I get that if I have to explain it outside of the game it’s not really any better than there not being any explanation, though.)

    • dougorleans says:

      For what it’s worth, I had put together the clues and figured out all that stuff about what the nockbeast had been up to (also apparently it ate the poor old hermit engineer! except for her tattooed arm). It’s funny, though, when I first saw the toy store I had guessed that the organic modeling stuff had somehow grown into a sentient creature that had burst out of the display case. But once I read about the nockbeast (and the warning graffiti) it all came together nicely. My only question is, where did the nockbeast come from? And did “she” have a plan to escape (maybe using the amber cube), or was she just trying to survive?

      • leeloodm says:

        She was traveling from another region of space and had to make an emergency landing on the for-her deadly light side of the planet. She sabotaged the base to turn it around to the dark side to make it safer for her (first circumspectly, then much more openly after most of the crew left). The amber cube sucks power out of a system and stores it for handy, so it’s just kind of a handy battery, which she was using while repairing her ship. She also used it to cause the accident at the beginning of the game by draining power from the Planet Roller. Eventually she would have repaired the ship and left on her own, but she wasn’t above eating people in the meantime.

        As you can see there was quite a lot of stuff that was never explained in the final game, mostly because Zo never learned it; it was just for me to keep stuff straight in my head. Maybe I’ll write up some of the stuff that didn’t make it in and the process and such after the contest!

  3. Pingback: ParserComp Summary | These Heterogenous Tasks

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