ParserComp: Terminator

terminNext up in ParserCompTerminator (Matt Weiner), no direct relation to the very similar-looking Terminator Chaser.

Story: A spaceship has crashed, and you have to carry out search and rescue under sub-optimal conditions using remotely-controlled drones. That’s pretty much it; this game is conspicuously not focusing on the story side of things.

Even as a piece of engineer SF, this doesn’t have anything resembling narrative development. I’m going to call this a – thin justification for gameplay.

Writing: Again, prose is not the thing that this is cares about, at all. Stripped-down information delivery – in very small snippets, and lots of it – is the idiom here; it does well enough at this.

The one glimmer of rhetorical flourish is the names of the astronauts, which are randomly generated – and a big multicultural melange, which is nice. I am a big sucker for random name generators, and the use here forms a pleasing contrast to the sterile, mechanical information that the robots otherwise use for everything. Still, I don’t think that suffices to move the writing up a notch; by the book it’s a 3 (‘does the job, not an active drag on the work’), even though that feels really high for a game so unconcerned with prose.

Puzzles: The entire game is effectively one large spatial/mapping puzzle. You command six (!) robots, three scouts (who move and see a long way, and carry signal beacons) and three haulers (slow, but can rescue astronauts). These are scattered around a procedurally-generated board, along with the astronauts and a handful of desolate-planetary-surface-type landmarks; you have to find the astronauts and get them back to your spaceship before the terminator sweeps across the board and kills them all.

Robots can be commanded individually or en masse; given the time limit, you want to move them together wherever possible. They can either move in directions, towards visible landmarks, or towards a beacon regardless of where it is. So some simple strategy emerges immediately: you want scouts to comb the area and find astronauts, then summon haulers to the rescue.

There is an awful lot of information to keep track of here. Initially, none of the robots know where they are relative to one another or to the spaceship, except what they can immediately see, so figuring out relative position is as much of a puzzle as finding the astronauts. Every turn, each robot spits out a whole pile of current status information – and I couldn’t help but feel that this information could have been presented way better in a graphical format.

That said, it is not prohibitively difficult. I found 5/6 astronauts on my second try, without mapping or taking notes. (I didn’t feel super-enthusiastic about mapping, because I’d have to draw six separate maps and then collate them as the robots recognised each other, and then keep them updated… oy.) That may have been a fluke – randomly generated boards are always going to have variable difficulty – but it confirms that you can do fairly well without an immensely systematic approach.

Referring to Emily’s list of puzzle qualities (since this is a pretty unusual puzzle for IF and I feel the need of a framework):

  • It has substantial extent: you are still figuring things out at the end of the game. That said, once you’ve learned how the game basically works, the pattern doesn’t develop new elaborations.
  • It is not very explorable, and there is very little surprise: you are told all the parameters for play at the outset, and flashes of insight or shocking new information are not really relevant.
  • This does, however, make it quite fair.
  • In terms of originality, games about controlling a team of robots to overcome a crisis are not exactly new territory in IF, but this particular approach is not something I’ve seen before.
  •  Because the puzzle forms the justification for the entire game, narrative and structural integration come as standard, though they’re less satisfying.

Overall I think this is a 4; it’s enjoyable enough as an abstract exercise, but for me that has never been enough to really dig an IF puzzle. On my last run, I felt no anguish at deciding to cut my rescue short, leaving as-yet-undiscovered astronaut 6 to die, any more than I feel when sacrificing meeple in a board game.

Theme: Sunrise is, once again, the Looming Problem that hangs over everything. It’s central to the game, but there’s not a whole lot that’s unexpected here. 3.

Technical: This is, no question, a technically ambitious piece; NPCs being marshaled around a grid, alone or in groups, and reporting information about adjacent regions – a lot to do here.

The difficulty of the exercise is substantially reduced by the sterile, regular content of the game: robots are easier than people, a big empty grid presents few special-case circumstances. So a lot of the places where I’d normally be looking for technical polish simply don’t apply.

I only encountered one bug, but it repeats, annoyingly, over every. single. command. that you issue to robots:

>gamma, w
You’ll have to say which compass direction to go in.

Gamma: traveling west.

Scout Gamma reports nothing notable visible in the vicinity.

This aside, though… hm. A provisional 4, but I’ll probably be re-arranging the scores in this category a bit, and this feels like a strong contender to be upgraded.

Overall: An effectively-designed puzzle game, but an experience that’s closer to Minesweeper than it is to interactive story. 3.

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2 Responses to ParserComp: Terminator

  1. matt w says:

    Oy, that bug. I don’t know if you followed along with the discussion on intfiction.org, but the message only prints in the released game; there’s a bug in the code that generates a spurious action, but in testing versions it’s a debugging action that doesn’t do anything, and in released versions it’s a going action without a noun that prints the supply a compass direction message. And since it didn’t manifest in testing versions, I’d get transcripts with the bug, I’d run my current code in the IDE, say “Gosh I guess I fixed that somehow,” and mark it “unable to reproduce.” Also it involves a parser hack that means I had no chance of fixing it myself.

    The moral of the story is probably (besides “test your release version”) to work with enough lead time that you can get people to track down any really hard to find bugs for you, but that was not the case here.

    Anyway, Carolyn kindlily let me upload a testing version, so there’s a version wtihout those messages in the new ZIP file and now in the “Play Online” link at IFDb (until a little bit ago the “Play Online” link was going to the IFArchive version which is not a testing version). So anyone who wants can play a version without that message every turn, plus you can do “rules” and “actions” which is fun! I haven’t been able to figure out how to change this in the “Play Oniine” link on my own webpage though.

    So for some post-comp version I’ll fix that–it might take a bit more effort though because I’ll have to update the extensions I’m using, and that might break my code in other ways. I’ll probably also want to add some features.

    For what it’s worth I don’t think of this as a puzzle but as a game with strategies–is Minesweeper a puzzle? Dunno. Also I think being able to rescue 5 of 6 without mapping is pretty typical; if anyone wants a more challenging run they can lower the numbers at the beginning.

    Another thing is that owing to a failure to use “substituted form” I’m pretty sure that the astronauts’ names when you rescue them aren’t the same as in the report you get at the end of the game. You might want to take off a point in the appropriate category for that.

  2. Pingback: ParserComp Summary | These Heterogenous Tasks

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