Endless Sands (Hamish McIntyre). Ooh, nice cover art.
Story: The protagonist is a vampire; he has been abducted by the local Vampire Queen and dumped in the desert a few hours before dawn, for no very clear reason other than that the Vampire Queen is a jerk and needs a fall-guy for something non-specific. He thus has to find shelter before the sun comes up and turns him to dust. The desert is not as desolate and empty as it might appear: there is a ghost-town and a number of other abandoned structures, but vampires can’t enter buildings without an invitation, so survival is still not easy.
This is a dramatic opening, but as a story it doesn’t ever really come together.
From the outset, the protagonist is positioned as a hapless Regular Guy, a somewhat-less-whiny Arthur Dent type who doesn’t really fit in very well in a Vampire Intrigue world. The story isn’t really concerned with anything beyond his immediate predicament; there are a handful of details about his regular life, but most of them seem like throwaway gags rather than aspects of a developed character. (It’s possible for things to be both throwaway gags and intriguing character development – Robb Sherwin is great at this.) The endings that I found are both rather along the lines of ‘well, you survived the day,’ without suggesting much about where things go from here, even to the point of answering how you’re getting out of the desert.
I felt that it might have been intended as a survival narrative; and I am fond of those, but this felt a little bit too adventure-gamey in a number of respects to work. The setting didn’t feel organic enough, and physical hardship wasn’t a major factor (except in one of the endings, where its sudden appearance felt jarring). If it’s aiming to be a sandboxy story, it’s not going far enough in that direction to work.
Writing: This mostly goes for diffident light comedy, which is a mood that I see a great deal of in IF. It is mostly not very funny; and I think that, to a large degree, it’s because they use comedy primarily as a defence against being taken seriously – the message isn’t ‘laugh at this!’, it’s ‘don’t mind me, I’m just this joke game.’
This is the low point:
2:14 am >x cactus
Tall and prickly, just like your ex. Though they were metaphorically prickly, not literally prickly.
Not the world’s finest joke, but when explained it becomes a great deal worse. If you’re going to write comedy – and I cannot claim to fully understand comedy writing, it is a dark and obscure magic – you need to freakin’ own it. Don’t explain. Don’t half-ass it. Don’t use jokes as cover, use jokes because they fuckin’ kill it. There is a great deal of excellent comedy about half-assed uncertain nobodies, but they work precisely because of confident delivery.
When the writing does aim for characterisation – the Vampire Queen, the werewolf – it manages to be pretty clear about the effects it wants to accomplish, without quite getting them to ring true – perhaps because the approach was a bit too direct, perhaps they fit their assigned narrative role just a tiny bit too closely to feel like breathing individuals. (That last is always important, but it is a really big deal when you’re writing women.)
The other thing where the writing didn’t work, for me, was in description of the landscape; the narrator doesn’t really see it as anything more than a functional obstacle to be overcome. I… grew up at a desert margin, and spent some time in the big crazy openness of the Namib-Kalahari, and the aesthetic of deserts is very dear to my heart, and I would like a game called Endless Sands to maybe tap into that a little. I acknowledge that this is unfair.
Anyway. A game in which the writing is mostly making me kvetch: 2.
Puzzles: Most of these are yer basic parser puzzle: find object, use object on thing.
The most obviously distinctive mechanic is the timing element. A lot of care has evidently been taken on this, but it seems of fairly mixed utility. Having the time in the prompt is an effective way of keeping the player’s attention on it – full marks there; but making each command take a different amount of time felt like a wasted effort; I never really considered ‘how long is this likely to take?’ before doing anything, and indeed I didn’t really notice that different actions took different times until my second playthrough.
It’s more realistic, perhaps, but realism for its own sake is worthless; what matters is the effect on the experience. Even once I knew that things were variable, I couldn’t do a lot with this information. There wasn’t a very obvious way to tell which actions would take more time; my intuitions about time often didn’t match up with the game’s, I wasn’t going to avoid doing a potentially helpful action just because it might take extra time, and in any case the time limit is generous enough that worrying about time is less important than worrying about puzzle solutions. The game just isn’t sandboxy enough for decisions about chunks of time to have tactical weight. It’s not a problem, per se, but I don’t think that the effort spent on this was well-invested.
The other thing about the game is that there are quite a number of possible endings, each with their own set of puzzles to solve – most are fairly simple if taken on their own, and some overlap a bit. I found two ways to win, and several more probably exist, given how many forms of shelter were scattered about the place that turned out to be irrelevant to my actual solution. (Indeed, if you try and solve all of the things you’ll probably run out of time and get dusted.)
There is a certain amount of Only In Adventure Games logic going on with some of the puzzles. The werewolf doesn’t trust you enough to invite you inside:
3:25 am >tell werewolf about me
“What do you think of me?” you ask.
She frowns. “I don’t really know you, and at the moment, I sure don’t trust you.”
3:27 am >ask werewolf about invitation
“So um. I kind of need somewhere to take shelter before sunrise. Any chance I could crash here?” you ask.
She thinks for a moment. “Maybe, you you need to do something for me first. I’m bored and hungry. If you can bring me a stick to chase, something to chew on, and something to eat, then you can totally stay here.”
There are ways of making fetch-quests fit elegantly and reasonably into the fabric of your narrative; very fine games have been made that are based principally around doing this. But the presentation is the thing. When higher-order interpersonal relations are at stake – love, trust, esteem – it’s really important to avoid making things seem awkwardly transactional, and this felt pretty awkward.
Theme: Coming towards the end of the ParserComp entries, this one repeats a bunch of interpretations I’ve already seen – which is not its fault. The passage of time, and hence the sun, poses a bit more of a palpable threat than in the comp’s other vampire game; and the desert setting, if not as vivid as I’d have liked, is effective at keeping your mind on the sun. 4.
Technical: This is a modestly ambitious effort in a number of ways – the timing element, the overlapping puzzles, a great deal of information about visibility to adjacent areas. I didn’t encounter any substantial bugs, although at the endings the text all seems to shift into bold face when it shouldn’t. The one exception – I was able to enter the tent without doing anything about the garlic – I’m uncertain about; it looks as though it was meant to be a barrier, but didn’t have any effect otherwise.
Strong 3, weak 4. I’m going to go back and review this category, so things are all preliminary here.
Overall: This did not click with me at all, but on the merits it’s not a dreadful game. 3.