Deprivation (Michael Coorlim) is another example of a well-trodden IF trope: My Shitty Apartment. As is usual in the genre, the apartment is unexceptionally dull, and the player character’s only real characteristic is a general sense of malaise.
It is possible to make a striking game about being stuck in a shitty depressing apartment. It’s possible to write a compelling story about a character who does essentially nothing. But it’s tough, because the basic premise is really boring! It is safe to assume that your players already know what it is like to be alone and mildly depressed in a sorta-crappy home. They don’t need you to tell them. You need something more – scintillating prose, razor-sharp insights into the human condition, rich and complex character development, wit, imagination, something.
The ABOUT text gives something close to a statement of the author’s goals:
The game’s primary focus is on the player’s internal reality, rather than being focused on puzzles or exterior exploration.
Cool! Fine! But in that case you need a whole lot more internal reality, because right now it’s pretty thin on the ground. The PC’s issues are, within the scope of the intro, pretty generic. They’ve got insomnia. Their place is a little less tidy than it might be. They have some issues with self-esteem and food. These are all very common conditions, touched on very lightly, and so they offer very little information about this particular character or their particular problems. That’s boring.
Meld (David Whyld) is a game which wears its debt to Counterfeit Monkey on its sleeve: you’re a woman with object-transforming powers on a surreptitious mission in a fantasy city with an oppressive government.
Transformation puzzles are awesome, but as everybody else has already pointed out, melding doesn’t yield results that are even remotely predictable, which rather devalues the point of systematic puzzles. The game has fairly strong (even heavy-handed?) pointers in the early game, which get steadily less specific; that’s fine, but I found that my grasp of the puzzle mechanic didn’t grow enough to take over.
There are various ways to do a transformation mechanic without making something as intricate and laborious as Monkey or even Metamorphoses. In Juhana Leinonen’s Sparkle the game just tells you what transformations are possible; in Djibouti Dirigible Discombobulation I hand-coded things so that every combination of essence and object would reward the player with something – which only worked because the game is quite small and a lot of those somethings were instant death, sure, but it makes trial and error a lot less annoying. In Meld I eventually resorted to brute-forcing, trying every possible combination of inventory items – only to discover that I still didn’t have an appropriate item, so I needed to wander around looking for it.
The other thing is the story. Meld‘s narrative opens with a Mystery Mission, in which your mysterious client leaves a trail of mysterious clues as a Test before you actually gives you the job. (This is terrible behaviour from a prospective client – the PC is a freelance specialist, and I really hope that she’s going to be invoicing time spent on this trail of clues at her most exorbitant hourly rate). I’m not wild about this approach to mystery – it feels as though it’s there as a way to put off telling you what’s really going on, when really it ought to be a way of revealing what’s going on.
The worst possible opening to an IF game is “You wake up. You don’t remember who you are or how you got here. You’re in a featureless room…” No. Mystery shouldn’t be a way to hide things from the player. It’s a way to deliver them. Mystery’s not about withholding or indefinitely delaying information; it’s about giving your audience lots of information that doesn’t immediately match up.
This is particularly important if you’re opening in a brand-new fantasy setting, because in order for your audience to get engaged with a mystery, they need to know what normal looks like; without some sense of the parameters of the world and how it works, mystery is just obfuscation. Mystery can be the way you show the world – the mystery motivates exploration, and you use exploration to deliver lots of information to the player. But that doesn’t really seem what’s going on here: there’s quite a bit of city to explore, but that exploration doesn’t reveal all that much.
So, for instance, we’ve got mention that the PC’s sister went missing some time back, and that the Mystery Client has information about that – OK, if there’s an actual story there, that’s great, but if the sister is just a convenient MacGuffin to justify the PC’s interest, and/or a placeholder for Plot Goes Here Later, that’s really kind of crap. Give me reasons to trust that it isn’t.
I guess – hm. The thing I need from an intro, or a pilot episode, or a preview demo, isn’t the sense that the author is just kind of brainstorming the general concept, and aiming to figure out most of the details later. I need the sense that the author has got this, that they have so much stuff planned out that there isn’t really room for it in the intro.
Anyway. The fact that I’m mostly complaining about relatively high-level issues of pacing and delivery is indicative that this is pretty solidly put-together at the nuts-and-bolts level.