IF Comp 2015: Second Story

secondstoreySecond Story (Fred Snyder) is a cat-burglar game. Jane Swift, a former thief turned straight, is brought out of retirement when hoods kidnap her brother and demand one last job of her: locate and steal the only surviving print of a lost Hitchcock movie, Bride of MacGuffin.

It’s got a really overlong intro; the information delivered here could have been boiled down into a single pithy paragraph. Once we get into the main game, though, the prose takes a turn for the sparse. Although the game’s set in a real-world area with which the author is apparently familiar, description is mostly brief and utilitarian, not really evoking anything that wouldn’t be true of a thousand other places. The game introduces quite a lot of characters, but doesn’t seem all that interested in showing us a great deal about any of them.

The text becomes less utilitarian when it’s showing interaction between characters: but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was reading the script for a by-the-numbers movie, rather than observing real human beings with real concerns have actual conversations with one another.

As a game, it’s pretty straightforward; there are a handful of small puzzles, but nothing that can’t be solved after a couple of seconds’ thought. There’s not really much in the way of subplot or narrative twist: Jane needs to get the MacGuffin and hand it over in exchange for her brother, and that is what happens. The map allows travel between regions, in the style of classic adventure games – get on the bike, go to any region you’ve discovered – but at any point in the plot there’s only ever one region where you can usefully do stuff, and (with a single exception) it’s always obvious where this is.

Even without much of a twist, subplot or conflicted motives, a game can still offer pretty good value if it knows what its core experience is meant to be and does a solid job of delivering that experience. Second Story has the first part of that down – it wants to be a Hitchcockian heist thriller, all about daring, clever stealth, subterfuge, spying, double-crosses and gambits. But it’s not quite there on delivery: its puzzles aren’t quite tricky enough to make me feel clever, and it doesn’t create enough of an atmosphere of menace, uncertainty and tension to make me feel daring. The former’s an issue of mechanics; the latter’s partly an issue of writing (I’d feel more afraid for Jane and her brother if they had more personality) but also about delivery. Parser IF has a really well-developed portfolio of devices and tricks to build atmosphere and ratchet up tension; this is not an unsolved problem.

Speaking of mechanics: the game’s plagued by several the problems endemic to homebrew parsers.

> open dresser

You open the drawer.

> x drawer

You see a set of lockpicks inside the drawer.

That’s not good. If you open a container and there’s something inside it, you need to tell me when I open it. This is a regularly recurring issue in the game, so at least I came to expect it, but it stayed annoying. Also, ‘it’ has been a standard command element in parser IF for decades, and not being able to use it is annoying.

More troublesome, once I reached the building where I was going to do actual cool climbing stuff, I hit a guess-the-verb point. I had a ladder, I knew what I needed to do with it, but the game wanted me to do something very specific with the ladder first, and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to say that. The solution offered by the walkthrough isn’t bad – I can imagine plenty of people finding it on their own – but it’s one of those moments when you really need to synonym the shit out of an action.

Also, is this year’s comp theme going to be Sam Nitpicks About Weapons? Signs point to yes:

“Lucky for us they didn’t search my desk,” Carla says. “I used this to take Frank down quiet.” She shows you the taser in her left hand. “And I had this in case it didn’t work.” She shows you the pistol in her right.

An unconscious man lies prone on the floor.

TASERS DO NOT WORK THAT WAY.

Score: 4.

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One Response to IF Comp 2015: Second Story

  1. dougorleans says:

    “it” worked for me most of the time, but not all the time. Maybe you got unlucky and it didn’t work the first time so you didn’t try again?

    Also, to be fair, there are plenty of Inform games that suffer from the you-have-to-look-in-the-drawer problem too.

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