IF Comp 2018: Bullhockey!

bullhockBullhockey! is a puzzly scavenger-hunt game. It’s considerably long – longer than anyone is likely to finish in the judging period without heavy use of the walkthrough. The protagonist wakes up to find that his girlfriend has left him, his apartment has been trashed and all his work clothes are gone, so he goes on a scavenger hunt to retrieve his clothes.

It is awkward. It’s got awkward prose, it has an awkwardly-designed map, and it has an awkward premise. Once you leave the house it sprawls, with very little direction. Its characters behave and react in ways that don’t make sense. The tone might have been intended as weird/surreal fiction, or as ridiculous comedy – and there are hints of both, but it doesn’t really commit to either.

Prose! Most obviously, it uses ellipses far, far too often. Ellipsis overuse is the fastest way to make your narrative voice seem vague and ineffectual. It’s also wordy in all the wrong ways. There’s a to-do list – that’s a good idea in a scavenger-hunt game! – but it’s formatted thus:

It is your yellow legal pad, on which you have written a list of your missing items, to wit–a red shirt, a blue shirt, a green shirt, a yellow shirt, a white shirt, your security badge, your dress shoes (for those special functions) and your office shoes. The bare minimum of what one needs to wear at a job like yours, the identity of which you have been trying to figure out for years, but have only recently decided to stop trying. You have written today’s date–Wednesday, 7 September 2016–at the top. Writing made possible by a blue ballpoint pen, attached to the pad by an elastic string tied to a hole punched into the binding at the top.
The pair of office shoes is crossed off of the list (she trained you well–you even cross them off subconsciously)!

That’s about 150 words of painfully dull prose. About 25 of those words are the critical things you’d want to refer to frequently, and they’re buried in the middle of a paragraph rather than split out into a list format. The bit saying which tasks you’ve completed is separate from the main list! A task list is something the player will want to reference quickly and often: this is horrible design for that. This isn’t just a matter of sentences phrased unprettily: it’s bad writing and bad game design.

This is writing that has got the concept that details are important, but which hasn’t figured out that it’s really important to pick and choose which details. I didn’t need to know the exact manner and positioning of the pen’s attachment to the pad. (Honestly, I  didn’t need to know about the pen at all – I could just have assumed its existence.) This isn’t a telling detail, or a picturesque detail, or a useful detail – it’s just a detail for the sake of specifying everything.

Similarly, in room descriptions it spends a lot of time specifying things without painting a picture; I struggled to visualise what it was describing, particularly within the initial areas. A good room description is absolutely not one that exhaustively and accurately itemises everything that’s in the room; it’s one that conjures a strong sense of the room and focuses the player’s attention on the important parts.

There are some elements where I suspected that the writer might not be a native speaker:

To the south is the local junkyard. You see only a big wooden fence and electronic steel gate door with a sign reading “KEEP OUT–VICIOUS GUARD DOGS”. You hear a grumbling dog beyond the door as you walk by. To the west is an abrupt dead end–a circular pavement.

‘A grumbling dog’ is unusual, but I can see an inventive writer coming up with it. ‘You see only’ is a bit stiff here, but I could chalk it up to a failure of editing. ‘Electronic steel gate door’ is right on the edge of plausible. ‘A circular pavement’ though, I struggle to picture a native speaker saying. Either way: a lot more editing needed.

A basic problem with the scavenger-hunt premise: the items you have to retrieve aren’t interesting. They’re not varied, they don’t have any aesthetic or emotional resonance. They don’t make diegetic sense as a scavenger-hunt goal – if an irate ex-girlfriend has decided to steal your clothes, the plausible options are ‘she destroyed or otherwise irretrievably got rid of them; forget it’ or ‘she still has them; deal with her, or forget it.’ And here we get to another point – the odd behaviour of every character in the story. I feel like some of this may be an intentional clue, but it’s hard to sort out ‘this is weird and therefore a clue’ from ‘this is weird because of a failure to write NPCs who behave like actual people.’

I got fragments of what the player-character was meant to be like, but it was a mixture of generic My Crappy Apartment-protagonist – vague, vaguely resentful, a bit of a man-child – with some sharper character notes: he’s a teetotaler who’s disgusted by the thought of alcohol. At several points this seems to extend to ‘it’s OK to be awful to people if they’re alcoholics’, but I wasn’t clear if that was just regular Adventure Game Man Is Manipulative And Amoral. Similarly, there were notes about his remembered relationship with Natalie that made me feel slightly like maybe she was better off without this putz – but it was difficult to really establish a pattern there.

I think, fundamentally, if you’re writing a very large puzzle-oriented parser game in 2018, you need to be doing everything you can to make your players want to stick around. Often that’ll be a matter of direction and focus, of plots that guide and motivate the player; but that’s a trickier proposition in a scavenger-hunt type of game, where the point is to wander around looking for stuff. In that situation, the most obvious tool available is setting: crafting environments that are aesthetically rich, interesting and easily navigated, that make the player eager to wander around looking at stuff even if they don’t quite know why yet, that are just plain enjoyable to inhabit. Bullhockey, (like Diddlebucker, come to think of it), passes up that opportunity because it’s depicting unsurprising environments through unsurprising eyes.

I can’t really speak to the quality of the puzzles, because once outside the apartment the only way I could even find the puzzles was with the walkthrough.

This is a game that needs to be tightened up on a lot of levels; but I suspect that even if it was executed with a higher level of craft, it probably wouldn’t be for me. 3.

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One Response to IF Comp 2018: Bullhockey!

  1. Bill Lindsay says:

    Sam, thank you for attempting and reviewing my game, though I am sorry that you did not enjoy it. I want to answer some of your points–I am a native English speaker. I intended the game to be a humble comedy–‘camp’–the items were ordinary, and part of the humor, as is the psychological ‘make-up’ of the protagonist–I didn’t mean any of this ‘seriously’ at all. And I intended no ill will towards alcoholics, my intentions there were light-hearted, and the alcoholism is foiled. The circular pavement is a cul-de-sac, at the end of the street. And I intended the game to be challenging, perhaps I overdid it.
    But I did read–and enjoy–your article about reviews, and maybe I should not have read this one, but I am interested in what reviewers think of my game, and felt that I needed to respond. You did have some good points and I will take them to heart. I am sorry that you did not enjoy my game, but thank you for your effort and time–and your honesty.
    B F Lindsay

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