Escape from Summerland is a medium-difficulty parser-based puzzle game by Jenny Roomy and Jasmine Lavage, entered in the 2012 IF Competition. I’m playing and judging these games in randomized order this year, which prevents me from cherrypicking things that look interesting to me: and good thing, too, because a lot of interesting things get lost in first impressions. Okay. First impressions, first impressions. My non-spoilery commentary about this game is that none of its problems are in concept or ambition, really; its concept is pretty ingenious from the outset and I would say it has flaws of too little, not flaws of too much. I also applaud the designers’ ambition, because as soon as the true nature of the game became clear it was obvious this could not have been easy to code.
I think I’ll split my commentary on IF Comp games (and IF games in general if I take to reviewing them) into what I think of the game’s writing and what I think of its design: not that these things are extricable when it comes to IF, or any kind of interactive design. It’s as problematic to pull apart story and game mechanics in IF as it is to pick out form and function separately in fiction; they don’t quite exist separately or stand alone, or they shouldn’t anyway, or they’re not suited to IF.
Okay, semantics done. As for Escape from Summerland —
General: Escape from Summerland is a puzzle game from the perspectives of (1) the ghost of a carnival worker, Amadan, killed in a drone raid of Summerland, a Celtic-themed amusement park in a futuristic world, (2) his pet monkey, Jacquotte, whom he’s trying to rescue from the wreckage, and (3) a stranded robot from the raid, all three trying to get out of Summerland in one piece. Well, Amadan’s concerned with getting Jacquotte out, “one piece” is sort of a moot point for him by the start of the game. You switch at will between puppeteering each of these characters, which is fun. Amadan’s POV is the most informative but he’s bodiless and can’t manipulate anything; Jacquotte is nimble, but is a monkey and won’t do everything you tell her to; the robot’s strong, but has movement and perception limitations. Together they fight crime. Or escape Summerland.
Writing: I love the plot hook right away: it’s hard not to get immediately invested in what Amadan’s doing, too, at least for me. A spectral carnival worker determined to save his pet monkey? I know I already want to succeed. Summerland itself is pretty cool as a setting, too: I like that the writers have keyed onto renfaire-y pseudoCelt kitsch as a setting for an abandoned theme park that hasn’t really been done; sci-fi and horror are full of abandoned theme parks, to be sure, but they’re all patterned off the same faintly outdated 1950s Coney Island uncanniness that features tilt-a-whirls, cotton candy, and unsettlingly large images of clowns. Cowboy Bebop‘s an example. Those still exist, of course, but they trade on nostalgia, not that being the pervading trend in unironic kitsch any more.
However, I’m afraid the setting is incredibly under-utilized: much of the game takes place in the circus’s relatively featureless basement and 2/3 of the game’s POVs are incapable of describing anything in detail: Jacquotte’s POV is childlike and full of emoticons, referring to objects by tags like “shiny thing,” which is a little cute but gets wearying when trying to play from her perspective. It’s hard to feel immersed from a rather oversimplified monkey’s perspective — it’s possible to write a detailed and fully immersive game from a very limited POV, too, Lost Pig (and Place Under Ground) being one of my favorite IF games ever. The writers just opt for simplicity and lack of perception for Jacquotte, though, which I think is a pity when a monkey might have sensory perceptions to offer that humans don’t. The robot’s perspective is entirely devoid of real description, which I understand is fairly realistic for a simple AI, but (a) makes navigation difficult and (b) makes it frustrating and unfun to play. I found myself constantly returning to Amadan, not just for practical reasons but because I felt I couldn’t look at anything otherwise.
Design: This game seemed harder than it was intended to be. I think some of that could’ve been remedied by more room, item, and action descriptions, as referenced above, but I found myself constantly stuck on what to do next, largely because I didn’t quite understand where I was or what I was holding. As a disclaimer I’ll say that I’m easily frustrated by object manipulation in IF if it’s not done in a way that holds my interest (Emily Short’s lavori d’Aracne always holds my interest), especially if a lot of it feels like verb-hunting. There was a bit of verb-hunting in this, especially when playing as Jacquotte or the robot. The puzzles were fundamentally pretty simple, which made them more frustrating rather than less in some instances, really: I would’ve appreciated a little more odd mechanics and intricacy (a Celtic-themed sci-fi theme park! Really now!) if I was going to be stumped.
I put down a lot of this game’s shortcomings, hesitantly, to how much of its effort likely went into coding the at-will character switching: just like a lot of open-world and free-will-based video game RPGs don’t have the same writing and character development as ones with linear storylines, for reasons of space and complexity, I think having to make sure every setting and object could be viewed and interacted with as all three characters at any time probably handicapped its development. It seems like a relatively simple setup, but with such a vast and flexible mechanic it needed a lot more time to not be underdeveloped. As it stands, it feels underdeveloped: there’s a lot of fascinating flavor text about Summerland but I never really feel like I have to engage with the environment to solve the puzzles, I only feel immersed when I’m playing as Amadan, and the game’s technically short but bogs itself down a bit in verb-hunting and trying to reckon with three-dimensional space. I found myself often sitting back and going, “wait, what am I doing again?” This game needed a lot more space.
There were a few bugs, although not as many as others have reported; on the technical side of things I did catch a few times when I would do something as Jacquotte or the robot or both and what Amadan saw wouldn’t change, which again seemed like a symptom of biting off more than the code could chew.
Overall: interesting, but probably more than the developers reckoned for when they planned it, and it shows.