Changes is a parser-based puzzle game that’s either unbelievably difficult, or I’m a complete idiot. I’ve actually never played an IF game that made me feel like such an IF incompetent. About 30 minutes into playing it I was going, “wait, should I be judging the IF Comp at all?” and “do I actually know how to play IF???” and “well I can’t very well put up a review saying I had no idea what was going on and failed to grasp the very basics that even other reviewers who were also stymied by it managed to get!!” (Obviously I changed my mind.) I’m not even going to lie, I Googled another review or two and then was haunted by the presence of an apparent phantom walkthrough that I couldn’t find. What was this ‘walkthrough’ they were talking about? What was going on? I was starting to seriously question my own intelligence.
Then Emily Short put up her extremely helpful review and I went “ohhhhh.” So, before I get into reviewing this vexsome game in spoileriffic detail: there is a >HINT command and a >WALKTHROUGH command, apparently. This really could’ve helped me. However, I did not discover these in my first 2 hours of play, so as commanded by the IF Comp on high, I shall review without them.
General: Changes is an ego-damaging puzzle game from the perspective of someone who’s been turned into a rabbit on an alien planet for some reason and has to run away from an annoying fox while somehow telepathically communing with other animals, including the fox. Now, I’ve since read that this is not actually the plot of the game — as I’d rather suspected playing it — but before I looked it up, that’s all I could get out of it. In truth Changes features a significantly creepier and more interesting storyline that seems to involve being a space conservationist who has to kill and possess the bodies of increasingly more useful animals in order to try and regain their human form: definitely sounds like it would’ve been messed up and fascinating! If I’d ever figured out what I was supposed to be doing.
Writing: The writing is good, actually. Separating out my inability to get to most of the writing, what of it I did see and what of it I was later exposed to was rather lovely, atmospheric, and bordering-on-creepy, which I think was just the right mood. The impression was of natural splendor that was just a little too good to be true, which sounds like it was the right note to hit. I did feel a little under-immersed in my character’s POV at times or any sense that I was experiencing their perceptions, which made it hard to feel a sense of urgency about doing anything (aside from fleeing the fox, anyway). There’s a lot of rotating flavor text and animated description of what the animals were doing, which now makes more sense now that I know they served a purpose other than providing some NPC texture.
Design: Frustrating Adventures in Rabbitland. For my 2 designated hours of gameplay, I cannot say in good conscience that they were anything other than Frustrating Adventures in Rabbitland. The degree to which I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing was so high that I thought I was going to be playing as a rabbit for the rest of the game, and kept thinking things like, “am I going to have to keep evading this fox?” and “but how am I supposed to get up there? I’m a rabbit!” I could tell there was something I wasn’t understanding, something vast, but I hadn’t even the foggiest what it was. I’m putting this in terms of my subjective first-person experience as a player because there might well be players who found this vastly less confusing than I did: I did get about 3 hours of sleep last night, after all. And, from what I hear, discovery of the >HINT and >WALKTHROUGH functions are vastly helpful in playing the game; I’m intrigued enough by the story, setting, and atmosphere that once I’m finished with my IF Comp-perspective impression I’m going to go back and replay. It may well be that there’s some devilishly interesting puzzle structure to be had underneath all the opaque information reveal, but overall I had trouble keeping track of locations and figuring out what I was supposed to be doing.
There were a few bugs in the programming that didn’t help much with this, as I recall: verbs and objects that should’ve been coded that weren’t, locations that didn’t logically line up and connect as they were described, a particular bug involving getting a plant in your (rabbit) mouth but not being able to eat it because your mouth is full (?). None were that significant, though they did add to my general confusion.
Again, I could tell that there was some interesting and heavily structured code running that I wasn’t managing to interact with properly. It’s just that I couldn’t manage to interact with properly.
Overall: redesigned on the code and puzzle level, this could make an excellent, beautiful, chilling puzzle game. I also think it’d make a lovely visual-novel-style low-puzzle game, too; the interactivity seems like it’d immerse the player in the disturbingness of the character’s actions, which is why I think it’s still better off as IF than a short story. That being said, I found it impossible to play. Your mileage may vary, though, especially on more sleep.