IF Comp 2012: Changes (David Given)

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.

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About Gabriel Murray

I am agog, I am aghast!
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6 Responses to IF Comp 2012: Changes (David Given)

  1. Sam Kabo Ashwell says:

    Hunh.

    There’s a bit early on in the game where you see another rabbit-thing use the cocoons to do the body-snatching mechanic, and (perhaps two or three turns later) a light-bulb went on over my head, and I understood in one brilliant moment what the overarching design of the game was going to be. It was the kind of realisation moment that’s what puzzle-designers strive and sweat for: that moment when you suddenly understand how the puzzle works and know that you can solve that motherfucker, with enough application. Outside puzzle-games, it’s the sort of thing that crops up in narratives about cryptography and science breakthroughs.

    Except that, lamentably, that realisation isn’t enough, and you can continue beating your head against the game for hours after you’ve made that jump. But, yes, an author in IF Comp who does not provide a comprehensive >HINT response is basically committing suicide, so you can expect basically every well-made game to have one.

    (I am enjoying your reviews very much, by the way.)

    • Hi, Sam, and thanks for reading and commenting! I remember that sequence, but I think my reaction to it ran along the lines of “wait, I’m a rabbit?” and “like, an actual rabbit? Or a metaphorical rabbit?” and “I can read rabbit minds?” Today is just painting all sorts of flattering pictures of my intellect, isn’t it. No, I really am interested and when I’ve got more sleep (and patience — I think the fact I first made the unwise decision to try and play it in a browser didn’t help much) I’m going to give this another go.

      I actually forget about >HINT due to my being too obstinate to use it during normal IF gameplay, and due to the fact that although I’ve been playing IF for a while (incl. the odd Comp game here and there) I’ve never properly sat down and made a stab at judging the IF Competition. Usually I’m like “but hints are cheating!” and then I find myself banging my head on a desk for a week through the duration of Anchorhead or whatever. But now that you point it out, I can see all kinds of things I seriously should have tried in those bewildering two hours. Oh, well. Here my decision-making will live on, for posterity.

      • Sam Kabo Ashwell says:

        Nonono: this game does have serious problems with playability, and it’s not your fault if it’s opaque. (One of the more important functions of the comp is about getting lots of accounts of the proverbial plan coming into contact with the enemy. It’s one thing to have a hazy idea that perhaps one’s game could do with a little work on communicating key game concepts to the player; it’s another to read twenty different reviews to that effect from befuddled and frustrated players.)

        Looking back at my comment, I suppose it might have come across as ‘man, how can you have failed to be as awesome a puzzle-solver as I am.’ That’s not what I was getting at. What I meant is, creating that kind of realisation moment is thoroughly awesome when it works, and when it’s true; but they’re inherently very hard to create in a reliable fashion (reliably delivered epiphanies? c’mon, if you solve that you’ve solved education). It’s just that I generally suck at puzzles, but had experienced that particular bit more or less precisely as an author might have desired in their fondest imaginings, and so had chalked it up as one of the pointers-to-the-player things that the game had really got right; so it’s interesting to get a data-point to the effect that this didn’t work for everyone.

  2. I had a similar experience once when I was playing… you know, I forget the name, it was an IF game with a noir private-eye theme and a fairly open world to explore? Anyway, at one point there was a frustrating and unusual puzzle involving trying to get into a car in an auto repair shop to look for evidence in it. The solution involved raising another car up on a hydraulic lift while the mechanic wasn’t looking and jumping into the desired car from the other’s window. But there was some tricky timing necessary, such as making sure all the windows and doors were open or closed at exactly the right moment and that the mechanic was in the right stage of his going-outside cycle. Anything else and you were caught and had to start over.

    At the time I thought this was fun and tricky, fiddled with it a bit, solved it, then went on with the game. I went, “oh, what a clever little puzzle.” Then I got reports from about three of my friends that this was the most irritatingly impossible puzzle they’d ever encountered and that one of them had stopped playing the game due to how annoying it was.

    Point being, it’s very true, sometimes you really do get an epiphany that makes you an outlier when it comes to judging a game’s difficulty. In the case of Changes I seem to have gotten the opposite.

  3. matt w says:

    The HELP command will tell you about the HINT and WALKTHROUGH command. So there’s a clue for how to get help if you, er, guess the right verb. (It would’ve been a good idea to include this information in the ABOUT command too.)

    On that one bit, my experience was in between the two of yours — I saw that bit, thought “hm interesting,” went faffing around the map for a lot longer (it took me a ridiculous amount of time to even find the spaceship’s wreckage), and then possibly with the aid of a HINT command the light went on and I said, “Oh! That will let me possess the bodies of other animals! That’s why there’s a lot of stuff that seems completely useless to me as a rabbit!” And then spent the rest of my time having Frustrating Adventures in Rabbitland anyway, because I couldn’t figure out the next thing to do, kept getting chased by the fox, and forgot that the WALKTHROUGH command existed. Oh well.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! IIRC I might’ve used ABOUT but not HELP. There was definitely a fair amount of faffing involved for me too: my exploration of the map was a little hindered by having to avoid the fox so much, such that I kept making navigational decisions based on whether the fox was in that general direction. In truth, I let it eat me the first time around to see what happened. Sadly, I wasn’t promptly reincarnated into the body of a human. And as for the WALKTHROUGH command, it didn’t even occur to me. Rabbitland indeed.

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