[IFComp2013] The Cardew House

This review was originally published on Livejournal.

The Cardew House, by Andrew Brown, is a parser-based game written in Inform 7. You can play it online here.

The author’s game description on the comp website was less than inspiring.

“Thought I’d give Inform7 a try for this comp… it can be a pain in the butt though, can’t it?
“anyhoo… here’s my game… after two other abortive attempts…”

This blurb was the place to get me excited about playing his game, perhaps by hinting at the plot or giving me a taste of his writing style. Instead, all I knew was that he had technical difficulty coding the game and that he himself didn’t find the plot interesting enough to mention. Nevertheless, I kept an open mind – writing a good blurb isn’t the same skill as creating a good game.

The introduction intrigued me enough to keep my hopes up. It told the sordid story of the Cardew family, whose haunted house I was about to explore. It’s not a novel premise, but ghost stories don’t have to be novel to be at least entertaining. The writing was full of grammatical errors, especially incorrect comma use and far more than the daily recommended allowance of ellipses, along with the occasional typo. It badly needed a proofreader, and I found myself contemplating emailing the author after the comp to offer my services. I still really wanted to like this game.

Unfortunately, after the intro, the narrative all but dropped out of the story. The rest of the game involved wandering through sparsely-furnished rooms and usually being unable to interact with anything in them. I never learned more about the story. Even when I eventually found the missing daughter’s body, I still had no idea why her father had killed her, only that he had – and that had been so heavily hinted in the introduction that I felt no surprise at all.

I also never figured out my own motivation. The player character has, well, no character at all. I’m given no explanation of why I adopted this mystery, nor any defining characteristics. This is also one of the many games in this comp not to have implemented X ME, something which is quickly becoming my pet peeve.

There were a few puzzles through the game. Several of these I found unsolvable without using the “hint” command. This turned on essentially a room-specific walkthrough, not hints at all. I generally dislike it when games offer nothing in between no hint and just telling you what to do, though in this case I doubt I would have figured out what to do even with regular hints. For example, it turns out I had to manipulate all the various pieces of plumbing in the bathroom to find a razor blade in the cistern of the toilet. Since I had no reason to think that there would be anything in the cistern, nor any reason to think the plumbing would work in this complicated way, this action was only motivated in retrospect. This kind of nonsensical action that happens to yield something useful is, in my opinion, a very unfair puzzle. (One of the most egregious examples I’ve seen in a published game was in Syberia II, where Kate must (select text to view spoiler)¬†steal a scrub brush from a monk and use it to scrub a centuries-old painting off a church wall, revealing a completely unexpected secret message beneath.¬†That one still makes me throw my hands in the air.)

At one point I found the murdered daughter’s diary, whose contents turned out to vary as I took it to different rooms. This would have been a great opportunity to fill in more story, but it was too brief to really add anything to the characters or plot. The diary also could have been a great vehicle for a hint system, perhaps revealing a little more if the player read it repeatedly.

Immediately after finishing the game, I still had a sense of unrealized possibility. I wrote in my notes, “I’m frustrated. This might someday be a good game.” As a little time passed, though, I felt that that “someday” was farther and farther away. I’m glad the author experimented around with Inform 7, and I do agree – it’s less intuitive than it first appears. But the major problems with the game aren’t coding ones. In fact, I didn’t encounter anything I’d really classify as a bug. The issues I have with the game are all about the writing. My theory is that this is due in part to the author getting caught up in the coding (he had what sounds like a kind of fiddly system that made the lights flicker on and off spookily, which was admittedly kind of cool) and just ran out of time to put effort into the prose. In my opinion, this order of prioritizing was a mistake.

It also not surprise me to find that the author apparently didn’t use any beta testers. Getting feedback might not have fixed all of the above issues, but it would have been a start. I kind of wish the comp website’s authors’ area encouraged authors to use beta testers, as I’ve never seen a truly awesome game that didn’t credit any.

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