[IF Comp 2014] Jesse Stavro’s Doorway

Jesse Stavro’s Doorway, by Marshal Tenner Winter, is a parser-based game written in Inform. You can download it from the comp website or play it online here. I played it offline, as I prefer to do with parser-based games.

A long, strange trip.

Spoilers behind the cut.

First, a disclaimer: I played this game over a week ago, but I’ve gotten behind on writing my reviews. I took notes, but my impressions aren’t as fresh as sometimes.

Jesse Stavro’s Doorway is a fantasy/sci fi homage to the ’70s. Your search for your time-traveling friend leads you back to 1977 and San Francisco.

Unlike another time-travel game I’ve played in this comp, the time travel serves only as means of changing  the setting – leaping from time to time doesn’t play a role in the mechanics of the game. I was a little disappointed to realize this – the blurb and the background information given at the beginning of the game made me hopeful I would get to jump around, Curses-style, from one point in spacetime to another – but it wasn’t a major disappointment.

There is a lot of story to this game. You get a slew of information right upfront in the form of a journal (an old chestnut: your journal in your satchel for all the things you forgot you knew!), and boy is your research extensive. There are doors and keys in a whole elaborate metaphysical universe, and complicated politics between factions of time travelers. At least one of these factions is chasing down your friend Jesse, and your goal is to reach him first. Along the way, you solve some fairly straightforward IF puzzles such as locating needed objects and giving them to the right people.

Unfortunately, it felt a bit like the author ran out of time to reach full potential with the concept. Most significantly, the game ends quite abruptly without you managing to find Jesse. (At least, as far as I can tell, this is the farthest ending in the game – it’s the one in the walkthrough, and other people got the same one.) It’s possible that the author is setting things up for a sequel. If so, that could have been clearer.

There were other things that seem like signs that the author ran short on time. While the game is free of any major bugs, non-essential objects are almost never implemented, giving the default message, “You can’t see any such thing” when I tried to examine the scenery. Similarly, asking characters about topics outside their limited purview yielded “There is no reply,” making for a lot of awkward-sounding conversations. While the sparseness helped me avoid wasting time investigating red herrings, it also made the game less immersive. A few tweaks to default messages (“Riley is too high to string together a coherent sentence about that,” for example) would have helped.

I was left with a lot of unanswered questions. I want to know more about the various factions; I want to know more about Jesse and why he’s wanted, and by whom; I want to know what the woman at the end of the story is up to; I want to know what winds up happening later on. The story seemed to bookend the game rather than being the game; most of my time was spent on urgent but smaller-scale activities (run away from a scary dog, ask people if they’ve seen my friend) instead of changing my understanding of the world. Which is realistic, really – on an actual life-changing adventure, there’s a lot of Stuff To Take Care Of to survive long enough to Gain Insights and Make Important Discoveries. I wish some more discoveries and insights had come up at the end, though. It’s a good sign that the story raised so many questions and made me so curious. It just left me hanging in an unsatisfying way.

Still, this was a good classic parser type of game, and I enjoyed it. I recommend doing as I did, and playing with Scarlet Begonias in the background for flavor. You could even put on the exact concert that the characters attend, which is what I did while writing this review.

An aside: My initial reaction to the title was, “Wasn’t ‘Jesse Stavro’ the Uncle Jesse in Full House?” In case you are also wondering: No; he was Jesse Katsopolis, played by John Stamos. Fun fact: the character was named Jesse Cochran in the first season, but Stamos pushed for the name change because he was proud of his Greek heritage. Thanks, Wikipedia!

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