Saturday, October 17, 2015

Baker of Shireton, revisited (a second review)

"The Baker of Shireton" is a parser type game writen by Hannon Ondricek for the 2015 annual interactive fiction competition.  After posting my initial review of this game, another judge advised me to check the walk through for content I may have missed.  I'm glad I did, although some of my impressions haven't changed.  This revised review is going to be very spoilery, so don't jump after the break unless you want key game points revealed.

I don't care to use hint files during the competition.  A game ought to stand on its own.  But I'm glad that I was advised to look at the walk through on this.  It helped me through one particular puzzle that I didn't even realize was a puzzle.  That's an issue which I'll address after I reiterate some of the high points of the game.

Hanon has executed some neat programming tricks to allow the game to remember past game states after a restart.  That's a difficult trick with Inform.  The game also makes great use of variant font styles, to simulate human PCs participating in a multi-player online game.

When I played originally, I played for at least an hour without leaving the bakery (though I'd seen the back room).  From that perspective, the best I could say about the game design was to conclude that it was a deeply implemented gag game.  The implementation in two rooms was deep enough to keep me entertained for an hour, and also to give me a nagging feeling that I was missing something.  It turns out that there are seven more locations outside of the bakeshop, and a full story arc.

Despite the larger size of the outside, about half of the required actions to complete the game can be discovered without leaving, and that's where I got stuck.  There is a lot to discover and do, but not enough direction regarding the overarching goals.  One of the required actions is to kill Bob the Hobo.  But why? (I did it because the in-game hints told me to, and didn't realize until much later what personal benefit my act of common murder would achieve).  Even late in the game, prior to being lifted off by flying chariot, the overarching goals were not obvious.

The conventional wisdom in game design says that a player should not need to die in order to solve a puzzle.  There have been exceptions, of course.  One of my favorite is "Rematch" (Andrew Pontius 2000).  "Rematch" is won or lost with a single command (an usually complex command for a parser game).  The game must be replayed dozens, even hundreds of times to discover that command.  But with "Rematch", if you knew the winning command, you could win the first try.  In "Baker of Shireton", even following a walkthrough, you MUST die, at least four separate times before reaching the final end state.  It's an odd narrative structure, which makes some sense in the context of the game-world being modeled, but also contributes to my criticism about the lack of motivation. How am I supposed to know that I should burn down the bakeshop to achieve a later success?

In summary, "Baker" is a more ambitious game than I earlier realized.  Amusing concept.  Overall fun experience despite some weaknesses in puzzle design.  Some nice programming tricks (but not without a few bugs).  Satisfying ending, if you can reach it.

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