IFDB page: Sunset Over Savannah
Final placement: 6th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition
Sunset Over Savannah (hereafter called Sunset) is one of the most impressive, enjoyable, and successful games of the 1997 competition. Interestingly, it shares a strategy with another very successful game, She’s Got a Thing for a Spring: both games present a natural world where fantasy-style magic is subtle to the point of nonexistence, but which nonetheless is suffused with wonder, divulging incredible sights that move the spirit as strongly as ever did any of Gandalf’s fireworks. The game takes place on a beach whose implementation is exquisitely complete, a small space which allows a great number of options within it… narrow but very deep. In itself, implementation of this depth carries a kind of magic, the kind of delirious sense of possibility inherent in all the best interactive fiction. The magic goes beyond this, though. The puzzles in the game (at least, the ones I had time to solve) are focused on a single theme: finding magic and wonder in a seemingly mundane world. As you wander the game’s beach and find ways to ferret out its secrets, those secrets display themselves in fiery sequences of enchantment and glamour. It’s an effect whose emotional impact could not be duplicated in a graphical game, only imitated. The arresting visuals would be there, but they would only carry a pale shadow of the reverential awe conveyed by the author’s excellent prose.
In a gutsy choice, Cockrum centers his game around emotional transition, presenting a player character whose inner state is conflicted: you’re at the end of your vacation (shades of Trinity), and the experience has made you reassess your life, especially in relation to your mind-numbing job. Is it possible that the best thing you could do is to quit, and try to set your feet on another path? In pursuit of the answer to this question, you wander the beach at Tybrisa Island, near Savannah, Georgia (hence the game’s title,) discovering amazing sights in your explorations. Going further than simply making an emotional journey the subplot of his game, Cockrum focuses the action upon it. The game’s “scoring” system does keep track of puzzles solved, but does it in emotional rather than numerical terms, starting with “conflicted” and moving through “astonished”, “respectful”, etc. I thought this innovation worked brilliantly. As someone who is interested in experimenting with the concept of score in IF, I was greatly pleased to see a game whose scoring system fulfilled the basic purpose of a score (keep players posted on their progress) and went beyond it in such a flexible and artistic way. The fact that the “emotion register” on the status bar changed not just in response to progress in puzzle-solving, but also to smaller changes in game state (switching briefly to “refreshed” after a quick dip in the ocean, for example) lent a depth of characterization to the player’s avatar which was perfectly suited to the medium of IF. I hope that authors take the lesson from Sunset that score can serve not just as a gaming metafunction, but also as a primary driver for the plot.
The game’s design is also first-rate. Following the example set by LucasArts’ games, Sunset is impossible to put in an unsolvable state. Impressively, it achieves this degree of closure without ever resorting to arbitrary, contrived, or artificial devices. Instead, the gaps are covered so naturally that they often enhance the game’s sense of realism. For example, if you pry a brick from the stony path, then lose that brick beneath the waves, the game says “With the path breached, you could probably excavate another brick.” It’s simple, it’s natural, and it prevents the irrevocable loss of an important item. The game’s structure is tight and smart, forgiving and flexible. In addition, there are several touches which reveal significant care and attention on the part of the author. Sunset provides very thorough instructions for players new to IF, a document into which the author clearly put great deal of effort. It also presents a thoroughly implemented hint system, and several sections of documentation, including credits, a list of features, and a listing of the author’s design philosophy, in which he acknowledges his debt to LucasArts. The puzzles are difficult, and there are a few bugs in the implementation, which are why this game stopped just short of being a perfect 10 for me. Once those bugs are fixed, Sunset Over Savannah will be one of the best games ever to have emerged from the interactive fiction competitions.
Prose: The game’s prose is of a very high quality. Cockrum faultlessly conveys the mood of the beach in Sunset‘s room descriptions. The prose employed at the magical moments was breathless with a sense of wonder, imparting just the right amount of awe and astonishment without going over the top into cheesiness or melodrama. And as someone who works in a job that I find less than thrilling, I thought that the sections dealing with the emotional turmoil brought be examining such a situation and trying to figure out what to do about it were expertly handled.
Plot: I think the game’s plot is a master stroke. Sunset has as much or more thematic unity as any interactive fiction game I can think of, and this unity lends a sense of sweep to the plot which makes the game such a powerful experience. Sunset establishes its focus from its first few sentences, and from that point on every piece of the game is an elaboration or variation on that conflicted, questioning theme. This seamless melding of plot and design made Sunset seem like more a work of art than a computer game.
Puzzles: This is where I stumbled just a bit. However, I’m not yet convinced that my stumbles are entirely the fault of the game. For one thing, the game’s environment is so rich that I didn’t get around to really focusing on puzzles until I’d played for about an hour, at which point I only had an hour left to concentrate on puzzle-solving before the competition time limit ran out. However, during that time I found it difficult to solve any puzzle, and I finally turned to the hints with about a half-hour left. What I discovered was that often the answers to the problems I was having were things that never occurred to me because of my unconscious, implicit assumptions about the depth of the game’s implementation. [SPOILER WARNING] For example, at one point I need a thin line to tether something, and the solution is to take the strap off of the swimming goggles I’ve found. It simply never occurred to me to take this tack in the game, though it’s something I would have come up with pretty quickly in real life. Why? I just assumed that the goggles were implemented to be all of a piece — I didn’t realize that the game designer had put enough care into them to make the strap detachable. [SPOILERS END] I solved two major puzzles in the game, and I look forward to returning to it and solving more. I’ll do so with a new paradigm in mind, and the fact that Sunset can make me change my perspective in such a way is a testament to its implementor’s prowess.
Technical (writing): I found no technical errors in Sunset‘s writing.
Technical (coding): There were a few bugs in the game’s implementation. I found one action which provokes no response from the game. Another action is supposed to change the setting in a particular way and fails to do so, even though the game tells you it has succeeded. There were one or two “guess-the-word” problems. I don’t think any of the game’s problems will be too difficult to fix.
OVERALL: A 9.6