Playing Four In One, I was in an unusual, unprecedented (for me) situation: I was playing a game of which I had already read a complete, winning transcript. Not a walkthrough, but a transcript of commands and game responses. It seems that the author submitted this transcript to Stephen Granade’s IF Fan Fest, an informal quasi-competition held at Granade’s Mining Company web page. If I had known this transcript was also going to be a competition game, I wouldn’t have read it, because I hate spoilers. But I didn’t know that, so I read it, and it made playing the game a very strange experience — the whole thing gave me a very strong sense of déjà vu. Now, granted, the transcript isn’t an exact one. You can’t follow that transcript and hope to win the game, because the commands are not all perfectly duplicated, and there are some other differences between the two as well. However, they have a lot in common. Now, the funny thing about this is that when I initially read the Four In One transcript, my thought was “It’s a funny idea, but it would be far too difficult to actually turn into a game.” Well, I have been proved wrong.
The idea behind the game is that you’re a film director in the heyday of the Marx Brothers, and you’re directing them in their first picture for MGM. Or at least, you’re trying to direct them. Apparently, keeping all the Marxes in one room, getting along, and working productively is somewhat akin to herding cats. Consequently, you’re forced into the position of chasing after them, collecting them one by one, and forcing them to follow you around to their (and your) considerable annoyance. Even once you’ve got them all on the set and rehearsed, there’s no guarantee that one or more of them won’t go bolting off to make a phone call, hang out at the catering table, or read a book. What’s worse, you have only two hours to get a good take on a crucial scene, or you and the picture will both be canned. The transcript makes this into a hilarious situation, showing the Marx Brothers at their zaniest even when the cameras aren’t rolling. In fact, all the comedy takes place when the cameras aren’t rolling. This is the kind of thing that I didn’t think an IF game would be able to pull off, but Four In One is the living proof. It’s not as funny as the transcript, but it works, especially in places like Chico’s dressing room, where more and more people keep entering, pushing you inexorably to the back wall like the first entrant in a phone-booth-stuffing competition. Scenes like this can be irritating as well, and the game sometimes steps across the fine line between funny aggravation and just plain aggravating aggravation. However, with the exception of one internal TADS error that I found, the technical details of the writing and coding are executed superbly, and this goes a long way towards smoothing out any annoyances.
The place where the game’s technical proficiency shines the most is in its characters. Four In One is a the most character-intensive piece of IF I’ve ever played. Almost every location has one or more characters in it at all times, and these characters are as fully implemented as they need to be. The gaffer, for example, is not terribly talkative — ask him about the movie and he’ll say “A job’s a job,” but ask him about the lights and he has an opinion, as he should. Every character has responses about the things they should know about, though if you spend much time in conversations with them you will run afoul of the game’s time limit. The Marx Brothers can tell you about each other, the movie, MGM (Groucho says, “MGM stands for ‘more godless movies.'”), and anything else they ought to know about. Four In One does an outstanding job juggling all these characters, giving them just the appropriate depth of implementation so that the game really rewards replay. After I had solved the game, I went back and just chatted with the various characters, and was delighted with the extent to which they are implemented. The author’s research is quite apparent in these moments, and it makes a big difference. Four In One taught me things about the Marx Brothers that I had never known before, and made me want to go out and rent A Night at the Opera again. That’s entertainment.