The Arrival is the first HTML-TADS game I’ve ever played, certainly the first competition game ever to include pictures and sound. I was quite curious as to how these elements would be handled, and maybe even a little apprehensive. I wasn’t sure that a lone hobbyist could create visual and musical elements that wouldn’t detract from a game more than they added to it. But Arrival dispelled those fears, handling both pictures and sound brilliantly. The game’s ingenious strategy is to cast an 8-year-old as its main character, which makes the fact that most of the graphics are really just crayon drawings not only acceptable, but completely appropriate. Just for good measure, the game chooses “Attack of the B-Movie Clichés” as its theme and subtitle, thereby making the cheese factor of the special effects (which is pretty high) actually enhance the game rather than embarrass it. The pictures are delightful — the crayon drawings evoke a great sense of childhood and wonder while continuing the humorous feel of the whole game. The spaceship (two pie plates taped together) and the aliens (in the author’s words “the finest crayons and modelling clay $2.83 could buy”) are a scream — I laughed out loud every time I saw them. The game also includes a couple of very well-done non-crayon graphics, one an excellent faux movie poster and the other a dead-on parody of a web page, both of which I found very funny. The sounds, though sparse, are equally good — the sound of the alien spaceship crash-landing startled the heck out of me. I’m not used to my text adventures making noise! But a moment later I was laughing, because the noise was just so fittingly silly.
However, all the funny pictures and sounds in the world couldn’t make Arrival a good game if it wasn’t, at its core, a well-written text adventure. Luckily for us, it is. The game is full of cleverly written, funny moments, and has layers of detail I didn’t even recognize until I read the postscript of amusing things to do. The aliens, who bicker like a couple of married retirees touring the U.S. in their motor home, are great characters. Each is given a distinct personality, and in fact a distinct typeface, the green alien speaking in green text while the purple alien has text to match as well. If you hang around the aliens you will hear quite a bit of funny dialogue, and if you manage to switch their universal translator from archaic into modern mode, you can hear all the same dialogue, just as funny, rewritten into valley-speak. The game has lots of detail which doesn’t figure in the main plot but creates a wonderfully silly atmosphere and provides lots of jokes. For example, on board the ship is an examination room, where by flipping switches, pulling levers, or turning knobs you can cause all sorts of machinery to pop from the walls and perform its function on the gleaming metal table, everything from laser beams to buzz saws to Saran Wrap. In addition, Arrival is one of the better games I’ve seen this year at unexpectedly understanding input and giving snarky responses to strange commands, which has been one of my favorite things about text adventures ever since I first played Zork. Even if you can’t (or don’t want to) run the HTML part of HTML TADS, it would still be well worth your time to seek out The Arrival.
However, don’t be afraid to rely on hints. I had played for an hour and hadn’t scored a single point when I took my first look at them. Now, once I got some hints I determined that the puzzles did in fact make perfect sense — they weren’t of the “read the author’s mind” variety and I would probably have come to solve them on my own. Perhaps the presence of pictures, sound, and hyperlinks threw me out of my IF mindset enough that I was struggling more than I should have with the puzzles. That’s probably a part of it, but I think another factor was that all the details in the game ended up becoming a big pile of red herrings for me. There are quite a few items and places which have no real use beyond being jokes, and I found it quite easy to get sidetracked into trying to solve puzzles that didn’t exist. It’s not that I don’t think those pieces should be in the game; I actually find it refreshing to play a game where not every item is part of a key or a lock, and even as it caused me to spin my wheels in terms of game progress, it helped me ferret out a lot of the little jokes hidden under the surface of various game items. However, if you’re the kind of player who gets easily frustrated when your score doesn’t steadily increase, don’t be afraid to rely on a hint here and there. Just remember to replay the game after you’re done so that you can see what you missed. Besides, that pie-plate spaceship is worth a second look.