Well, I suppose it was inevitable. Ever since the 1996 competition entry Ralph, which was narrated from the point of view of a family dog, the idea has been just sitting out there, waiting to be used. Actually, I’m surprised it took this long. But it’s finally here: a game written from the point of view of a family cat. As far as the writing goes, Soft Food actually does its job rather well. Its mood is quite different from that of Ralph — there is no jokey blundering about, no excretion gags. Instead, the tone is serious, even formal, as befits the dignified feline. Descriptions are well-turned; your owner is “the Provider”, the sofa is a “lumpy mountain”, cars are “glinting beasts.” The game also provides responses to most logical kitty verbs like “meow”, “purr”, and “jump on “. Unfortunately, the response to “purr” is “You’re not especially happy” — the game’s protagonist is not a contented cat. Its owner is suffering from an illness, and has been surly and unhelpful. The food bowl is empty, and the world outside deadly with oncoming traffic and a powerful Rival. Sickness, injury, and even death have roles in this game. The writing does a fairly good job of conveying the seriousness of this cat’s world, and the starkness of the dilemmas it faces.
I’m sorry to say that the coding is not quite so strong. I stumbled across a number of outright bugs in my two hours with the game. For example, you can get inside an open cupboard, and when you try to close it, the game responds “You lack the dexterity.” Fair enough, but when you try to leave, the game protests “You can’t get out of the closed cupboard.” Look around, and the room description has somehow evaporated, leaving just “The cupboard.” Another problem occurs with a pile of similar objects, from which you may take one and drop it anywhere in the game. However, if you return to the pile and take another, you’ll find that the one you dropped has disappeared, which stretches the bounds of plausibility. Moreover, there are a number of commands in the game (for example, “examine me”) to which the parser does not respond at all.
These are all fairly basic errors, nothing fatal, and I expect that they will be cleaned up in the next release of Soft Food. However, the problem that will be more difficult to fix is that of the puzzles. My Lord, these puzzles are difficult. They’re not so much “guess-the-verb” — I rarely found myself in a situation where I knew what to do but just couldn’t figure out how to phrase it. Instead, I found that most of the time I hadn’t the faintest idea of what to do, and the game kept ending in unpleasant ways as I stumbled about trying to figure out the solution. One puzzle in particular rivaled the Babel fish in complexity, but where the latter puzzle was enjoyable because of the absurdity of necessary actions piling atop one another, this game’s equivalent seemed frustratingly arbitrary, and the game’s serious tone did little to make the puzzle’s fiendishness more bearable. A disturbingly high percentage of the puzzles felt like members of the “guess-what-I’m-thinking” genre. I’m willing to concede that perhaps I wasn’t in a properly feline state of mind for them, and certainly I’ll admit that I’m not the world’s greatest puzzle solver, but I don’t think that’s sufficient to explain the problem. I think they’re just way too hard, and that the writing isn’t specific enough to give the player all the nudges necessary to solve them. It’s a good lesson in puzzle design though — if lots of players experience the same frustration I did, Soft Food will give designers an example of what to avoid in gonzo puzzle-crafting. I may even be able to use the lesson myself. See, I have a great idea for the 2000 comp: you play this pet goldfish…