The Pickpocket by Alex Weldon [Comp00]

IFDB page: The Pickpocket
Final placement: 32nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

It’s the kind of situation that happens all too often in comp games: after a long period of frustration, I finally turn to the walkthrough, only to find that the correct solution was unguessable due to the game’s omission of a critical detail. That’s just the situation I thought I was in when I finally turned to the walkthrough for Pickpocket and saw that it suggested the manipulation of an item I had never seen at any point in the game. So I marched on over to where the item was supposedly to be found, all set to write a cranky note for this review, and discovered something that surprised me: the item was in the room description. In fact, it had been there all along.

It was then that I realized that the game had pulled a rather clever, but completely fair, trick on me. (The rest of this paragraph could be considered a mild spoiler, I suppose, though it really just boils down to the standard admonishment to read carefully.) You see, what Pickpocket did was to announce the presence of an important item, but to announce it in an utterly casual way, burying the sentence in the second line of a rather long-winded room description, a description that is almost identical to eight other room descriptions in the game. What’s more, the game ensures that you’ll encounter at least three of these near-identical descriptions before you get to the one with the important difference.

This devious but totally reasonable trick worked perfectly on me — by the time I got to the critical room (and I got to it seventh, not fourth), I was blowing past the room descriptions, assuming that they were all pretty much the same. Even better, it’s the perfect trick for a comp game by a first-time author, since if most of its players are like me they’ll be (A) going quickly, hoping to finish within the two-hour time limit, and (B) not expecting anything quite so devious in what is otherwise a fairly straightforward game. When a game gulls me so completely, I can only salute it.

Then again, there is another, less laudable reason why I turned to the walkthrough: I encountered a bad bug. This bug was of the “Which do you mean, the door or the door?” variety, which is even more disappointing in an Inform game than it is in a TADS game, since Inform’s library has never had any particular propensity for creating that kind of error, where TADS’ library did (though I don’t think it does anymore.) After I encountered this bug at what seemed to be the climactic scene of the game, it was easy to assume that my failure to progress was the game’s fault, not mine.

Even after I discovered how the game had hoodwinked me, I felt disappointed that it contained such a serious bug, because without the presence of that bug (and a few others, and some few-and-far-between spelling and grammar errors), I might have felt compelled to continue working at the game and had the pleasure of solving that puzzle myself. The whole experience just reminded me again that one of the most important reasons for betatesting is that once players encounter a serious bug, they’re unlikely to take the rest of your game very seriously, having lost faith that it knows what it’s doing.

The other lesson that Pickpocket underscores is the importance of maintaining some logical consistency in constructing the PC. First of all, the premise of Pickpocket strains credibility considerably: a street urchin has made off with your money pouch, so you decide to wait until nightfall, then prowl into the most dangerous slums in the city to find the urchin and recover your money. Only in a text adventure could a character like this seem like a normal person — any book, TV, or movie character that made such a choice would come across, at best, like Charles Bronson gone way off his meds, only unarmed and not at all intimidating.

Certainly any real person that tried to hunt down a pickpocket just by wandering into the slums, hours after the robbery, would deserve to have her sanity questioned. But even if we grant this premise, the game still demonstrates a puzzling lack of moral consistency. For example, the game’s response to OPEN CASH REGISTER is “You’re trying to catch a thief, not embark on a life of crime.” Yet to recover this money, you’ll end up committing theft, assault, menacing, breaking & entering, and vandalism. If that’s not a life of crime, I’m not sure what is. Overall, Pickpocket is an enjoyable game with one dynamite ace up its sleeve, but that sleeve is still a bit ragged from logical inconsistency and technical errors.

Rating: 7.8

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