IFDB page: The Cruise
Final placement: 27th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition
The Cruise is, by all appearances, its author’s first game. Everybody’s a rookie once, and the slack that people are inclined to give to somebody’s debut outing can cover a multitude of sins. Alas, however: not this many. Let me quickly cover what was good about the game. Its cruise-ship setting made for a fun exploration of an environment I’m not likely to inhabit anytime soon, thus utilizing one of the great strengths of IF.
It had some funny moments. In one of my favorites, the humor was mixed with pain, like so: there was a starvation time limit. That’s bad. The food is in a dining room, which isn’t too hard to find. That’s good. I wasn’t interested in finding the food my first time out, and I died before I came across the dining room. That’s bad. However, I got lots of lighthearted warnings before I died, and when I died, it wasn’t of starvation, but of a giant, suddenly-appearing sign reading YOU LOSE. That’s good, or at least, it’s funny. The toppings contain Potassium Benzoate. That’s bad. (Sorry… Simpsons reflex.)
Finally, the puzzles were relatively easy, which reduced the impact of the game’s other annoyances. Well, I should say that the majority of the puzzles were easy, and the Last Lousy Eleven Points puzzle would have been easy were it not so horribly bugged.
And that brings us to the rest of the review. The following is intended in the spirit of constructive criticism — all the game’s problems are quite fixable, and should be fixed. This experience can be an educational one. Now then. There were major formatting problems. For instance, about 10 or 20 commands in, I did something that caused the game to print in italics. Fair enough. Except it then printed everything in italics FOR THE ENTIRE REST OF THE GAME SESSION. Not even restarting or restoring fixed this problem — it took actually shutting down and relaunching the interpreter. Bad, bad, bad — I’m sure it was just a missing tag somewhere, but it drastically affected my play experience. The lesson: details count.
Another problem, which I’m not sure whether to classify as a formatting error or an outright bug, is that about two-thirds of the way through, the game started printing a lowercase “x” after nearly everything it did. For instance:
(First taking the evil detector)
Taken. Okay, you're now wearing the evil detector.
It's time for dinner. You should go to the dining room soon. x
South Residential Hallway
The hall continues to the east and west. To the south is the
door to your room. The stairway area is to the north.
That is bad. Annoying, distracting, inexplicable — bad. It should have been caught in playtesting. I note that 75% of the playtesters share a last name with the author. Nothing wrong with that — my sister helped me test my game too. But perhaps they were inclined to be a little more lenient in the interest of familial affection or something? Something good to keep in mind when collecting beta-testers is to try to assemble a team that contains both IF novices and IF veterans. The former can bring a fresh approach to conventions you might take for granted, while the latter can bring a greater rigor to their testing regime, because they know what can go wrong.
An IF veteran would certainly have caught the game’s most egregious guess-the-verb problem: at a climactic point, you must go up. I tried it in good faith. I typed “U”. Repeatedly. The only response I ever got was “You can’t go that way.x”. The hints were no help, since all they said to do was go up. Ah, but wait. I tried “GO UP” and guess what? It worked. Of course, it should have worked. But “U” also should have worked.
Alongside guess-the-verb, there were bizarre and arbitrary limits ingrained into the game’s structure. I’ve already mentioned the starvation problem. There was also a pointless, irritating inventory limit. Give me a knapsack or something, for god’s sake. Worst of all, the game precludes you from reaching your final goal until you have spent two days (game-time) on the ship. Thus, if you solve the main puzzles within the space of a game-time afternoon (as I did), you end up wandering around aimlessly for a long time, unable to obtain crucial items and completely unaware that the game is planning to give you the vital tidbit in another day and a half. This is completely arbitrary, and very, very bad.
So one final lesson before I call it quits: don’t built arbitrary waiting periods into your game unless they’re very short and the player has plenty to do in the meantime. If players are wandering aimlessly, or performing dull, repetitive actions in order to progress the plot, the game has failed them. I’m realizing that my own games (especially my competition entry from this year) are not blameless in this arena; that’s why it’s so useful to write reviews. Authors, especially the author of the game in question, can learn a lot from critical analysis of a misguided game. For the game’s players, on the other hand, the fun is rather more scarce.