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The Beetmonger’s Journal by Scott Starkey as Aubrey Foil [Comp01]

IFDB page: The Beetmonger’s Journal
Final placement: 5th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I wrote LASH, one of the things I had some fun with was splitting up the functions that we traditionally assign to the PC. The conceit of the game was that the player was controlling a robot via the IF interface; the robot reported its experiences in a first person, present tense voice, resulting in exchanges like this:

>x me
I cannot see you. We are only connected by a satellite link.

The Beetmonger’s Journal takes this sort of complexity one step further. The game begins, told in the first person voice by the Dr. Watson-ish assistant to Victor Lapot, famous archaeologist. However, unlike Infocom’s Sherlock, where Watson actually was the PC and Holmes just tagged along, in this game it is Lapot whose actions are controlled by the player, even as the results continue to be reported by the assistant in a third person past tense voice, resulting in exchanges like this:

>x me
Lapot looked over in my direction. I stood close by, available to
offer my assistance in any way possible. Just in case, I kept my
possessions handy: a shovel, a pick-axe, a canteen, a steno notebook,
a pencil, a package of "gorp", a 50' length of rope, a compass, a
pistol, and a clean pair of undies.

I thought this response in particular was lots of fun — not only did it immediately make clear that the voice of the parser and the object of the commands were two different characters, but it also subtly provided a pretext for compass-based movement, lent plausibility to the two characters as a legitimate archaeological expedition, and poked a bit of fun at the voluminous inventories of typical IF PCs. And to put the cherry on top, the Watson character’s name was Aubrey Foil — the same as the author’s comp pseudonym, thus reeling the various character layers neatly back into the matrix of a memoir written by a famous scientist’s close companion.

Even better, a little ways in, the game does a POV shift that adds yet another narrative and character layer, and this shift is handled as neatly as can be. The background color changes, the tone of the writing alters a little, and little touches like an epigram, a printed date, and and a cleared screen smooth the transition handily. The voice remains third person past tense, but the parser’s voice and the object of commands have dovetailed back into one character, a different character from the two introduced in the frame story. Then, at intervals, we get glimpses of what’s happening in that frame story, and those bits are literally enclosed in a frame, backgrounded with the appropriate color from that narrative layer.

I have to say, I was quite impressed with all this POV manipulation — I think it was the best part of the whole game. I got excited just thinking about the possibilities for parallel action and dramatic irony that this technique opens up. This particular game doesn’t take much advantage of these possibilities, but it does a fine job of breaking new ground on the trail blazed by games like Being Andrew Plotkin. There were some other nicely programmed conveniences as well. For instance, one puzzle involves an action that the player will have to repeat several times throughout the game; The Beetmonger’s Journal implements this by requiring that the proper action be entered the first couple of times, then handles it automatically from that point forward. This sort of sophistication requires extra work from the programmer, but it really pays off in the player’s experience, and this game extends that kind of thoughtfulness to the player throughout.

Amidst this smooth coding, there were a few flaws. Typos, factual errors, and formatting problems were infrequent, but far from absent. In addition, there were a few places in which the game sported outright bugs. The most glaring problem, however, was with a puzzle. It’s not a puzzle everyone will encounter, because at a crucial decision point the game bifurcates into two separate plot paths, and this puzzle is only on one of those paths. However, that was the path I chose, and this puzzle tripped me up enough that I was forced to go to the walkthrough, which is unfortunate, given how smoothly the game had delivered hints up to that point.

Basically, there are two problems with this puzzle — I’ll discuss them in fairly vague terms to avoid spoilage. First, the clue for the puzzle seems to be embedded in an environmental “atmosphere” message that only prints randomly. This setup has the dual disadvantage of fading into insignificance after several instances and possibly not printing when the player most needs to see it. A crucial clue whose absence will stop the player from progressing probably shouldn’t be random. The other problem is that the correct response to this clue entails the use of a verb that’s both logically unlikely and undemonstrated anywhere else in the game. Consequently, even if I had seen the clue when I most needed it, I’m not sure it would have occurred to me to use the necessary verb — I just would never have thought it would work, because it’s rather unusual and because it’s a bit implausible.

These problems are a bit of a letdown within a game containing so many excellent portions, but they don’t detract enough to take away the essential fun of being enveloped by all those wonderful layers.

Rating: 8.8

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