IFDB page: Rent-a-Spy
Final placement: 15th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition
Actually, in terms of design, Rent-A-Spy is pretty good. If you think I sound surprised, you’re right, because in plenty of other areas, this game seems thrown together rather carelessly. For instance, it leaves the Inform debugging verbs turned on. Now, granted, ever since Inform started keeping them on by default, it takes a more conscious effort to avoid this problem, but on the other hand, Stephen Granade did send an email to all authors reminding them to turn these off, and explaining exactly how to do it. As he said in his message, “there’s nothing quite as fun as being able to purloin like a madman in a competition game.”
Consequently, seeing those verbs left on is usually a telltale sign of a bad game. There were other portents, too. The introduction is lumbered by some awkward writing, and the whole “rent-a-spy” premise feels shaky, an uneasy mix between the espionage and private eye genres. Also, the game is compiled to .z8, even though it’s only 140k (and that’s with strict mode left on!), which is really rather odd.
Having seen these signs at the beginning, my expectations for the rest of the game were rather low. Perhaps that’s why I felt so pleasantly surprised by the first puzzle, an interesting, realistic bit of infiltration, broken up into several believable steps. Several of the other puzzles felt pretty fresh to me, too. I especially enjoyed the way the PC must cover her tracks as she progresses in order to achieve the best ending. Opened doors must be closed, keys stolen must be returned to their original spot, documents are duplicated rather than filched, and so on. I thought this was a fun twist on the usual adventurer tendency to rummage through the landscape looking for treasure, leaving everything a shambles behind him.
Of course, many of these puzzles were quite thinly implemented. There were some extremely severe guess-the-verb problems, and plenty of other areas where clues were minimal or absent, and the environment too sparsely described. Consequently, lots of Rent-A-Spy‘s good ideas are badly obscured by its lack of polish.
I can’t help but wonder if this was a situation where the oncoming deadline prevented the game from being as complete as it could be. This is the very situation that Adam Cadre’s Spring Thing is meant to address, and I hope that for every unfinished game I’m seeing in this comp, there are two more whose authors are holding back in order to make sure that the games are as good as they can be before releasing them.
For this game, it’s too late to enter any more comps, but I still hope it sees a subsequent release. With some editing, further testing, and some premise doctoring (perhaps making the PC something like a reporter, which would be quite a bit more believable than a spy you can look up in the phone book), this could be a pretty enjoyable piece of IF. For now, it’s more an example of unfulfilled potential.