A few years ago, I made up some vocabulary to describe a common aspect of IF. I’m not really sure if anybody else uses it, but I’ve found it immensely handy. The vocabulary is this: I call a noun that appears in a room description a “first-level noun.” These nouns either will or won’t have descriptions implemented, and the more of them that are described, the better, in my opinion. Nouns that appear in the descriptions of first-level nouns I call second-level nouns. Nouns from second-level descriptions are third-level, and so on. The deeper these levels go, the more complete and immersive the interactive environment, as we’ve seen in previous games like Hunter, In Darkness and Worlds Apart. Out Of The Study puts this technique to some of the best use I’ve ever seen, going very deep indeed with its levels of description:
> x family photo
In the photo you see the professor together with his family.
> x family
The professor is standing in the photo with his wife and five
> x children
The photo is really rather old as the children in it are still very
young. You know that none of them lives at home anymore. On the left
there are twin boys, looking to be of the age at which they have just
started going to school. In the middle, the youngest child, just a
baby, is sitting in her mother's lap. It seems to be hardly one year
old: you cannot tell if it's a boy or a girl, even from the clothes.
> x baby
The baby, whose sex you are not able to tell, is dressed in a pink
> x overall
It is just an ordinary babies' outfit.
Given that OOTS is a one-room game, this depth of implementation goes a very long way towards making the environment feel real and interactive. Intriguingly, the point of this depth isn’t just to increase immersion; it’s actually an element of the game’s puzzles, and clues are often buried several levels deep. Enlightenment, from Comp98, explored this technique a little, but OOTS takes it much further.
This game’s puzzles are definitely its best feature. Like many one-room games, it has only a modicum of plot — you’re a thief who has been trapped inside the place you’re robbing, and you must investigate the environment to figure out how to escape. To do so, you have to figure out the mindset of the room’s occupant, and all the regular puzzles are subsections of that overriding goal. The design is generally sound, and I appreciated the fact that the environment was so richly implemented, but it would have been a lot more fun were it not so buggy. There’s a bit of an insect theme in this game, but actual game bugs are not welcome no matter how many metalevels of irony they provide.
Some of the problems may have been due to the ALAN parser; for instance, I found I couldn’t refer to objects by their adjectives, as in the following example where both a “torn photograph” and a “family photograph” are in scope:
> x photograph
[It is not clear which photograph you mean.]
> x torn
[You must supply a noun.]
Being able to refer to an object by any of its name words is a behavior I’ve come to love in IF, and I missed it a great deal during this game. Other things were clearly the game’s fault. For instance, “examine” and “read” were implemented as different verbs, but their implementation was not well-tested, resulting in exchanges like this:
> read books
There is nothing written on the books.
Hope you didn’t pay too much for those books, professor — they aren’t worth the paper they aren’t written on.
Between the game’s bugs, its quirks, and its lack of a walkthrough, I came thisclose to just abandoning it altogether. Happily, some folks over at ifMUD helped me get unstuck so I could reach the ending. Unhappily, that ending is a bit of a disappointment. OOTS succumbs to the temptation to tack on a rather cutesy “twist” ending, but my reaction to it was neither “awwwww” nor “whoa!”, but rather “huh?”
In my view, all that ending does is to make hash of everything that came before, as well as to make the player’s labors seem rather fruitless. I don’t even think it can be justified as bringing some sort of justice to the thief, because it’s unclear how much reality has actually shifted, or how much we are to assume about the game as a whole. There are some good puzzles and a very well-crafted setting here, and with a round or two more of testing and a better ending, OOTS could be a pretty good piece of IF.