in Comp03

Cerulean Stowaway by Roger Descheneaux [Comp03]

IFDB page: Cerulean Stowaway
Final placement: 9th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

There’s a list in my head of annoying, old-school features that I never want to see again in an IF game. If you’ve read many of my reviews, you could practically recite them by heart: Mazes. Light source timers. Hunger timers. Today, “pointless inventory management” has officially joined that list, and the game that made it official was Cerulean Stowaway. This is the game that gave me six thousand awkward and bulky things to carry, most of which would be important later in the game (though, of course, it’s impossible to tell which ones until you need them and don’t have them.) Then it enforced limits on both number of items (“You’re carrying too much already.”) and weight of items (“Your load is too heavy.”) It gave me a pair of overalls with a bunch of pockets, but didn’t know the word “pocket.” After that, it put me in a bottleneck situation, where I couldn’t get all my inventory into the small space I needed to enter, forcing me to leave some things behind.

As it turns out, there were ways to make sure my inventory wasn’t lost, but due to some odd choices in item description, these options were far from clear. (More about implementation issues later.) As you might have guessed, the items I left behind were both necessary and irretrievable, forcing me to restore back to a much earlier save and replay a large chunk of the game when I realized I didn’t have a crucial puzzle component. Then there were the numerous times where the game put me in a time-critical situation, but wouldn’t let me perform a task because of its arbitrary inventory limits, forcing me to once again restore back to an earlier save, shuffle items around, and replay the sequence. All this, apparently, in the name of realism. In the game with the alien spaceship and the unguarded U.N. construction site that apparently anybody with a bit of spare time can sneak onto and sabotage. Before very long, I was about ready to fling my six thousand items straight at the head of the next living creature I saw. Sadly, that didn’t help, and once again, I found myself typing RESTORE.

This was made all the more frustrating by the fact that Stowaway is, for the most part, a pretty good game. It’s an old-fashioned puzzlefest with a nameless PC and a rollercoaster adventure plot. (By the way, does anybody still think this sort of game is a dying breed? For all the carping I see on the newsgroups about how so-called “literary” IF has taken over and nobody wants to write fun games anymore, I still find myself playing several of these every year. They’re not an endangered species, people.) It’s got some colorful writing, a fun story, and is capable of producing genuine tension and horror at times. I guess that’s why I typed RESTORE rather than QUIT. Any game that sets pointless, arbitrary limits that severely impede the player is a game that drains itself of pleasure, but all the same, I continued to grit my teeth and power through because I really wanted to see what happened next.

Frequently, I was rewarded, because even the losing endings are written with verve and liberally sprinkled with interesting details. Actually, I say “even the losing endings”, but I don’t think I ever saw the optimal ending, which brings up one of the game’s design flaws, albeit an understandable one: the hint system. Listen, I really understand the desire not to include a walkthrough, but if you do your hinting some other way, you simply must make sure that somebody who is a dope about puzzles (like me) or who is just nearing the end of a 2-hour judging period (also like me) can obtain enough information to reach the winning ending. Otherwise, you risk having a player leave your game unsatisfied… like me. Stowaway‘s location-based hints succeed most of the time, but even after I asked for hints in every single location (or at least, I think I did) I still ended up with 151 points out of 161 on my best playthrough. Sure, I saved humanity, but I was left feeling like I’d still failed.

A word, too, about those 161 points: don’t let the high point total fool you. I was mightily discouraged and alarmed to find myself an hour into the game with only 13 points out of 161, but the points mount up very rapidly indeed in the second half of the game, and so what I thought was an indicator of a much-too-large-for-the-comp game turned out to be a false alarm.

Implementation throughout Stowaway was inconsistent. Description levels tend to go pleasantly deep, especially towards the beginning of the game, and for the most part, the prose in these descriptions is utilitarian at worst, and quite enjoyable at best. On the other hand, sometimes those descriptions can be misleading or too vague. For instance, you may find a “small metal box” containing a couple of clothing accessories. Got it pictured in your mind? Good. Would a mop fit into it? Wrong! It does indeed fit.

Imprecise descriptions like this haunt Stowaway in several spots, and in one area the game is guilty of burying an obvious and important feature of the landscape in one of a dozen first-level descriptions. That’s the sort of thing a game should either do all the time (like last year’s Out Of The Study), or not at all. There are also a couple of places where objects are implemented, but with insufficient synonyms, which can fool players into thinking the objects aren’t implemented after all. Finally, I also encountered a couple of flat-out bugs, such as the time the game told me I’d managed to move part of my inventory (during one of my many inventory-management exercises) when in fact nothing of the sort had happened at all.

On the plus side, I found only a couple of tiny punctuation errors (which seemed pretty clearly to be typos rather than ignorant mistakes), and no spelling or grammar errors at all. That’s a big plus factor in my book. So: sharpen the descriptions, stomp the bugs, improve the hints, and for the love of God get rid of the inventory limits. Once those things happen, Cerulean Stowaway will be a really fun text adventure game. Right now, it’s less than optimal, just like my unlucky character.

Rating: 7.0

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