Okay, I know it’s bad form to start out a game review with a screed about the system it’s written in, but Alan is on my last nerve. First of all, I think I’ve mentioned before that I really dislike its lack of scripting capability. I keep having to remember to call up the scrollback and copy my latest moves into a text editor, and this is irritating in two big ways. First, having to constantly keep an eye on this really breaks immersion for me — I can’t get fully into the game when I’m having to manually monitor this administrative task. Second, if I do happen to become immersed, then I invariably end up forgetting to bring up the scrollback until too late, when the buffer only has half the moves I’ve made since my last copy-paste operation. Bad enough to have to copy from the buffer at all, but the fact that it only seems to hold a minimal amount of the scrollback makes the whole thing extremely aggravating.
The other problem that I just discovered with Alan is the apparent lack of portability in its save files. The way I play comp games often involves a lot of switching machines — laptop on the bus in the morning, work machine at lunch hour, home machine at night. Usually, this is no problem; I just drop my saved game onto a floppy and start up from it at the next machine. However, I discovered that whenever I try to restore a saved Alan game from another machine I get this infuriating message: “Sorry, the save file did not contain a save for this adventure.” It’s very, very annoying to restore “sardoria.sav” and be told that it’s not a save for Sardoria. I don’t know whether these flaws are in the language or the interpreter, but they just drove me crazy with this game, maybe because it’s a little larger or more ambitious than most other Alan games. (Certainly more so than The Adventures Of The President Of The United States, the other Alan game in Comp03.)
Whew, thanks for letting me get that off my chest. On to Sardoria. Well, I’m sorry to say that Sardoria also drove me crazy in its own ways, beginning with the very first room. It’s one of those games that starts with the PC imprisoned — thrown into a locked cellar, in this case — so the first puzzle is getting free. I must have spent 20 minutes trying out different commands in that room, none of which seemed to do anything for me. Finally, I turned to the hints and was told that I “need to find another object hidden in the cellar.” Well thanks, but that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last 20 minutes, without success. Any more hints? Nope, “[t]here are no more hints for this location.”
Finally, I turned to the walkthrough, and found that the command the game was looking for was something that I would never have thought of doing, because it doesn’t really make much sense. The result is that as I’m doing the nonsensical action, I happen across the hidden item. “No fair!” I cry. It was especially galling because I had specifically checked the area where the item was hidden, and was told in clear terms that there wasn’t anything there. This sort of frustration happened to me over and over in the game; I tried on all of them, but I think I ended up looking at the walkthrough for every puzzle but one or two. Often I’d come close to the solution but failed to find the exact route desired by the game (shades of Gourmet), and sometimes the solutions just flat-out made no sense to me. There were also occasions when the actions required made a sort of sense, but were far too vague or arbitrary.
Many of these problems could have been overcome, or at least alleviated, if Sardoria had provided better feedback. More and more, I’m convinced that this is a crucial element of successful interactive fiction, at least IF with puzzles in it. When a player gets close to the solution, the game should indicate that rather than giving a flat “nothing happens” sort of response until it gets the exact right set of commands. Moreover, if players think of an alternative solution, the game should be able to either let them utilize that solution or provide a convincing reason why they can’t. How can an author provide this level of feedback? It’s all about the testing. Get at least three testers for your game, with a sufficient variety of approaches between them. Then, watch for the things they try. If they get close to the answer, your game should provide some appropriately encouraging feedback.
This is especially important in a game like Sardoria, where many of the puzzles are one kind of combination lock or another, most of whose combinations verge on the totally arbitrary. This is a subject that deserves a more detailed treatment, but I’m unable to do that in a spoiler-free review, so all I can say is that designers must anticipate the majority of player responses and handle them appropriately. It’s a lot of work, yeah, but it can be the difference between exciting and exasperating for puzzly IF.
[Postscript from 2021: In a subsequent discussion on rec.games.int-fiction, someone pointed out that in fact, it is possible to create a game transcript in Alan if you start the interpreter with a “-L” switch at the command prompt. Fair enough, but I stand by my response from that discussion:
“You know, somebody probably told me that last year, too. Unfortunately, I immediately forgot because this is such an amazingly clunky and unintuitive way to provide a game transcript. I want to type SCRIPT and have the game start logging a transcript to a file. I do not want to have to open up a DOS window and start the game with a special switch from the command prompt, especially since I will almost inevitably have the interpreter and the gamefile in different directories (something the Arun interpreter barely knows how to handle as it is) and will thus be forced to type out an entire path for one or the other of them.
Anyway, I amend my complaint from ‘Alan provides no scripting capability’ to ‘Alan’s scripting capability is far too hidden and inconvenient.'”]