IFDB page: The Big Scoop
Final placement: 13th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition
And so the Great Conversation System Experiments continue. The Big Scoop has found a way to combine the open-ended ASK X ABOUT Y system with the focus of Emily Short‘s topic-based systems — the game still uses the ASK ABOUT command diction, but there’s also a TOPICS verb available, which tells you most of the topics you can plug into the formula. As a bonus, it also tells you what you can plug into TELL ABOUT. This system intrigued me, but I ended up feeling a little disappointed with it.
At first, I was excited by the prospect of not having to play hunt-the-noun, but my reaction upon seeing a list of nouns to try was that I needed to try them all. Immersion drained quickly as an exchange between two characters turned into an administrative task, and not a very rewarding one at that, since the NPC generally only had a line or two at most about any given topic. Moreover, Scoop was implemented deeply enough that the list included most of the verbs I would have thought of, but I never needed to try to think of them, which lessened my engagement with the game.
In a way, Scoop‘s system is the worst of both worlds. It retains the cumbersome ASK ABOUT form but removes all of the feeling of mystery and possibility that comes along with thinking of new things to ask about; it provides Short’s unwieldy TOPICS list, but loses all her handy abbreviations and her menu options for conversational gambits. In addition, the list sometimes shows topics that the PC has no way of knowing about yet, which effectively constitute plot spoilers. So in the end, I found Scoop‘s conversation system to be a failed experiment, albeit a noble one.
Happily, there’s better news about the rest of the game. The Big Scoop has an engaging story that starts off with a dramatic situation that could have come right from a Hollywood thriller. The PC awakens, disheveled and disoriented, in a friend’s apartment. Stumbling into the kitchen, she finds her friend’s dead body, and a voice on her cellphone says that the police are on their way; she’s about to be framed for murder.
It’s not easy to escape from this grim situation, but when she does, the perspective shifts: now the PC is a reporter investigating the murder, and it becomes clear that the first scene was simply a swollen prologue. This structure worked well for me — the urgency of the initial scene carried over nicely into the rest of the game, and having played the victim of the framing, I never had any doubts that she was innocent, which helped me buy into the reporter’s quest to clear the victim’s name.
In addition to a good story and an inventive structure, Scoop also sports some wonderfully deep implementation. It provides descriptions for most all first-level objects, and it frequently surprised me with what verbs those objects could handle. For instance, when the PC awakens in room with a red stain on the carpet, I tried something a little unusual:
The sweet smell makes you feel sick.
The game was completely prepared for that command, and used the results to further the prologue’s ominous mood. Bravo. Finally, Scoop does some nice work with NPC interaction. This is perhaps no surprise from the author of The Temple, a Comp02 game whose best feature was its main NPC, who behaved like an actual person and worked as a team with the PC. The NPC in this game fills a similar role, and the added bonus is that since she serves as the PC in the prologue, her character comes that much more alive.
Sadly, there are a few things that mar the experience, the first of which is Scoop‘s sometimes wobbly English. This game was apparently simultaneously developed in Swedish, and there are some rough patches in the translation:
>ask cop about blood
"He bleed over the whole place," the policeman says grumpily.
Like most of the English errors in Scoop, this one could be down to a simple typo, which makes it much stronger than The Temple was, not to mention far better than some of the translated games I’ve already played in this comp. However, the accumulation of these blunders, along with telltale missteps like calling an office break room a “breakout area,” make the writing feel just a bit off-kilter.
Similarly, though the game has clearly been extensively tested, I still found a few bugs and missing verbs. The worst one, unsurprisingly, involves an object that functions as a rope — the game has difficulty keeping track of just where this object resides once it’s been tied to one thing. Finally, Scoop suffers from an occasional lack of clarity. The most glaring example is in the game’s climactic scene, in which something critical happens that is never actually described, and must instead be inferred from subsequent events. It seems clear that this lacuna isn’t part of some artistic effect, but is rather just an oversight, and quite a severe one at that. Still, the good far outweighs the bad in this game — it tried something new in its conversation system, and it kept me interested with a compelling story and canny puzzles. I enjoyed my time with it.