IFDB page: The Orion Agenda
Final placement: 6th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition
I’m greatly heartened to see how many games in this comp have done a thorough job of implementing all first-level nouns (that is, all the nouns found in object and room descriptions.) This sort of thing was pretty much absent in the Infocom era, and now it’s practically de rigueur, which I think is definitely a change for the better. It’s much easier to get immersed in a world where the objects are solid and observable rather than just a two-dimensional mirage.
By that measure, The Orion Agenda is implemented quite well. All nouns are well-covered, sometimes to a surprising degree. For instance, the intro uses a typically offhand-sounding SF metaphor when it says, “the fog comes rolling over my memory like a morning on Tantus 7.” Later on in the game, you find a reference source in which you can look up further information on Tantus 7 and its famous fogs, even though the planet plays no other role in the game beyond that initial metaphor. I love this kind of thing. A virtual world just feels so much more real when such care has been put into connecting its people, places, and things, and I’m thrilled to see that comprehensive coverage of the nouns is turning into an IF standard.
Now, it’s time to move on to the next level: verbs. Here, I’m sorry to say, TOA fares less well. Several times throughout the game, I was stymied by actions whose concepts had only been implemented in one way, even though there were other equally reasonable ways to express them. For example:
[That's not a verb I recognise.]
"You're welcome!" she says.
This is shallow implementation. Too shallow. Even more vexing, these problems were generally connected to puzzles, which made for problems that were maybe not quite guess-the-verb, but at least guess-the-syntax. The particular danger about this kind of shallowness is that when the first construction I use gets rejected, I tend to decide that the concept isn’t useful within the game (since it apparently hasn’t been implemented, see), and my chances of solving the puzzle on my own drop precipitously.
The worst instance of this in TOA was in the climactic scene, which calls for a particular command construction that, for whatever reason, is counter to the standard established by Infocom. Because I was using that old syntax, and because the game failed to recognize that the problem was with syntax rather than with content, I was actually typing the correct solution and was told that it was wrong. I hate that.
These kinds of verb and syntax problems are easily remedied with a round or two of testing and careful attention to the various ways people try to express what they want to do, and I’m hopeful that TOA undergoes this treatment, because the game is well worth experiencing. It’s got a fun potboiler story, though its plot twist is heavily clued and rather predictable to begin with, so I was a little chagrined when the game pretended that I hadn’t put the pieces together until the climactic scene. The writing is mostly strong, transparent prose, with only the occasional gaffe drawing attention. Probably the main quibble I have with it is that it chooses to call natives of Orion “Orionions”, which to my ear is an exceedingly awkward construction. “Orionese”, “Orionites”, or even “Orioners” would have been much better.
I also enjoyed the flashback structure of the narrative — it did an excellent job of bringing a lot of emphasis and drama to the endgame. However, one way that the structure worked at cross purposes to the game is that there’s a set of optional… not puzzles, exactly, but story enhancement challenges. Basically, if you’re particularly nice to a certain NPC, you might get a slightly better winning ending. However, the initial scene gave me reason to distrust that NPC, and consequently I was only as friendly to her as seemed appropriate for the PC’s professional demeanor. When the game later upbraided me for not being nice enough, I felt a little jerked around.
Shoot. This is turning out to be one of those reviews where I genuinely enjoy the game, but I can’t stop pointing out things that bugged me. So let me list a couple more and then I’m done, I promise. First, I’m not sure that it served any useful purpose to tell the story in a first-person voice. It seems to me that there are plenty of good reasons to break from the traditional IF convention of second-person voice, but this game didn’t have any of them. The PC was pretty conventional, with nothing unusual about his point of view, and the game itself didn’t use the distancing effect of first-person to any interesting purpose, so in the end it was just jarring.
Secondly, some parts of the milieu seemed a bit derivative or lazily imagined to me. For instance, the game describes the PC’s employer thus: SciCorps: The galaxy-spanning mega-corporation that is in charge of secretly monitoring promising new alien species that dot our corner of the universe, all in the hopes of one day inviting them to join the League of Sentient Systems. So wait, I’m confused. SciCorps is a “mega-corporation,” yet its interest in alien species is not as markets, product producers, or servicers, but rather to act on behalf of some governmental-sounding body? So is it a corporation or an extension of some kind of galaxy government? If it isn’t seeking profit, what does the word “corporation” even mean in this context?
Maybe they’re fulfilling a government contract or something, but that’s far from clear, especially when this “first contact” stuff sounds like their main function. Another example is the translator earpiece that somehow also translates the things you speak as well. Even the main philosophy of SciCorps seems like a warmed-over version of Star Trek’s Prime Directive.
Okay, I promised I’d stop and now I’m stopping. Despite my litany of complaints, I had a good time playing The Orion Agenda. Many of its problems are easily fixable, and I really hope that the game sees a post-competition edition. I recommend the game, but I’d recommend waiting a while for that post-comp release first.