Punk Points by Jim Munroe [Comp00]

IFDB page: Punk Points
Final placement: 22nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: this review has a bit of profanity here and there.

Here’s a thesis: the method for making a great punk rock song is antithetical to the method for making a great IF game. See, when you’re making punk rock, the main thing is emotion. It doesn’t matter if you play the wrong chord, or sing the wrong note, or say the wrong words — those are details, and they aren’t important. The point is that you get the spirit across, that you communicate that great fucking barbaric yawp, as Walt Whitman might have said were he a punk rocker. But great IF doesn’t get made like this. The best IF authors are less like Sid Vicious or Jello Biafra and more like Todd Rundgren or (to take a really non-punk example) Mick Jones of Foreigner. That is to say, they are studio wizards who put endless attention into the details.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t communicate emotion, too, but it works differently, because we receive IF differently from the way we experience punk rock. Listening to punk rock is a passive experience, not because you don’t get involved emotionally — you certainly do, or at least I do — but because the band throws the song at you, and you have to catch it, and you’re not doing anything to influence them, at least not anything direct (and if you’re listening to a recording rather than a live performance, not anything at all.) Playing IF, on the other hand, is all about shaping the work. In addition, we receive IF one piece at a time, whereas music is more of a gestalt experience. Consequently, IF players spend a ton of time poking into the details, and they can be counted on to stray from the path of the plot. If some studio wizard hasn’t made sure that most of those odd steps are accounted for, and removed all the bugs that might trip an unwary player, the game is unlikely to get its yawp across.

By now you probably know where I’m going with this analogy. Punk Points is put together like a great punk rock song, which unfortunately makes it pretty much middling poor IF. The writing is spot-on, doing an excellent job of capturing a Catholic boys’ high school in 1985, crystallizing a portrait of the PC as 13-year-old malcontent rebelling against the school’s repressive system, and offering convincing characters with great dialogue. The coding, on the other hand, falls down rather badly, which takes pretty much all of the punch away from the writing.

See, in IF it’s not enough just to have a great song — you have to play all the notes right, sing on pitch, and remember all the words, too. Otherwise, you end up with players like me wandering around carrying an object that wasn’t supposed to be takeable, and banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what to do next, unable to do so because the answer involves a logical impossibility once I’m carrying the object. (Problems like this were intensified by the lack of hints, which the game asserts “are for fucking posers.”) The game has tons of errors like this — most not quite so game-killing, and some quite humorous (try putting your middle finger on something and walking away), but all of which take you right out of the immersive world that the writing has worked so hard to create. There are a ton of cool ideas in Punk Points, but after spending most of my time beating my brains out against its bugs and sparse implementation, I didn’t come out remembering any of the cool stuff — just the frustration.

The other big example of this problem is in the game’s characters. In the cut-scenes, these characters positively sparkle with reality. The dialogue in those scenes is crisp and believable, and their actions fit in well with their words. Once we get to the interactive scenes, however, it’s another story. These NPCs are just barely implemented. Nobody moves, nobody does too much except two or three random pieces of business, and worst of all, nobody has much of a response to anything, except the one crucial thing you’re supposed to ask them about. But see, when 9 out of 10 things get a default response, or no response at all, I’m not likely to get to that 10th question. I just figure that the NPC isn’t important, because obviously not much work was put into implementing it.

This reasonable but incorrect assumption tripped me up on a number of the game’s puzzles, especially those in the second act, several of which hinge on guessing the right noun in “ASK ABOUT”. When they don’t answer to pretty much anything else, why should I keep asking them about things? Stuff like that may be details, but lack of attention to the details just kills an IF game. Maybe that kind of meticulousness would make Punk Points less punk, but it sure as hell would make it a better game.

Rating: 5.8