IFDB page: Bane of the Builders
Final placement: 28th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition
In what is either a shameless rip-off or an unwitting duplication of the Heechee backstory behind the Gateway games (and novels), this game posits a “mysterious race known as the Builders [who] had left many traces and artifacts throughout the galaxy.” The game opens as a planet has been discovered that might yield the secret of the Builders’ demise, though it’s unclear how the simple existence of “an energy source” would promise such vital information. No doubt the answer could be supplied by the foremost expert on Builder civilization, a fellow known only as “the Professor.” (I was torn as to whether to picture him as the Professor from Futurama or the Professor from Gilligan’s Island.)
The PC’s role is that of a starship ensign who has become “quite friendly” with the Professor (though apparently not friendly enough to learn a first or last name), and who is sent down to accompany said Professor on his investigative mission in this Builder artifact. Now, it can fairly be said that this scenario is rather illogical — would a lowly ensign really be the only one to accompany a scientist on such an expedition, and if so, would he really be asked to wait around in the ship instead of providing armed support, and would he only start worrying after the Professor goes missing for almost a day?
However, such objections aside, I enjoyed the setup of this game. It felt pleasurably reminiscent of sci-fi juveniles from the 1940s and 50s, right down to the cheesy idioms uttered by the characters. (“Thank Space you’re here!”) I especially enjoyed how Star Trek and its clones have become so ingrained in the culture that when the game provided a blaster “set to kill”, I knew that “SET BLASTER TO STUN” would work, even though the game provided no explanation of the blaster’s settings. It worked. Unfortunately, letdowns occur throughout the game that prevent it from being a fun romp through Golden Age and TV sci-fi tropes.
The problem isn’t with the writing, which is pretty serviceable throughout, even earning extra points from me for using “its” and “it’s” correctly the entire time. The formatting is fine too, although it seems to miss a few blank lines here and there. The implementation, on the other hand, is a bit more deeply troubled. Several times, the game seemed to want to produce the effect of the room’s contents shifting in front of the PC’s eyes; the room description would print, then a line reading “The world around you suddenly shimmers and changes…”, encased with blank line or two on either side, and another room description would print. So far, so good.
Except that sometimes, the descriptions were identical. Other times, a third room description would print after the second one, with the “shimmer” line printing without blank lines preceding it. I doubt this was intentional — it’s a feature that needed more testing before the game’s release. Another serious problem is that in a climactic scene, the most important object is unimplemented. I was more than a little nonplussed to be told about a Nasty Evil Menace by the game, but to be told, “You can’t see any such thing” when I asked to examine the Menace.
The biggest problem, though, is the puzzles. First of all, there’s a maze. There’s no redeeming twist to make it interesting or better — in fact, the only twist makes it worse: the maze doesn’t use compass directions, instead relying (quite arbitrarily) on “left”, “right”, “forward”, and “back” instead. Consequently, you not only need to keep in mind where you are in the maze, you have to keep in mind which way you’re facing. This is the sort of thing that feels a lot more like work than fun to me in a game.
Perhaps even worse are a couple of authorial telepathy puzzles, which demand highly implausible or even nonsensical actions to solve, and offer no clues whatsoever as to these solutions. I’m not sure whether I object more the puzzle whose solution seems impossible based on its object’s description, or the one whose solution is just totally illogical. Either way, having them both in the same game is not a good thing. I have sympathy for people who struggle with puzzle design, because I’m one of them. But it’s better to have no puzzles at all than puzzles that aren’t any fun.