Gourmet by Aaron A. Reed [Comp03]

IFDB page: Gourmet
Final placement: 5th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

A few years ago, I was searching around for a way to describe Liza Daly’s Dinner With Andre, and came up with “sitcom IF.” That moniker seems apt enough to describe Gourmet, a game that aims for screwball humor but too often is just screwed up. Not that the problems are obvious at first — indeed, the premise and opening scenes are delightful — you’re the harried chef and owner of a brand new restaurant on the night that a famous dining critic is to visit. Of course, everything goes wrong: your entire staff flakes out, your food supplies are woefully minimal due to late distributors, and all your fancy new equipment seems primed to malfunction. I was having a ball picturing the PC as a Kelsey Grammer type, a model of urbane sophistication whose cultured veneer gets slowly dissolved by an avalanche of calamitous and kooky circumstances.

Much of the writing is witty enough to pull it off, too — objects both animate and inanimate acquire an air of implacable comic malice, and the setting is packed with fun little details, such as the range-top knobs that the PC had custom made to go up to eleven. Characters, though one-dimensional, are nicely evoked, and the game has a neat little structure too, divided up into hors d’oeuvres, first course, and main course, just as you serve the finicky critic.

Sadly, Gourmet quickly falls victim to the same problem Dinner With Andre had, which is this: having decided that wacky problems deserve wacky solutions, the game fails to anticipate enough of the sensible (or even alternately wacky) solutions that might spring to the mind of a desperate player. It’s difficult to talk about these without getting too spoilery, but here goes. Take one instance where an uncontrollable mess is happening in the kitchen. The game anticipates the first obvious recourse and stymies it. Fair enough. The next recourse might be something like blocking and cleaning the mess with a towel — surely any kitchen has towels, right? Wrong. Not only are they not implemented, neither is the reason for their absence. Certainly I’ll grant that this level of realism is a lofty and difficult goal, but much of the game turns on the tension between the realistic demands of the setting and the ridiculous circumstances created by the plot. Players who are pushed and prodded about in the name of realism have the right to expect a satisfyingly thorough implementation thereof.

A more blatant example: you need to prepare a particular drink, which requires the proper vessel. Stunningly, however, your kitchen is so unequipped as to completely lack the necessary piece of tableware. In fact, there seems to be only one such item in the entire restaurant. It would be one thing if this bizarre situation was excused with some appropriately goofy explanation, but as it is we’re left to feel that the game is unreasonably shepherding us into wackiness (or even just into puzzle-solving) by virtue of shoddy implementation. Part of what makes these logic gaps so intensely frustrating is that the game really does a great job of ladling on the tension — I restarted several times because I was a nervous wreck with the feeling that too much time was elapsing while I flailed around. I don’t know that there actually are any timers in the game, but it certainly feels like there are, and under that sort of pressure my patience was quite short with what felt to me like halfhearted implementation.

The bugs get worse as the game progresses, soon moving into responses that are absent or outright wrong. I turned to the hints almost right away, and every time I tried to forego them in order to increase the pleasure of the game, I felt that pleasure turning to frustration as I struggled in vain against one buggy or unimplemented section after another. It doesn’t help at all that the game makes such basic errors as making your finger a key plot point, then failing to properly parse “finger”, or parsing “climb” differently from “get on.”

In another pinnacle of frustration, the game presents you at one point with a small animal on the loose that you must find, yet greets any attempt to LOOK UNDER anything with “You expect you would find nothing of interest.” Say WHAT? That is the exact opposite of what the PC would expect (and hope for) in the circumstance. Additionally, some key NPCs are much too thinly implemented, and it’s perhaps a sign of my frustration that even on puzzles that offer multiple solutions, I still found myself unable to even try the ideas that seemed most obvious to me, and ended up turning to the hints in exasperation.

When I got to the point where even one of the solutions offered in the hints utterly failed to work, I knew that Gourmet was a huge disappointment. The game credits no testers (in fact, I couldn’t find anybody besides the author credited at all), and the lack of outside input is all too apparent. There’s at least one in every comp: a game with great potential, clever writing, and fun portions that dissolves into a mind-numbing bugfest at its end, apparently the product of a rush to deadline and a lack of patience. In Comp03, Gourmet is the first game of that type I’ve played, and the letdown is as stinging as ever. If interactive fiction ever got reviews in People magazine, the write-up for this game would probably end with, “BOTTOM LINE: Good ingredients, but undercooked.”

Rating: 6.2

Dinner With Andre by Liza Daly [Comp00]

IFDB page: Dinner With Andre
Final placement: 18th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I first opened Dinner With Andre, I was enchanted. The game is real-world IF of a genre I’ve never quite seen before — “date IF”, I suppose. You play a woman who’s offered to buy dinner for a co-worker, hoping to get to know him. The opening scene is of a swank restaurant, where you’re just coming to the end of a wonderful dinner with your date and wondering what the rest of the evening has in store. He excuses himself for a moment, and when you reach for the check, you get a very unpleasant surprise: dinner was much, much more expensive than you thought, and your credit card isn’t going to cover it. Unfortunately, it’s the only form of payment you’ve got with you. I thought this was a terrific premise, and just a few minutes into the game I was grinning with excitement at the prospect of seeing how the rest of the plot played out.

A half-hour later, I was ready to shove my head through my monitor. I tried everything I could think of to solve that first puzzle, and was rebuffed by the game at every turn. Several of the things I tried (like “call mom on cell phone”) were actually implemented, which was a pleasant surprise, but most of my ideas weren’t implemented, which was no surprise at all considering how desperate some of them were (like “write IOU”). I’m always reluctant to turn to the hints in a game that’s clearly well-written and bug-free, and DWA definitely fits that description. However, I really can’t afford to buy a new monitor, so I swallowed my pride and checked the hints. It’s rather difficult to discuss without revealing spoilers, but my feeling when I read the solution was, “but I tried that and was told it doesn’t work!” Turns out I had already had the right idea, but hadn’t expressed it in quite the way the game wanted.

This experience of being alternately thrilled and frustrated was emblematic of my entire encounter with the game. DWA has lots of wonderful moments, and several of its responses made me laugh out loud, but I found myself thoroughly stymied in most of my attempts to get through the plot. By the end, I was relying solely on the hints to wade through the game. I don’t think the problems are terribly deep-rooted, mainly a lack of gentle nudges in the text and a need for alternate phrasings in several parts. Unfortunately, due to the extreme difficulty I had with the first puzzle, I was much more ready to reach for the hints at each successive stuck point.

Once I lost my inhibitions about using the hints, I found I enjoyed the game quite a bit more. Disaster after disaster happens to the PC, and her reactions force her into several very funny situations, situations which require further wacky contortions to escape. In fact, I’m realizing as I write this that the genre of DWA isn’t “date IF” — it’s “situation comedy IF”. Now, I mean that in the kindest sense (that is, the Seinfeld sense rather than the Major Dad sense), but I think that this insight gets to the heart of why I had trouble with the game. Solving the game’s puzzles requires coming up with the funny response that the game had in mind, and using a less funny but still sensible response, or even a different funny response that the game hadn’t envisioned, puts the player at a rather unhelpful dead end.

Thus, in the first puzzle I had figured out what I wanted to do, but hadn’t come up with the particular funny way of doing this thing that the game was looking for, and therefore I found myself going in ever more frustrating circles. Therefore, if you’re anything like me, you probably shouldn’t be afraid to turn to the hints in DWA, but once you do, you’ll have a pretty good time. If only we could say that about all our disastrous dates.

Rating: 7.6