IFDB page: On the Farm
Final placement: 7th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition
Like last year’s Arrival, On The Farm casts the PC as a small child. You’ve just been dropped off to spend two interminably boring hours on your grandparents’ farm. (No, the game isn’t interminably boring. That’s just a bit of characterization.) What’s worse, Grandma and Grandpa are in the middle of a fight with each other, and you have to try to find some way to help them make up. When so many IF games take place in science- fictional or fantastic settings, it’s quite refreshing to play a game that is firmly grounded in the real world. Even better than that, the setting is fully realized, to an impressive level of detail. Most all of what I call the first-level nouns (that is, nouns that are mentioned in room descriptions) are implemented with descriptions. The writing is crisp, conveying an excellent sense of place. Lots of details are present, not because they somehow serve the game’s plot, but simply because they bring the farm and its environs to life more vividly.
Yes, there are some problems in the writing as well. There’s the occasional comma splice or punctuation stumble, and from time to time the sentences seem to lose their rhythm, foundering like a lame horse. In addition, the prose sometimes descends into a sort of juvenile, scatological humor that works against the sincere tone of the rest of the game. Despite these few flaws, in general the game’s prose achieves a satisfying clarity. I grew up in suburbia, and my ancestry is decidedly urban, so I’ve never experienced firsthand most of the game’s referents. Nonetheless, after playing On The Farm I really have a sense that I’ve been there.
The puzzles, too, are mostly rather clever, and feel quite original. In particular, there is one multi-step puzzle which is integrated seamlessly into the game’s setting, so that it feels organic rather than tacked-on. Each component of this puzzle makes sense, and the feeling of solving it is quite satisfying. This is the main puzzle of the game, and it makes a very good linchpin. There are also a number of optional puzzles, which do little or nothing to advance the plot, but which deepen the characterization of the PC or enrich the setting. These are optional puzzles done right — they don’t feel like padding, but rather like fruitful avenues which branch off the main drag, rewarding exploration with further knowledge. There was a moment where I found myself quite skeptical (in the rope-cutting puzzle), and another where the default messages for some objects misled me into thinking that certain things weren’t important when they actually were (the levers puzzle.) However, such breaks of mimesis in the puzzles were the exception rather than the rule in On The Farm.
The other thing that interested me about On The Farm is the way it chose to characterize the grandparents. First of all, depiction of elderly people in IF as anything other than drunkards, lunatics, or the butts of jokes is noteworthy in itself. But let’s think a little more about these grandparents. They obviously have been married for a great many years, and yet they still bicker and argue with a great deal of intensity. Their age might suggest that they’d be rather conservative and prim, but instead they seem, if anything, rather earthy. The area around Grandpa’s chair is covered with tobacco juice stains because he “no longer has the range to clear the edge of the porch.” When the PC sees his grandmother after having entered a manure pit, she exclaims “you’re covered in shit!” They are by turns affectionate, nagging, and abstracted. In fact, they act a lot like real people. I guess what I’m driving at here is that the game does an effective job of giving depth and life to its NPCs by making choices that go against stereotypes. Because the grandparents in On The Farm don’t always do what we might expect, they seem just a little more real. In fact, the same might be said for the game itself.