You know, by the time I get finished writing these reviews, I’m pretty tired. It takes a lot of energy to put out twenty or thirty thousand words about competition entries, and even though my reviews are shorter than last year’s, and there are fewer games involved, they were also written in a much more compressed judging period, so my exhaustion level is about the same. However, every year I’ve been reviewing the competition games I’ve gotten a little reward in the final game of the batch. In 1996, I was playing the games in order of filename, so the last game I played was Tapestry, an excellent piece of work by Dan Ravipinto which ended up taking second in the competition as a whole. Last year I let Lucian Smith’s Comp97 order my choices randomly, and ironically the last game on the list ended up being Smith’s own The Edifice. And true to form, that was another excellent game to finish on, and it ended up winning all the marbles in the 1997 comp. So it was with both trepidation and eagerness that I broached the final game of this year’s batch, The Plant. When I saw it was by Michael J. Roberts, the legendary implementor of both TADS and HTML-TADS, my anticipation was increased even further. I’ve never played one of Roberts’ games, having been an Inform initiate when I started programming, and having entered the IF scene just shortly before Roberts’ departure. And after this buildup, I’m pleased to say that The Plant completely lives up to my mini-tradition of grand finales. It was a great game to end the competition with — the reward I was hoping for, so that this review wouldn’t be too hard to write.
Probably the thing I liked the most about The Plant was its puzzles. I know there were several other games this year that were focused on puzzles, and some of the puzzles in those games were excellent. However, I liked The Plant‘s puzzles better precisely because the game wasn’t focused on puzzles. Instead, its puzzles were very well integrated into its story, so solving the puzzles really propelled the narrative. It’s much more interesting to solve a puzzle when it opens the door to the next piece of the story, rather than being just one of a roomful of puzzles that you have to solve to escape that room. The Plant was probably the only game in this year’s competition to give me a feeling similar to what I have when I play Infocom games. I love that feeling of uncovering an exciting story by cleverly putting pieces together, using items in unexpected ways, or doing the right thing at just the right time. And the game’s story is definitely an exciting one. It begins as you are stranded on an abandoned side-road with your boss, marooned by his unreliable car. It’s up to you to find a phone or a service station and get moving again, but when you go looking you may find more than you bargained for. I won’t give too much away about the secrets that are eventually revealed, but the game definitely packs plenty of surprises. The pacing is excellent — I only felt completely stuck once. I turned to the walkthrough to solve the problem, just because I wanted to finish as much of the game as I could in the two-hour time limit, but if you’re playing The Plant for the first time, let me urge you not to check the walkthrough unless you’re completely stuck. All the puzzles are completely logical, none of them require reading the designer’s mind, and many of them are quite satisfying to solve, requiring several steps or clever combinations of objects, or both.
Now, the story itself does have some flaws. There are some parts that felt quite implausible to me, and from time to time the fact that your boss follows you around in your travels doing the same two or three things all the time starts to feel a little artificial. In addition, there are one or two minor spelling errors in the game. Outside of this, the plotting and writing are quite good. The Plant‘s prose often conveyed a very vivid sense of the visual. I drive by a plant like this about twice a month, and the game’s descriptions of it, how its completely industrial and utilitarian networks of pipes and lights can seem almost like an abstract fairyland when glimpsed from afar, are right on the mark. I could really visualize most of the places in the game, and the mental pictures the game’s text creates are quite dramatic and compelling. In addition, the game uses a few small touches here and there which utilize the power of HTML TADS. No pictures or sound, but a few well-placed hyperlinks in the help text and one or two spots with specially formatted text really make the game look sharp, and add to the very visual quality of the prose. If you sometimes start to feel a little impatient with all the growing that the medium of interactive fiction is doing, and long for a good old-fashioned Infocom-style thrill ride, check out The Plant. I think it may be just what you’re looking for.