IFDB page: The Atomic Heart
Final placement: 10th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition
Comp03 is starting to feel like Old Home Week. First there was the return of Mikko Vuorinen, and now here’s a brand new game from Stefan Blixt, author of Comp97’s Pintown and Comp98’s Purple. Pintown, in my opinion, was an unwinnable disaster, and I found Purple to be very poorly implemented as well, albeit full of fun ideas. The Atomic Heart, I’m sorry to say, is in just about the same shape as Purple.
The game’s concept is that old science fiction nugget about the machines gaining consciousness and battling mankind, but it’s enlivened by the IF presentation, in which the PC is a nanny robot (albeit with a very minor twist, revealed only in game-ending scenes) who bears no hostility towards humanity. “PC as robot” has certainly been done and done much better by other games, as has the twist gimmick, but not in combination (so far as I know) with the “robots vs. humans” plotline, and I liked the idea of playing a robot whose mission is to save humanity from other robots. There were a number of interesting details in the writing, and the structure of the story was good too, with surprising revelations, an exciting climax, and a satisfying ending.
Unhappily, though, the game’s incredibly shoddy implementation demolished any chance I had of enjoying its story. Even more irritating, most of the game’s problems are attributable to nothing but carelessness. For example: synonym problems. There’s a photo that can’t be called a picture. There are “trainers” that can’t be called shoes. There’s this exchange:
>examine bulk integrity module
I only understood you as far as wanting to examine the bulk integrity
“Well,” I had to ask, “isn’t that far enough?”
There’s more, though. Newlines are added or subtracted willy-nilly, giving the game a sloppy appearance. Losing endings are utterly unmarked as such, making them feel more like bugs than dead-ends. There’s a database that supposedly can provide all kinds of information to the robot, but when CONSULTed, even about the topics the game says it knows, all that ever seems to happen is that “You discover nothing of interest in the database.” Then there’s the delightful old “Which do you mean, the eighteenth century bottle or the eighteenth century bottle?” problem. Worse yet, one of the game’s main actions requires incredibly finicky syntax, and that action must be performed again and again in a successful game session.
After about an hour, I was so frustrated with the game’s inability to understand basic things that I started going straight from the walkthrough, and was gobsmacked to discover that even the walkthrough is loaded with commands that don’t work. I can think of no possible excuse for this. Apparently the walkthrough is a command transcript of the game’s author, or someone who has similar inside knowledge, playing the game through to conclusion, but if even the freaking walkthrough document can’t easily figure out how to phrase its commands, isn’t that a really big clue that the game is under-implemented? I think so.
I have to say, I really can’t figure this out. You take good idea, write an interesting story, make up some cool puzzles and such, then you put it together in such a slapdash way that almost nobody could enjoy it. I dunno, maybe there’ll be a big handful of glowing reviews for this game and I’ll discover that I’ve just become uptight and overly picky, but my experience with it was just so aggravating. The game even credits testers, but if the evidence of the walkthrough is any indication, just because a problem is obvious doesn’t mean it will be fixed. But WHY NOT? Why why WHY release something that is so much worse than you know it could be? Take some pride in your work, for heaven’s sake.
I guess this is all getting a little ad hominem, and I don’t mean it to be, but games like this just make me want to pull my hair out. There is just no plausible reason for a game to have problems like this, not with testers and playthroughs that clearly found them. Look, your job as a game author is to make sure your game is the best it can be. Do your job.