The Great Xavio by Reese Warner [Comp04]

IFDB page: The Great Xavio
Final placement: 11th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

I had a lovely time during my first half-hour with The Great Xavio. Similar to Infocom’s Sherlock, you play the “man of action” assistant to a prodigious but inscrutable thinker. In this case, you’re a graduate student named Hagerston, in unending thrall (the way only a graduate student can be) to your adviser, an odd duck named Dr. Rex Excalibur Todd. Dr. Todd is a logician, obsessed with debunking anyone who challenges the reign of empiricism, and that’s why he’s dragged you out of bed at 3 AM, to the hotel housing sensational magician The Great Xavio — your job is to prove that Xavio is a fraud.

These characters apparently feature in some short stories and a novel penned by this game’s author, and Dr. Todd in particular is obviously the product of tremendous affection. The premise provides plenty of room for exploration, and Dr. Todd’s constant presence at the PC’s elbow gives the game many opportunities for humorous metacommentary and the occasional helpful hint. There were a few irritating defects here and there, but after the first 30 minutes, I was enthusiastically looking forward to the rest of my time with Xavio.

Unfortunately, after that things began to unravel a bit, and oddly enough the unraveling started with a key and a locked door, a situation that replicated exactly what I’d discussed in my editorial for SPAG #34. It occurs as the PC is trying to get into a hotel room, a room to which he holds the key. I’d like to quote the exchange exactly, but it would be too much of a spoiler to do so, so here’s a slightly altered version of it:

You can't, since the room door is in the way.

>open door
(the room door)
The door is locked. However, next to it there is a slot for your room key that might do something.

The elevator doors close

>unlock door
(the elevator door)
Unlocking generally requires a key of some sort.

>unlock door with key
(the elevator door with the room key)
That doesn't seem to be something you can unlock.

>put key in slot
The light above the slot flashes green, and you hear the door's lock click.

You can't, since the room door is in the way.

>open door
(the room door)
You open the room door.

Inside The Hotel Room

This was an incredibly aggravating interaction, made more so by the game’s sudden substitution of the elevator door as the default object for “door”, and because I kept needing to visit the room, it kept happening until I trained myself to behave as the game wanted me to. In my editorial, I argued that things like opening and unlocking a door to which you have the key should be handled automatically by the game, rather than forcing the player to manually go through all the fiddly steps of door and lock management. This argument brought several responses, which rightly pointed out that if that strategy is carried to its logical extreme, the game could just automatically do everything for the player — a game like this is more properly called a “book.”

Instead, the game should keep an internal model of the PC’s knowledge and intentions; it should automate fiddly steps only when they match the set of actions that the player knows how to do and clearly intends to do. Within that structure, I’d like to offer a further refinement to my argument: IF games should automate actions which require little to no thought on the part of the PC. Any of us who have spent time using hotel keys as described above know that it quickly becomes second nature. We don’t need to think through every step — rather, we form the intention of entering the room and habit takes care of the rest. I would so much rather have seen this:

You swipe the room key through the slot; its light flashes green and
you hear the door's lock click. Opening the door, you step inside.

Inside The Hotel Room

See, there’s nothing fun about typing out PUT KEY IN SLOT and OPEN DOOR a bunch of times, and it actually weakens mimesis to force players through such menial moves, especially after the first time. I still grant that there can be plenty of good reasons to break this rule — in fact, I force a very similar card-swipe at the beginning of the first Earth And Sky episode. In that instance, I chose to do so for purposes of pacing and dramatic tension, but if the PC had to go through the door more than once, automating that passage would be the right thing to do.

I seem to have spent a lot of time discussing a small piece of this game, but that piece was emblematic of my experience with Xavio. Despite all the game’s appealing traits — its engaging characters, its friendly design, its entertaining story — I didn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to. I ended up feeling like I’d played the beta version of something with great potential rather than something that was already great on its own. Erratic newlines and shaky punctuation contributed to my impression that the game wasn’t well tested, and so did basic mistakes like embedding dialogue into room descriptions so that it repeats every time you look at the room. In addition, there were some issues that may have been intentional, but were functionally bugs. For example, inside that hotel room with the difficult door, there’s a window on the north wall (again slightly altered to avoid spoilers):

>x window
The hotel's old enough that it's a window you can actually open.

>look through window
You look out the window. There's a thin ledge, just barely possible as a space to stand if what you saw wasn't a mirage. Looking out further to the northwest you can see a few cars crossing the Golden Gate bridge.

>x ledge
You can't see any such thing.

>open window
Nothing like a breath of fresh air.

You can't go that way.

>enter window
That's not something you can enter.

>go out the window
You can't see any such thing.

So you tell me there’s a window, and that I can open it. You tell me there’s a ledge outside the window. Then you let me open the window… but don’t implement actually going out the window? What was the point of describing the ledge and making the window openable in the first place? Even worse, just typing OUT puts me back out in the hallway, where once again I have to go through that exasperating rigmarole with the key. Whether or not that was the intended implementation, I call it a big fat bug.

The game credits testers, but I can’t tell whether any of them are members of the IF community. If not, that may be part of the problem — it’s important to have at least one person in your pool of testers who is conversant with the basic standards of modern IF. They’ll notice things that novice testers will miss. To sum up in one word what this game lacks: polish. It just needs to be tightened up — formatting errors fixed, typos eliminated, underimplemented areas enhanced. Once that happens, the peculiar charm of Hagerston and Todd will be able to shine through unimpeded.

Rating: 6.7