Marc Blank knew it. A train, with its constraints on movement, its many mechanisms, and the inherent drama of its speed, makes an excellent setting for suspenseful thriller IF. That’s why the first chapter of Border Zone takes place on a train. As good as that chapter was, though, this game outdoes it by far.
One of the most successful attempts to bring to IF the edge-of-seat thrills packed into films like Die Hard and Speed, The Best Man puts the PC on a train that has recently become a very dangerous place. Through cleverness, skill, and courage, he must find a way to neutralize the danger, rescue the passengers, and stop the train without disaster. The train itself is implemented wonderfully, with details that reveal themselves only upon close inspection, but are perfectly logical once they are clear. In fact, inspection of those details is crucial to winning the game, so be sure to look at things quite closely. Most of the time, the game will reward you, if not with a discovery then at least with one of its many concise, well-written descriptions.
The train isn’t the only area that receives a great deal of care in implementation. For one thing, The Best Man comes with the best “feelies” I’ve seen so far in this year’s competition. In PDF format is a copy of “All Aboard!: The Magazine For Kids”, which not only gives some info that becomes quite useful in the game, but also provides background for the political situation, adds detail to the game world, and also throws in some stuff just for fun. Within the game, I found lots of areas that demonstrated the same sort of thorough attention.
For instance, the game offers the option of navigation by what it calls “technical” directions — in other words, you can type “fore”, “aft”, etc. to move about on the train, since of course north, south, and such don’t really have much meaning inside a moving vehicle. If you elect to use these directions, the game will describe all exits in those terms. Myself, I’m much more comfortable with the old familiar direction set, so I stuck with it, but I was quite impressed that the game offered the other option and implemented it so thoroughly. The Best Man‘s context-sensitive hints, its tight, error-free prose, and its skillful building of character via a chilling opening sequence all displayed the same careful craft, and the end result is very worthy indeed.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the number of alternate solutions that the game offers. As the judging period went on, it became more and more clear to me that not only were an array of choices available for most problems, but that the game had painstakingly implemented the consequences of each of those choices, whether they be heroic, fatal, or somewhere in between. But although this plethora of alternatives is one of The Best Man‘s greatest strengths, for me it also became a significant frustration as well. With so many deadly or successful routes available, I found that I wanted to try lots of things, to play the game through to its conclusion using a variety of methods for achieving the PC’s various goals. However, because the game is so rich, there was no way I was able to do this in two hours. In fact, I didn’t even finish at all — by the time I realized that I wanted to turn to the hints to see more of the game, most of my time was already up.
I’m frustrated that I ended up turning to the hints at all, because although some of the puzzles were quite tough, I thought they were all fair, and I really would have enjoyed the intellectual challenge of trying all the various possible routes to the endgame. The Best Man is a game to be savored — it’s the kind of IF that’s a pleasure to draw out over a period of days or weeks, trying lots of different things and steadfastly avoiding the hints, since the game shows that it’s worthy of such trust. Instead, I felt the comp time limit harried me as much as the game’s own internal time limit — I wanted to enjoy the ride, but found myself instead desperately poking into crannies looking for the next clue. This sense of urgency may have brought me closer to the PC, but it left me feeling that I didn’t enjoy the game as much as I could have had it not been entered in the comp.