I already knew that J.D. Berry is funny. Even setting aside his sardonic posts to the IF newsgroups, who could forget The IF Chive? For those of you who have, in fact, forgotten (or never knew), the Chive was an IF-themed version of satirical newspaper The Onion, full of wacky features like an editorial by an impassable steel door, and headlines like “IF-Comp author feels own work should have finished several places higher.” (It’s currently archived at http://www.igs.net/~tril/if/humor/chive/, and is worth checking out.) I also knew, from games like The Djinni Chronicles and Sparrow’s Song, that Berry is a skilled game author, too.
What I hadn’t yet seen was a really funny Berry game. Oh sure, there are some humorous bits in all his games, and no, I’m not forgetting Chico And I Ran — it’s just that the humor in that game was specifically targeted to song and TV show parodies, and much of it fell rather flat for me. So I hadn’t yet seen the game where I felt Berry unleashed his full comic powers… until now. When Help Collides is a strange, exuberant, wildly funny piece of work that hits the ground running and then sprints into some places that are very weird indeed. Actually, that’s not quite accurate — it’s pretty weird from the beginning.
It seems you’re the consciousness of a hint system, or something like that. People come to you for hints with various games, and you use some very simple technology at your disposal (like pressing a button labeled (H)ELP, which broadcasts the hint) to aid them. However, your easy job has recently been made less easy by the fact that your Help Ship (yeah, I’m not sure I understand either) has recently collided with a Self-Help Ship, resulting in exchanges like this:
A beautiful woman looks up and asks, "Is there a better ending that
the one I achieved?"
"Another idiotic thing women do is questioning if they could have
done better. Hello? Where were you before you got married? Did you
not ask yourself such questions? You've made your ending, and now you
have to lie in it."
A man in a 19th century suit looks up and asks, "How do I get past
"Early in my career, I spent much of my time getting past people who
want to talk your ear off and waste your time. I call such people
prospectors. They have tunnel vision. They have an axe to grind. They
know exactly what they want, but they don't know exactly where to
find it, so they'll dig wherever's closest.
It was a tiring game, going out of my way to avoid these people.
Usually, my ten-mile bypass left me worse off than if I had just
talked with them.
I complained about this to my mentor.
He said, "there are going to be prospectors in everyone's life. The
trick is to make them realize early that there's no gold inside you.
Once they realize you have nothing to offer, they'll ignore you."
And then it hit me. My mentor was mocking me."
Each terrible hint is followed by the asker reacting in disgust, and leaving negative feedback for the hint system. Too much of this negative feedback can result in the hint system’s immediate demise, which lends a strong sense of urgency to the sequence. I cannot express how much I loved these bad hints. Some of them parody adventure game hints. Some of them parody self-help books, and self-help culture. Taken together, they deliciously skewer not only those two things, but IF conventions as well. Even facing the destruction of the PC, I had a difficult time actually getting motivated to fix the problem, because I found the results so extremely funny.
I’m glad I did fix it, though, because after this sequence the game becomes something entirely else. It’s rather difficult to talk about, because When Help Collides turns out to be several games in one, of which I only played one-and-a-half (in addition to the starting game puzzles). Those separate games are worthy of their own reviews, and I can’t help wondering how they would have done had they been released separately. Still, from what I saw they were thematically tied, if rather loosely so.
There is a problem, though, with the structure that presents these interconnected games. They’re quite sealed off from the initial game, so much so that in fact it isn’t obvious at all that other games even exist until the initial game ends. The feelies suggest the presence of multiple scenarios, but the method for accessing these is obscure enough that I ended up having to go to the walkthrough for it. I find it easy to imagine someone missing the boat entirely, and therefore missing out on a great deal of the fun. Something a bit more straightforward to introduce these other scenarios would have been welcome. The subgame that I finished, a parody of a Dungeons And Dragons tournament, was also very funny, and an interesting game in its own right. Like the initial game, it has some problems here and there, but is overall a lot of fun.
I seem to have written quite a bit already, and I need to wrap it up, so: lest I forget, I do have some complaints about When Help Collides. First, as I mentioned above, the method for accessing the subgames is too obscure. Second, it does that thing where it pauses waiting for a keystroke, but doesn’t tell you it’s doing so, and consequently I ended up missing a bunch of text several times because I was already typing my next command. I don’t like when games do that. Finally, it’s too big for the comp. Sort of. It’s like three or four smallish comp-sized games in one. I got a little more than halfway through in two hours. Individually, the games are an appropriate size, but together, they’re far too much for the judging time. Those quibbles aside, When Help Collides is a clever, innovative, and fiercely funny joyride.