IFDB page: The Clock
Final placement: 38th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition
There’s a long tradition in IF of Average-Joe protagonists who are thrown into a world where the normal rules no longer apply. Clock partakes of this tradition. Unfortunately, it also partakes of another, less pleasant IF tradition: the game where nothing really makes any sense. We start out with a fine, if somewhat fuzzy, premise: you’ve been asked by your friend Kitty to do some house-sitting and cat-sitting for her while she takes care of some urgent business. Being kind-hearted, you agree, but you soon find out that Kitty’s house is a strange clock-tower, and her cat is on the unusual side as well. Okay, great. To get much further, though, you’d better hope that your authorial telepathy is working really well.
For example (I am now going to spoil a puzzle that I can’t imagine anyone guessing for themselves): at one point, you find a “fairy coin”, which you’d think you might be able to use to buy something at the fairy shop you find later. Nope. The old woman who runs the shop says (without quotes, so it looks disconcertingly like a parser message) “This isn’t enough. I need proper paper money.” Alright, fair enough. Sadly, there’s no paper money to be found. So what do you do? Well, unexpectedly enough, you plant the coin in soft ground, water it, and a money tree grows! Now, it’d be one thing if there was some clear hint, like a reference to fairy money trees in one of the many reference books you find lying around, or if the old woman said “This is just seed money,” or something like that. The only hint we get is that on one of the TV stations (if you were diligent enough to watch every message from every station) an economic adviser says at one point, “Money doesn’t grow on trees!” Sorry, but that’s just not enough of a hint. The only reason I’d connect this comment with planting the coin is if I was thinking, “Now why would the game include that comment?” When I play IF, though, I’m not thinking like that. I’m trying to put myself in the mind of the character, not stepping outside and thinking about how the game is constructed. If I have to puzzle out apparent non sequiturs and try to parse them as hints, then the game has failed me, as far as I’m concerned.
So the first thing that Clock needs to be reasonably solvable is much clearer hints. The next thing it needs is a much richer implementation. As with Punk Points, many areas in Clock suffer from the weakness that the only things implemented are the solutions. Look, that’s just not enough. For instance, several puzzles in the game depend on the construction “ASK <animal> ABOUT <object>.” Now, without a doubt, these solutions suffer from the problem I describe in the first paragraph — with absolutely no clues about talking animals, why in the world would anyone think to ask an animal about anything? However, let’s set that aside for a moment and pretend that you’ve somehow taken it into your head to ask an animal about something. If you ask about anything but the topics necessary to solve the puzzle, you get a stock response like “The cat meows” or “The frog croaks.” When I get a response like this, I take it as a very clear signal from the game that the animal doesn’t talk, doesn’t understand me, and that trying to have a conversation with it is useless. When just the opposite is true, I can only conclude that the game has no idea how to communicate clearly.
There’s another issue at hand. At the very beginning of the game, you find a note from your friend instructing you very strongly not to touch anything. After reading the note, the game tells you “You decide to do pretty much as she says – but surely it couldn’t hurt to look around a bit, so long as nobody finds out!” So that’s what I tried to do — look around a bit, but do pretty much as she says and not touch anything. I sort of expected that something would happen where I’d be in danger, or the house would, or the cat, or something, and I’d have to break the rule and start rummaging through my friend’s belongings. Nothing happened. The clock stopped, but that’s about it. The dilemma I found myself in is whether I should behave like a standard text adventurer (search everything, take anything that isn’t nailed down, etc.) or like the character the game was shaping for me.
It soon became apparent, however, that the latter choice was pointless, because if I follow it, the game goes nowhere. Consequently, I had to start pillaging. I didn’t like it. What Clock didn’t seem to grok is that lots of players take their behavioral cues from the character the text suggests. If you have to deliberately break character in order to succeed in the game, then the game has basically shot itself in the foot. For this reason, and the others described above, I turned quickly to the walkthrough, finished the game, and didn’t have much fun. But none of those things were the worst part. The worst part is that there were two starvation puzzles (you have to feed yourself and something else) along with a pointless sleep timer. Authors, please. I beg you. I implore you. STOP IT with the starvation puzzles!! Stop it stop it stop it stop it stop it! Thank you.