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Word of the Day
Author: Richard Otter
Reviewed by Snowblood
Richard Otter started in 1989 and has at least 19 text adventure games to his name already. That's good going. This guy is a veteran. My only encounter with his work came, funnily enough, in the 2006 Interactive Fiction Competition, where he entered Unauthorized Termination, which I reviewed. Let's take a look at what I had to say at the time:
Murder on the planet of the robots. Initial doubts about the sparse descriptions and lack of detail are swept away by the sheer level of consistency in the game world. Everything is brief, to-the-point, logical, as you would expect on a planet of robots. All the default responses, descriptions and dialogue are cleverly tailored to role-playing the character of an emotionless "robo-cop". While its blindingly obvious that your superior is somehow involved in a cover-up from the get-go, and the PC is given a surprising amount of leeway given the supposed massive conspiracy, it doesn't detract from the fun of going through the investigative routine and uncovering the pieces of the puzzle bit-by-bit. The conclusion is a little weak, with some rather odd character actions, but overall its a good romp well worth playing - despite some minor intermittent implementation issues.
I liked it a lot, with a few caveats. It ended up landing 10th place, and got a Xyzzy Award nomination for Best Setting, so clearly I wasn't the only fan either. 11 years later, Word of the Day just needs to fix some of those criticisms of the 2006 game, while also building on its strong points, to be deemed a big success. Let's take it line by line.
Murder on the planet of the robots.
Mass-murder on the spaceship of the aliens, this time round. The two games share some storyline elements: both are sci-fi mysteries in which a protagonist stumbles on clues to a grand conspiracy and unravels a devious plot piece-by-piece. While Unauthorized Termination followed a detective procedural path, Word of the Day is more concerned with exploration and survival: the player-character is an 'Outer-Worlder' working on a freight spaceship called "Word of the Day" with an 'Inner-Worlder' crew. She wakes up after a sudden explosion to find everybody dead. No, its not the pilot of Red Dwarf. Everybody's not dead, Dave. It's not entirely the "wander around an empty spaceship finding all the corpses and all the notes" game the initial phase suggests. Once you've explored as much of the map as possible, picking up memos, newspaper articles, and other assorted paraphernalia that slowly reveal what has been happening, you will discover that there are, in fact, survivors, and the game changes gear when they are encountered. There are conversations to be had, back-stories to be uncovered, and moral choices to be made.
Initial doubts about the sparse descriptions and lack of detail are swept away by the sheer level of consistency in the game world. Everything is brief, to-the-point, logical.
I would say that again there is not much brio in the writing. It's as cold and functional as before, but again this appears to be by choice. It's all in service of depicting the personality of the player-character, Kareene Veet.
All the default responses, descriptions and dialogue are cleverly tailored to role-playing the character of an emotionless "robo-cop".
All the default responses, descriptions and dialogue are cleverly tailored to role-playing the character of a heartless, arrogant, stuck-up, conceited, self-obsessed alien lady. Catching a glimpse of herself in a mirror, Kareene Veet remarks about how great she looks. Checking her dead colleagues' possessions, she laughs about how they failed to achieve her level in the Bio-Drive engineer exams. She then robs them:
"On your home planet stealing another's wealth is considered both illegal and immoral; put simply it is wrong. You have never felt that this applies to the property of the Inner Worlders. You are only living with them until you have amassed enough wealth to go home. Your dislike of the Inner Worlders has allowed you to overlook your double standards."
She takes any opportunity to demean the Inner-Worlders she has been working with, even when they're dead, mocking their physical appearances, and insulting their intelligence and their professional capabilities. She recalls memories of her time on board, a work environment where she feels she has been suffering discrimination and prejudice. But, hypocritically, she is completely blind to her own prejudices against the Inner-Worlders.
What is great about this player-character portrayal is that it's not the focus of the game at all. It's not about an evil character, in the way that Varicella (1999) is, or a monstrous character, in the way Coloratura (2013) is, this lady is the hero of her own story, she just also happens to be an alien. The many and varied responses to the "examine" verb reveal just how alien this woman is: she's physically different, biologically different, thinks differently and has her own weird code of ethics. She's just doing it the best she can. It's not a morality play: she doesn't get her come-uppance at the end (unless you get her killed, which is not a "true" ending), Nor is it treated as shocking plot twist: "ha ha, you were the bad guy all along!". It's instead just an aspect of her character that the player can choose to inhabit as much or as little as they would like. You don't need to poke and prod at the corners of the world model if you don't want to, the game can be played just fine as a puzzley exploration adventure with a protagonist just trying to get out of a bad situation, but if you choose to go further, you are rewarded with tons of extra content that fills out this universe, and especially fills out the personality of this remarkable player-character.
I love this character, because I hate this character. In the end, I chose to role-play to an ending that felt appropriate for Kareene Veet (the 'amazing' ending): but I should point out that there are at least six different endings, not including fail states (the game is absolutely stuffed to the gills with content as I mentioned), and so I imagine that it would also be possible to play out a "redemption arc" for her too? There is so much more here, I'm looking forward to plunging back in soon. The whole package is an improvement over Unauthorized Termination, some minor technical issues aside, but for me it's the brilliant player-character that really lifts Word of the Day into the stratosphere.
Reviewed by Jack Welch (dhakajack)
This is an obsessively detailed parser-based sci-fi story that took me the full two hours to play, albeit not all in one sitting. The richness of the game’s background, character backstories, and the number of rooms and detailed objects in them more than makes up for however many stories I have criticized as under implemented in this IFcomp.
The amount of detail is at first overwhelming, but I am sure it is only a fraction of the world that this author has generated. I don’t doubt that in creating this game, the author generated extensive histories of each alien world and extensive character sketches for each character, but had to make some tough choices about how much of this material to hold back on in order to condense the story to two hours of playing time.
[Some spoilers follow beyond this point]
The main character, Kareene Veet, starts the game on the bridge of a starship, disoriented by whatever disaster has just befallen the ship. She is trapped under a dislodged panel and can’t focus on anything else, so the player has an immediate sense of urgency, and instead of examining every object on the bridge and snagging all the knick-knacks within reach, Kareene is forced to focus on freeing herself. After that, surrounded by bodies of other crew members, she can begin to try to piece together what went wrong.
During the first part of the game, the player spends a significant amount of time exploring the ship, which provides the author a chance to gradually fill in background: what is this ship, what was its mission, who are the people on it, what are the larger political and cultural settings, and what current events in the world could influence the story on the ship?
It is a ton of exposition, but it is all interwoven into description of objects or mentioned in Kareene’s thoughts. The reader is never confronted with a solid wall of dense text; all the necessary background is broken up into digestible bits. Not all of it ties together immediately, so there is some burden on the reader to file it all away for future reference, but even at a fairly early point the reader can sense that the various threads will eventually come back together.
Nonetheless, at the start, the game world seems to expand exponentially and the reader may be anxious about keeping track of everything. A few minutes of wandering the ship is enough to understand that it is huge and that some sort of map is going to be necessary. A map is not included in the feelies, so I initially presumed I would need to draw one. However, the game’s extensive help system indicates that there is a “map” command. I tried it and got no response — it turns out that just a few turns later, the player comes across an in-game map, and from that point forward, the map command displays the map in the interpreter.
There is a lot of running around the ship in this game, and until the map burnt itself into my memory, I found it indispensable to have the map available for reference. The map command is a nice feature, but on my laptop screen I could only see the map for one or two moves before it scrolled away. To make my life easier, I screen captured the map and kept it open in another window for the rest of my sessions. I’d recommend doing that.
What seems like a sprawling canvas becomes manageable over time, and the game does its part by literally gating progress by locking or unlocking sections of the ship. Whenever I had explored all that there was to see and do in one section, I would hear a distant clanking denoting the furtive movements of another survivor. The mechanism is transparent, but works well enough in terms of story.
In addition to the game map there are two other classes of items that players need to keep track of: crew members and messages. Until the final part of the game, all of the crew members that Kareene encounters are dead, and their deaths do not look accidental. Every time she runs across a body, we learn not only their name, but what what Kareene remembers about them. As we search the bodies, we find out their role on board their ship, bits of their backstory, and gain insight into their personalities. The game also keeps track of how many crew remain unaccounted throughout the story, as this is one of Kareene’s top priorities.
On an television show, twelve crew members would not represent an unusually large cast, but any given episode would only be able to focus on at most a few of them. Over a season, the crew could gel into an ensemble, but we don’t have that luxury in a two hour game. So, I would like to suggest that the game would benefit from some sort of customized tool to keep track of the crew in the same way that the map command helps the player organize the physical space. Since this is a futuristic story, such an aid could be implemented as an in-game object, for example some sort of duty roster listing name, rank, shipboard duties, planet of origin and perhaps an area where Kareene has jotted notes as she learns about each crew member.
Along similar lines, Kareene finds a ream of interstellar messages as she searches the ship. As a body, they are a major source of information in the game. Each one is time-stamped, so the player is able to read throgh them and piece together a timeline of events up to the explosion on the bridge.
I picked up the first few messages in game, read them, and not knowing what to do with them, stuffed them into my carryall. After a half hour, I began to wonder if this was what the author had in mind. My carryall was stuffed full of the things. Once they are in inventory, they are jumbled up with everything else, which makes for a long and disorganized list. Here again, I think the game would have benefitted from some sort of assistive technology to put them in order — for example, if each printout had a QR code that could be scanned into a device that would then sort by date and list them by topic like emails, they would be more manageable.
These are fine points, though. The player doesn’t know it, but it really isn’t necessary to track all these details — the story will play out, regardless.
As written, I found the game enjoyable and very playable from start to finish without reference to the walkthrough. The author does a great job conveying Kareene’s (not all that likable) personality. She is alone for most of the game, but when we do finally meet other characters, the dialogue flows naturally. The plot is not elaborate, but it is strong because it plays on the background that the player discovers in the course of play. I did enjoy the ending that I reached, maybe not an objectively good outcome for society, but a brilliant success from Kareene’s point of view.
Preliminary Score: 7.8
Reviewed by Marco Innocenti
I actually woke up this morning, after playing WotD all night yesterday,
finally grasping what was going on.
This is a well structured, almost puzzle-less sci-fi, with a brilliant PC and an incredibly detailed backstory, which could have aimed, imho, at a much higher outcome.
The most intriguing things revolve around racial (and racist) themes, told through the eyes of a special creature whose sole businesses in the universe seem to be procreation and money. And money because of procreation.
There are aspects of the subplot which are genius: the mating techniques of different races; how an Outworder sees us (provided the Inner Worlders are us); how racism can dwell in close environments; segregation.
Unfortunately, the story is presented through an endless array of posts and notes, and via the comments (on dead bodies) by a cold PC, who’s prime feature seems to be the lack of any empathy with anyone except her distant relatives and lovers. All of this sums up to a distinct vibe and a cool backstory that, in the end, fails in finding a route to the final outcome.
The atmosphere is strong (I was actually scared by the continuous opening and closing of doors, hinting at another survivor— the ship is full of dead bodies after an initial “incident”) although there is not much to do except reading tons of backstory. And this is first flaw of an otherwise impressive game.
Style apart (the text needs some more intense editing, due to the generative process it has to sustain), the fact that the main action you continuously do is reading notes or long flashbacks hinders the gameplay a bit. This sums up to the fact that navigation is hard due to a very symmetrical and squareish map (a map is provided and I would say it is fundamental for your survival).
But the main aspect — the thing that, eventually, lowered my experience most — is that, of all the important backstory told, the one which is central to the final twist (and there IS a final twist!) is overlooked enough that I simply forgot to notice. Saying more means spoiler, so I have nothing to add, if not that a much more “central” approach to something inside the ship would have done a better job in causing the final wow-effect.
Finally, the endgame, too, looks muddled and I failed to actually get what was happening in the ship until I woke up this morning with the proverbial epiphany.
To recap: I wish the main story was more “main” and the sub-plots (about race, gender, and the overall backstory) ended up being sub-plots and not the big finger in front of the moon. I wish I could understand more about the plot, something my “4-Good” ending didn’t convey (who was the one opening and closing the doors? I understood this after an 8-hours sleep, never having seen him during play!). I wish I could read less and do more, as a piece of Interactive Fiction should allow.
This said, I enjoyed this game a lot, and it frankly had me holding tight to the chair here and there, for some nice, perpetual sense of danger. A calm post-comp reset of the game is all it’s needed to put these few things straight.
Reviewed by Christopher Huang
Despite the title, this is not a Nord-&-Bert-y wordplay
game. "Word of the Day" is the name of a ... somewhat junky spacecraft, and we
are an "Outer Worlder" crewmember. Well, when I say "junky" ... it's still an
enviable class of spacecraft, such that getting on it at all is an honour; it's
just that it's the lowest class on the roster of these super-amazing ships that
run on super-efficient bio-derived fuel rods.
This is mostly an exploration game. We wake up after an explosion of some sort has knocked us out; we appear to be the only survivor in the command centre--but what about the other crewmembers? Most of the game is spent seeking them out and learning about what happened, and in the process learning their stories. The main decisions to be made and puzzles to be solved come towards the end, and these don't actually feel so much like puzzles as ... natural issues to be resolved.
To make things interesting, we're the only Outer Worlder on the crew: everyone else is an Inner Worlder, and much of the exploration is about the relationships between the Inner and Outer Worlds. It would seem that the Inner Worlds are the dominant race: they're the ones running the star command, and our hero's inclusion on this crew is a major source of pride for her. So few Outer Worlders manage so much! Of course, she's very much aware of the racist attitudes against her; but she's also somewhat less conscious of her own racism....
Even if you don't care for any explorations into racism (and you don't have to read it that way) the worldbuilding that results is pretty engrossing. Neither the Inner Worlders nor the Outer Worlders are human, and it is by comparing the two that we can naturally discuss what each of them are without it sounding like an exposition dump.
I do suspect that, at some point of the design process, the characters were meant to be Earth humans, though. Most of the names look like variations on human names, and I did catch at least one reference to "Earth" in the descriptions.
So it's an interesting story, and an interesting exploration of worlds far different from our own. I liked the slow feed of information with respect to the mystery of what happened and the underlying plot. The final denouement sets up for some nice variations in the endings, with multiple ways of achieving whichever ends we want.
I think this is like a fruit yoghurt parfait, full of fruit chunks and granola. We're all focused on spooning the yoghurt into our mouths, and all the things that make it good are just there for the ride. Add some iced tea to follow ... or do we need the iced tea after all? You decide.
Review by Lynnea Glasser
Reviewed by Aziraphale
This is a well-executed space exploration game. It almost feels like the text
version of an environmental storytelling based walking simulator: you explore a
dead space craft, trying to figure out what happened to your crew, and doing
some puzzle-solving along the way. This is a meaty game with a lot of content,
very few errors, and quality craftsmanship, and it’s getting a lot of positive
comments in the reviews I’ve read.
I hate being a dissenting opinion on something a lot of people like. It’s not a fun place to be in! It’s even worse when the reasons you don’t like a game are not what some people would call objective, but based purely in your treacherous, unreliable feelings. So, I am not pleased to report that I did not like this game. I don’t want to belabor the point, as I know a lot of people will like this game. I’ll just talk a little bit about why I did not have a good time playing it.
This game made me feel uncomfortable. Not with the premise, which is fine; nor even with the blatant assholeness of the main character, who happily strips her dead crewmates of valuables along the way. I actually enjoyed that quite a bit. What made me uncomfortable were the constant asides, the glimpses of worldbuilding we get. When the main character is examining the corpses of her coworkers, we get a lengthy aside about the shape and function of her genitals; definitely what most people’s minds go to, right? (Not to mention that the picture attached to the game is meant to be a representation of what said genitals look like. Eungh.)
I’m not a fan of alien racism. I think it’s hard to handle well, especially when you try to pull a “but she’s also racist against them!” like this game does. I didn’t like what we learned about the author’s alien OC race, how our main character’s only motivation is reproduction, how everyone is racist against her but also the entire crew is irresistibly drawn to her because of her sexy alien pheromones and also one of the dudes has an alien fetish and another dude definitely tried to rape her once, which we of course have to flashback to. So much of this game feels like a set-up to a weird alien porno. Did I mention that when this alien species reproduces, the males lose their dicks? Freud would seriously have a field day.
So, yeah. I wasn’t a fan of this game because it made me feel uncomfortable playing it, and eventually it made me so uncomfortable I didn’t want to play it any more, and that’s really all there is to it.
Reviewed by MathBrush
This game kind of threw me off at first; I used the walkthrough, which seemed
super unmotivated, and some large pieces of occasionally-awkward text made me
not like it as much.
But then lglasser said she loved it on her twitch stream, as did an Italian IFComp judge, so I gave it another shot, walkthrough-free.
This time around, I liked it. All reasonable commands seemed to be accepted. The game allowed a great deal of flexible exploration and a money system that worked. Exploration was all that was needed to trigger the story, and the hint system was just strong enough to get me through and just vague enough to make it a challenge.
It seemed oddly fixated an alien mating systems, but it was more National Geographic than anything else.
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