IFComp review. Spoilers. Link. You know the drill.
A Matter of Importance was written around a design quirk. Quoth the author:
One of the IF concepts I really hate is the so-called “decoration item”. You know what I mean – richly embellished porticoes, magnificent pieces of furniture, enigmatic doors and tapestries pleading for being explored, but dismissing all player’s attempts of closer interaction with messages like “That’s not important”, or “That’s not something you need to refer to in the course of this game”.
Personally, I think the best solution would be to make the decoration objects do something interesting. A Matter of Importance instead satirizes the “decoration object” with a sparsely implemented world, where all but the most puzzle-critical objects are dismissed by their descriptions.
The trouble is, this approach doesn’t encourage the player to examine anything closely–too often there’s too little reward. This did not help when solving puzzles. Half the time I missed noticing some little detail–i.e., that the trunk had a hook attached to it.
The other half of the time, I found it impossible to guess what the game wanted me to do. For instance: there’s a trunk full of costumes. I knew from an earlier clue that there should be a stethoscope in there. So I tried taking the doctor’s costume, and couldn’t. And I searched the trunk, and didn’t come up with anything. It turns out all you have to do is GET STETHOSCOPE. Which never occurred to me, because the game never mentioned the stethoscope was visible.
On the other hand, at least there’s no time limit to solve the puzzles. Which is usually great. Usually. At one point the police surround the place you’re burgling. Later you’re held at gunpoint by the villain, who gloats at you… for as long as you need him to. You can wait and wait and wait and he will obligingly blather away while you decide what to do. The police never actually rush the building, either. Between the lack of urgency and the sparse environment, I never brought myself to care about the matter the viewpoint character seemed to find so important.
But at least I knew what the matter was. I have no idea what Beneath was on about. Supposedly you’re looking for a well-lit place to read. (Oh, and according to the status line “a segment of your brain has atrophied.” Probably you should get that seen to.) But the author’s implemented an enigmatic half-empty town and it seems there’s something else you should be doing.
The question is, what? There’s no sense of direction. You can wander everywhere right from the start of the game, stumbling into encounters you don’t yet understand and had no chance to prepare for.
It’s not that games always need a concrete goal, and they certainly shouldn’t force players down any single path. But if they don’t provide some direction, they should at least have enough interesting things that players will come up with goals of their own. Think of the Myst games–you’re usually dumped into an age with only a vague idea of what to do. But you’re surrounded by mysterious gadgets and beautiful landscapes and right away you’re running around, fiddling with things, looking for more to see.
Beneath was so bleak and uncooperative that, just for something to do, I found myself walking towards a glove I saw lying in the street. It turned out to be two blocks away. That’s one prominent glove.
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