IFComp 2009: GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands!

(This is another Interactive Fiction Competition review.)

I’m guessing the author of GATOR-ON, Friend to Wetlands! likes the Florida Everglades. I say I’m guessing because there’s not much evidence of this in the game.

This is the Everglades, in the eyes of GATOR-ON:


What commonly gets called a “swamp” is actually the most extraordinary ecosystem on the planet. Water and grass extend as far you can see, filled with an incredible variety of birds and fish and turtles and (of course!) alligators.

You can see the loop road to the west.

You can’t see any such thing.

You can’t see any such thing.

You can’t see any such thing.

You can’t see any such thing.

Yep. That sure is an extraordinary ecosystem, there.

The whole game is like this. There are a hundred or so identical locations—by “identical,” I mean they have the exact same description—and trying to look at anything closely will get you “You see nothing special about the X” or “You can’t see any such thing.” At one point you’re in a location called “Observation Tower,” and the only object present is an observation tower, and the entire point of the location and the description is that there is an observation tower and here it is right here, and if you examine it you get “You can’t see any such thing.”

A hatch on the ground is barely visible through the periphyton.You can also see a transmitter here.

[Your score has just gone up by one point.]

You see nothing special about the hatch.

You can’t see any such thing.

What the hell is periphyton? I have no clue. GATOR-ON isn’t saying. The problem extends even to your inventory:

You open the corn chips bag, revealing some corn chips.

You can’t see any such thing.

I’m wandering through a thousand identical locations and everything disappears when I try to examine it and I’m surrounded by undefined botany words and now someone ate my damn corn chips. Even the PC is vague: it’s obvious he’s supposed to be somebody specific, but the only response to X ME is “You are anxious, but in good health,” and his fondness for corn chips is all we ever learn about the guy.

You might wonder how you’re supposed to find your way around a hundred identical locations. Fortunately you’re provided with a beacon directing you to your base. Unfortunately a puzzle requires picking up the transmitter and carrying it off to the other end of the map. At that point it’s impossible to find your way back to the hatch, so I quit. This was astonishing. I had played three games so far and already I’d found the worst game design decision of the year.

Luckily the author provided a transcript of a successful game. Reading it, I found that the PC is part of a team of robot alligator operators consisting of “a noted chemist and manufacturer of drink containers that grow into topiary animals when discarded,” “a young woman who lived in a tree for a year to prevent it from being cut down (for a year),” “the brilliant (and beautiful!) Seminole engineer who designed the robot alligator fleet,” “a fifth-grader who wrote a moving essay on the importance of water conservation,” and, uh… some guy who eats a lot of Fritos. The alligators unite to form a Voltron-type robot and fight “the Pyth-nor Consortium (consisting of reactionary sugar growers, building developers, feathered hat makers, and extremist elements of the United States Chamber of Commerce).”

The fundamental problem here—after the technical ineptitude, anyway—is that GATOR-ON is not making an argument. Maybe that’s why this thing is so half-assed: it’s a throwaway gag. This is not the work of an author who loves the Everglades and wants to persuade players that they’re beautiful and important and need protecting from reactionary sugar growers. This game assumes its players share its politics and will get a mild chuckle from seeing broad stereotypes of their own opinions, and of their political opponents, mapped onto a giant Japanese robot. More likely, most players will come away wondering whether more housing developments will really damage the Everglades as much as kaiju stomping all over the place.