IFComp 2009: Earl Grey

(This is one more Interactive Fiction Competition review.)

Earl Grey is the last IFComp game I feel inspired to review this year. Last month when I reviewed The Bryant Collection I mentioned that my interest in interactive fiction had in recent years coincided with the competition, and I’ve finally figured out why: playing through the bottom half of the IFComp game list has increasingly come to resemble reading slush. By the end of the process I’ve temporarily killed my enthusiasm for another year. Next year I think I’ll follow Emily Short’s example and ignore the games that don’t list any beta testers.

Earl Grey, though, is another good game that did not make me feel tired and sad. Earl Grey is a wordplay game: the PC can change the environment by removing a letter from a word, as long as the resulting sentence still makes grammatical sense. A garden of “fragrant plants” becomes a garden of “fragrant pants.” The PC can then place the odd letter into another word.

The one problem with this game is the same as the problem with last year’s Magic: the authors invented a neat new mechanic, but the player only gets to use it on the words that are absolutely necessary to solve the puzzles—which is exactly what you don’t want to do in a game like this, because it discourages experimentation. There’s exactly one way to solve each puzzle and it’s not always easy to find. I only got through by following the walkthrough and I’m guessing many other players will have the same experience.

But it’s worth going to the walkthrough every so often because it’s a pleasure to read through the game. Building Earl Grey around arbitrary word pairs could have resulted in something rather abstract but the authors took the trouble to build a coherent plot and environment around the puzzles and the result is vividly weird. Everything has a description, and sometimes multiple levels of description. (This does make it harder to guess which word the authors expect you to use, but it’s worth it.) The game is written in a consistently bright, witty tone. What’s amazing is that the authors begin the game as an almost excessively lighthearted romp, suddenly drop in the mass destruction of an entire town, teleport the PC into an adventure game and then a surrealist landscape, and still maintain a consistently bright, witty tone. The tone even extends to the default responses:

It’s times like these I’m glad we’re not in a room together.

The authors may not have been sure how to end things: the game doesn’t so much tie up the plot as wind down into a puzzling non sequitur (although one which requires players to revisit their first use of the letter mechanic, which is good design). Still, getting there is fun.

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