IFComp 2008: A Martian Odyssey

(This is another Interactive Fiction Competition review .)

A Martian Odyssey is based on the short story by Stanley G. Weinbaum. This works about as well as these adaptations usually do, which is to say not really.

A Martian Odyssey puts you into the role of an astronaut exploring Mars. Judging from this game this is about the dullest job ever. Mars is empty—emptier than it is in reality. Most areas look like this:

Thyle II (in the auxiliary rocket)
Another orange desert. Twenty miles into it, you cross a canal.

>x canal
You can’t see any such thing.

You get “You can’t see any such thing” a lot in this game. The things that do exist aren’t always well implemented—for instance, the game insists that the walking plants aren’t animated. The authors seem to have spent more time on their 50 megabyte ambient soundtrack than on the actual game. I sort of wonder why, instead of hassling us, they didn’t just release a CD.

Eventually you find and learn to talk with a Martian. This has been done before (in Lucian Smith’s The Edifice); this kind of puzzle is still worth trying, but in this case it isn’t particularly interesting.

Oh, and one of your fellow astronauts is named “Putz.” This is true to the original story, but, guys, you might have been better off changing his name for the game.

IF authors who adapt stories into games tend to forget that an IF game and a straight prose story are different things. They put all of the story into the game… and nothing that isn’t in the story. And here we have a problem. Interactive fiction needs more text and more detail than a prose story of similar length. In prose, the author chooses what to focus on. In IF that’s something the author and the player decide together. If an adaptation doesn’t step beyond the original story its players are going to find the edges of the world very quickly.

This isn’t just a matter of details and object descriptions. It’s also about freedom of action. Adaptations often assume that the player will follow the path of the original story’s protagonist. Not everyone will want to play along. Some players won’t share the original character’s personality and goals. Some literary characters have worldviews so odd that players who haven’t read the original story aren’t even likely to guess what the hell they’re supposed to be doing.

And some games actively discourage you from following the path of the original. A Martian Odyssey’s protagonist is an explorer. But exploring this shallow, empty environment is boring. Long before they reach the meat of the game most players are likely to decide to explore some other entry.