IFComp 2009: Rover’s Day Out and Grounded in Space

This year I plan to review most of the Interactive Fiction Competition games again. For more on what this is about, see this old post. If you have no interest in IF, no worries—I’ll try to have other things, too.

There’s a lot of variety in fantasy IF, from old-style Zorkian fantasy to modern magic realism. So it’s surprising how much science fictional IF is dated in its influences. Across the Stars, from a couple of competitions back, belonged in a 1950s issue of Astounding Stories. Last year’s A Martian Odyssy was adapted—badly—from a story published in 1934, Piracy 2.0 could have been written anytime in the past sixty years, and Channel Surfing shallowly retreads a style of media satire I associate with the Reagan administration.

This year my randomized game list frontloaded two of these things. Rover’s Day Out and Grounded in Space are full of Robert Heinlein. I am not a fan of Robert Heinlein. This, obviously, would not end well… though I have to admit that Rover’s Day Out came out better than I expected.

Rover’s Day Out begins with a Heinlein quote and almost immediately references Isaac Asimov, but it’s better than any of the SF games I’ve mentioned. The narration has an engaging personality, and a sense of humor that’s usually missing from this kind of thing—a lot of games respond to swear words, but this is the only one I can think of in which one is a useful verb! And it’s learned from modern SF: there are references to bioengineering and nanotechnology, and unlike a lot of pre-New Wave versions of the future this Mars isn’t inhabited entirely by European-Americans. Rover’s Day Out isn’t dated: it’s charmingly retro.

That said, much of its approach to SF is summed up in the way the PC doesn’t eat eggs: she eats neoeggs. Because it’s the future, baby! Martian colonists want independence from Earth, and the PC’s job is to grab a probe from Earth with data on a habitable extrasolar planet. If Mars can claim the place for itself, it means more resources and less dependance on Earth. From the Heinlein quote I at first assumed this was one of those stories where the self-reliant technolibertarians went off into space and Earth was left to limp-wristed socialists, but at one point we learn that Mars has “political officers,” so maybe not. In any case I never stopped sympathizing with Earth. Taking the probe just seemed criminal. The knowledge arguably belonged to the entire human race; worse, the Martians wanted it more for political leverage than scientific curiosity. It’s directly contradicted by the opening Heinlein quote, that “There ought not to be anything in the whole universe that man can’t poke his nose into.” Yet the game didn’t quite piss me off. Charm and humor can make up for any number of sins.

I was less charmed with a couple of gameplay decisions. First: For the love of Floyd, don’t mess with my compass directions. Add your own movement system if you like, but don’t turn off N E W and S! I mentioned this when I reviewed The Bryant Collection—yes, it’s an unrealistic convention, but sometimes conventions are established because they work. After examining things, moving the PC around the virtual world is the thing players do most. It’s kinder to allow one-letter abbreviations than to force them to type GO TO KITCHEN over and over. And it ensures that experienced IF players will never need to guess a verb just to get around. At one point Rover’s Day Out stymied me for a minute because EXIT SHOWER didn’t work and I couldn’t figure out what else to type.

And if you do get rid of the compass directions, don’t refer to “directions” without telling the player what they are:

It’s stuck to the floor. On the other hand, if you want to push it in a particular direction, just say so.
The plunger cannot be pushed from place to place.

(I guess you could call that a bug. Also, the PC wakes up in pajamas but is wearing a flight suit by the time she stands up. The thing is, Rover’s Day Out is a simulation of a simulation, and the simulation is imperfect—at one point the game “crashes” on purpose. So these could be bugs within the simulation in which the PC lives, rather than the game itself. In that sense Rover’s Day Out may be the only game ever to be absolutely bug-free upon release.)

The more serious problem is that for most of the game the player does nothing but replicate an entirely mundane morning routine. Several times. And you have to go through every tedious step. Not that you’d want the game to do everything for you (taken to absurdity, that might look a little like this), but there’s nothing interesting about typing out every step needed to fry an egg:

The frying pan isn’t going to do much good if it’s not on the stove.
You put the frying pan on the the cooking range.From the direction of the living room, you hear Rover running in circles.
You need to be holding the white egg before you can put it into something else.From the direction of the living room, you hear Rover snoring loudly.
You put the white egg into the frying pan.
You feel kind of grimy and not entirely awake. From past experience you know that cooking before your morning shower often ends in disaster. (This is why you have your list hanging on the fridge!) You put the egg and the frying pan aside for the moment.

So I gave the PC her shower and trudged back to the kitchen and the game went like this:

The frying pan isn’t going to do much good if it’s not on the stove.
You need to be holding the frying pan before you can put it on top of something else.You can’t see any such thing.

A couple of competitions ago, Lost Pig gave the player a vending machine to figure out. The first couple of times you used it you had to go step by step, but once it was clear you’d solved the puzzle the game automated the whole thing. Rover’s Day Out would have been more fun if it had followed Lost Pig’s example.

I called Rover’s Day Out “charmingly retro.” Grounded in Space is not charmingly retro. It’s dated. The author patterned it after a Heinlein juvenile. (For those unfamiliar with the term, Heinlein’s “juveniles” were a string of novels he wrote for children. They are still read today by people who were children when they came out. And pretty much no one else.) So the PC is a 16-year-old technical whiz living on an asteroid who reads ancient science fiction books from “holo-cubes” and knocks down his mother’s hydroponics center with his experimental rocket engine. Gee whiz!

The PC’s self-reliant, manly father sends his thick-skulled and accident-prone son off on a mining expedition in the family space rocket, to teach the kid some self-reliant manliness. I am not sure what he is thinking here. Based on the prologue (and the author’s warning that “It is possible to die in several different ways in this story, some of which are non-obvious and some of which don’t always provide immediate feedback that death is imminent”) it’s more likely to kill the PC. Actually, that might be a plan.

Grounded in Space is humorless in its Heinleinosity. As in an actual 1950s story, the hero fights space pirates and rescues a pretty girl who is apparently unable to come up with even the simplest solution to her problems unaided. Most of the game consists of reading manuals and setting dials to large numbers. It’s about as much fun as actually operating mining equipment, and Grounded in Space didn’t have Rover’s Day Out’s charm to keep me going.