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IFComp 09: Earl Grey

Earl Gray (Rob Dubbin and Adam Parrish), how I want to love thee! Unfortunately, despite its excellent premise and careful implementation, I couldn’t get past its (positively spinned) difficulty or (negatively spinned) obliqueness to feel like I wanted to finish. More below the fold.

The premise of the game is that you can manipulate your environment by means of a magical ‘runebag’, which permits you to ‘knock’ letters out of word or ‘cast’ them into others. For instance: “knock brain” might turn a heavy ‘brain’ into heavy ‘rain’, or maybe just heavy ‘bran’, and “cast p into pro” might turn a ‘pro tennis player’ into a ‘prop tennis player’. You get the idea.

So far, so good. It’s a good premise for a puzzle game. However, the more I played, the more I could imagine the authors wracking their rains, er, brains, in order to come up with logical, grammatical puzzles that made any sense whatsoever. And not necessarily succeeding. The situations suffer a bit from a sort of arbitrary surrealism, and offer no particular motivation to solve the puzzles, other than curiosity about what might come next. In several places, you might not even realize there’s a puzzle, except that you’re stopped by an invisible force until you’ve solved whatever the authors think you should be solving.

Along the way, you’re offered a number of hints as to what you could be doing, via the numerous figures you’ll encounter as you move from space to space in the game. Mostly, though, you just have to keep ‘talk’ing to them until they run out of stuff to say. Which is kind of boring and not particularly satisfying. I’d prefer to assemble the outline of the puzzle at hand from hints in the environment, rather than be vaguely spoon-fed insinuations of potential directions to act in.

But therein lies another problem. Once you get finished with the initial levels, you enter a level featuring a) difficult puzzles — ok, ‘sea ions’ into ‘sea lions’ wasn’t rocket science, but ‘crown’ to ‘crow’ to ‘cow’ isn’t at all obvious from the context, with b) a turn-based time limit, after which your poor sea ions, er lions, have drowned and you’re informed by the (very good, +1 for this) lower pane ‘interior monologue’ that you probably should have saved the poor things.

At that point, I consulted the walkthrough, realized the “error” of my ways, and saw how difficult the end of the game is, given the timing constraints and realized that, lacking some insider knowledge of how the world should appear at the end, with little guidance, there was no chance in hell I was going to complete this game without simply typing in the walkthrough, so I stopped.

Plusses: the game is well implemented, I couldn’t discover too many unimplemented objects (although there are plenty of potentially ‘knockable’ and ‘castable’ objects which remain immune to my runebag’s powers). The writing is pretty good, and I particularly appreciated the ‘interior monologue’ pane, which, although sometimes a bit too drollish, offered a nice running commentary of what I was doing.

Earl Grey is not bad, it’s just too hard, without enough effort put into guiding the dear reader through what appears to be an open, exploratory game, but is, in fact, a very strict puzzle with a fairly unique, abitrary solution.

Earl Grey

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