IFReviewed by Andrew Plotkin on 2006-06-25 10:05
Yay! A top-rank game. (Of course I'll have to go through later and rank the top rank, since I only give out one 10 per year. :) But that's not for another five weeks.)
I'll brush over what's good here, because that's easy: the writing, the mood, the fitting of original words (and original back-story) into Poe's writing and words. Also the NPC -- not the bird, but Lenore, who shows up clearly in the very spare glimpses we have of her.
And I've wanted a game on this topic for a long time. Christminster sort of did it, but not the way I wanted it. This game did.
Also the drugs. You may think me shallow, but really nothing sets the stage for nineteenth-century Romantic gloom like dissolute, drug-tormented intellectuals. Byron, Shelley, the lot. This is literal history, not a recommendation for modern life.
(And it's always nice to have a literal, historical justification to shout "Awright! More drugs!" Heh.)
So, the problems. I got most of the way through with no hints at all. (That's good.) However, I bogged down at the end, and it was basically because of lack of feedback. You have a very great amount of information to assimilate, and you're feeling your way through it, and I got several things right several times without ever realizing that they were right. In fact, more than once I got something right and then went too far, until I got a sign of change -- any change -- which I took as a hint that I was on the right track.
If the major milestones had been marked with definite signs of something happening, I probably would have solved the entire game on my own.
(And it would not have opened the game up to brute-force experimentation. Trust me. When the hints are as oblique as this, experimentation should be part of the solving process. And you can always have major red herrings in addition to the major milestones.)
I must also quibble with the way the books are presented; that is, totally randomly. I read each book until I was certain no more information was available. Guess what: one chapter was missing. Random sequences are not evenly distributed in the short term! A simple "choose randomly from N" reading process isn't good enough; you can't avoid the chance that only N-1 will appear before the player gets bored.
How to fix this? A fixed order is easy, of course, but doesn't give the right feel of a disorganized text.
Perhaps this: keep track of the choices which have been seen, and choose randomly among the ones that haven't. After they've all appeared, wipe the slate.
Alternatively: every time you read, there's a 2/3 chance of a purely random choice, and a 1/3 chance of the least recently seen choice. That starts out randomly, but after you've seen N-1, you're very likely to see the last choice within the next four or five tries.