IFReviewed by Paul OBrian
on 2006-07-19 07:34
In Music Education, you play a college student majoring in music. The game takes place in and around a college music building, and many of the characters and puzzles involve music in one way or another. The specificity of this premise helps the game feel a little less like a generic college romp, but does not help it to transcend the genre of games which feel more or less like implementations of somebody's (usually the author's) fairly quotidian life. These are the kind of games that are much more fun to write than to play. Aspiring writers are given the advice that they should write what they know, and try to write for themselves, creating works that they themselves want to read. This is good advice, but I think that when it is applied to interactive fiction, it often leads to games which are more or less an interactive version of somebody's apartment, or house, or campus. These can be fun to play, but only if the main attraction isn't the game's similarity to the author's real life. For example, A Bear's Night Out
may have been set in an implemented version of the author's house, but the main attraction of the game isn't the fact that you get to walk around a virtual replica of a typical house. Instead, there are specific, interesting elements to the game that put the house in the background rather than the foreground. In Music Education, the college music building occupies the foreground, and one suspects that the most fun thing about it for the author is its resemblance to that author's lived reality. This is a type of fun in which very few players can share. I may be way off base here. Perhaps the whole building is imaginary, and the game's scenario has no bearing on the author's life. If so, the game fails to make the fictional scenario compelling enough to hold the player's interest. This lack of zing arises in part from the sheer ordinariness of the scenario (with occasional lurches into absurd death scenes), but also from its curious goallessness.
The game begins at a parking meter, so it's reasonable to think that the goal of the game is to feed the meter. However, even after you do this, the game is not won, and there are many more points to be scored. There's no real plot to the game, so it's difficult for players to understand just what they're supposed to be trying to accomplish in order to win the game. There are no overt indications of exactly what the puzzles are, let alone how they ought to be solved. Consequently, I spent a good deal of time wandering around the game just doing the obvious thing with the few objects to hand, without ever understanding the purpose of such actions. After I ran out of ideas, I consulted the walkthrough and discovered that a couple of highly unlikely (though, in retrospect, more or less logical) actions are necessary to complete the game. I still didn't understand why any of those actions were necessary until I had performed them, and I think I've figured out the problem. Most of the puzzles consist of bringing things to various characters, or creating a situation that the character desires. However, the characters never give any indication as to what they want, so it's very difficult to know what you're supposed to be doing for them. This is why such "locked-door" characters in IF normally say things like, "Boy, I sure could go for some ice cream right now!" It's a way of feeding the player specific information about the key to unlock the NPC's puzzle without that NPC needing to break character. In Music Education there is one character whom you can ask about the other characters, but again there's no motivation to do this other than trying to figure out what the goal of the game is, and even when you do ask, the character only answers on a few topics. This setup breaks mimesis, since there's no intrinsic, character-based reason to ask such questions; the game becomes less about a music student and more about a confused player trying to figure out what the game is looking for.
Luckily, there's an easy fix to this: just enhance the characters so that it's easier to figure out what you're supposed to be doing for them. This could mean tweaking their responses to various questions, or giving them a response to "hello", or giving them opening text for when they first meet the player, or some combination of the above. Granted, "I really want a..." statements can feel rather artificial when written poorly, but wandering around wondering what to do in a simple environment feels much more artificial. Music Education is a game whose writing and coding are relatively free from errors, but whose drive is deflated by the banality of its setting and some relatively basic omissions of puzzle design. Once the latter of these problems is fixed, the former will cease to have as much effect.