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[IF Conspiracy Review] Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina

by Duncan Stevens

Posted 7 February 2000 to

The following review is posted under the auspices of the IF Review Conspiracy, which is run by Marnie Parker, Stephen Granade, and myself. More information about the Conspiracy is available at

TITLE: Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina
AUTHOR: Jim Aikin
DATE: 1999
PARSER: Inform standard
SUPPORTS: Z-code interpreters
VERSION: Release 1

There are inherent mimesis problems in most puzzle-fest IF, since most of us do not live in a world where we need to solve logic problems or math riddles to open doors. One of the most significant mimesis problems is the objects-out-of-place syndrome--since most interesting puzzles involve objects with unusual or striking properties, the game author needs to come up with a good reason why the setting might include the objects that are vital to her chosen puzzles. Jim Aikin's Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina solves the problem in a rather creative way: the game is set in a shopping mall. Not just any shopping mall, of course; this one includes such things as a hair salon, a book bindery, and an antique store, the better to craft puzzles with, my dear. What results is about as unabashed a puzzle-fest as IF has ever seen--and while not all of the puzzles are highlights, the result is still thoroughly enjoyable.

You're a parent (the game carefully avoids giving you a gender, though given the limited NPC interaction, this isn't all that remarkable a feat) searching for a doll on Christmas Eve, after the stores have closed; your 7-year-old daughter has her heart set on one Sugar Toes, and you're determined to find it. That's the premise, and it's a good one, but in truth it hardly matters whether you're after a ballerina doll or the Magic Hair Dryer of the Gods, since you can largely forget about your ostensible purpose until the very end. NJAOB is an old-style game: the puzzles are, I think it's safe to say, the raison d'etre, and your daughter and the doll provide a reasonably plausible framing device but not much more. (Perhaps that's not fair--some of the crueler obstacles you overcome could be taken as a wry comment on Christmas shopping and the primitive instincts it brings out in parents who are intent on keeping their kids up with the latest craze--but the game doesn't really do anything with that particular angle.) The result is distinctly reminiscent of Infocom's golden years in several respects; there's an initial premise, and the player is told to go forth and solve puzzles, most of which have no obvious connection to the ultimate goal, in hopes that things will work out in the end. On its terms, it works well--but as the trend in recent IF has been toward the integration of story and puzzles, NJAOB feels like something of a throwback.

The puzzles--well, thereby hang quite a few tales. Most are quite clever; indeed, even those that are familiar in certain respects have original twists that help liven up the proceedings. There are some regrettable inclusions, in particular a fifteen puzzle--with a twist, to be sure, but it's still a fifteen puzzle in mechanics, and I dearly wished for a way to skip it. (Turns out there is a way to skip the mechanics, but I didn't realize it at the time, sadly.) There are also several mazes, all of which have a twist of some sort, of course, but they're firmly within the maze category. Several are math-based, one (one of the first puzzles in the game) in a rather obscure way--and while some are straightforward, others come perilously close to read-the-author's-mind. On the other hand, most of the puzzles have a certain elegance--none, with the exception of a certain logic puzzle, are needlessly complicated--and a few require rather subtle lateral thinking. The layout of the game is distinctly "wide"--after the player solves the first few puzzles, dozens more are suddenly available all at once, so there are multiple puzzle-solving avenues to explore for most of the game. As with most "wide" games, however, there's an inherent frustration element--there may be many puzzles to solve, but it's distinctly possible (particularly toward the later stages of the game) that only one or two will be solvable at any particular moment, meaning that you may not have the tools to solve the problem you're currently struggling with. There's an in-game hint system that adapts nicely to your progress in the game, however, and which informs you if you're not yet ready to tackle a puzzle, so that's a saving grace. There's even one puzzle that depends on ASCII-art renderings for description--and while the ASCII art iss competently done, it feels like something of a betrayal to have largely textual IF give up on text at a key point. Moreover, as with many puzzle-fest games, the puzzles work only if you don't think about them too much--the technicians who set up the power and security systems for this shopping mall were either math Ph.D's or Games Magazine editors.

Puzzle-fest IF has an inherent drawback that Ballerina addresses but doesn't entirely overcome. The problem is that the game can feel like a long slog, a series of Mensa-type puzzles without much in the way of reward along the way; if the story doesn't go anywhere when the player solves puzzles, and the only payoff is an object that's presumably useful for another puzzle somewhere, the whole exercise can turn wearisome after a while. Ballerina tries to overcome this in a rather unusual fashion: there's a subplot of sorts that periodically intrudes on the puzzle-solving in rather unexpected ways, so that now and again you're rewarded with some interesting and particularly well-described events that give your quest--well, not context as such, but something of a contrast. The subplot doesn't really withstand close scrutiny--the hows and whys are never resolved, or even touched, and some of the puzzle-solving associated with it owes more to whimsy than to sense--and yet it improves the game immeasurably, somehow; the incursion of the unexpected (and fantastic) leaves the player feeling like she's experienced something more than a doll-hunt. Suffice it to say that the story element lends the game a touch of wonder--and considering that the premise effectively requires breaking and entering on a grand scale, wonder is exactly what's needed here.

The setting is vividly rendered, though the talents of a writer as gifted as this one aren't likely to be appreciated in this sort of game: there are few notable events with which to capture the player's imagination, and even the most skillful of room descriptions gets old after a hundred readings or so. The tone of the descriptions varies from sparing...

The heavy structure of the shopping center stretches left and right from here. When you crane your neck the building seems almost to be leaning outward, as if it's in some danger of collapsing on top of you, or perhaps pouncing on you. Doubtless that's only a trick of the light. An arched entryway beckons to the south, above it the inscription

EST. 1974

carved in a pigeon-flecked substance that looks more like plaster than real stone. Running along the building above the arch is a covered-over exterior walkway. faintly silly:

You've never seen so many lamps in your life. Floor lamps, table lamps, gooseneck lamps, chandeliers, porch lights, track lighting -- when God said, "Let there be light," whoever owns this shop said, "I can make a buck on that." The only exit is the door to the lower concourse on the east.

The feel of a slightly seedy shopping mall is well conveyed, for example in the "pigeon-flecked substance" in the first description quoted above, and to the extent that the game has an overall tone, the tawdriness fits it well. Less well developed or apt is the eerie aspect, brought out in the "pouncing" bit here and in various references to shadows and gloom elsewhere; the writing is more than good enough to set a creepy scene, of course, but the tawdry-glitzy aspect and frequent lapses into goofiness (the above is hardly the only silly bit) undermine the effort. Again, though, given that the puzzles rather than the setting and story are the focus of attention here, it's hardly a major drawback. The overall feel of playing Ballerina is hard to convey concisely; there's a temptation to simply ignore the setting and view the game as a set of puzzles, given the number and variety of those puzzles. Most players are likely to initially absorb the well-described setting, but increasingly disregard it as they start tackling the puzzles, and the extent to which the tone and style of the game stays with the player consequently varies.

Technically, everything works well here--admirably well, considering the size (a 500K-plus Z8 file) of the game and the vast numbers of objects. The rucksack stand-in, appropriately enough a shopping bag, isn't flawless--I spent more time than I wanted to fiddling with it, and the game doesn't provide for things like automatically taking a key out of the bag in order to unlock a door. The same problem recurs elsewhere; several places where modern-day IF veterans might expect the game to supply inferences don't make such inferences, which can be frustrating. Still, it's good enough, and most of the glitches I noticed were minor details rather than game-stoppers. The hint system is quite well done--the adaptive aspect worked perfectly--and several puzzles have reasonably logical alternative solutions.

If Ballerina suffers as a game-playing experience, then, it's less because it doesn't succeed in what it set out to do than because its genre isn't in critical vogue these days, if a field as sparse as IF criticism can be said to have a vogue. The PC is largely a cipher, the story intermittent and largely without momentum, the NPCs fairly cardboard--in short, the game exists largely for the sake of the puzzles, rather than trying to create an immersive experience through the story. It's far more difficult--virtually impossible, even--to make a puzzle-centered game immersive in the same way, and in that Ballerina occasionally requires that the player draw on outside knowledge of one form or another, it doesn't really try for immersion as such. The expectations of IF players in this day and age have been shaped by so many moral ambiguities, unreliable narrators, branching plots, and the like that the puzzle-oriented nature of Ballerina may prove unsatisfying.

On the whole, then, Ballerina fits its genre admirably, and the player who doesn't ask it to be more than a puzzle-fest will not be disappointed. The puzzles are difficult, but largely fair, and they boast a wealth of originality. It has some minor flaws, but it's worth checking out.

This article copyright © 2000, Duncan Stevens

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