Posted 22 January 2002 to rec.games.int-fiction
Following is a variety of ASCII characters. You may, if you choose, interpret those characters to be further evidence of the existence of the IF Review Conspiracy. You may even choose to believe that said Conspiracy is the creation of Marnie Parker, Stephen Granade, and Duncan Stevens, and that more information regarding the Conspiracy can be found at http://www.plover.net/~textfire/conspiracy/. Please be advised, however, that the aforementioned make no representations to that effect, and indeed reserve their rights to pursue every legal recourse available against those responsible for these baseless slurs.
TITLE: Adventures of Helpfulman
AUTHOR: Philip Dearmore
PARSER: TADS standard
SUPPORTS: TADS interpreters (but includes some HTML-TADS features)
AVAILABILITY: Freeware (IF Archive)
VERSION: Release 1.0.0
This Conspiracy reviewing is a tough business for those of us brought up in the "if you can't say anything nice" school. The ordinary course for most of us is to simply ignore games that we don't much care for, on the theory that the IF Archive is crowded enough that there's no need to specifically warn the community away from any particular game. When the Conspiracy demands that a certain game be reviewed, however, and that game proves to be less than stellar, it won't quite do to reply that perhaps the Conspiracy should check out So Far instead. And this particular game--well, I'm sorry to say that Adventures of Helpfulman would need substantial work to qualify as less than stellar. I have no doubt that its heart is in the right place, but, folks, it ain't good.
You're a superhero trying to earn your superhero degree by doing superheroic deeds, it seems, and scrounging around for some deeds to do. (How hard up are you? One of the deeds turns out to be helping an old lady across the street, and another is getting a cat out of a tree. Yes, very nice, but if that's what passes for heroics nowadays, I fear the heroism currency has been rather debased.) That's not a bad premise, but it's largely sabotaged by the game design: at the beginning of the game, for example, you're at the top of an office building, and someone tells you that you need to get down to the bottom to do something superheroic right away. Before you try to go down, however, you need to go through a fairly elaborate series of steps to ascertain exactly what's going on that merits your attention, apparently because you're deathly afraid of your time being wasted. When you finally get down there, the stuff that you took great pains to learn about no longer matters--really--so you're left aimlessly wandering around looking for stuff to do. Make that wandering around a very, very large map with lots and lots of useless rooms, hoping you'll come across some way to be heroic. Let's just say that, if "send the player out a-wandering a large map with minimal idea of what he's supposed to do" was ever considered good game design, it isn't now.
The implementation is at a similar level. Exchanges like this are all too typical:
Further in the Gift Shop
Here among the aisles of the gift shop you can really see what the people of the galaxy tower won't do for a buck. Toys and other assorted knickknacks of all kinds are packed together all around, many with a thick layer of dust. You can see the helipad of the roof through the windows to the north, and west will go back to the entrance.
I don't see any knickknacks here.
Worse still, X TOYS yields this:
Between all of the objects in the aisles here, there are a few things that stand out, although you would never buy them.
They are as follows: Collectable tins containing various assorted goods Flavored popcorn balls with the Galaxy logo Galaxy Chips Coolers Thermoses Nylon lunchbags Screen-savers Flashlights Action figures Stuffed Galaxy Towers Smoked salmon Pictoral history books Various other uninteresting items.
Examining any of the listed items elicits "The stuff isn't important." Thus, in just two moves, did the game break two of the cardinal rules of IF design: implement the nouns in the room description, and don't bombard the player with detail if you're just going to tell him it's all irrelevant. It got worse:
Behind the Fish Emporium
You are behind the small fish store that is now to the north. The area here is fenced in by a low, wire fence, and there are miscellaneous old wooden crates and barrels scattered around the area. The only exit (without having to step over a mess of fishing related items) is to the north.
I don't see any barrels here.
I don't see any crates here.
There, it turns out, you need to interact with a singular barrel rather than the plural barrels ("crate," however, is not recognized). You're also given a hint at one point that there's an important item in a room, and hint-readers will even know that a particular item is hiding the item--but SEARCH ITEM, X ITEM, MOVE ITEM, TURN ITEM, PUSH ITEM, PULL ITEM, LOOK UNDER ITEM, LOOK IN ITEM, and OPEN ITEM are all unhelpful--you need to LOOK BEHIND ITEM, of course. Similar is the item of clothing that you need to manipulate in a certain (wildly unforeseeable) way, except that "nothing happens" if you try to manipulate it while you're wearing it. (Part of the problem is that the game has a fondness for describing things that are a location or two away in ways that leave it unclear whether the thing in question is in scope, so even things that the game is capable of recognizing often spit back the equivalent of "say what?"--not, needless to say, "That's to your north.") And then there's the object that's visible yet apparently doesn't exist while you're sitting in a chair and only comes into existence when you get up, and--but you get the idea. No truth to the rumor that Helpfulman was an entry in the Guess-the-Syntax-Comp.
The writing--well, it's less of a disaster than the game design, I guess. There are some misspellings, but not a lot, and mistakes like comma splices and its/it's errors are mercifully absent. On the other hand...
Porthaven Park, in a Grove of Trees
You are in a grassy park that continues north and south. Providing shelter from the bright light of the sun (and coincidentally causing a brisk chilliness) is a small grove of green deciduous trees that thin out to the west.To the south there is a blue, glassy pond, and the trees also thin out to the north end of the park.
There is a cat here, fearfully clinging to a high up tree limb.
As opposed to a grove of buildings, maybe? A "brisk chilliness"? Is it really a coincidence that it's cool in the shade? Eyes, not ponds, are usually glassy, and that tree limb could just as well be "high" rather than "high up." Still, most of the writing does the job, even if most rooms amount to lists of exits.
The puzzles have their own problems. On the whole, they make sense, viewed in retrospect, and a few show a modicum of cleverness, but mostly they're (a) entirely opaque until the solution is explained in the hints, (b) major trial-and-error jamborees, or (c) dependent on astounding stupidity from various NPCs. There's a maze, but it's not a huge one, and a handy NPC will hand you a map if you ask, which leaves one wondering why the author bothered to include the damn thing. (Not to mention the more vexing question of why the NPC would ask you to go perform this particular heroic deed when he's holding a map that leads you straight where you need to go. Perhaps you need a Hero License to perform heroic deeds in this world?) I'm also not entirely sure that the game is finishable, as what appears to be the second-to-last puzzle started acting funny--event triggers got a little loopy--and I gave up. On the whole, though, the puzzles could have been fixed with some better prompting--hints that an NPC is stupid in particular ways, say.
And then, at the risk of piling on, there's the stuff that makes Helpfulman even less pleasant to play than it would have been had the design, implementation, and writing been competent. There's lots of bathroom humor and other bodily function jokes, for instance, along with some gratuitous gore; this is doubtless quite the turn-on for a certain demographic, but I'm afraid that text IF is not the main stomping ground of that demographic these days. There's also a lengthy religious harangue dropped into the middle of the game, which feels like something of a bait-and-switch--if the author was trying to reach the player with any sort of religious message, this was a singularly bizarre way to go about it, even when the relevant action is READ TRACT. (I register this objection not because my religious sensibilities were offended--I share most of the beliefs expressed--but because the thing was so ham-handedly done. There are few things more offputting than getting an earful of dogma you haven't asked for. At least Jarod's Journey was up front about what it was trying to do.)
I wouldn't call Helpfulman an unmitigated disaster on the level of Detective or Space Aliens Laughed at My Cardigan; most of the time, the game does what the author seems to want it to do, which is something, I guess. The game does seem to have good intentions behind it, which, again, you probably couldn't say for Space Aliens or Coming Home, and there are a few somewhat funny moments. On the whole, however, and on a wide variety of levels, this simply Does Not Work.
This article copyright © 2002, Duncan Stevens