Posted 5 May 2001 to rec.games.int-fiction
The REVIEW CONSPIRACY intends this review to stimulate rather than to stifle discussion. Dissident elements who disagree with the points raised are hence requested to make themselves known by posting a response. This will expedite the process of targetting corrective action, to the benefit of all.
Up for review today, we have:
Nothing More, Nothing Less
An Interactive Slice of Life
This is a Hugo game by Gilles Duchesne. It was written for SmoochieComp, but unfortunately not quite in time to be an Official(tm) Entry and reviewed with all the rest. Let's right that wrong, shall we?
As ever, I'll restrict all the outright spoilers to a section at the end, so it's safe to start reading this review even if you haven't played the game.
And as usual, I'll start with my overall opinion: this game is pretty good. Definitely not unmissable, but worth looking up if you have the time. It shouldn't take more than an hour or so to play it.
It's a puzzly little romp around the author's apartment. No points for originality so far; but I didn't find any show-stopping bugs and the spelling and grammar are fine, so it at least passes the first hurdle. As it happens, there's a gentle vein of humour running through the writing, and the puzzles, while on the easy side, strike a nice balance between fun and realism -- all in all, I enjoyed it.
(This is yet more proof, incidentally, that Hugo is a perfectly capable IF system and just as good a choice as Inform or TADS for that all-important first game. But you knew that already, right?)
Can I say more? I think so: this game does some rather interesting little tricks with the game mechanics which I haven't come across elsewhere. I'll go into more detail about these below; but first I'll describe what did and didn't work for me in the plot and writing, on which topic I have less to say.
* A cosy story
The story involves the male PC doing various errands to make sure the apartment is tidy and presentable for the Important Visitors his partner is picking up. Does the plumbing start playing up? Does he lose his keys? Does the cat cause trouble? But of course.
Appropriately for a SmoochieComp game, the main interest comes from the way the couple's relationship is depicted. Probably sensibly, the PC's partner never appears directly (unless you count the introductory text); so it's all indirect, coming to light as the PC muses on various items in the apartment.
The relationship would seem to be a very cosy one. For several rooms and pieces of furniture, the PC recalls the discussions and disagreements over what to do with the thing -- but one always gets the impression of amicable disagreements, of a couple who are comfortable enough together that they can argue about matters either trivial or important without worrying about saying the wrong thing.
This cosiness is perhaps a bit too all-pervasive, though; after I while I found myself hoping for a shift in tone to liven things up, but in this I was disappointed. In particular, I found the ending somewhat weak: in part because its effectiveness was reduced by design errors (see note  in the spoiler section), but also because -- despite wild action, arguments and all that good stuff -- it was still cosy! Cosiness needs contrast, I think, before it can be fully appreciated.
* Intermission (smooching)
But wait, this is supposed to be a SmoochieComp game, I hear you say. So there must be smooching, right? You forgot to review the smooching. We want necking here. We want snogging. Dammit, we want osculation -- and if you tell us this game is canoodle-free we'll be all disappointed.
Well... it's kind of implicit in the setup, isn't it? They have this cosy relationship, see? So I'm sure they have time for a quick buss now and then, or even a slow one. But it's not actually in the game, unless I was unfortunate enough to miss that bit.
So if you like your SmoochieGames to be full of the pangs of love frustrated, breathless trysts by moonlight, hurried fumbling behind the bike sheds, etc etc, this game may not be for you. But how many of those games also have time to explore a real honest-to-goodness established relationship?
Each to their own. (I'll take both, if I may.)
* Those cunning mechanics
Now onto the game mechanics, where we find some rather interesting things.
Most notably, this game implements a system which is to my knowledge new: only objects which are particularly noteworthy or important in the current context are listed in room descriptions. This is a clever idea, but does it work?
Almost. For me, it increases the realism in some of the puzzles, where just as in real life you know the sort of thing you're looking for. You dash frantically around the house looking in drawers and cupboards, and the magic object which will solve your problem jumps out at you -- well, hopefully. If the game included cupboards realistically stocked with dozens of realistically useless objects, it'd be unrealistically difficult to find what you're looking for (if you're looking for something fairly large, anyway).
The problem is that the set of important objects changes as the game progresses, and thus the visible contents of various rooms and containers also change. The upshot is that you have to keep re-checking previously explored territory to see if anything new has appeared: another puzzle, another search through the entire house.
Overall I'm not sure whether to call this new system a hit or a miss. (Is it new? Anybody know any games which do something similar?) It piqued my interest, at least, and led to a slightly different playing experience from the norm, but I'd be cautious about using it in new games.
Also novel is the help system, though I didn't use this in my first play through. (Which is probably a good sign, of course.) It seems to be more a method of providing the (real life) backstory behind some of the objects, events and characters in the game than a hint system, so I'm not sure how well it would work as an aid to solving the puzzles. But it's interesting; try it.
Among the other good stuff, I must list the solid and realistic implementation of most things, and of the first puzzle in particular . I also like the fact that you're not forced to do everything: often when you've already accomplished the major steps of a puzzle, the game will step in and describe the trivial tying-up of loose ends automatically . I think this aids the flow a great deal, and recommend this technique to game authors.
Oh, and one more thing -- this game uses the 'oh, and one more thing' device to good effect . To perform task A, you're told you first need to do task B and find object C; but just when you thought you were done you discover that you also need object D, and then possibly E as well... This can, of course, be incredibly annoying, but I think it can work if you keep the additional tasks small, and if the sequence adds something to the story -- humour, tension, whatever. In this case, it demonstrates that the PC is slightly absent-minded, more memorably than simply saying so would do.
* Some minor nuisances
Finally, permit me a small rant on some little things which almost all games do and which almost always annoy me. The blame actually rests on the library authors who inexplicably fail to do things exactly the way I want, but authors always have the option of fixing the library in their own games. (These comments aren't specifically about Nothing More, Nothing Less, but they're relevant to it.)
First, 'verbose'. I seem to recall a discussion of this on r*if a while back, where it turned out that almost all players use verbose mode all the time. In fact, Adam Cadre noted that he'd not only made one of his games start in verbose mode, he'd removed the 'brief' command which turns it off -- and nobody noticed.
But most games still start off in 'brief' mode. Okay, so wasting a move typing 'verbose' isn't a great deal; but if it then doesn't print the room description until you waste another move typing 'look', I start to get cranky. The 'verbose' command should immediately re-describe your surroundings (as it does in the standard TADS library, I believe). Better yet, ditch the command altogether and stay in verbose mode all the time.
Second, containers: if I open one, I want to know what's inside it. Don't wait for me to type >LOOK INSIDE THE BLOODY CONTAINER, just tell me. I thought this was just a problem with the Inform standard library, but now I find it in a Hugo game too. Sigh.
* Stay in your seats for the out-takes
But lest I end this review on a downbeat note, let me repeat my generally favourable opinion: this is a nice little game. It's well-written; it's solidly implemented; it's not the flashest package in the archive, but it's quite good fun.
SPOILERS coming up, after a few dozen lines of blinding whitespace:
This article copyright © 2001, Iain Merrick