Undertow

By Stephen Granade, August 1995 (Inform).
Review: Gareth Rees.

This is a very ambitious work unfortunately let down by its implementation. Interactive fiction has to get to grips with characterisation and complex character interaction, but it has to do that while allowing suspension of disbelief and remaining interesting and playable. This kind of material was something I considered doing for the competition, but rejected because I didn't have time, and because in any case I don't know how to do it! So I think Stephen was very brave to tackle it. It's just a shame that the result isn't very good.

The characters in Undertow don't seem to have the knowledge that they should have, based on what they've seen me do. For example, suppose I tell Carl that I have seen Thom's body in the water. Later on, I still get the exchange,

What is it? you ask him [Carl] en route.
Thom. We've found him dead.

which was clearly written for the case when I hadn't seen Thom's body at all. The game lets me attack the other characters, but they don't seem to treat me any differently afterwards than they did before. Then there are perfectly sensible actions that are prevented for arbitrary and stupid reasons. The worst such problem I found was that I couldn't pick up Ashleigh's purse or get her gun! Surely no-one in such a situation - a murdered man just discovered - would leave a gun lying around on the deck for anyone to pick up? The game says that if I'm seen with a gun, then people will think I killed Thom. Well then, let me pick up the gun, and implement the other characters' suspicions!

Undertow seems not to have been play-tested much (if at all), when in fact the mystery genre demands extremely rigorous testing. It's hard to be a detective when you get responses like

> Ask Ashleigh about Carl
Carl is no longer here.

> Carl, tell me about Ashleigh
You can't reach that from the dinette bench.

There are lots of little bugs, such as The battery cover is closed, revealing a nine-volt battery, the consistent misspelling of 'gauge' as 'gague', and the way the 'shape' in the water that looks like Thom's body is still present after Thom's body has been pulled out of the sea. There are also far too many objects: try typing 'tell all about thom' in the Forecastle - I counted 25 scenery objects in that one room alone! This clutter obscures rather than illuminates.

There are basic problems with the way the story develops. After an extremely hectic opening, suddenly nothing else seems to happen until the boat explodes (a situation which reminds me of Plundered Hearts), and the player is left with no idea of what to do.

There does seem to have been a lot of work put into this, but the task facing authors of this kind of game would seem to be greater still. Undertow was too ambitious for the competition, but I'd be intrigued to see what Stephen Granade could produce if he went back to the code without any deadlines or time constraints and tried to finish writing the game.

 
 
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Andrew Clover