It’s been quite quiet in the world of IF lately, with — at least to my knowledge — no significant new works at all since the Comp ended last November. I was therefore thrilled to see that the Spring Thing, a competition which never took place at all last year due to not having received a single entry, offers six new titles this year. Even better, a brief glance through them seems to indicate that every single one of them is solid work, showing evidence of some care and polish. I’m particularly happy for organizer Greg Boettcher, who has soldiered on with the Spring Thing and kept the faith through so many lean years. Here’s hoping this marks the beginning of a better era!
I’ll be reviewing each of the games here as time permits, beginning today with Sean M. Shore’s Bonehead. I’ll try to avoid egregious spoilers, but if you want to play and judge it yourself with no preconceptions, by all means stop reading now!
Bonehead is the true story of the “most infamous play in baseball history,” one which demoralized the 1908 New York Giants in their battle against the Chicago Cubs for the pennant and earned for Fred Merkle, your avatar and the star of the game, the sobriquet of the title. I’m always happy to play any IF that is not set aboard a spaceship or in a fantasy kingdom, and this setting feels particularly fresh, with its occasional period photographs and some very nice descriptive writing. It doesn’t hurt that I quite enjoy the game of baseball, and, while I don’t really know that much about its history, never object to learning more. And Shore is well up to the task, writing always with a light, usually slightly comic touch. Interestingly, his narrator breaks the fourth wall frequently to speak directly to us / Merkle, an unusual approach that works very well.
Steeped as the game is in baseball history, Shore knows not to push historicity too far when it gets in the way of a good story. Perhaps my favorite moment is a chance meeting with one Jack Norworth on the train on the way to the game. Jack is penning a little ditty that will become, shall we say, somewhat associated with baseball: “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Wikipedia tells me that Jack was in fact inspired to write the song by a Polo Grounds advertisement in a subway car, but I don’t think he was hanging out with Fred Merkle at the time.
(And now, we interrupt this review with a rant about terrorism: In addition to the people they kill and maim, terrorists are responsible for many more modest but still significant crimes against humanity. Amongst these has been the wholesale replacement of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th Inning Stretch of Major League Baseball games with that horrible, horrible “God Bless America” monstrosity. In the face of this perversion of all that is good and holy about the game of baseball, it is very hard indeed not to say that the terrorists have already won.)
Where things start to break down a bit is in the actual gameplay (read: puzzles). The problem is not that these puzzles are egregiously hard; they’re anything but. They do, however, feel out of place in this game, being rather banal and dismayingly conventional. Much of the game takes place out on the field during an actual game of baseball. Shore doesn’t seem to know quite how to handle the interactions during these sections. Instead of trying to model the game somewhat dynamically, he just puts in a series of set-piece puzzles of the pass-or-fail variety. Textfyre Golf aside, the genre of IF sports simulations isn’t exactly overflowing with titles, but it’s hard not to wish Shore had tried something a bit more naturalistic and ambitious. The worst offender is a silly puzzle about Fred’s shoelaces coming untied at a crucial moment, one which requires either superhuman foresight or a bit of learning by death to actually solve. Granted, much of the sting is removed from said death by its being genuinely amusing and very much in line with the theme of the game as a whole. In fact, all of the “failed” endings here are amusing and, in an ironic twist, mostly better for Fred than the “winning” ending.
The game is generally well-tested and polished, but I did have a heroic battle with the parser at one point, one which I’m afraid I lost. Having tried to “GO TO WHERE BALL IS”, “UNPLANT FOOT,” the tried and true “EXIT,” and many other variations, I had to go to the hints to learn that I could only “STEP OFF BAG.”
So, while not a flawless entry, the atmosphere and the writing make this one well worth playing. Now I just wonder if it would be possible to simulate a game of baseball properly using Victor Gijsbers’s ATTACK system. Hmm…