Even if we leave aside those folks who would say it’s all kid’s stuff, IF has had a long and fruitful relationship with children’s literature, stretching back from Seastalker and the old Windham Classics line right up to Textfyre’s recent efforts. Virtually all of that legacy has, however, been aimed toward children a bit older than Michael Gentry is targeting with The Lost Islands of Alabaz. In pitching his game at five to seven year-olds, Gentry is likely to turn away a fair number of judges, a fact that, judging from his slightly defensive ABOUT text, he well realizes. Indeed, at first I wasn’t at all certain this game was for me. As I played on, though, the diction level seemed to rise somewhat (perhaps in parallel with the diction level of Gentry’s children as he was creating the game), and it turned into quite a passable, if never quite outstanding, adventure. And then, alas, it all came crashing to earth again.
Gentry has obviously devoted considerable time and energy to his world-building. If the Alabaz Archipelago never quite feels believable, it does offer heaps of opportunity for adventure, what with each island having a unique, archetypical environment and culture. As a young knight just out of “Knight School,” you’ve been tasked by your king with traveling to the other islands to discover the source of a mysterious mist which has suddenly come upon the archipelago, isolating all of the islands from one another. Your ship can travel over the mist-shrouded seas only through the offices of magical pearls. Each pearl guides you to exactly one of the other islands. Everyone who’s ever played an adventure game knows where this is going: you travel from island to island, solving puzzles and acquiring pearls in the process, which in turn open ever more locations to visit.
Indeed — and in spite of a pile of convenience features such as a hint system implemented through your traveling companion Trig and a journal which keeps track of puzzles solved and pending — Alabaz has quite an old-school feel. There’s a lot of toing and froing, and even a maze, although not an egregiously cruel one. While Alabaz doesn’t hate its player like Zork does, Gentry’s claim that it includes “everything I fell in love with when I first discovered Zork” certainly rings true enough. For many modern IF players perhaps not quite so in love with Zorkian designs, it’s likely that it contains lots of stuff they’d just as soon do without.
But I didn’t really have a problem with the game for a long time. In fact, I rather enjoyed myself for what must have been four or five hours. Even the maze, while it didn’t exactly warm my heart, wasn’t enough to put me off the game. Then, perhaps 80% done, I was really stumped for the first time by a puzzle. When I checked the walkthrough, I found a reference to an “icefruit seed” I knew nothing about. It seems that I should have received this near the beginning of the game, but did not due to a bug. While I had enjoyed the game, I hadn’t quite enjoyed it enough to start all over again. So that was that.
But bugs aside:
As anyone who played Anchorhead knows, Gentry is a fine writer, with a particular gift for description and atmosphere (ideal qualities for an IF author, I’d say). Despite that, the Alabaz Archipelago never really came alive for me. This is obviously just a personal impression, but I was consistently missing a certain spark. From the Wall E-esque junk-collecting robot to the chariot race that reminded me of a similar sequence in Rogue of the Multiverse, I felt like I had seen too much of this before. Every writer cribs, of course, but the best know how to rise above their inspirations, as Gentry himself did with Anchorhead.
Another thing that bothered me was a certain moral dissonance that I can’t imagine was intentional. At one point I had to steal a poor bird’s egg from her; at another I nearly asphyxiated a sort of intelligent squid by pumping all of the water from the chamber in which she lived. Granted, the squid did find an escape route, but I had no way of knowing she would do so when I started the process. And once she was gone I promptly stole the fruits of her underwater garden. These are typical adventure game puzzles, but they feel clunky and ill-considered here.
Still, its size and the general sense of craftmanship that accompanies it would have likely rated Alabaz a pretty good score from me — perhaps a 7 or even 8. Yet, and while I understand only too well that bugs happen, the bug that bit me was fairly unforgivable really, especially given the game’s purpose as a general introduction to IF. I can’t imagine a better way to make sure a child never tries this adventure-game thing again than cheating her of victory through no fault of her own hours into her grand adventure. So, reluctantly…