Spring Thing 2011: Bonehead

10 Apr

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…

Score: 7


Posted by on April 10, 2011 in Interactive Fiction, Modern Times



8 Responses to Spring Thing 2011: Bonehead

  1. Emily Short

    April 11, 2011 at 1:24 am

    I’m usually arguing in favor of the naturalistic and ambitious system as opposed to a set-piece puzzle, but I’m not convinced that it would have been a major improvement in this particular setting. The focus is so much on the story that I didn’t want to spend more time than I already did learning a complex system. Besides, the framing of the story made me feel like there was much more excuse than usual for dividing player actions into “correct” (i.e., theoretically aligns with history as presented by the game) and “incorrect” (anything else).

    That said, I didn’t run into either of the niggles you mention. NPCs reminded me so often about my untied shoes that I checked them obsessively, and I was able to find an appropriate phrasing for everything by reading the text closely. It’s possible I’d feel differently otherwise.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 11, 2011 at 5:12 am

      It seems you must have hit upon a luckier (or perhaps more thorough) path through the game, one which conveyed more useful information than mine.

      Kling (the opposition baserunner) did point out my untied shoelaces to me as well, and I dutifully checked them and retied them. This just increased my frustration when I learned they were untied AGAIN on the crucial play. (Shouldn’t a professional baseball player know how to properly tie his shoelaces?) And when I typed GO TO WHERE THE BALL IS I was actually phrasing the command exactly as Matty had told it to me. Admittedly, I didn’t exhaustively talk to everyone about everything during batting practice, just chatted and took some practice swings until I was satisfied I knew how the system worked.

  2. matt w

    April 11, 2011 at 2:38 am

    “TAKE FOOT OFF BAG” also works, though I only found that after dying a few times because I didn’t know what sequence of moves to execute. I did find the phrasing kind of niggly, though; I tried to creep up to the plate by going northwest, which is the direction the plate is, but that wasn’t accepted (not that it mattered). Part of the issue for me was that the hitting commands are given in all caps, and the fielding commands aren’t.

    I almost didn’t make it past the first puzzle, when “SHOW CARD TO TICKET-TAKER” was rejected with an unhelpful message and the solution turned out to be “GIVE CARD TO TICKET-TAKER”; if Emily hadn’t said this was the one time that she had to use the hints, I wouldn’t have played on. Also, I only think I got one prompt about my shoelaces, mainly because I thought the baserunner was using the “Shoe’s untied!” ploy and I ignored him.

    • Jimmy Maher

      April 11, 2011 at 5:44 am

      “Also, I only think I got one prompt about my shoelaces, mainly because I thought the baserunner was using the “Shoe’s untied!” ploy and I ignored him.”

      I considered the same thing, but gave in and checked them in the end. It’s possible that being too familiar with the game of baseball could actually be a detriment, in causing you to overthink these really very simple puzzles.

      • Sam Kabo Ashwell

        April 11, 2011 at 7:01 pm

        It’s possible that being too familiar with the game of baseball could actually be a detriment, in causing you to overthink these really very simple puzzles.

        I don’t think that’s it; I found them generally rather awkward too, and I have only the haziest idea about baseball. I think you’re right in identifying this as a combat-like problem: IF is not very good at dealing with highly dynamic situations in which a lot of spatial relations are crucial. Given the amount of time available and the fairly limited number of things that you actually do, I don’t think that a more simulationist system would be very useful; it wouldn’t have a chance to show off most of what it could do, and the significant actions would need to be heavily hand-crafted anyway.

        I think it’d made more sense to treat this like an Aisle moment, or the responses in the first part of Blue Lacuna: build in responses to as many things as possible, possibly shoehorning most of them into something story-acceptable. Not feasible most of the time, but appropriate for critical and uncertain moments.

        • Jimmy Maher

          April 12, 2011 at 6:04 am

          “I think it’d made more sense to treat this like an Aisle moment, or the responses in the first part of Blue Lacuna: build in responses to as many things as possible, possibly shoehorning most of them into something story-acceptable.”

          It might actually be possible to do this in way that would suit the story’s comic tone and its theme of Unavoidable Fate. Make it so that no matter what the player does, the game still proceeds to the same result. So, if the player tries to actively run AWAY from the ball have it bounce off another player’s head trying to cover first base in Merkle’s stead, then into Merkle’s glove. That sort of thing. The danger would be that the tone would spill over from light-hearted to full-on farce, which is not quite what the author was going for.

    • Jason Dyer

      April 14, 2011 at 12:11 am

      re: the card thing, just going west while you have the right card out also works.

      I was annoyed at the first puzzle more for reasons it requires an action far out of character for Fred Murkle.

      I loved the shoelace stuff because I presumed the final disaster had to be shoe-related. I ended up thinking entirely the wrong thing when the moment came.

  3. Brandon Campbell

    November 30, 2014 at 3:15 am

    My favorite team, the Texas Rangers, has always played “Cotton-Eyed Joe” during the 7th inning stretch at their games.


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