Spring Thing 2011: Wetlands

12 May

Wetlands is an entry in what I sometimes call the Myst-alike subgenre of IF. Its story, especially initially, is rather backgrounded in favor of the exploration of an almost deserted environment and the solving of lots of puzzles informed by that unique Myst flavor of semi-magical engineering. At one time, when we were getting a lot more statically plotted puzzlers like this, I might have chaffed more about the lack of innovation here. However, this is one of the things that IF can do really well, and it’s something that gets done seldom enough now that when a really get example comes along, as this largely is, I can put aside my normal story-centeredness and just enjoy it for what it is.

So, in the first paragraph we are informed that our vague goal is to see the “Crystal City,” whatever that is. There follows a whole lot of fiddling about with plumbing and hydraulics because they are there, until we manage about 80% of the points, at which time the backstory comes to us in a rush. That’s not to say, though, that the game is devoid of literary merit. Raubertas does a very good job of evoking a mood of a certain contemplative beauty with her writing without ever seeming to work too hard at doing so. That, combined with the fact that these puzzles are tricky but not overly so, made the game as a whole an oddly relaxing experience for me. Although there is a lot of fiddling and wandering back and forth, Raubertas’s design and storyworld are tight and compact enough that things never start to feel too labored, and the process of gradually discovering what one’s goals actually are is satisfying enough for the persistent to justify a certain lack of direction in the early stages. This sort of balance is tough to bring off, and it’s to Raubertas’s credit that she does it so well.

While the writing is polished and the game certainly shows evidence of testing, there are some glitches here which occasionally made me wonder whether problems I was having were down to puzzles or bugs. Likewise, the writing was sometimes not quite as precise as it might have been; I sometimes felt like Raubertas’s mental vision of some of these intricate contraptions wasn’t quite all there in the words on the screen. In one place this was particularly problematic: a device had a leaky hose, a fact that should have been obvious, but I had to struggle mightily with the parser to finally determine this. Both of the times that I turned to the walkthrough were due to issues like this, places where the storyworld I was seeing and the storyworld that (I realized afterward) Raubertas was seeing just didn’t turn out to be entirely in sync.

Yet while my faith in the game did occasionally waver, it never completely broke, and on the whole I enjoyed my time with it quite a bit. Even the story, while it retains something of the atmosphere of a dream right until the end, does turn out to hinge on an interesting if somewhat underdeveloped little moral quandary. If you catch it when you’re in the right frame of mind, this atmospheric puzzler may just charm and entrance you like it did me.

Score: 7

And since this is the last game in this Spring Thing, perhaps a sentence or two about the competition as a whole is in order. Sometimes these reviews come off more critical than I intend them; it’s always easier to point out flaws than to analyze the many unobtrusive little things that worked in a particular game, after all. While it’s true that there were no games that I was unreservedly delighted with, it’s also true that four of the six were almost bug-free, and one of the remaining two did show plenty of evidence of technical competence only to fall victim to a single silly — but in this case fatal — bug, the kind that can be fixed easily enough. And the writing across the balance of the entrants was up to a similar standard. These things meant that instead of hammering on bugs and grammatical problems I could devote my criticisms to bigger questions of theme and design. Those are much more interesting subjects for me as a reviewer to write about, and hopefully for you to read. So, when I couple this competition with the big Comp from last year, which showed a similar trend, it seems we’re getting somewhere in the IF community, raising the bar, etc. (choose your cliche). And that in turn is a pretty good trend to see.



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