IFComp ’12: Escape from Summerland

Escape from Summerland  by Jenny Roomy and Jasmine Lavages.

Ugh, what an awful title. It conveys nothing about the game aside from “escape” which suggests some kind of big pulpy adventure, but then Summerland? Is is an amusement park? The name of some fantasy place? Its bright and cheery which is at odds with escaping. What I pictured was some sort of sci-fi setting where you had to get free from a place where happiness is enforced. That’s the not the case, but upon starting the game it’s not really clear what the setting or situation is either. It’s not for a good handful of turns before it becomes clear that this game is about three unconventional protagonists trapped in an abandoned circus. Once the groundwork is established Escape turns into quite the nice little puzzler. But yeesh that beginning.

The game starts with clumsy prose and a vague setting and an unconvincing motivation for why the protagonist has escaped a midnight air raid. Then, it turns out he hasn’t and we’re playing his ghost and we get the weird tone shift “he is I and I am dead.” But before we can explore this situation or get some ground under our feet we’re shifted to “Home Place (in the home).” Now we’re playing as an animal in a cage where we have to use a shiny thing to blow the door open and then we’re back as the ghost and finally we can take inventory and examine self and get some bearings. The game gets much better from here but man did that opening gall me. Did we really have to start in the field? Why not start with the ghost standing over his body? That’s more interesting and gets right to it and cuts out “The moon struggles behind dark clouds, but my caravan is easy to make out for it is on fire” and “Thick oily smoke frames the red and white stripes of Summerland’s Big Top starkly in the moonlight.” I understand why the authors choice to do it. Play a little as the ghost, play a little as the monkey, establish the multiple points of view and all. But there had to be a better solution. Start with your best foot forward and all that.

Okay, enough ranting about the beginning. Once the story gets going you play as the ghost of a circus caretaker (the only one left after it was evacuated during a war), the Gelada monkey that was his charge, and a damaged battle robot that’s crashed into the big top. Each character has their own strengths and have to work together to escape. The ghost can’t interact with objects but is the only one of the three to give accurate and understandable descriptions. The monkey describes everything as boxes or things and the robot prints meaningless technical data. The different perspectives are the real draw of the game. Both the monkey and the robot are fun to play as. The monkey’s enthusiasm and how she directly addresses the reader are especially endearing. I wasn’t keen on the emoticons that punctuate her sentences at first (though they did help just what kind of animal she was at the beginning), but then I got the response

>eat thing
YUCK. I’m not that hungry. YET. @(¬_¬)@

and totally sold on them. The ghost’s voice is the least effective. The way he exclaims “good gracious!” and the like seemed too broadly drawn. I wasn’t sure at first if this wasn’t supposed to be some kind of parody (another problem with the vague opening), but no, this is just how this guy talks. He does get some witty lines here and there but at the end I still wasn’t clear just who this guy was.

Once you get a hold of how the three characters interact the game isn’t too difficult. Processing the robot’s range of actions is probably the trickiest bit (and there doesn’t seem to be any mention of installing components in the walkthrough, which could lead to some confusion if the player hasn’t sussed it out for themselves). I did get stuck on opening the cupboard. I’m not sure if it wasn’t sufficiently clued or if I’m just a big dummy but I had a lot of trouble putting together what the ghost was seeing and what the robot was reporting. After that things went smoothly to the end and it was good times figuring out how to use the characters together to overcome obstacles. The premise is sound enough and compelling enough that I would like to see the game expanded. There are other locations named but not explored and the robot is only partly powered up. There’s room for growth and I can’t help but wonder if the game was cut short due to the deadline.

So yeah, fun game that ends better than it starts. Definitely in need of another pass or two to clean up some clumsy prose and to rework the beginning, but otherwise there’s the start of something good here.

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