IF Competition 2008 Review #2: Ananachronist

Name: Ananachronist
Author: Joseph Strom
Review Date: 7 Oct 2008
Parser: Z-Code
Availability: IFComp 2008 Entrant
URL: http://www.ifcomp.org/
Version: Competition Version

Plot: 2/10 – There wasn’t a great deal of story – only a little backstory – but it was interesting.
Atmosphere: 2/10 – All of the worlds felt very similar, like empty abandoned movie sets serving only as a bland puzzle backdrop.
Writing:  2/10 – Few grammatical errors, fairly solid if rather monotonous writing.
Game play:  2/10 – Puzzle itself was nicely conceived and executed fairly smoothly but there were many missing nouns.
Characters:  0/10 – Except for the lightly sketched main character, there were none.
Puzzles: 5/10 – Game was designed as one single, nicely conceived puzzle that was executed fairly smoothly.
Overall:  3/10 – A good idea marred by boring execution.

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Full Review (Warning: Spoilers)
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The words used in my short summaries above really say most of what I have to say about this title.  “Bland”, “Monotonous”, “Boring” are all great adjectives to describe it.  Which is a shame as it had a fair amount of potential in its small and polished frame.

To begin, this game was never going to get huge marks from me.  As i’ve said before, I am a story gamer.  I love stories and thats the thing I love most about interactive fiction.  Ananachronist has the seeds of a particularly interesting story in it, which I think was the biggest disappointment for me.  The setting is actually quite interesting; a sort of blend between science fiction and fantasy.  Time travel in this world is achieved primarily through some sort of magic but the time travel itself would introduce the society capable of it to a wide variety of technological achievements.  Add to this the fact that the magic -looks- like technology, with the portal conneted to a glowing pedestal and a magic rune tracer that held shades of Star Trek tricorders, and you have some fertile soil for a deep, involved interesting setting and story.

Unfortunately as anyone who has ever visited a farm, particularly in a drought, will know, a patch of dirt with nothing growing in it looks like any other patch of dirt you’ve ever looked at.  Thats what it feels was made of this nicely conceived setting that was just begging for a rollicking tale of action, adventure and time-tampering.  Sod all.

I think i’m also a bit disappointed by the mixing up of ideas here as well, you see this isn’t actually about time travel at all.  In order for the a story to be about time travel it doesn’t just require the different locations to have different technological settings, as we have here, but actualy temporal dislocation.  That is to say, these places need to be seperated by a period of time, not just feel.  This isn’t used in this game at all.  For an example of a way to use this kind of mechanic, imagine being able to travel to the same place but at two different times seperated by say two hundred years.  You go to the first time period and plant an apple seed, then you go forward in time two hundred years and pick apples from the tree that has been growing since you planted it two hundred years earlier.  

This scenario really doesn’t mesh well with the philosophy of me travel, but it’s interesting and was used to good effect in games such as “Day of the Tentacle” by Lucasarts.  That is the sort of thing I expected from a time travel puzzle game.

What we actually get in this puzzle is more of a “interlinked dimensions” game, rather than actual time travel.  We are given three different compounds, each of which are set in a different technological era but are otherwise close to identical, featuring different versions of similar buildings in the same places in each era – so a stable becomes a garage and that sort of thing.  These dimensions are linked in such a way that changes you make in one are reflected in the others.  Rip a curtain used for privacy in the low tech version and the door will be destroyed in the later tech version.  Pick up a screwdriver in on world and drop it somewhere and the corresponding tool in the other tech world will have been moved.

This quite an interesting mechanic for a puzzle game and is used to great advantage, but it is not what is being advertised.  It bears no relation to any sort of temporal puzzle.  If you destroy a curtain in a building one hundred years ago, that bears no resemblance to the state of a door now.  Why would moving a shield a couple of feet cause a weird tube 400 years later to be left somewhere different?  There is no logical connection here – it is all for the sake of the puzzle.  There is nothing wrong with that of course, but I felt my expectations were let down somewhat.

Which leads us to the puzzle itself.  Any game of this sort is going to be compared, without fail, to the classic of the type – Lock and Key.  In this comparison, unfortunately, Ananachronist falls short.  This has little to do with the puzzle itself.  Like I said it was well conceived and thought out, and despite the contextual inconsistences I mentioned the logic of the world was consistant and fair.  The problem occurs in the fact that it is as boring as an accountants convention on the uses and abuses of the number zero.

What made Lock and Key come alive even for me, a story gamer, was the context in which the puzzle took place.  It was exciting even when you lost to see how your traps would be defeated and how the observers would react.  You would set up the pieces for your puzzle and watch a narrative unfold around them to explain how you did, and it made it fun and interesting.  Ananachronist has none of this.  The story ends the second the game starts, there is no explanation for why these ensorcelled objects should take you to these particular places, no explanation for what evil spells have been put on them, no explanation of where these places are, when they are, or even, and this I think is quite important, -where all the people are!-.

The places feel bland and exist for no reason other than to serve the puzzle.  They are movie sets, not actual places, and no world exists apart from the faceless player character and the task assigned to him.  The backstory is completely unexplored and every opportunity to make this game interesting seems to have be purposefully ignored.

The real tragedy here is that the puzzle mechanic was clever and well thought out and if placed into context could easily have made this game a contender.  Even without NPC’s – if, for example, the game author is allergic to them – you could weave an interesting story about these spookily similar places seperated by time and connected by three otherwise innocuous objects.  Think about how Babel managed to draw us in to a story that occurred well before we arrived; through the judicious use of journals, computer entries and lets not forget -MAGIC- we could easily have puzzled our way through the game, solving the dimensional puzzle while simulataneously learning about this evil wizard, his plot for destroying the universe, why these three places were important and why these timepieces were enchanted.

It was a game that could have been great, unfortunately it feels rushed.  It seems like the author had a great idea for a puzzle, rushed to implement it, then couldn’t be bothered putting any more effort in so released it half done.  This feeling is amplified by the only major gameplay issue I found and that was missing nouns.  Quite often in the game things were described and never implemented, so if you went to examine them further they didn’t actually exist.  This is a small gripe, but one that could have been easily fixed with a cursory reading of place descriptions and a little extra implementation.  The rest of the game was robust and bug free as best I could tell.

I really hope Joseph gives IF another shot because there is obvious coding aptitude shown here, clean if somewhat uninspired writing, and a definite imagination waiting to be unleashed.  I think, and quietly hope, that we will see bigger and better in his next release.

Until then, 3/10 is as high as I can go, for a game that – implemented well or not – bored me so.

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3 thoughts on “IF Competition 2008 Review #2: Ananachronist

  1. If you like time travel games, you might try J. Robinson Wheeler’s First Things First. It does implement similar stuff to the “apple tree” puzzle you’re talking about.

  2. The game was far from bug-free. None of the bugs crashed the game or made it unwinnable, but I ran into situations where the game complained about problems with locked doors, for instance; the user of a game should not ever see system error messages. Also if you ever pointed the rune tracer at anything in the three camps, you got the message: “The rune tracer elicits no reaction from the rune tracer.” — the game was obviously not putting the correct noun in the first slot. Last but not least, if you looked at the shield you got the description for the uniform, and vice versa!

  3. That’s interesting David – I did notice the shield one but not any of the others. I waved the tracer around like a maniac there for a while and didn’t notice that camp-bug you were talking about.

    Of course, I got bored very quickly and after a little while I just followed to walkthrough so I could see what the solution was like. It only took ten minutes or so of messing about and then I completely lost all motivation to play the game – as I mentioned in the review. In fact, if I wasn’t writing a review, odds on I wouldn’t have finished it at all, walkthrough or not.

    Daphne – Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll have to take a look at that. I’ve not play many time travel games over the years, but I’ve studied a lot of time travel theory so I do enjoy books/movies/games that use time travel and being able to see the ways in which they match up with different theories and fail to in others.

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