Posted by: Ben | October 8, 2008

if: Ananachronist

(videogame. Z-code. Strom. Interactive Fiction Competition 2008)

I’ve just played through Ananachronist from start to finish and written a relatively lengthy review of it, and just as I’m about to hit “post” I happen to notice it’s not called Anachronist at all, but Ananachronist. I feel a bit stupid now. Review after the cut. Contains spoilers.

The handy readme file enclosed warns “If you’re looking for a good story you won’t miss anything by stopping after the first three paragraphs.” Substitute “game” for “story” and “before” for “after” and that’s a fairly accurate summary.

So, those first three paragraphs. They’re quite good, actually. You can sort of feel the polish of the writing deteriorate between the first and the third, and by the time we get to the sixth paragraph of the introduction it’s a bit like trying to decipher graffiti carved by Victorian schoolchildren in the bark of an especially gnarled oak tree. But that first paragraph, if there’s a game with a better opening two sentences in this competition then I haven’t played it yet.

(Loads up [SPOILER: NAME OF GAME REMOVED]. Carefully rereads beginning. Deletes “four”. Writes “two”.)

You’re charged with preserving the delicate balance of the space-time continuum, apparently by searching through time and space for things that may or may not be bombs, and smashing them to bits. This is the ideal set-up for an adventure game that would involve careful manipulation of Day Of The Tentaclesque chronological puzzles to reveal hidden objects. Unfortunately, for reasons best known to the author, the challenge does not extend to locating the items (they’re all in the starting location), but finding the means to destroy them using contemporary technology. This is so counter-intuitive that I played through the whole game looking for the items (by pointing the rune tracer at everything) and ended up thinking I was stuck and couldn’t find them (until I looked at the walkthrough.)

Now if I actually was an ananachronist, in Mr Strom’s vivid and fascinating three-paragraph universe, I would a) seriously hope to be promoted to being the guy who actually catches the bad guy, because he sounds like he’s playing a much better game than I am, and b) find a very quick and easy way of destroying the rogue timepieces without having to wander through the same locations in three distinct but equally deserted eras.

Location descriptions are mostly written in a studied-sounding dialect that doesn’t use a word where a synonym will do. After a while your attention starts to wander and you stop reading them. There’s an admirable if misplaced dedication to keeping the text interesting that actually makes you not want to read it. All this energy would be better spent implementing the objects in the room descriptions. I’d rather read “you see nothing special about the scratches” than “you can’t see any such thing.” Oh, and some of the locations don’t have descriptions at all

Quite apart from the player’s quest being counter-intuitive, the actual mechanic of solving the puzzles appears, from here, to be a little short on logic. By pulling a bit of canvas in the past, I unlock a door in the future. That’s the butterfly effect, right there. It seems that rather than using cause and effect to change the present, Ananachronist’s model of time travel requires you to leave objects lying around, which, upon your return centuries later, have been magically transformed into era-appropriate objects. Sometimes.

You can see an officer’s uniform here.

>x uniform

A stout wooden shield, tough enough to stand a blow and large enough to be seen in battle. It has been painted in vibrant colors: a snarling black panther against a green and yellow backdrop.

This game sure needs a trip to planet beta-tester. I don’t like quoting at length from games, but I think I’ve played enough of them now to point out what, in particular, Ananachronist could do better.

Crime 1: Failure of actions not making sense in context of plot.

>ride horse

Your birth came slightly after the horse was displaced as a source of transportation, hence your lack of understanding what goes in to riding one.

It hardly seems fair to use that as an excuse. I can travel in time, after all.

Crime 2: Frequent and egregious flowery writing.

>x welding equipment

Against the back wall stands a tangle. A pair of gas cylinders are large enough to extricate themselves visually. The hoses and tubing has no such luck; the coils become inseperable to the eye.

Aaargh! I’ve got coils in my eye.

Crime 3: Object descriptions not describing the objects they’re supposed to describe.

>i

You are carrying:
some welding equipment [..etc]

>x equipment

Against the back wall stands a tangle. A pair of gas cylinders are large enough to extricate themselves visually. The hoses and tubing has no such luck; the coils become inseperable to the eye.

And here I address myself directly to the author: You could have fixed this. Even if you couldn’t find any beta testers, you could surely, surely have spotted it yourself.

Crime 4: Disambiguationitis.

>x wire

Which do you mean, the chain fence or the wire?

>the wire

Which do you mean, the chain fence or the wire?

>x the wire

Which do you mean, the chain fence or the wire?

>cut wire

Which do you mean, the chain fence or the wire?

>quit


I thought it was going to say “I only understood you as far as wanting to cut the quit,” but, credit not to Joseph Strom but to Graham Nelson, it didn’t.

See, reading around the reviews, some people said [SPOILER: NAME OF DIFFERENT GAME REMOVED] was broken because they noticed the game didn’t end after it told you it had. But why would anybody want to carry on playing after the game had told you it was over? If the game in question is Grand Theft Auto III, then “because you get a tank.” Is there a tank in the basement of the [SPOILER: LOCATION IN WHICH GAME THAT SHALL NOT BE NAMED IS SET?] Probably not. Will I get a tank in Ananachronist, if I can cut that wire? Maybe. I DON’T BLOODY KNOW BECAUSE I CAN’T DO ANYTHING TO THE WIRE BECAUSE THE SINGLE BIT OF SCENERY IN THE ENTIRE GAME THAT YOU BOTHERED TO IMPLEMENT IS STOPPING THE GAME FROM RECOGNISING IT.

Crime 4: The final insult

Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game, see some suggestions for AMUSING things to do or QUIT?
> amusing

Have you tried entering the commands that appear in descriptions (“taking advantage of the wheels” for example)?

No. Funnily enough I tried examining the objects that appeared in descriptions first, thanks. And it didn’t do anything.

But still, I can’t stop thinking about how I read that introduction and description of the opening location and thought I was going to be in for a really strong game. I demand that Mr Strom write more games. Better games. And this time I want to be the hero, not the cleaner. Please?

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Responses

  1. That was a really good point. Chasing evil time-manipulating wizards? Oh yes please.

    I hope the author reads your review, it’s really thorough (for a scathing critique, I mean).


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