(Version reviewed: Original)
Three time IFComp veteran (2010, 2011, 2013) and more than three time extra comp veteran (check out her list of games at IFWiki - to any newcomers, don't forget that there are 46 non-IFComp weeks a year when new games can come out) Carolyn VanEseltine returns this year with Ollie Ollie Oxen Free, a primary school-based adventure of rigourous puzzling in which you play a teacher who must rescue a series of trapped students in the wake of some kind of bombing. The source of the threat isn't specified, or ultimately important, at least as far into the game as I reached, a distance I will specify within two paragraphs. The game is delivered in the Glulx format.
OOOF's ambitious design supports all of the students independently. You can talk to them, order them about separately and have them act as the instruments of puzzle solving for you – which is necessary, because the attack has left you too weak to perform any dexterity-demanding tasks. To successfully marshal them to help you help them rescue each other is the kind of feat which will convince you that you could organise a team of green berets. But with great mechanics must come greater implementation (Ugh!). The tools the game gives the player to do what is being asked of them are underpowered, and there are still a great number of bugs and oversights. Also, it's not really acceptable to have a game say things like: "If that command didn't work, please enter it again," or "It looks like you've completed that part of the walkthrough, but I'm not sure." It looks to me like Caroline ran out of development time and decided to meet the competition deadline anyway. I still recommend that folks try OOOF, with a few caveats.
- The game's programming is not up to the engineering beauty of its design.
- If you don't like really stringent mechanical puzzles, OOOF is likely to wear you out.
- I still hadn't finished this game after playing for two hours and 15 minutes, at which point I decided to stop and write this review.
Detailed discussion with spoilers ahead:
The game is good at introducing new gameplay mechanics, sometimes through cueing in the prose and sometimes through explicit help messages. And there are a lot of mechanics: SHOUTing to locate kids, THINKing about people or topics, ASKing kids about people or topics, and ordering kids to perform actions. Kids can be spoken to from up to a room away, made to follow you around, or to collect and use various props. They also have different personalities and fears which you need to manage, and these are a source of cute and touching observations of the kids' personalities, as well as a source of puzzles.
The interplay of all of these elements is particularly complex in light of the game's microscopic-leaning scale. The children don't react to broad commands, only to specific ones like SAMIR, GO WEST. ASHLEY, PUSH THE MAT NORTH. TYRONE, GET THE YARDSTICK. In turn, you are limited in being able to have only two children follow you at any particular time, and that each of those children can only carry realistic amounts of equipment.
I am not of the school of players who universally reject inventory limits. In terms of generating interesting logistical challenges, I think OOOF's limits are clever ones. But the trouble for this game is that the number of commands required to try out even a moderately novel puzzle solution can be huge. You need to muster the right children in the right locations, have them carrying the right things, then find the right commands. If your idea doesn't work out, it will probably take at least twice as many commands to undo everything that has been done and to redo it in a slightly different way. The problems of logistical optimisation currently comprise the game's major challenge. And again, I don't oppose this per se. Such challenges can be satisfying to solve, leading the player to a deep engagement with the gameworld. But the player has to be able to have great faith in the reliability of the game's feedback if they're not to feel that they're in danger of wasting their time. OOOF is currently not in a state to generate that faith.
I hit all kinds of bugs and problems during play: The prose making incorrect assumptions about what knowledge I had acquired so far, characters speaking out of turn or from out of earshot, crucial conversation topics not registering, vital items not being mentioned in room descriptions, some automated actions being more hindrance than help, mid puzzle feedback which didn't suggest I was making progress, and the aforementioned apologetic messages regarding problems with the parser or the game's inability to assess your progress through it vis a vis some of the walkthrough.
Bugs and oversights can be fixed, though in the meantime the game is all at once much harder than need be, a little rough, and a mildly frustrating vision of what it could be. I think the trickier issue lies in the realm of speculation: Inform has the technology in place which could allow OOOF to dispense with a lot of its micromanagement. I can imagine a version of the game in which children can be told to go to rooms, or to collect a particular item and return, etc., with single commands. I'm sure this would be extremely challenging to program, but I believe it could be done, and would eliminate all of the time and hard slog currently involved in trying to execute ideas which aren't necessarily complicated, but which require tons of commands and perhaps gritted teeth to even broach. The result would be a different game – not massively different, in fact the core design would remain the same, but that game would not present the extreme optimisation problems the current one does.
Whatever happens with OOOF in the future, it definitely needs what's already in place to be polished harder. T's crossed, I's dotted, bugs removed. The game has to find a way to understand its own state, not tell the player it can't! The gameworld is quite a magnificent construction with many moving parts. The children have distinct personalities and bounce off the teacher, each other and the environment in fascinating and entertaining ways. There is a combination of mechanical and personality-based puzzles to be solved. Altogether, the game placed me thoroughly in the teacher's situation, and I felt the reality of the people and the environment around me. OOOF is a strong concept, but it still needs a lot of work.