Monday, 21 October 2013

Ollie Ollie Oxen Free by Carolyn VanEseltine


(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 first thing I like about OOOF is the layout and presentation of the school building. It has a realistic logic and a pleasing adventure game aesthetic in terms of the distribution of remarkable features. I also enjoy the descriptions which show what a school environment for little kids looks like through an adult's eyes. The teacher's observations on the naff posters and simplistic kiddie artworks express light cynicism, but his earnest interactions with the kids later show how he can compartmentalise his adult thoughts.

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.


  1. It's possible to get past some of the fiddliness you describe because:

    -- students can hold one another's hands, not just yours, so you can do "Tyrone, hold hands with Samir" to create a multi-person chain;
    -- Samir has a backpack that can hold things, so you can have him stash stuff in there.

    That said, I didn't easily discover the second fact until the hints pointed me to that information, so I think it could have been brought to the fore more strongly. And I definitely agree that I would have preferred a version of this game in which GO TO ROOM was implemented, for both the player and the orderable NPCs. Possibly also FETCH ITEM. I'm not sure that these would have been substantially harder coding challenges than what already goes into making the NPCs hold hands and follow (etc.), especially given Inform's built-in pathfinding abilities.

  2. Thanks for the hand-holding point out.

    I still think adding the automation would be a pretty big deal. Mostly because as soon as people are untethered from you, the game has to decide how they should react to every possible kind of obstacle they could hit. So if I order a kid to a room that's locked, the kid might say 'That room's locked,', or they might go and try the door, and then they might wait there or they might return and report back. And you'd have to create all the content for these things and cover all the combinations and incidences. But looking back at my review, I see that I said 'extremely challenging' to program. Maybe I should relax a bit and say 'quite challenging' :)

  3. Great review, Wade. I actually believe that *all* the kids have backpacks, which is a double-edged sword in that the kids do not implicitly understand the process to let go of a hand and take something out of their pack to use it. The player must spell out each discrete step like Bill Cosby's routine about trying to get his children to take a bath. Getting a kid free from the chain and remembering which one has the item in question and making the holder give it to the correct kid (you can't just ask the one you need to take it, because the kids won't share unless ordered) becomes frustration that mars what would otherwise be a brilliant game where you know exactly the correct solution to a puzzle but the game mechanics thwart you from carrying it out.

  4. It would have gone much easier if look gave a more reliable response--for instance, look at kids should let me see what all kids are holding/etc. Sometimes the kids do report what they are holding in a "look", sometimes they don't.

    Maybe "inventory" could give you each item and who has it ?