[size=150]Earl Grey - By Rob Dubbin and Adam Parrish[/size]
A game about a tea party, a monarchy, and the unpredictability of language.
(Score and review contained with expandable spoiler):
It’s impossible for me to hear “earl grey” and not think of Captain Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s probably because I’m not a fan of tea in general, and have never developed any other associations for the term. Although a tea party and a monarchy don’t seem, on the surface, to be the kind of thing I’d usually enjoy, the “unpredictability of language” part intrigues me. My favorite author (Jack Vance, for the curious) has done interesting things involving language, misunderstandings, and humor derived from cultural differences. I hope this is what I’ll find in Earl Grey.
A worthy and well-crafted game, Earl Grey successfully integrates word puzzles into the game and builds an absurd but entertaining story around it all.
Played: 10/05/2009 and 10/06/2009 for 3 hours and 45 minutes.
Score: 8 (Very Good)
This is not at all what I expected, but ironically, it’s an answer to one of my complaints about the prior game. Here, word puzzles are far more interesting, and closely integrated with the story. It reminds me of the “Letter-Man” cartoons in the old PBS children’s series The Electric Company, which I really enjoyed back then.
In essence, the game’s conceit is that everything is made up of words, and that by adding or removing a single letter, the “thing” the word represents can change into some completely different thing. For example, add an “e” to “can” and now you have a cane. Transformations aren’t limited just to nouns. It’s possible to change a specific aspect of something by altering its adjectives. The complete absurdity of this is put to great use in Earl Grey, and it’s bound to stand out as one of the more innovative and memorable games of this year’s competition.
As an added gimmick, the protagonist’s internal monologue – his or her thoughts regarding pretty much everything going on – appears as text immediately below the input prompt in Glulxe (it’s even better in Gargoyle, appearing at the bottom of the display like a footnote). This tends to be clever and entertaining, offering personality to the PC but in a more detached way. It also helps players realize that the PC’s thought process itself isn’t subject to in-game manipulation.
The biggest problem with the game – the only notable problem with the game, really – is that when stuck, there is nothing to prevent (or even strongly discourage) brute force attempts to simply manipulate every word in every sentence. The authors combat this in three ways, but I’m not sure it’s enough. One, the change has to make grammatical sense in the context of the sentence. Two, valid manipulations that would break the story are usually understood but rejected with a reason as to why the PC won’t try it. Three, many of the target words are under one or two levels of description, so it’s necessary to be observant rather than just mine the room description for accepted commands.
As clever as all this is, I found it difficult to solve without help from the walkthrough. A little more brute force attempts might have helped, with the exception of one point later in the game where the rules change a little and it doesn’t seem clear (or, it didn’t to me) that a new type of magic has been introduced (as opposed to just a new malleable object). It very well may be balanced at the perfect level of difficulty, but I suspect the experience will vary from player to play more than is typical for traditional IF.
The game boasts a large number of beta-testers, and the polish shows. It’s easy to recommend Earl Grey, and I can see it ranking highly in the IFComp results, with a chance at nomination for the “Best Use of Medium” XYZZY award. After all, you must have text to accomplish this kind of word-manipulation puzzle, and the authors did an outstanding job of making this an entertaining story in its own right. It ends with a bit of a head-scratcher of an ending, but the journey was its own proverbial reward.
Maybe for Earl Grey 2 – Clever Sequel Title Goes Here we can have multi-part puzzles, in which letters must be added, removed, and then rearranged within the same starting word. Then again, my poor head would probably explode.[/spoiler]