Game #10: Lost Pig (And Place Under Ground)
By “Admiral Jota” (writing as “Grunk”)
Played On: October 15th & 16th (2 hours 55 minutes)
Platform: Inform 6 (Zcode)
Pig lost! Boss say that it Grunk fault. Say Grunk forget about closing gate. Maybe boss right. Grunk not remember forgetting, but maybe Grunk just forget.
Now Grunk need find pig.
Grunk not know that word. Sound like magic, though.
(Plugh and Plover offer the same response.)
I have been looking forward to Lost Pig on premise alone, while hoping it wouldn’t turn out to be a joke (or in-joke) entry in the vein of Pass The Banana. I’m happy to say that familiarity with Grunk’s illustrious career in the military (see Grunk’s blog at grunk.livejournal.com/2002/04/24/) isn’t a prerequisite for enjoying Lost Pig. It’s funny, but it isn’t a joke entry.
Lost Pig is told from the decidedly simple perspective of the main character, an orc named Grunk. A new player might mistake Grunk’s broken English and seemingly unambitious goal as laziness on the author’s part. After only a few minutes of play, however, it becomes pleasingly obvious how much effort has gone into creating Grunk’s world.
It’s easy to spot the problems in a game (any random game, I mean). A player will probably recognize when he or she has encountered some bit of difficulty, be it rampant mistakes in the writing, puzzles that are unfair and impossible to solve, verbs that require a mental checklist of synonyms to deduce, objects that can’t be referenced by the important words that describe them, humor that falls short (or attempts at drama that just seem silly), useless or superfluous locations, bugs that kill (or injure) the game, or any of a countless list of other detractors. It’s not so easy to notice when a game is doing almost none of those things. Most things work so smoothly in Lost Pig that Grunk’s choppy narration is the only thing that really stands out at first. It’s consistent, humorous, well-written and completely intentional, but it tends to draw attention away from how incredibly smooth the game plays. It’s easy to sink into it after a little while, and then the game’s nearly flawless design really shows through.
Lost Pig could be the proverbial poster child for all that’s right in puzzle-game design. Commands don’t rely on one or two specific verbs or phrasings. Puzzles have alternate solutions, making it harder to get stuck looking for one specific but obscure solution. Items work together and are often used for multiple purposes. The game doesn’t span a maze of rooms, opting instead for a minimum area with more than one purpose to each (this also avoids the tedium of traversing wide and confusing geography for puzzles that rely on elements found in different places). Puzzles are clued well and often in multiple ways (ranging from vague to somewhat obvious), making it more likely that a player will pick up on at least one of the hints while still feeling pretty clever when figuring out the solution. A potentially repetitive action (getting another brick) is made simple after Grunk takes note of the process. Grunk’s design philosophy was apparently “I need to write an interesting puzzle game told from a unique perspective, and with challenging but fair puzzles, all while doing everything I can do to keep players focused on playing without the tedium of meta-game frustrations like verb-guessing, spotty implementation, and bugs in the coding.” Grunk… mission accomplished.
Detail is everywhere. The pig watches what Grunk does, and it even has a mischievous little personality. The gnome is a talker (in good English), and can comment on more topics than might be found in ten similarly-sized games combined. Grunk is hapless but well-intentioned. Scenery is well-implemented. Disallowed actions are well-covered. Dialogue and interactions are well-written and witty. Library (or parser) messages have been reworked to help serve as additional narration for Grunk. Items can be wet or dry, dirty or clean, attractive or repellant, and it all fits together in one consistent world model where any item can potentially influence another.
This wouldn’t feel like a Sidney Merk Review without a bug report as well, but I tell you, it’s a stretch. I noticed two or three minor mistakes in the text (discounting Grunk’s intentionally-fractured narration). Some kind of command disambiguation issue is at work in the statue room, where items in Grunk’s inventory are sometimes mistaken for similar items depicted in the paintings. And… hmm. That’s all, I think.
I could have won the game in exactly two hours (and without hints), except that I misunderstood a solution to one late-game puzzle. Once I learned that I didn’t need a specific item to solve the puzzle (just something that would work the same way), I struggled a little to find something else suited to this task. One particular idea (involving wet pants and a hat) seemed like an ideal solution that I just couldn’t make work. This puzzle was really my only sticking point in Lost Pig, and a great case can be made that this was my mistake rather than the game’s.
Lost Pig is easily the strongest entry I’ve played so far this year, and probably one of the most fun, well-constructed puzzle games of any IFComp I’ve reviewed before. It lavishes the player with a detailed, always-smooth adventure, yet remains a simple puzzlefest with likable characters and a challenge that feels just right. I voted it a “X” at two hours. Even unsure of the potential goodness to come from the remainder of my IFComp play list, I can imagine Lost Pig landing a well-deserved spot in the top five (perhaps even top three). It could even manage the top honor if voters are willing to trade the more traditional serious, story-heavy pick for something on the sillier side this year.