Little Girl in Monsterland, by Mike Stallone
As I’m only two hours into what’s advertised as a 15-hour experience, I’m a little underconfident in this review – I could see some of the things that worked for me wearing out their welcome 10 hours hence, and similarly, some of my critiques might vanish once the overall framework of the game becomes clearer. But if I let a lack of sound factual underpinnings keep me from mouthing off, these reviews would be a lot, lot shorter.
You know, it’s probably not worth interrogating that in depth – let’s just get on with it.
LGiML feels most of all like an old-school graphic adventure, albeit in text form (though there are graphics depicting the characters and a few key events, and I think I saw the author mention in another post that there’s a full graphic version in the works). You’ve got a sprawling map to explore, lots of different puzzle chains, a setting that draws equally from fiction, fairytales, and Python-esque satire, and an interface that requires chaining a specified list of verbs to a specified list of targets. There are some significant deviations from this well-worn template, though – some that I liked, and some that I was more mixed on.
The elephant in the room here is that the primary way of interacting with the game isn’t constructing commands like USE RUBBER DUCKY ON MISANTHROPE – most commands also require you to add an intent, so you’d have to say USE RUBBER DUCKY ON MISANTHROPE TO FRIGHTEN SOMEONE, or USE RUBBER DUCKY ON MISANTHROPE TO WIN ELECTION TO CONGRESS. Trying the correct action with the incorrect intent or rationale will fail just as surely as trying the wrong object with the right intent.
On the one hand, this pretty much eliminates the too-frequent experience in old graphic adventures of clicking something on something else, just because you’re out of ideas, and seeing the main character embark on an extended bout of moon-logic that you in no wise had in mind when you clicked your finger. And it usually isn’t too hard to suss out the right option, since you choose the intents from a list and it’s pretty clear if there’s something that might match. There are places where this does lead to difficulty spikes, though, especially in the variant where instead of coming up with an intent tied to a concrete outcome (like, saying that you’re doing X in order to get the character in front of you to leave the room), you need to link what you’re doing to a vague high-level goal (like, saying you’re doing X in order to defeat Dracula). This can be challenging because you can’t do standard adventure-game things like examine a suitcase to see whose it is, or what’s in it, unless you have the correct goal in mind (what if I wanted to look at the suitcase to figure out what I can do with it?)
Compounding the difficulty, this is a big game, with a lot of text, and clues aren’t always as signposted as I think they could be. Here’s a spoilery discussion of one that stymied me for a long time: at one point, the player character decides she wants to meet a mermaid. There’s a book about mermaids in the library that describes some of their behavior, emphasizing that they’re mischievous creatures who like playing pranks. This didn’t really help me much, though, and all the obvious things I tried – making a sand castle that she could wreck, playing music to see if she wanted to join in – failed, so eventually I turned to the hints. According to them, what the book was meant to communicate was that mermaids like playing pranks specifically on ship’s captains. With that prompt in hand, I was able to use the intent system to dress up as the down-on-his luck captain down by the docks, at which point the puzzle solves itself, but due to the intent system, there was no way of blundering into the solution by having a new “hey, can I borrow your clothes?” dialogue option unlock after reading the book that was supposed to give me the idea.
The other structural consideration that sometimes makes the difficulty a bit harder is that there are always a lot of different goals available. The game provides a really helpful interface for tracking them, and allows you to rewind to key conversations or bits of observation so you can’t get too lost, but much of the time, you get the goal well before you can do anything significant to advance it – at the point above where I first had recourse to hints, I had five different goals, but the first hint for three of them was “go do something else, there’s nothing you can do to make progress on this yet.” Ultimately, for the second hour of play I typically consulted the first hint or two anytime I got a new goal to make sure I knew what to focus on and see if I was missing something that was meant to be obvious, which made for a more pleasant play experience, though I’m not sure that’s intended.
…just noticed we’re almost a thousand words in and I haven’t even mentioned what the game’s actually about. OK, speeding this up: the setting is a sort of skewed fairytale, featuring a brash and fearless six year old girl as a protagonist who’s bent on avoiding her chores by meeting some fun people, most of whom are monsters of some description. She’s a lot of fun, and when she hooks up with a princess her same age early on and you wind up playing dual characters, the banter between the two is one of the high points of the game. There’s a lot of humor, though much of it is scatological and wasn’t quite my taste (your protagonist barfs a lot, and if you find the idea of Dracula having diarrhea funny, you’re in luck because there’s an extended sequence that I thought ran the joke into the ground) – there’s also some errant profanity that might be less kid-appropriate. There’s some tonal oddity in the graphics, too: the main characters are depicted in a loose, cartoony style that I really dug, but many other characters look like they come from traced-over photos, and have a more realistic vibe that felt like it didn’t sit easily with the rest of the art.
The plot, at least as far as I got (solving Dracula’s castle, meeting the mermaid, and winning the horse race, along with some miscellaneous other progress) is a series of self-contained sequences that don’t interact with each other all that much. Each of them is entertaining – Dracula’s castle especially had a fun series of puzzles that played with the classic-monster gimmicks of the different characters (cutting off Frankenstein’s monster’s electricity made me chortle) – but there was nothing really to be gained from any of them. Meeting the mermaid leads to a ride through the ocean, but that doesn’t help you solve any other puzzles, or advance any overall plot that connects the vignettes; ditto winning the horse race, or even stealing an evil orb of necromantic power from Dracula. As a result, dropping the game part-way in felt a little easier than it maybe should have, since there’s no real indication of how the story would be any different if I put in an additional 10+ hours. I’m still looking forward to coming back to LGiML and checking out where things go, but some kind of overarching plot or structure in the earlier parts of the game would probably make players more likely to put in the extra time beyond the Comp threshold.
MUCH LATER ADDENDUM: I went back and won LGiML, and had quite a good time doing so. The first two hours do give a solid indication of what’s to come, so I think what’s in the existing review holds up – the plot, in particular, continues to be a bit of a shaggy-dog story, albeit with a good number of recurring characters and story-threads, which I wound up enjoying even though there wasn’t much of an overarching structure. Once I got deeper into the game, I think I clicked with its approach to puzzle solving a little better, and while the scatology-plus-parody humor does I think wear out its welcome, there are definitely some funny bits that made me laugh (the bits with the pope and the undead pirates were especially good, I thought – to be clear, those are two separate bits, not one bit involving both things!)
There’s a whole second town, with a whole new set of characters and, more importantly, puzzles, and while I’m not sure whether this was just a sign of increased familiarity with the interface, I found the challenges in this part of the game a little easier to engage with, with a few really clever ones mixed in (I especially liked the one where you need to find a cave…) The large size of the game does lead to some scope issues later on, however. Old areas are never blocked off – and in fact several late-game puzzles depend on going back to very early areas and noticing what’s changed, which sometimes stymied me due to my reliance on fast-travel – and inventory items tend to stick around after you’ve used them. This increased the complexity of the game while meaning that sometimes I felt like I’d figured out four or five potential solutions but only one would be accepted. Spoiler-y example: when trying to track the dragon’s servant through the caves, I considered putting manure on him so I could smell him, using the dog again to track him – or just using the time-travel potion to “catch up” anytime I started falling behind. In fact there are a lot of puzzles that potion should be able to bypass! Clearing out used inventory items, and maybe more clearly signposting when an area has changed (or doesn’t have anything else to offer) as a hint option, might be helpful quality-of-life features.
At any rate I’m glad I went back and finished the game, since it was a good time – the author’s apparently also working on a version with full graphics and gave me a sneak peek, and I have to say it’s really lovely, so for folks who didn’t get all the way through this one during the Comp, I’d definitely recommend a revisit once the updated version comes out!