Mike Russo's Spring Thing 2024 Reviews

Octopus’s Garden, by Michael D. Hilborn

Octopus’s Garden has a lovely premise – octopi in real life have been known to crawl out of their aquariums and get up to shenanigans, so getting to play as one who’s bored of the view from their tank makes for a delightful spin on the parser-game-set-in-an-apartment theme. There’s also a lot of creativity in the implementation, down to the ability for you to wear a baseball cap and play with squeeze-toys just because that would be fun, and a short set of puzzles that lean into an octopus’s strengths and weaknesses, with one that made me feel quite clever when I sussed it out (getting the undergarments from the clothesline). There are some elements that are a bit of a stretch – the octopus has a much greater understanding of human behavior and the environment than you’d think, and there’s a subplot about the apartment owners’ sex lives that turns out to be plot-important but is maybe slightly ill-judged. I wish I could say this adds up to a short but engaging romp – but sadly Octopus’s Garden is also weighed down by a bunch of gameplay niggles, design oversights, and typos.

Some of these are actions that seem cued but go unimplemented; they’re not game-critical, sure, but they shook me out of the fantasy of playing as an octopus. The description of the filtration unit in your tank says you disassembled the previous one, for example, but DISSASSEMBLE isn’t recognized as a command, nor do PULL, OPEN, TURN, or TAKE FILTER get you anything but the disappointing default Inform responses when you try to fiddle with scenery. Similarly, if you check out the plastic pirate and treasure chest on the aquarium’s floor, it says it opens automatically, and OPEN CHEST tells you it’ll happen soon if you just wait – but it never does (can’t TAKE or THROW it either, though once again the narration says you liked to do that to previous tank decorations). And you can’t PLAY with your toys.

Similarly, there are some inconsistencies in object names – “tub” is unsurprisingly an acceptable substitute for “bathtub”, but if you try to turn on the water you have to distinguish its faucet from that of the sink, and in that case the shorthand is rejected and the player’s forced to type out “bathtub’s faucet.” A window is described as locked, but you can only X LATCH, not X LOCK. There’s an area where the location description doesn’t tell you which direction the exit lies. And while there aren’t many flat-out misspellings, there are a fair number of missing words or other grammar issues.

Admittedly, these issues are comparatively niggling, but I found my frustrations multiplying as I got into the endgame. While the main part of the game simply involves exploring the space, you eventually find an object that, if your owner finds it, will convince her to move, and therefore get you a fresh view (I’m being vague to avoid spoilers, but I’ll say that while I think the chain of deduction that you go down to figure this out is clever, it’s nothing an octopus could ever understand; it’s not the biggest deal in a lighthearted game, but it is the kind of tension the phrase “ludonarrative dissonance” was coined to describe). Trouble is, after I’d found the item, stashed it somewhere she would be likely to find it, cleaned up after myself, and secreted myself back in my tank, the game stubbornly refused to end, or give any indication of what I was missing.

Thankfully there are hints included, so I was able to get back on track – turns out the goal state involves the owner coming into the room to find the item, which requires you to lure her into the room with a loud noise. But as far as I could tell there’s no in-game indication that this is required, much less any suggestion that the owner’s in the apartment rather than having gone out to go to work or run some errands. That wasn’t even the end of my troubles: you aren’t given enough time to sneak back into your aquarium after triggering the noise, and while the obvious solution is to leap off a dresser rather than clamber down it step by step, JUMP is just mapped to GO DOWN and JUMP OFF and its variants go unimplemented. After consulting the hints again, it turned out that I had exactly the correct idea, but for some reason the only way to make a precipitous descent was to close the dresser drawers under me and then try to go down, instead of directly trying to jump.

Here’s the thing though: just as an octopus’s distributed consciousness allows its limbs to act semi-independently while still being part of a single organism (seriously, they have nervous tissue throughout their bodies, octopi are really cool), I have a suspicion that this litany of complaints, from holes in implementation to occasionally-clumsy writing to the read-the-author’s-mind finale, actually boils down to just one oversight: nobody appears to have tested Octopus’s Garden besides the author.

I might be wrong, of course, but there’s robust ABOUT text with thanks to the creators of Inform 7, so if there were testers and they just went uncredited, that would be an odd oversight. If that’s the case, then I have to admit that this is an astonishingly impressive achievement; when I see a parser game without testers I expect game-breaking bugs, broken English, and a sophomoric plot. Octopus’s Garden’s flaws are minor in comparison, basically adding up to a low-level annoyance that some of the standard impedimenta of parser gaming got in the way of my cephalopœdal frolics and made them less enjoyable than I wanted them to be. Even in the form we’ve gotten it it’s a fun, unique game – but I’ve gone on so much about its negatives because I’m disappointed not to have played the superior version we would have gotten if it had followed the number one rule of writing parser IF.

octopus mr.txt (169.9 KB)