(A Hugo SF game with background music: Trading Punches - Details (tads.org) )
You can usually tell the level of my engagement with a game by looking at my notebook. With all the side notes, colored maps, interjections about the story and hypotheses about puzzles and characters, you could say I dove pretty deep into this one.
Trading Punches is a story about two brothers on a turning point of their civilization’s history. The protagonist represents humanity (without other reference points, I default to “human” in SF, especially if they’re the “good” guys), his brother ends up representing the Sheeear through marriage with the daughter of their ambassador. The relationship between the brothers is reflected in the course of the story on multiple levels: family, society/civilization, even in the creation myth you learn about during the game.
This game is very much a story-centered, narrative one. The puzzles are rather easy, forming no hindrance to the pace of the story.
The structure of the game is also a narrative one: It is divided into chapters.
Each chapter starts with a short dialogue between the protagonist and … well, that’s one of the mysteries of the game. This dialogue serves as a recap of what has come before and as a frame for the upcoming chapter.
Then the chapter proper begins. It is presented as an account of a memory of the protagonist of a turning point in his life, and as such, also a turning point in the relation between the two civilizations.
Now, IF is a tough medium to handle flashbacks elegantly, and Trading Punches only partly succeeds. The general problem with flashbacks in IF is player freedom. How does the author handle the fact that what the PC is doing has already happened, and has a definite outcome? There has to be a way to reign in the player when she deviates too far from the predetermined path. Here, the author does that by confining the action to a tight and focused map per chapter, containing one big puzzle. (This reminds me of Gateway : small map and one puzzle per planet.)
A bigger problem arises when the flashbacks do not take place in the PC’s mind, but in a conversation. Whenever I paused mid-chapter and thought about the bigger picture, I felt sorry for my dialogue-partner. What a tedious story it must be to hear an endless list of detailed micro-actions. "And then I looked at the cabinet, and then I looked at the drawer, and then I opened the drawer, and then I found a comb, and then I took the comb, and then I tried combing my hair but it wouldn’t work,…)
This is more a recognition of the limitations of the IF-medium than a criticism of the game. I think the problem is handled quite well here.
On the other hand, there is a great advantage to using flashbacks. It keeps the attention of the reader on the bigger picture. There is an arc of tension that goes over the flashbacks and grows in the present time of the story. The reader anticipates the story-threads and the consequences of the past actions to come together in the here and now. The game’s epilogue does this very well, as well as leaving ample room for the-sequel-that-never-came.
The puzzles are very well clued, even guided. This keeps the focus on the story and keeps it moving forward. However, I do feel that there might be two great logic puzzles lying at the hearts of chapters 1 and 2 that were sacrificed to pacing. It is of course a difficult balancing act.
The writing is no example of efficient IF terseness, rather the opposite.
Long, relaxed and rich paragraphs invite the reader to slow down and enter into the story-world. Together with the background music, this makes for a very immersive experience.
It’s also a joy to see the evolution of the characters through the decades that this story describes.
From a technical point of view, I have but a few small nitpicks. A fair number of nouns are unimplemented, something that does break the mood a bit in a game such as this. Some actions could have a wider range of commands to trigger them and some unsuccessful commands could yield a more helpful response instead of a default message. Nothing too serious though.
Overall, Trading Punches is a very fluid playing experience. There is also a very good in-game hint-system on the off chance that you get really stuck.
Recommended for all!