(This game has everything that would have made it a big hit in the eighties. Instead, it seems that it was largely overlooked and forgotten. World - Details (tads.org))
A Grandiose World
After a few false starts I have finished the most-impressive World by J.D. McDonald.
Before we turn our attention to the awesomeness of the game, there are a few negatives I should get off my chest:
(I played the DOS version 107)
-It is extremely easy to cut off certain paths of exploration, which means losing points, or to put the game in an unwinnable “walking dead”-state altogether. (On the plus side, you can literally walk around while dead in this game. The game tells you that although you cannot act on your surroundings anymore, you are welcome to keep on exploring if you choose to do so. No practical reason, just… fun?)
-The parser is very picky about what commands it accepts. There are no synonyms for objects, so you are condemned to type “knapsack” over and over. Luckily, “knapsack” is a funny word. The parser does not understand X, so you must LOOK AT or EXAMINE.
-I found four game-crashing bugs, all when pushing buttons. For those who do not enjoy this and would like to know which buttons not to press, unblur the spoiler: Do not push the round button in the control room. (Well, I later learned from the walkthrough that this button makes a nearby star go nova, obliterating everything around it, including you. So maybe it obliterates your gamefile too…) Also do not push any of the buttons in the metal room except the white one.
All the important buttons work though, so this does not stop you from completing the game. (It might make some points unattainable though, but I didn’t really care.)
-The version I played has only one save-slot. Once saved, you cannot go back to an earlier point in your playthrough. (DOS version 106 has multiple slots, but they behaved funny. Plus that version was in ugly bright blue instead of the soothing white on matte-black of version 107.)
There. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s dive into the sheer awesomeness of World !
This is a huge and diverse and immersive piece of interactive fiction.
After noticing that surface scanners were hindered by a strange forcefield, a landing party was sent down to a mysterious planet and crashed. While the engineers work on getting the dropship operational again, you are appointed planet-explorer on a search for resources that might help them get the job done. After walking some distance from the crash site, you notice that you are caught behind a forcefield not unlike the one the mothership detected from orbit. No way back, so you press on forward. Looking down from the top of a ridge, you see a breathtaking view of various terraformed areas, all with their own vegetation and, perhaps, other life-forms. Just the job for your inner adventurer!
There are multiple locations such as this ridge in the game: on a hilltop or a rocky spire you can see the landscape around and below you. I love this in games. It gives you an exhilarating sense of spaciousness, and it hints at where to go and what you might find there.
From this view it is immediately obvious that this is a large and sprawling game-world. The geographical zones are neatly separated from each other, suggesting that the puzzles will also be contained within their own zones (they are, for the most part). In such a big game, there is no need to camouflage the boundaries of the map. For one, it is large enough as it is without giving the impression that it goes on even further. Secondly, the boundaries flow naturally from the whole concept of having terraformed areas. Anything beyond it is obviously inaccessible because it won’t support life.
While the different areas have rather complicated maps with many paths and roads crossing and going over and under each other, the geographical zones are only connected by a few access points, providing clear limits to the puzzle-area you are in.
Puzzlewise, there are two sorts of puzzles in the game that serve different purposes.
-Maybe a bit disrespectfully, I would call the first variety “looting-puzzles”. You have to locate important objects, be it for the repairs of the dropship or for the scientific mission your ship was on in the first place. Or because they are worth a lot of money …
These tasks consist of visiting locations, finding and getting objects, using objects in sometimes surprising ways and taking pictures of interesting things you come across. These are mostly limited to the geographical zone you happen to be in.
-The second kind of puzzles revolve around understanding the bigger picture. You’ll want to figure out who the builders of this place are, what their intentions are. Also, you need to explore this entire map to find a way to get off this planet.
These puzzles require more technical/engineering skills, finding and combining objects from all over the map. You will also need some leaps of knowledge and insight to reason a few moves ahead and see why you are doing what you are doing. (Solving puzzle X will hopefully get me the information I need to overcome obstacle Y which in turn will tell me what the snorf I should do with object Z I’ve been carrying around since move 9.)
A little reminder: any objects (except one) you use for the puzzles are one-use-only. No take-backsies, no stash somewhere, no market, no helpful NPCs. If you give the peanuts to the elephant, you will have none for the monkey. (There are no elephants, monkeys or peanuts mentioned in this game btw…)
The majority of puzzles is fair and logical. Once you know the properties of the objects and machines and plants and… you encounter, the solutions are difficult but straightforward. (No magical thinking or huge lateral leaps.)
But… To understand the properties of the aformentioned objects, machines, plants,… you will have to experiment. And carelessly experimenting with single-use-only objects leads to…? Walking-dead-syndrome, that’s right. So save everytime you think there might possibly be a slim chance of losing an object and only then carry out your experiment. Frustrating? I wouldn’t call it that. I’d say it’s rather suspenseful.
Since this is a game from 1988, of course there have to be some objects hidden in the most arbitrary places, far from the puzzle they help solve. Are you an explorer or what?
With all these puzzles, it is helpful to keep in mind that this whole world must have been terraformed and built by some intelligent beings. This implies intentionality in how your surroundings work. Things are so-and-so for a reason. (I really like how the author has brought in an extra layer of purposefulness this way, by incorporating in-game creators of your surroundings.)
Now, on to the characters:
-You are an essentialy traitless adventurer. I like that in this sort of game because I can feel directly connected to the adventure. It’s me who is exploring this strange world, without having to think about the psychological backstory of my character.
-The NPCs, if you can even call them that, are completely unresponsive (except they kill you when you disturb their hockey game, in one case…). They do have a lot of character though. They clearly have their own objectives and priorities (like hockey, in one case).
-And then there’s the robot. The endearing, helpful and a bit sad robot. Pity I couldn’t do anything with him except boss him around. I like the robot.
(quick clarification on the syntax of how to boss the robot around: TELL ROBOT, GO NORTH)
The writing overall is good. It serves its purpose without drawing too much attention to itself. Some of the more elaborate descriptions (when you encounter a particularly important species or event) might be a little overdone, but I didn’t mind.
The tone of the parser’s responses is weirdly mixed: Most of the time it’s neutral, as in “You can’t go there.” Sometimes it’s snarky: “Ridiculous.” And sometimes it just has to insist it’s just a line of computer-generated text in a computer-game: “That word is utterly beyond my limited vocabulary.”
Once you have an inkling of what this world you’re exploring really is and what steps you have to take to move forward, the suspense takes over and the game drives itself forward, carrying you along with it. That is good writing.
My strongest feeling about World is one of wonderment. Like watching a long-drawn-out fireworks show in slow motion: a series of ooh’s and aah’s with each new discovery. You should really play it.