The Only Possible Prom Dress

When I heard that a sequel had been released to “Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina,” I had to drop everything and play it. A day well-spent; and, since the game appears to have been only very sparsely reviewed during the comp, here are my thoughts.

Note to new players: this is a classic puzzlefest. Pick up everything, LOOK UNDER everything, and SEARCH everything. Don’t shy away from wanton theft and pyschopathy.

I tagged this thread “spoilers” and everything that follows has unmarked spoilers.

The Good

“Prom Dress” is set in the same shopping mall as “Ballerina” and roughly follows its gameplay structure: you first need to unlock the stores and deal with mall security, restore power, and then the game opens up into a nonlinear midgame involving a broad set of parallel puzzles. As in “Ballerina,” the mall proves a wonderful setting for a puzzle game: the player is immediately awed by the scope of the game world (with three different tiers chock-full of storefronts to explore) without being overwhelmed, since most shops are locked and there are only a few locations and items to consider when attacking the opening puzzles. A mall setting is also a convenient excuse for the presence of an eclectic collection of items and settings.

The gameplay norms surrounding puzzlers have changed significantly in twenty years, and “Prom Dress” improves on the quality of life of its predecessor in two key ways. First, the Zarfian cruelty of the game has been toned down significantly. (The hint system does list some ways to lock yourself out of the ending, most of which require active self-sabotage from the player—but still, why not polish the game to where even these corner cases are impossible?)

Second, the game comes not only with a walkthrough, but with two built-in hint systems. Texts from your daughter Sam give gentle guidance throughout the opening of the game (via an amusing Ouija board conceit), and a classic menu-based hint system is available during the non-linear midgame. The text messages are brilliant, and I wish that they had continued throughout the game. Of course I understand why they didn’t—they’re intended as training wheels during the opening only—but a typical source of frustration in puzzle games is the directionless wandering you do once you’ve visited all obvious locations and picked up the obvious items, and have no idea which puzzles you should be working on and which are still unsolvable. A gentle hint pointing to one currently-solvable puzzle would have helped the midgame pacing.

The explicit menu hints try to be context-sensitive but don’t quite succeed; some hint items persisted long after I’d solved the related puzzle, and there was one time I got stuck and none of the hints were helpful (I didn’t realize I needed to SEARCH RACKS to progress the main quest!). A menu item about the wizard shows up long before you’ve met or heard anything about the wizard.

Several elements from “Ballerina” make a triumphant return, including the octagon room and the mirror and plant mazes (which are completely optional this time around). The one-way stairwell doors, marquee anagram, T.A.R.Z.A.N., monkeys, and secret basement level are all here, though in each case toned down from their previous appearance to be more merciful and fair. The prop room early in the game does a good job of setting expectations: whereas in “Ballerina” you would have almost certainly become permanently trapped for entering the room without preparation, “Prom Dress” reassures you that, no, you don’t need to worry about the environment itself plotting against you for exploring too carelessly.

Puzzles in the game are in general well-thought-out and fair (I list some exceptions below). Highlights for me included the aforementioned octagon room, the train puzzle, and restoring power to the mall. Some of the lateral thinking and wordplay elements of “Ballerina” make a reappearance, albeit in milder form; I thought the BACK DOOR puzzle in particular was tough but fair.

Under-Implementation

The game suffers from two main weaknesses, and the first is general under-implementation and lack of polish.

“Guess-the-verb” is a well-known source of frustration in puzzle games; but I’ve noticed two other design flaws that are common in puzzlers and no less frustrating:

The Meronym Problem: the game expects you to interact with a part of an object, but rejects (with no custom message or cluing) attempts to interact with its parent/container. Or vice versa.

The Substitute Problem: the game expects you to solve a puzzle using object X, but rejects (with no custom message or cluing) attempts to use functionally-equivalent object Y.

Unfortunately, both flaws are rampant in “Prom Dress.” I hit the meronym problem for the first time at the end of the introduction, when messing with the video monitors in the security office. I knew I needed to pour nail polish on the buttons (since my daughter told me so), but all attempts to POUR POLISH ON BUTTONS, POUR POLISH ON BUTTON, POUR POLISH ON VIDEO, PUT POLISH ON BUTTONS, etc. failed with no explanation. If the text message didn’t make it 100% clear I needed to persist here, I would have given up.

The meronym problem rears its head often when dealing with machinery, containers, electronic devices with cables/jacks, etc.

The worst example I can remember of the substitute problem is on the roof: I’d collected a vast array of different long sticks (a bamboo pole, snooker cue, and even a mallet(!)) but trying to hit the golf ball with any of them gave only a generic failure message. This leaves the player helpless as it’s not clear whether they’ve found the right objects but are missing the right verb, or if they need to come back later with a different object. A little bit of additional implementation goes a long way, e.g. “The mallet sends the golf ball flying towards the dragon with a satisfying ‘thwack.’ But the mallet is too heavy and insufficiently aerodynamic to give the swing full power; the ball sails low and ricochets off of the dragon’s chin before rolling back towards your feet.”

I encountered the substitute problem several times also surrounding the game’s many long, thin objects (scissors, screwdriver, dart, and knitting needle).

NPCs

Compared to “Ballerina,” this game has many more NPCs that the player can interact with. As in many puzzlefests, most of these NPCs are cardboard cutouts, doling out some useful pieces of information and exchanging items for others. The mannequin is one notable exception, whose personality shines through even the PC’s limited interactions with her.

Interactions with NPCs are through the frought ASK and TELL system. The weaknesses of NPC modeling in puzzle games are well-trodden ground that I won’t belabor here, but to note that the game world would feel a lot richer if each NPC had a lot more to say about themselves, each other, and the shop they work in or mall in general. Some of the NPC under-implementation harms the puzzle-solving directly: for instance I got stuck trying to ASK MADAME TO SUMMON GHOST which failed with a message asking me to try later even when the time was ripe (ASK MADAME TO SUMMON RALPH worked).

The card players are another notable example where richer interaction would lead more naturally to the puzzle solution (and incidentally, “MEN” should probably be an implemented synonym for the card players).

General Issues

Here I’m going to dump a disorganized list of places in the game I feel could benefit from polishing.

  1. There is no response to trying to paint the mirrors. A strange oversight given how memorable this solution was to the mirror maze in the original game!

  2. The printing press puzzle is very frustrating because the machine fails to work, for no reason, when you try to use it on people other than the mannequin or soldier (before you even know why you need to do so). I took a selfie and pulled the lever, only to get an error message about lack of “image data.” But the image is right there on my phone! Cue several minutes of trying to SELECT IMAGE, CLICK IMAGE, UPLOAD IMAGE, CLICK PHOTO, DELETE ALL PHOTOS, etc. all to no avail.

  3. Speaking of which, the phone photography functionality is surely a piece of technical wizardry under the hood… but some more verbs for interacting with the photoroll is warranted.

  4. The pterodactyl chow itself can’t be interacted with once the bag is open (another aspect of the meronym problem). I tried to take some chow, SCOOP CHOW, POUR CHOW IN POT, etc. all to no avail. The game kept thinking I wanted to interact with the sack instead.

  5. I don’t like the handling of the cigarette pack. Sure, the PC is not a smoker—I’m not a smoker in real life, either, but I don’t have any strange inability to open a pack of cigarettes or light one! This puzzle essentially tells the player, “your solution is the natural one, but I don’t want to let you solve it this way, and I’m not going to tell you why or give you a clue how I want you to solve it instead.”

Finally, while most of the puzzles are well-motivated in hindsight, some left me head-scratching even after reading the walkthrough:

  • probably the most egregious is the mummy-toe puzzle. I’d tried to plant the seeds in vain in the flowerbed under the octagonal tower balcony (the game wouldn’t let me, with only generic failure messages). I would have never guessed I needed to plant it in the tomb. Part of the issue here is that even obtaining a pot of soil is a difficult puzzle, and the MiraklGro is single-use-only, meaning the player is disincentivized from experimenting with growing the seeds in different places.
  • Playing the trumpet to wake up the soldier: this solution makes some vague sense in retrospect, but if there’s in-game cluing that a bugle call might animate the solider, I missed it.
  • It’s not clear to me why the pottery table is hooked to the mirror ball on the floor below; and moreover trying to spin the mirror ball by climbing a stepladder has no implemented custom message. The game could inform the player that the ball won’t spin because it’s connected to some kind of mechanical mechanism built into the ceiling, for instance.

Summary

Reading through all of the above, I realize I come across as quite negative—I don’t mean to be too harsh, as all parser puzzle games suffer from similar issues to one extent or another. Fortunately, these kinds of technical problems are relatively straightforward to fix with a few iterations of polishing and gamma testing, perhaps in a future post-comp release.

Atmosphere

The other weakness of “Prom Dress” has to do with its tone and atmosphere. Now to be fair, “Ballerina” had its share of eclectic rooms and items and unusual tonal shifts; but what elevated it from a good game to great was the unsettling mood of abandonment and decay that pervaded the entire mall—a reflection, perhaps, of the declining relevance of mall culture at the turn of the century in the real world—with the slightest hint, here and there, that magic could still be found among the trashed hallways and shuttered stalls if one looked out the corner of one’s eyes.

“Prom Dress” is missing this atmosphere. Sure, there is the collapsed staircase and caved-in ceiling here and there; but these elements are mixed in with enough “Stuff World” goofiness, wizards on pterodactyls, joke machines that subtract points and disable UNDO, etc. that it all homogenizes into an indistinct blur (in many ways I’m reminded of the atmosphere of Zork more than “Ballerina”).

The writing in the game is OK, but there are moments that feel off—including the overlong introductory exposition, and the PC’s awkward relationship to the hairdresser—and that contribute to the atmosphere falling somewhat flat.

Concluding Thoughts

“Ballerina” is a timeless masterpiece from an era when epic parser puzzlers were at their apogee. If I say that the sequel does not quite live up to its legacy, I’m not being especially profound: “Ballerina” is an impossible act to follow (just as Jon Ingold struggled to iterate on “The Mulldoon Legacy”) even without “Ballerina” being amplified by two decades of nostalgia and hype. Many of “Prom Dress”'s puzzles are substantially simplified, yet more accessible riffs on puzzles from “Ballerina”; whether that’s a net positive or negative will depend on the player.

Taken on its own merits, “Prom Dress” is a fine puzzlefest: larger in scope than “The Impossible Bottle,” if perhaps less charming and ambitious. A rare treat these days—though I recommend waiting for a post-comp release before playing, due to the many implementation issues I discuss above.

10 Likes

Good observations – thanks. I may agree or disagree about specific points. But I’ll take all of your criticisms under advisement. I have a post-Comp tester working right now; he started by flagging a couple of dozen typos and spotted at least one bug that could make the game unwinnable. (If you lock the closet door while you still have the Marlboros and Betsy is still with you, following you around, you’ll never be able to unlock the door.)

So yeah, there’s still more work to be done, and I appreciate your taking the time to go into detail!

1 Like

I didn’t want to repeat the 15 puzzle at that location, but something similar was needed. I did try to make it easier – there are (unless there’s a bug) four different ways to solve that puzzle, all of them conceptually related.

Nice review, thanks for posting it! I just wanted to swing by because this line jumped out to me too:

It’s funny, that barely registered as a puzzle to me – I figured it out just by looking at it – whereas I never even came close to solving the octagon room and needed tons of hints to even get started on the “more merciful and fair” marquee anagram puzzle. Which is just to say that gauging puzzle difficulty is really, really hard!