IFReviewed by Paul OBrian on 2006-07-20 09:54
I found myself both rationally and irrationally annoyed with this game. Let me start with the irrational, since it's least defensible. Near as I can tell, there is no interpreter that can utilize all the effects of which the game is capable. As an author and a member of the IF community, I understand the reason for this perfectly. The way that things seem to go is that specifications get created for interpreters, zcode formats, multimedia package formats, and suchlike, but they don't ever tend to get implemented. Why? Because there are no games that use these extended capabilities, so what's the rush? But of course there are no games, because why produce games with unusable features? These gears turn each other forever, getting nowhere, and Moments Out Of Time is intended as a crowbar stuck between the gears; from that perspective I applaud it. Hopefully this game will act as a prod (well, maybe a shove) to interpreter authors, and someday there will be an interpreter that can play it. In the meantime, though, from a player's perspective, it's a little irritating. It's rather like being handed a book and told "Oh, some of the pages have illustrations, but you won't be able to see them without some special perspect-o-vision glasses. But, uh, those glasses don't currently exist. They might someday, though!" Sure, I'll still read the book, but it's a drag to feel like I'm missing the full experience. I understand the reasoning, but still feel irrationally annoyed at being presented with a thing that doesn't completely work, and that irritation probably colored my experience with the rest of the game.
Of course, there were a number of completely legitimate reasons to be annoyed with this game. For one thing, it is that judges' bane, the Way-Too-Big Comp Game. Two hours is a completely inappropriate amount of time for evaluating this game. It took me 45 minutes just to read the various manuals and introductory materials, for heaven's sake. Before I'd even started the game proper, I'd already used up about a third of my judging time. Then there's the fact that the game offers a zillion different tools, but only allows a few per game session -- sure, it's great for replay value, but how much replaying am I going to do in two hours? Oh, and how about this: even after reading the massive manuals, there were still parts of the interface that were totally unexplained. Here's a hint for anyone struggling with the conversation portion: don't use ASK, TELL, or NPC, <answer>. Instead, just type the answer at the command line. If you don't know the answer, type DONE. I figured this out by pure guessing, thereby using more precious time. Also aggravating was that the game implements the square bracket ("[") for making notes at the prompt. Okay, that's not aggravating, that's cool. What's aggravating is that 1) You have to type a space after the bracket in order for the game to handle it properly, and 2) Making bracketed notes takes game time, one turn per note! This wouldn't be so bad, except that there are a number of time limits worked into the game, so making the comment command non-meta effectively penalizes the player for using the game's built-in notation system. Finally, despite the fact that Moments boasts an amazing amount of technical polish, it suffers in several places from what I can only call lazy implementation. You may find a book which can't be referred to as "book". You may be told something by the narrative voice that you couldn't possibly know, given that it's happening hundreds of miles away. You may find (details changed to prevent spoilage) a hidden cache in the floorboards, but when you "examine cache", you will be told "You can't, because the floorboards is closed." Oh they is, is they?
Okay, enough spleen-venting. It's just too bad, because there are the bones of an amazing game here. The plot revolves around a future time-travel agency, and the world-building evident in the details of this is just wonderful. Also, some of the things that make it inappropriate for the competition don't necessarily make it a bad game. Quite the contrary, in fact -- the number of options available makes for an incredibly rich gameworld. I kept wondering what would have happened had I chosen a different array of technology at the beginning, while still quite awed by the capabilities of what I had chosen. I feel I barely scratched the surface of the story, and the scenario was interesting enough that I'm quite curious to see all the things I missed. The writing did a nice job at establishing a consistent tone, and provided plenty of amusing juxtapositions as the future character examines technology that is primitive to him/her. I saw the beginnings of a number of intriguing puzzles, though there's an overwhelming array of keys and locked doors, and the game's auto-unlock feature appeared to me to be broken. All in all, a very worthy effort, but I wish it wasn't a competition game. Releasing this game outside the competition would have accrued several benefits. It would have allowed more time to fix those nasty details of implementation and documentation. Players could have approached it as something they could spend a significant amount of time on, rather than having to rush through it to see as much as possible while not giving short shrift to the other 51 games awaiting their attention. And it wouldn't have been presented for formal judging in a not-completely-functional state. Would have, would have, would have. If only real time travel were possible.