Interactive Fiction Comp 2015: 'Final Exam'
Made with the predecessor of today's Inform development system, everything about Final Exam feels thoroughly conventional while also strongly unified and earnest, somewhat retro without being very specifically nostalgic. The story purports to be some kind of political thriller, set in a future regime controlled by a presumably small number of "Administrators," the ranks of which the player character hopes to join. Although the game doesn't take its high concept very seriously, it achieves a compelling and straightforward execution of the text adventure ideal, complete with a fluidly advancing plot and interesting parser mechanics.
The prose is very dry (and not in a noticeably humorous way), though the narrative voice is self-aware enough to joke about parser IF's conventions of poorly anticipated default responses and of refusing to allow players to engage their kleptomania for practical management reasons by giving shallow narrative-based refusals:
That's hardly portable. Well, technically, you can pick it up and carry it around, but do you really want to show up at the exam with some bedclothes?There is an implication that the history of the gameworld might have included some kind of apocalypse or collapse of Western civilization, followed by a period of rebuilding. However, no backstory concept is very developed. If a collapse had occurred, the state of history at the time in which the game is set looks much like our contemporary world. However, there is no apparent sense of intentionality behind this circularity, and it's ambiguous as to whether there even was a collapse followed by a reconstruction.
Burkean political philosophy is referenced, and the descriptions of the paraphernalia scattered around the "Adminstration Centre" speak to heavy-handed authoritarianism. This sets up an expectation of a dystopian theme, if not necessarily a dystopian setting. However, the game does not follow through on this. Despite all the political beats struck by the beginning of the game, despite the fact that the player character is seeking power over Western civilization, the portrayal feels not much different than a generic slice-of-life day-at-the-job game. Granted, this could all be part of a grand joke, as exemplified by the Idiot's Guide computer book in the Security Administrator's office. However, in general the jokes seem to be simple nods to computer nerdiness or to IF tradition, such as a network connection labelled "Z5." The writing is too dry to provide either a sense of serious commentary or a pattern of irony.
As a parser game, Final Exam is quite successful. The central mechanics involve a complex implementation of a draggable cord, one of the conventionally difficult situations to code and to simulate within a parser model. This incredible feat of implementation and Inform programming involves a length of cord that must remember its path from fixed connections in certain rooms as it is extended into other rooms. Furthermore, the cord can be spliced to lengthen it or cut to shorten it at the player's will. The image of this complicated simulation is presented quite clearly and logically by the accompanying text. Naturally, the execution of this mechanic in the primary puzzle scheme can a bit murky at times, making the final solution to the main sequence slightly more confusing than it perhaps could have been. There is some tedium involved in using the cord mechanic; there are some situations that the code doesn't seem to have anticipated very tightly. However, it's impossible to judge this mechanic as any less than thoroughly implemented. It is strongly integrated into its environment. Playing with the cord mechanic will probably be a pleasure to most traditional parser IF players.
The central puzzle scheme involves a fairly small zone set off from the still smaller framing area. Going through the details of the rooms to uncover puzzle components is a large part of gameplay, although it is fairly easy. (For example, the "SEARCH" command is integrated into examining.) Mapping is probably necessary to solve the major puzzle, although there is no attempt to confuse the player regarding the layout of the rooms.
Like everything else about Final Exam, the map design evokes classic text adventure conventions without leaning on them too heavily. The game stands solidly in the tradition and even alludes to the legacy without leaning on it. The game carries its own weight in its own right, without depending on players' nostalgia. It's encouraging to discover that in 2015 excellent text adventures can still be crafted out of the old mold without too much meta baggage.