The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
By: Jim Bayers
This is the dingy but clean bathroom of the Odduck Diner. It has the typical fixtures: sink, mirror and toilet. A door to the south leads to the diner. (Type 'help' and press ENTER).
I'm not a picky guy. Basically, as long as a game that has a toilet supports 'flush toilet', I'm happy. It's good that I have these simple tastes because Stranded doesn't really offer anything complex.
This is not to say it's a bad game. But, well, the author's website describes it as "an educational interactive fiction game". For some reason, games which are marketed as "educational" always seem to be targeted precisely at a particular age level, and "education" always seems to imply "in math".
Stranded follows the model pretty closely, in the sense that it's easy to get started with (with lots of helpful tips on how to play IF scattered through the text, as seen in the room description above), has a bunch of brightly-colored pictures (illustrated by Igor Revyakin, who should be commended for striking just the right note with his drawings), and has little puzzles stuck in that don't feel quite natural ("This ceiling is in need of painting. It is covered in square tiles. The tiles make up a pattern like a checker board. Each tile measures one foot by one foot. Counting from east to west, there are ten tiles in a row. Counting from north to south, there are ten tiles in a row as well." -- and later on, of course, you have to figure out how much paint to buy).
That said, let me put the educational issue aside for the moment and talk about this purely from an IF perspective. Stranded does a number of things right. Besides the aforementioned good use of graphics, Bayers does a good job of setting up a small town with a variety of interesting people. The people are suspiciously ethnically diverse, and it's not really clear where everyone's houses are and so on, but these are pretty excusable given the genre (ie, wandering around a small town solving puzzles). The game sets a consistent tone in the writing and character depictions, which is harder for a puzzle game than you might think, and there are no weird anachronisms. At the same time, it's not a bland world: there are enough oddball things (the ducks, the mysterious Nookums) to make it unique and memorable.
The puzzles, unfortunately, could use some work. Some of them (the ceiling-painting, the rake retrieval) are ones that you could reasonably stumble across and figure out what you're supposed to do; for others, like the car wash and the cake, it seems like it'd be hard to figure out that they exist, let alone how to solve them. Then there's a few (eg, raking the leaves) where you find the puzzle, and there are a bunch of plausible ways to solve it, and exactly one of them has been implemented and there's an uncommunicative failure message if you try anything else. This is just poor game design, regardless of the target age range, and shows the author should have done more beta-testing.
People have varying degrees of pedanticism when it comes to analyzing other people's writing. I'm, relatively speaking, pretty low-key about this sort of thing. But particularly in a game supposed to be educational, even I am somewhat jarred when I see things like "Wearing a baseball hat and dark glasses, you see groundskeeper Earl." and "Don't let the educational part through you". Then there are occasional other smaller errors of the sort that (again) should have been caught by beta-testing, "Next to the door, are is the number '46'." The writing in this game isn't made unreadable by these errors, but they are distracting for older players and (I would think) confusing for younger ones. Bayers would have benefitted from more extensive beta-testing and/or a look-over by somebody with a better ear for grammar.
Finally, I feel as though I should talk about educational games more generally. There is the unspoken theory in some circles that kids don't enjoy learning things, that they need to somehow be tricked into education or they will just sit there aimlessly. And the result is games marketed as "educational", when what this really means is that they're less educational than most games (for adults), and hence kids are supposed to, I guess, accept them more easily. But this is stupid and condescending. If you really want to educate the kid, give them something really solid and well-crafted like, say, So Far, and let them play that. Sure, they won't get 50% of the puzzles or 95% of the subtext, but they'll get enough to be interested. And every part they see will be excellent, and when they come back to it later there'll be more excellent stuff to get then.
I don't mean to give the impression Stranded is unplayably horrible or anything like that. I spent an evening on it, used hints in a few places, and it was perky and fun. But it's not a piece of IF that I'm going to be remembering a year from now, and particularly for an educational game it could have used more beta-testing, both in writing and in game design.
And if you want to know how it ends, you'll have to play the game.