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A Wry Awry
Review by: Philip Dearmore
Game: Vacation Gone Awry
By: Johan Berntsson, Fredrik Ramsberg and Staffan Friberg

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Note: this review contains spoilers. If you haven't played the game yet, you might wish to do so before reading any further.

Remember the old days, when you only had to type the first four letters of a word to be recognized by the parser, such as CLIM LADD? Vacation Gone Awry, released December 31, 2001, comes to us with the unique perspective of having been born during the days of the text adventure, and released after the paradigm shift to the more modern form of interactive fiction. However, don't play Vacation for a nostalgic stroll down memory lane, although who doesn't like to fire up the old Atari 800 emulator for a quick game of Nightshade now and then?. Due to the three authors' diligence in learning and applying the matured craft of IF-writing, Vacation should appease up to the most critical of IF-gamers.

After a hard few months of work at your Australian business (that nature of which is not disclosed) you're ready for your family's ski trip. You catch a flight with (surprise!) bad food service out to the Black Forest, in Germany and finally get settled into your cabin. The game begins the next morning as you awake to find that your wife, Amy, has risen before you, not to mention the fact that she got the kids up and out without making enough sound to wake you. What a woman!

So, taking the opportunity to drive into town and pick up some forgotten necessities, you find yourself in the middle of a blizzard. Eventually, you're stopped by a voice from an alien ship over a loudspeaker, recruiting you to drive to a nearby research complex and retrieve a vital part of their power supply system before its core is exposed, releasing a poisonous gas that could kill your family, along with everything else in the vicinity. I admit, as my WinFrotz interpreter broke this to me, I was a bit bewildered. I was expecting more along the lines of rescuing my family from the wilderness upon my return -- and now this Meretzky-like plot-twist? But luckily...

I was already hooked. Why? Usually it takes a good puzzle or two before I would consider myself hooked, but the atmosphere during the first part of the game was great! Being a family man, I'm inherently drawn to games that depict them (especially when they don't, for the most part, play the overused adultery card). The cabin was well drawn. I really felt like I was away on a vacation. Maybe the characterization could have been polished. I.e., Amy or the kids could have left a journal, or pictures, or something that would develop the bond that is needed for you to really want to save your family's lives in the first place. But the game was atmosphere-rich, and I like that, so try as the authors might to shake me with the aliens; I stayed on, and was glad I did. After that, the game is more normal anyway. You infiltrate the compound, the puzzles commence, you penetrate to the inner research lab, and save the day.

The puzzles were good -- they were fair to the player. Looking back, I'm glad the hint system didn't reveal direct solutions. The answers were always logical, and gave a sense of accomplishment (I especially liked the 'dog' and 'scooter' puzzles). It was an ego-booster, definitely, to solve the cable-car puzzle and be told by Fredrik Ramsberg, one of the authors, that an easier solution had to be written in because none of the testers could solve it. This was balanced out by the fact that I didn't figure out the "obvious" solution with the key until going back later.

To its credit, "sudden death" is noticeably absent for a game which was written when such was par for the course; no doubt one of the things revamped by the authors to bring it into accordance with the Players Bill of Rights. And there didn't seem to be any way to put the game into an unwinnable state. Early in the game, it takes some good shots at cliché text adventure puzzle solutions and, try as I might to find some of these in Vacation to point out its hypocrisy, none was immediately found.

Naturally, the atmosphere was poured on thick and rich throughout, and I loved it. The only part I couldn't get a handle on was having a medieval castle in the backyard. I'm willing to concede Europeans might find this less surprising, but I'm not sure. The castle itself was well done, anyway, although I was disappointed that drawing the wood up to the kitchen had no apparent advantages (a red herring?).

In the end, Vacation struck the proper balance between atmosphere, puzzles, and writing. Released in the latter days of Infocom when it was originally written, it might have been a contender with the commercial game developers of the day. Released today it may not forge new paths on the IF-frontier, but could be an instant classic nonetheless. It is well worth the play.

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