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Up in the Sky, Ever So High
Review by: Emily Short
Game: To Hell in a Hamper
By: J. J. Guest

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Every year a few games turn up as XYZZY finalists that I hadn't played during the year, because they weren't in the competition and didn't make big noise on rec.games.int-fiction when they were released. But they're always games that made enough of an impression on someone to make the list, so I try to play them when I can.

This year, the nominee that surprised me was To Hell In A Hamper, J. J. Guest's one-room ADRIFT game. I don't tend to follow the ADRIFT releases closely, and I missed this game when it was released. The nominations in five categories -- Best Game, Best Writing, Best Story, Best Setting, and Best Use of Medium -- made me curious, so I tried it out.

The premise is that you are trapped in a hot-air balloon, drifting perilously towards a volcano, accompanied by an uncooperative NPC who is carrying entirely too many heavy objects. Your task: get rid of everything that is weighing down the balloon so that you and your companion do not become one with the lava.

This is a great example of how much you can get out of a well-chosen premise. Instead of a score, you have a reading on the altimeter, which lets you know how far you still need to rise in order to clear the volcano without disastrous effects. This device works very nicely and gives a mimetic, in-story excuse for having a scoring system at all. Having a grumpy NPC who doesn't talk much is a standard way of avoiding having to write lengthy conversations, but in this case it's done quite well, and he has a range of responses for your actions that makes it feel like he really is grumpy and not just underimplemented. Meanwhile, the setting choice is a very good one for a one-room game: it makes perfect sense that you can't walk anywhere from where you are, but at the same time the passing scenery outside provides atmosphere and keeps the setting from inducing claustrophobia.

One-room puzzle games tend to have a certain purity of focus. The player knows that everything he needs is going to be in one place, and there's no need to look elsewhere. That effect served To Hell in a Hamper well. The puzzles, taken by themselves, are a little uneven. One or two are too trivial, and some rely more than I like on obsessive searching and fiddling with objects, where it's not clear when one verb will be more useful than another. On the other hand, several are quite ingenious and enjoyable. And this is very much the sort of game where the cumulative effect is more than the sum of the parts. All of the individual puzzles you have to solve are components of your larger goal.

It's easy to die. This is not the kind of game where you're protected from errors. But it does make some attempt to keep you from doing anything to make the game unwinnable by, say, flinging a vital item overboard before you've used it. While this may be quite mimesis-breaking -- your player character has a really uncanny foreknowledge of what he's likely to need later and what he's not -- I think the game would have been considerably more frustrating without that feature, and I was duly grateful.

As for the setting, it's well-evoked despite the game's narrow scope. You're in a balloon, but it's a period balloon: the year is 1877, and you are an explorer. This reminded me a bit of the framing story in The Beetmonger's Journal (Scott Starkey, 2001), but To Hell In A Hamper goes further with the idea. Some of the exposition is in the form of entries from your journal, and several descriptions refer to some of the more eccentric figures of the time. I was especially charmed by the reference to Madame Blavatsky, an extremely odd psychic and philosopher; her former home is now a West Philadelphia restaurant and bar called The White Dog, after her belief that her ailing leg was healed by having a white dog sit on it.[1] The world of "To Hell In a Hamper", in other words, is an ultra-colorful version of 1877, one in which all sorts of bizarre things are true and the weirdness dial goes to 11. This fits perfectly with the cartoon-physics approach of the puzzles, too.

So there's a lot in this game to praise. Unfortunately, there were also some glitches. I was playing the game with another person, and we got horribly stuck at a certain point, doing what we thought was the obvious action. It turned out that the problem was in the parser, and a fairly basic problem at that: if we referred to an object with both adjective and noun, it was recognized; if we used only the noun, the whole command was rejected. Since we'd successfully used both that particular verb and that particular noun (without adjective) before in other commands, this was confusing and infuriating. We eventually had to go to the walkthrough to find that the command we'd been trying to give had been one word off from the correct phrasing. Very irritating.

There were some other similar problems with implementation, where the depth of descriptions varied, and one item might have many meticulously-described components while others, seemingly just as important, did not. Some obvious actions were not handled very well, either -- sometimes the parser would claim not to recognize a verb when used with one noun, when it was vitally important with another.

Last I saw on rec.arts.int-fiction, J. J. Guest was talking about releasing another version of the game which might clear up some of these sorts of problems. I very much hope he does so, because I think this was an otherwise delightful game that was at times seriously handicapped by implementation flaws.

Overall, this game fits into a growing category of works that combine light puzzles with strong pacing and good comic writing. I'd also put this year's Best Puzzles winner "Gourmet" (Aaron Reed, 2003) into that group, along with the first chapters of "Fine Tuned" (Dennis Jerz, 2001) and several of J. Robinson Wheeler's games. As it happens, I really enjoy such pieces. They don't always get the recognition that other games do, perhaps because they're not perceived as groundbreaking experimental work or as hard-core puzzle-fests. But humor and pacing are a real challenge to get right in IF, and a good IF comedy has a special charm of its own.

 

[1] I have a special affection for the White Dog because of having wasted formative hours there eating portobello mushroom sandwiches. Also, an acquaintance of mine nearly got us into a bar fight. Anyway, I may be biased on this point.

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