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No Romulans This Time
Review by: Emily Short
Game: The Enterprise Incidents
By: Brendan Desilets

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"The Enterprise Incidents" is a game about middle school, by Brendan Desilets. Since Mr. Desilets is known for using interactive fiction in his classroom, I assumed when firing up the game that this one would be intended as introductory IF for a middle-school audience; and indeed that is more or less what I got. Though it calls itself a fantasy, it's pretty much slice-of-life stuff, the only fantastic element being the relative mildness of the characters involved. Middle school as I remember it was considerably more raw than this.

"Enterprise" is not a very long game -- it will probably run only half an hour or so, since the goals are straightforward and the puzzles fairly simple. Most of the puzzles that are there are fairly simple math and word teasers. The rest are what you might call exercises in social awareness, designed to get you to do the most tactful, mature, or honest thing at any particular juncture. The latter were sufficiently blatant that at times I felt a little rebellious, but the game doesn't offer much scope for subversive behavior: you pretty much have to be a nice guy. This is no "Punk Points", I can tell you that.

Implementation-wise, the game is mostly solid. Its ambitions are not large. You should expect to interact mostly with the portions of the scenery that are explicitly mentioned on the "You can see here..." line; items appearing in the descriptions are not always implemented. But I found that once I got used to this fact, it was not a tremendous impediment to my enjoyment of what the game had to offer. Such a feature would be a great deal more annoying in a more puzzle-oriented game. Here I can even imagine that for the right audience it would be an advantage: it takes less effort to figure out which portions of the game environment are critical to your mission, since those items are mostly on their own line.

There are a few points in the game where the spareness and the default responses turned into an amusing comment on the action. E.g., with respect to the young lady you like:

>give candygram to judy
(the candygram to Judy)
Judy doesn't seem interested.
And about someone you have reason *not* to like:
>give candygram to biff
You can only do that to something animate.
There is a fair amount of conversation, delivered via Photopia-style menus. That particular conversation format was, I think, the right choice for this game, since it avoids guess-the-noun problems and makes it hard to get stuck. Still, I had two gripes about the design here. One was that it was unfortunately easy to get lines of dialogue that didn't make sense yet in the context of the game. "Where is [person]?" appeared as an option just above "How do I get to [person's location]?", even though I wasn't yet supposed to know where that was. The other issue was more of a stylistic one: this may be appropriate within the game's intended context, but much of the conversation seemed designed to usher you carefully towards the (rather obvious) emotional realizations in store. The game gives you an ostensible goal, but only provides the tools to pursue a different goal entirely -- and while I agree that the latter turns out to be more worthwhile, it would be nice if the player were allowed to discover that fact at a bit more leisure.

Characters have a habit of earnestly and straightforwardly explaining their feelings and motivations, too. Which is, I suppose, convenient, given that we have fairly little time to spend with them, but doesn't always feel terribly realistic. This seemed to be of a piece with the socialization-education aspects of the game: I felt as though I was being told, "Sometimes people act like *this*, and the reason for that might be..." I'm not sure whether I would find this enlightening or condescending if I were still twelve years old; now, I mostly feel as though I'm listening to a lecture not really aimed at me.

All in all, though, veteran IF players may not find this game very compelling. It can be rather obvious at times -- both in puzzles and in plot -- and the interactivity does not always run very deep. Whenever mimesis might get in the way of completely transparent gameplay, it's the mimesis that gets set aside. That's clearly a design policy, not an accident, and it's carried out rigorously and intelligently from the outset, but I personally would have found the game more engaging the other way around.

That's all right, because this game really wasn't written for me. As a piece for novices, "Enterprise" has more promise. Games written explicitly for the new IF player are relatively rare, and this one seemed to hit a lot of the major requirements. It contains extensive help materials and hints, has explicitly-stated and attainable goals throughout, and sticks to a simple map. It also prepares the player for other games: it refers to several other well-known pieces of IF, and memorably spoils one of Zork's more unfair puzzles.

And if there's not much novice IF, there's even less IF explicitly for young people. Even most of the games that get labelled as "children's" IF -- such as "A Bear's Night Out", "Firebird", and "Mother Loose" -- are so labelled because of their gentle and whimsical subject matter; they still contain challenging game-play that might be frustrating to the younger player. Moreover, the trend towards more story-rich games recently has meant that many new games are written more explicitly for grown-ups. I'm not talking about Adult IF, just about the mainstream IF trend towards more complex characters and more mature themes -- and the widespread willingness to incorporate violence, sexuality, and profanity as necessary, without a content warning.

I have no problem with this myself; I don't expect novels I read to come with a rating on the cover, either, and I find simply cataloging the instances of these things to be a pretty specious way to determine the moral message of a piece of art. But that development does mean that I would inspect carefully any new game I meant to use in a classroom of young students, just as I'd read a book before assigning it. With a book, though, I could be sure I saw every word, whereas in IF there's always the possibility that a student would find something I didn't. Given all that, I can easily understand why Mr. Desilets might have wanted to create something he could be sure was appropriate for his own students.

My impression is that he probably succeeded in that goal. There were bits of the setting and characterization that suggested a very thinly veiled parody of his own school and colleagues, and presumably also of himself. While the sweet appeal of the in-jokes is lost on me, I bet they go over pretty well with the kids.

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