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Review by: Geoff Gander
Game: The Ludicorp Mystery
By: Cal Henderson

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[Note: This review contains comments that could be construed as spoilers]

The Ludicorp Mystery (TLM) is a game in which the player must break into the offices of a software company — named Ludicorp — to determine why a piece of software named GNE has not been released. We are told nothing else about the character's motivations aside from this. Based on other snippets that pop up throughout the game, however, it is apparent that the character is intended to be a technologist of some sort – either an employee from a rival company, or a disgruntled fan of Ludicorp's products (more on this later).

With that short premise, the player must then embark on what is essentially a modern-day dungeon crawl, wandering throughout the company's headquarters (which has apparently been abandoned in a hurried fashion), collecting objects, and solving the puzzles thrown in his or her way. There are no other characters in the game with whom the player can interact. In that sense, TLM was strongly reminiscent of the non-Infocom games of the 1980s (A Vacation Gone Awry, minus the characters, could be a rough comparison in terms of overall feel). Room and object descriptions are brief, and a large part of the game involves exploring the building (you get a point for visiting each room), and using the various objects collected to gain access to other locations. It would be impossible to discuss the storyline in too much depth without giving away the ending, but suffice it to say that winning the game depends on the player locating the missing employees.

What I liked about TLM was the atmosphere, which ranged from being a satire of high-tech firms to completely surreal. While some of the in-jokes might appeal only to those in the industry, some were understandable to non-techies like myself. For example, there is a games room for employees (complete with a pool table and the arcade game "R-Type", which you can never win), as well as a chocolate room which contains 50 bars of chocolate. Both are parodies of the occasionally lavish benefits given to high-tech workers(in exchange for insane workloads they have. On the surreal side, there is a garden in the middle of the building, in which there is a tree whose leaves are sheets of paper. There are definitely elements of this game I will not forget, and in that sense the author did an excellent job.

Technically, the game works quite well. I didn't have to play any long stretches of guess-the-verb, all of the rooms are connected properly, the oops command works, and I didn't encounter any error messages while playing. What TLM lacked from a technical standpoint was a response — any response, really — to the useful commands that now seem to be standard in many recent IF works, such as help, hint, and info/about. On a lark, I tried xyzzy too, but that verb was not recognised. This is not to say that not having a response to these commands (even one that states that they do not function in TLM) is a serious drawback, but they are nice to have, and there were a couple of instances where having access to a hint or two would have helped.

Where TLM loses points is on style and refinement. While I said that the game functions well enough, and is playable, it lacks the finishing touches, and coding, that point to a complete product. These are issues that leave the player less than hopeful that all of the loose ends will be tied up once they have finished.

Perhaps the most annoying instance of this is near the beginning of the game. The player must visit a specific location and use an item in order to enter the building, but based on the room descriptions there is no reason for the player to guess that this location in question exists. I only discovered it by accident while moving about in random directions. No amount of examining the surroundings helped. More detailed room descriptions, or a hint, could have avoided the problem. A similar situation occurs later on, where using a specific item where it is found will open a secret door. Again, this was discovered by accident, as there is no compelling reason to use the item in question.

As I said above, TLM's coding could have been tightened in a few areas to improve the overall feel of the game. The most prominent example that comes to mind is a cup of coffee that the player can pick up. When found, it contains cold, but drinkable, coffee, and in fact the cup is necessary to solve a puzzle later on. After drinking the coffee, I filled the cup with water from a fountain and played around with it. This is the script:

>fill cup
You fill the cup with water.

>drink water
You're not holding the Water.

>pour water
You're not holding the Water.

>get water
Not likely. The Water needs to be carried in something.

>empty cup
You pour The Water onto the ground and it soaks away.

Some additional coding could have cleaned this up — notice that TLM understands empty cup but not pour water. Some editing to clean up the text in several places would have been nice, too. Again, this does not make the game unplayable, but it does detract from one's enjoyment of it.

The final style element, to which I would draw attention, is the fact that a number of items are either red herrings, or have not been fully implemented in the game. The only place where this situation could render the game unwinnable concerns the garbage disposal unit. Anything put inside it is listed in the room description (when it should be gone completely), but is no longer accessible. Whether the author intended to do something with the disposal unit is unclear, but I would consider it a red herring to be avoided.

The other area where TLM falls short is, as I mentioned above, the storyline - or lack thereof. A piece of IF needs to draw the player into the story, to outline their reason for being there, and to give them a personal stake in finishing the game. TLM plunks the player in front of Ludicorp HQ, and that's it. Only through playing the game do we get a sense that the protagonist is a technophile, but that alone cannot be sufficient reason for breaking into a company's premises. If the player explores the parking lot at the very beginning, they will find their car, in which there is a gun. This is what led me to guess that the character might be disgruntled in some way. Some sort of explanation, even a brief one, would have helped; otherwise, why does the character have a gun?

The weak storyline is also felt later in the game, when the player discovers that a person named Wintermute (the suspected villain) has a hidden tower in the building. Aside from wondering why there is a tower in the building (unless this is another aspect of TLM's surreal nature), and how it could be hidden, it becomes apparent that Wintermute's activities could not have been very secret. Only once the game ends do we learn that one of Wintermute's creations was holding the employees prisoner, but there is no encounter with Wintermute that might bring closure. Thus, the player walks away with loose ends dangling.

TLM is not a difficult game — I finished it in a couple of hours with a full score. People looking for a fairly quick, entertaining diversion will find it here, but I would recommend playing the downloadable version as I have heard that the online version is an earlier compilation, and is incomplete. I had the impression that TLM was the author's first text adventure, and, if further refined, it has the potential to be a very enjoyable game. I would certainly like to see more of the author's work in the future.

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