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Shall we fall foul for toys?
Review by: Emily Short
Game: Child's Play
By: Stephen Granade

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"Child's Play" is about child-rearing in a suburban household. This is not a field that has traditionally proven fruitful for interactive fiction. The only other example that immediately leaps to mind is Frederick Hirsch's "Congratulations!", memorable chiefly for a losing ending in which you dispose of your baby via the kitchen blender.

"Child's Play" does not go that route: it is both more realistic and more subtle. Fortunately, it also escapes being the interactive equivalent of a comic strip on family life – you know, the kind hilarious to people who can laugh knowingly about brands of pureed prune, and vaguely horrific to everyone else. There's enough challenge here, and enough translatable humor, to keep "Child's Play" fun for non-parents. In form, it's still an adventure in its way, though baby gates and building blocks stand in for the locked doors and treasure.

The interaction conceit is that you're a baby, with a baby's limited abilities, who nevertheless enact a fiendish plan (or series of fiendish plans) to retrieve your favorite toy.

The being a baby part is good. Like "Lost Pig" or "Tale of the Kissing Bandit" or "Ralph", "Child's Play" encourages you to envision yourself into a particular role and act accordingly – and it does have a rich set of responses to standard baby behavior. Several times when I was stuck on the puzzles I wandered around doing baby things instead, and this turns out to be good fun. Laugh, cry, spit up: it's covered. I did occasionally wish that there were more detailed descriptions of some of the toys, because I haven't had much occasion to visit a toystore recently, and wasn't sure what all of them were for. But this is a pretty minor point: most of the elements are clearly enough explained that I could work out what they did. The favorite toy gets especially little description; it's more or less the source of all joy and wonder in the universe, but at the same time we're not allowed to know what it looks like or what it does. I was a little reminded of the coy non-descriptions of Black in "Jigsaw".

The fiendish plan aspect is a little more problematic. I found the puzzles moderately difficult, and wound up going to the hint file quite a bit. I'm not sure here whether to blame the author or myself. Several times when I resorted to hints, it turned out that I hadn't spent enough time exploring the game environment to figure out the full range of options available. For one thing, the game does a good enough job conveying a sense of urgency – about the missing toys, about the possible intervention of the other babies – that I got nervous if I spent too long not accomplishing anything. This may be a case of the plot/framing story working slightly against the interaction style, or it may just mean I need to chill out. Anyway, I recommend giving the game a little time, if you find yourself stuck. As far as I can tell, there aren't as many time pressures as there might seem to be: in most passages the other characters aren't really going to get the jump on you, even if it seems like they are. There are times when you can open a window of opportunity that lasts only for a few turns, you can generally repeat the behavior later if you don't succeed in taking advantage of your first chance.

On the other hand, there were also a couple of stages of the scheme that I think I would not have come up with on my own – several-point plans to manipulate other people into doing things for me, mainly. Perhaps I needed to watch more Baby Machiavelli videos. There are some hints about these sorts of schemes in the parental conversation – it's worth paying attention to what they're saying throughout – but still, there are a few rather tricky sequences.

However, the available hints are good and very thorough, and the game is plenty of fun even if you don't solve all of the puzzles yourself.

The star of the game is your nemesis, the little red-haired baby Zoe, who wants your favorite toy. Her behavior is so well-integrated into the rest of the game that it doesn't really stick out as an experiment in goal-seeking behavior or application of AI, but that's a sign of its technical success: Zoe, and to a lesser extent the other children, actively modify the environment and respond to the player's actions, carry out their own small plans, and display personality, without any verbal communication at all. (Other authors interested in emulating these effects may be happy to know that the source code is available.)

A lot of the entertainment of "Child's Play" also comes from the comedy of manners going on in the background, more or less without regard to the player's behavior, which is a gentle mockery of suburban parenthood. While you're busy scheming and pushing around articles of furniture, the adults are talking – a small group of mothers and a lone father, whose muttered asides and obvious sympathy for the protagonist quickly make him a secondary hero of the piece.

The environment of "Child's Play" also provides plenty to fiddle with. Many of the toys have amusing uses – I particularly enjoyed some of the items that can be assembled from the fake legos. There's also a commentary track that can be switched on, in case you'd like to play the game through with director's notes on what's going on – another cool touch if you like behind-the-scenes views of IF writing.

This game grew on me quite a bit as I played. The protagonist's ungrammatical English and the general cuteness seemed like they might become cloying by the time I was finished, but they really didn't. This is in large part because the game does have something to do other than be precious. The other characters develop distinct personalities, and the puzzles involve interacting with them quite a bit (in ways limited by baby communication skills, but still). By the end of the game I was harboring rather complex feelings towards the pigtailed Zoe.

"Child's Play" took me a couple of hours to complete, and is worth a play.

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