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Fire Tower, The

From the Database of Home of the Underdogs

GAME DESIGNER:Jacqueline Lott



Copyright 2004, Jacqueline Lott

Well-deserved winner of the “Best of Show” award in the 2004 IF Art Show competition, The Fire Tower is a captivating all-text “virtual hike” that offers evocative landscape, realistic locations, and extremely well-written descriptions. Emily Short’s succinct review elaborates further:

“This is excellent. The Fire Tower is an IF hike through the mountains of Tennessee, gorgeously done.

The author mentions in her notes that this area is one of her favorite spots, and it shows. The setting is acutely observed and described, with responses for every sense. They’re not just perfunctory responses, either: I was left with a very clear impression of the flora in this area, and a somewhat more fleeting idea of the fauna. The only place I recall seeing quite such a thorough natural setting was in She’s Got a Thing For A Spring (Brent VanFossen, 1997), though for whatever reason The Fire Tower worked better for me than Spring — possibly because, without puzzles to worry about, I was in a better position to enjoy the natural surroundings. The meticulous implementation applies elsewhere as well. The piece anticipates many nonstandard actions — I was particularly amused by the response to my attempts to turn the signposts.

The Fire Tower also gives a strong sense of continuity of space and time. There are transitional descriptions between locations that let you know how far you’ve gone, over what kind of terrain, and what you saw on the way. When you have travelled far, considerable time elapses on your watch. Meanwhile, the sun rises and sets in the sky; the quality of the air changes; shadows lengthen; campers wake up, are active, and go to bed. If you emerge from the woods late enough, you even get a telling-off from the person who’s there to pick you up. (I really enjoyed the temporal effects; I played with them as much as my time allowed, but I would have liked to explore even more what happened if I was in certain places at different times of day. It would have helped to have a WAIT UNTIL [time] command implemented.)

The PC is well-formed, too. The responses to trying to taste various plants, for instance, or pick things that you shouldn’t pick, are met with very park-rangerly replies — knowledgeable, but concerned with safety and the preservation of the wildlife. But the characterization isn’t just there to preach good park behavior: the PC feels like a specific person. She sings Stevie Nicks to herself, eats the best bits out of her trailmix first, and doesn’t panic when meeting a bear. Her pleasant, down-to-earth attitude affects almost every descriptive passage.

In some ways The Fire Tower reminded me of Sunset Over Savannah (Ivan Cockrum, 1997): there’s the same sense of natural beauty and its effect on the psychological state of the observer. If there’s a weak point, it’s that The Fire Tower (like Sunset) sometimes tells me too much about what the PC is feeling. Interestingly, these references bothered me less as the piece went on: either they were fewer in the later sections, or (more likely) as I developed a clear sense of the persona of the PC I stopped trying to equate my emotions with hers.

I did encounter a few bugs. It seems to be possible for the headlamp to be both on your head and in the pack at the same time (somehow); it also seems that if you sit down while in the fire tower itself, you are never able to get up again. You can jump while sitting. There are a couple of other things like that. But the handful of weak spots can easily be cleared up in a future release, and the majority of this piece is polished and charming even though it covers an ambitiously large scope for an Art Show entry. It also works quite well with the constraints of puzzlelessness: the goal of hiking along a set path gives the player something to do, and provides structure for the piece.”

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