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Return to Ditch Day

From the Database of Home of the Underdogs

GAME DESIGNER:Michael Roberts

GAME DEVELOPER:Freeware

GAME PUBLISHER:Freeware

Copyright 2004, Michael Roberts

Return to Ditch Day is a fun sequel to Michael Roberts’ earlier Ditch Day Drifter, a short “example game” coded to showcase the first version of TADS. Like the first game, Return to Ditch Day was coded to showcase the power of TADS3 (T3 for short), the latest version of the popular IF programming language. But it is a much larger, better, and more interesting game than its predecessor. Emily Short’s review at IF-Review explains why:

“As puzzle-fests go, Return to Ditch Day is extremely playable and forgiving. There is a full and context-sensitive hint menu. The puzzles are of medium difficulty — some may be on the easy side for the most die-hard fans of a challenge, but I thought they were just about right, neither too frustrating or too trivial. It may be possible to make the game unwinnable, but I don’t know how. The pacing is also excellent; despite the scope of the map, I very very rarely found myself wandering around at a loss. Some of this may have been luck, but most of the time it seemed that I always had at least one specific lead to pursue, and so — while I was allowed to explore at will — I didn’t *have* to wander too aimlessly just in order to make progress. Return to Ditch Day even offers an extremely ingenious map with pathfinding, which means that you can look up another location and get directions from wherever you happen to be at the moment.

This is just one of a number of neat features either built into T3 or added for this particular occasion: most of the traditional aspects of IF are handled so smoothly that you almost miss realizing how slick it all is. NPCs can be followed. Keys work as they ought to, unlocking things by default whenever you want them to. The inventory manages itself nicely, not only by stowing items in your tote bag but by taking care of any other business before you put something away (e.g., “You close your wallet and put it in your pocket.”). In fact, the game almost never refuses to let you do something just because you haven’t completed another trivial action first, but almost always does your accounting for you. These may seem like minor features individually, but they collectively leave the playing experience remarkably smooth and free of frustration, allowing the player to get on with the fun parts.

The NPCs are also quite well-handled. They’re not deep creatures with complex backgrounds, but they suit the story to which they belong very well, and they’re certainly not placeholders. Some are infuriating, some are endearing, and they mostly give a convincing imitation of having their own agendas and work to do. There are quite a few points where NPCs move around on the map, or become available for conversation due to time, which helps. Conversation is via ask/tell, but with some good additional features: the TOPICS command will suggest whether there’s any conversation that would be especially appropriate at the moment, and sometimes during the conversation the interface will offer a set of alternatives in parentheses, like so: “(You can apologize for pouring chocolate milk on Joe or tell him about the napkins.)” Whenever it is contextually appropriate to say yes or no, these commands are also handled properly.

Time within the game is somehow managed in such a way that it reflects your progress but still seems to pass naturally. There are no incongruous or blatant leaps where you solve a puzzle and suddenly it’s sunset. At the same time, you have a watch, and it keeps progressing. I’m not quite sure how this was done, but it works wonderfully. As for the story, it’s not terribly serious, but it is very well integrated with the puzzles, and never threatens to outshine them. Though I did feel a certain amount of urgency to find out what was going on and (even more importantly) to outwit my competition, it remained fairly light-spirited throughout. It’s possible that some people will be a little put off by the game’s unabashed geek factor. This is a game about engineers, and though you can get past the puzzles even if you don’t know much engineering, things may seem a bit alien if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t enjoy fiddling with machinery. The hint system provides some background for people who aren’t familiar with hex or don’t know what an IP address is, but the fact that this is necessary gives you some idea of what the game is like. Occasionally at the beginning I was a little nervous both about the large scope of the map and the technical sound of some puzzles, and worried that I might be getting in over my head. But I never *actually* got stuck, and after a while I found myself relaxing and trusting the game. If you’re actively bored by physics and electronics, this may not be the game for you, but if you’re merely a little daunted by the beginning, don’t worry. It’s all manageable. Overall, then, Return to Ditch Day is a very solid, enjoyable game, with strong design and classy implementation. It promises good things to come from T3, as well.”



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