April 24, 2012

Review: Camping Trip by Goblinboy

I wrote the first draft of this review in 2009, in anticipation of the release of the illustrated Camping Trip, which was then 'imminent'. A year later, when it was clear that it was no such thing, I cleaned it up a bit and posted it on this blog. Recently a poster on aifarchive decided to ask what had happened to it, which developed into a discussion of the School Dream series in general. That motivated me to actually replay Camping Trip again and I ended up revising some of my opinions so I've decided to revise the review as well.

Pared down to its bare essentials, the plot of Camping Trip presents its protagonist with a classic problem. Should he wait for the pure and innocent blonde that he has real feelings for, or should he go with the slutty red-headed sexbomb who’s willing to put out right now?

Prior to the release of Camping Trip, most AIF didn't see that as a problem, and the PC was typically allowed to live the fantasy of having his cake and eating it too. However, in Camping Trip it's a meaningful choice for two reasons. The first is that it sends the story down one of two divergent branches (although they ultimately re-converge at the end), which in 2006 was a radical innovation. I remember being blown away by the concept, and it was certainly my dominant memory of Camping Trip when I first came to replay after the release of SD3.

The second reason is that the decision potentially has negative consequences for the PC. Previously in AIF, if the PC cheated on his girlfriend she either never found out about it (eg. Last Hurrah) or she was actively encouraging it (eg. Gamma Girls). In Camping Trip, not only can Becky find out, but it drives her into the arms of the PC's rival, which is a dramatically powerful moment. The idea that decisions have consequences is a distinguishing feature of many of Goblinboy's games, and I think is part of what lifts them above being simple wish fulfilment tales.

Although these factors ensured Camping Trip's place in AIF history, I think they're executed better in Goblinboy's later games. Looked at objectively, the choice confronting the PC isn't in the same class as 'Betty or Veronica?'. Becky is the girl the PC has had a crush on for ages, while Melissa is the school bike (and presumably the PC could have had a ride by now if he wanted). However, the protagonist's age makes it somewhat believable, and doesn't alter the fact that it is a significant choice within the context of the game.

The problem is that that's almost the only choice the player ever gets to make. It would be facetious but literally true to describe Camping Trip as a character-driven game, as the NPCs are always telling the PC what to do next. Mike suggests the bet and spying on the girls, Melissa suggests playing spin the bottle and going on a hike, Becky tells the PC when they're going to have a meaningful conversation, and so on. In effect the player is railroaded through the story. Sometimes the plot train even stops at a station and the player has to wait patiently for one of the NPCs to announce the next destination.

Camping Trip succeeds brilliantly in the one place where it's non-linear, but I found the rest of the plot to be much less satisfying and compared to SD3 it feels extremely restrictive. Fortunately the basic story is interesting and eventful, which makes the passivity it forces on the player more bearable.

Mike is probably the strongest character in Camping Trip, which is reflected by the Best Male NPC Erin that he won. That award described him as a character you "love to hate", which begs the question of why the PC is friends with him. After all, Mike gets the PC to agree to a bet despite the terms being wholly to Mike's advantage. Would you really give someone else permission to hit on your girlfriend just as you were getting somewhere with her, bet or no? Again, the PC's age gives this situation a veneer of believability, but the fact that the player can probably see that Mike is taking advantage of the PC makes Mike an unlikeable character, as well as increasing the distance between player and protagonist.

Typically, Goblinboy's preference is to leave the PC as undetailed as possible, which can be both a blessing and a curse. It's a blessing in a game like SD3 where the player has a lot of different options open to them, and can thus personalise the PC by the choices they have him make. However, in the case of Camping Trip where the player is straitjacketed by the plot, I think it's more of a curse. Given the actions the plot forces the PC to take, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that he has a very similar outlook to Mike and doesn't have any deep feelings for Becky (which makes the PC's 'anger' after catching her with Mike seem much more manipulative), so there's really little point in keeping him undetailed. The only other possibility that occurs to me is that the PC is simply not very bright, and is therefore oblivious to how Mike manipulates him. That's inadvertently supported by how rarely the plot allows the PC to do anything of his own initiative.

Melissa is the closest to being a straight stereotype. That isn't problematic in itself as 'types' are a convenient characterisation shorthand, but the plot requires us to believe that she and "prim and proper, Miss Becky Johnson" know and like each other well enough to have a side bet of their own going. Given what Melissa says about Becky when she's not around, that hardly seems likely. Those comments wouldn't endear her to someone who likes Becky either, but Melissa’s nasty streak is one of the things that lifts her above being a mere stereotype.

Becky, as she appeared in the November 2009 issue of Inside Erin
(Copyright 2009 Goblinboy)
Looking at Becky now, I find it hard to avoid seeing her through the prism of SD3. That was certainly a trap I fell into when I first wrote this review and described her as "more rounded and believable" than Melissa. It is true that Becky is superficially the more realistic character, especially once Melissa starts telling the PC about some of her exploits. However, in my opinion what stops Becky from being a believable character is the extent to which her actions are driven by the demands of the plot. For instance, the player is forced to believe that she's both a shy virgin and the sort of girl who lets another guy stick his hand down her shirt if you turn your back on her for ten minutes. Yes, it's a plot device to suggest that Mike has a chance of winning the bet, but it's far from believable. Even less believable is the way she hurls herself at Mike if she catches the PC with Melissa, a reaction that made me fear for her mental state. If their positions are reversed, Becky seems desperate to earn the PC's forgiveness, which is ultimately why she gives up her virginity to him. Hardly the most romantic of situations, and it doesn't paint Becky in the most flattering of lights either. The whole thing is rendered less believable by the fact that it's never revealed why the PC inspires such devotion. In fact, it's just conceivable that Becky's behaviour is merely an act she's using to help her win her bet with Melissa.

For their time, the NPCs of Camping Trip were well implemented. However, I think that Goblinboy's ability to write characters for interactive fiction improved greatly over the next three years. Like the plot, the characters of Camping Trip are a mixture of good and bad. The troughs aren't as deep, but the peaks aren't as high either.

If Camping Trip has an obvious weakness it's probably the room descriptions, which are functional in that they tell you what the room is and where the exits are, but don't add anything to the game. Descriptions of characters are likewise minimalist, giving you enough detail to distinguish a voluptuous redhead from a slender blonde but not much more. This is one area where the addition of pictures could improve the game. A picture isn't necessarily worth a thousand words, but it's certainly more evocative than a bland two sentence description. Seeing Mike in his full Hawaiian-shirted glory would count as something of a mixed blessing though.

I don’t think that Camping Trip’s weaknesses in this area were due to Goblinboy being a poor writer, although he's certainly improved over the last six years. However, it’s fairly clear that non-sexual description is the part of making a game that he has the least interest in.

Although it looks like there's a lot of sex in Camping Trip, there's actually slightly less than you might think as quite a bit of text gets reused in multiple scenes (I even noticed a few lines that make a return appearance in SD3). A side effect of the arousal system used in Camping Trip (and most AIF at the time) is that the player will see a lot of repetitions of the same lines anyway, so using them in different scenes doesn't make things that much worse (and a man who implements a foursome has some excuse for taking shortcuts elsewhere). This is another area in which adding pictures could improve the experience for the player. Different pictures would reinforce the fact that they're different scenes, even if some of the text was the same.

However, I didn’t find any of the scenes as involving as I might have, which I think is a consequence of the passive role that the player is forced to take. The player doesn’t so much pursue the two girls as wait patiently until the plot delivers them. It didn’t help that I don’t find either Mike or Melissa to be likeable characters, which is probably why I’d nominate the foursome as the scene I had the least interest in. It’s a kind of epilogue, so it doesn’t relate to the main story in any way and, like the bet, the plot train runs over the PC. He’s in a ménage a quatre now, like it or not. Still, you can't deny that it's technically impressive. Then, as now, foursomes were rare commodities and it probably deserved the Erin it won on that basis.

Camping Trip lacks much in the way of non-sexual gameplay. As mentioned above, there's only one point where the player is given any freedom to act. Otherwise, he's just led around by the nose since the game (in the shape of the NPCs) always provides clear instructions regarding what the player should do next. Likewise, outside of the sex scenes, the gameworld provides very little that can be interacted with.

From small things like being able to unbutton or lift clothing to more obvious technical flourishes like the dynamically generated daydreams, Camping Trip is a highly accomplished game. It's all the more impressive when you remember that it was only Goblinboy's second release.

Of course, nothing is ever perfect. In particular, the daydreams seem like a waste of effort given how unerotic they are. It would also have been nice if Becky's response to be asked about Mike changed after the PC catches her with him. And the decision not to at least implement a response to trying to hit Mike frankly mystifies me. But those little quibbles can't overshadow just how strong Camping Trip is in a technical sense.

Final Thoughts
Camping Trip was undoubtedly the game that made Goblinboy one of the AIF community's pre-eminent writers, although he quickly surpassed it with Key To Eternity. Camping Trip's main strength is its design and the amount of effort that went into converting that design into a reality, something that's become a Goblinboy hallmark. The weaknesses are perfunctory descriptions and a plot in which the PC is largely a passenger.

Although Camping Trip is a sentimental favourite of many, it's now six years old and it just doesn't measure up to Goblinboy's more recent works. For that reason, my gut reaction is against rereleasing it with pictures because that would only invite closer comparisons with SD3. A 'gold version' that improved the writing, plotting and gameplay would be the preferable option in my opinion, especially since some rewriting would be required anyway, since Camping Trip explicitly states that many of SD3's characters are underage. However, given how much work that would require, I'm unconvinced that it would be worth the effort.

Camping Trip has earned its place in AIF history, but ultimately it is history now. Let it rest in peace.

Overall score = 66%

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