October 25, 2013

Mini-review: Return to Pleasantville by Lamont Sanford

Lamont Sanford announced himself on the AIF scene in 2012 with Peril in Pleasantville. It was a hugely ambitious game that failed to reach the heights it aspired to. The writing was generally of poor quality, it was buggy, the genre suddenly (and jarringly) changed to science-fiction halfway through, and it was very obviously 'inspired' by SD3 and Meteor (by which I mean that a number of elements were direct lifts). 

Despite those problems, playing PiP was actually a lot of fun. Although not a great writer, Lamont Sanford does have a good ear for dialogue, which came to the fore in the many 'ask' responses and really helped the characters come alive. There were also several interesting puzzles and Easter eggs to figure out, and in general it had a sense of unselfconscious fun that reminded me of the early days of AIF. Since then LS has released two other games (The Adventures of Super-Schlong and Gasparillo), neither of which made much of an impact. Now he's released a sequel to PiP, the inventively named Return to Pleasantville. So what’s it like?

Simply put, I found it to be a major disappointment. Nearly all of the original's problems are repeated. Despite increased beta testing this time around, minor bugs abound, and the game was so unstable that the undo function had to be disabled. From the very first paragraph the writing is filled with comma splices, misused punctuation, and simple spelling mistakes. The plot switches from 'slice of life' to horror for no obvious reason. And, again, there are elements that are very obviously 'borrowed' from GoblinBoy's games. The fact that RtP is LS's fourth released game makes this all the more disappointing, since by this point he should be showing some signs of progressing as an author.

However, it's not those problems that are not my major criticism of RtP, it’s the absence of all the things that made PiP enjoyable. The well-implemented characters from PiP that I'd grown to like are largely absent, and their replacements are barely implemented at all. All the PC can do is flirt with them and then fuck them. The fucking itself is pretty unexciting, with few of the scenes having anything to make them memorable. That's a problem when at least half-a-dozen of them fit the basic description 'PC and girl he's just met fuck in bar toilets'. The sex scenes are also highly dependent on the use of graphics, with a ratio of one picture per sentence of text. As far as I could tell there were no real puzzles, apart from a maze at the end (and mazes ceased being acceptable in interactive fiction almost twenty years ago). In fact, there's little in the game world that you can interact with at all, even if the absence of both undo and save functionality didn't already discourage experimentation.

RtP is a game of two halves. On day 1 the PC wanders aimlessly around Pleasantville. The town feels like it's shrunk since PiP because so many of the locations are either closed or inaccessible. Unlike the various Easter egg scenes in the first game, which each formed a little mini-story, the vast majority of the random women the PC can interact with exist only to be fucked by the PC. Sure, you can flirt with a girl, arrange a date with her and then flirt with her some more. But there’s no real story or character development so it’s all instantly forgettable. Although LS has obviously taken GoblinBoy as his model, he differs from him in his apparent unwillingness to inject any drama into the PC's life. As a result none of the scenes have any repercussions. Even though he’s got a girlfriend (plus two 'friends with benefits'), the PC can happily screw random stranger after random stranger. When he's finished with them, the girls disappear out of his life, never to be seen or heard from again. It all feels utterly meaningless, and I was glad to get to day 2.

How wrong I was. Day 2 takes the form of a camping trip (where have we heard that before?) and consists of a long non-interactive cut scene, followed by a moment of freedom, followed by another long non-interactive cut scene. As with PiP, the game suddenly and pointlessly changes genres, becoming splatter horror. You might think this would lead to some interesting puzzles as you outsmart the fiends, but no. All you can do is run until they catch you or you find your way out of the maze. Oh, and RtP's only interesting new character gets pointlessly killed off in a cut scene. If you survive, the PC’s girlfriend finally makes an appearance and they decide to be exclusive for no obvious reason (other than the fact something similar happened in SD3), and the game is over.

The most obvious problem with RtP's design is that day 1 and day 2 are so different that they might as well have been separate games. Day 1 is entirely irrelevant to what happens on day 2 (apart from picking who's going camping with you), and vice versa. The most obvious way in which RtP could have been improved would be to ditch one of the days. The question is, which one?

I don't think many people would have complained if a sequel to PiP had been "more of the same" (ie. day 1). However, one of the weaknesses of literal time (ie. one turn equals two minutes in this case) is that it makes the gaps between scenes seem larger and emptier. To compensate, the scenes have to bigger and more memorable, not short and forgettable, which means more work for the author. I also think that day 1 needed some sort of plot to make it more coherent. Even Gamma Girls (the rompiest game I can think of) had more of a plot than the PC being slightly jealous of Emily's new boyfriend (something that is resolved on day 2 in the laziest way imaginable).

The more interesting option would have been to make day 2 a standalone game. With the exception of Chris, all of the characters had been previously introduced in PiP so much of the groundwork has already been done. The smaller cast and gameworld also means that there could be a focus on quality, rather than quantity. Without the distraction of day 1, the horror elements could have been foreshadowed better (ie. at all) and perhaps serve as the pretext for some interesting puzzles.

As it is, trying to crowbar both day 1 and day 2 into the same game stretched the author's resources too thin, and neither was successful. Lamont Sanford should be applauded for his energy and dedication, but unfortunately this game represents a step back for him in terms of story, characterisation and gameplay.

13 comments:

  1. I expected a 2nd day where the choices of the first day carry through.... I was disappointed the second things went weird again.

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    1. Not to mention that despite Emily being all over Chris on day 1, if you get her alone on day 2 she hurls herself at you without the slightest hesitation. Nothing means anything.

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    2. I enjoy conflict in aif, i wouldn't mind her jumping on you (Its possible that you two were together in the previous game) if there was some kind of repercussion for it from Chris or another character catching you out.

      Like you said in the review, Lamont Sanford takes a lot from Goblinboy (Even calling your girlfriend "Becky Johnson") one thing he did not take was the conflict that ensues after sleeping with Melissa.

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    3. I got the characters a little mixed up, There is a Becky Johnson, but she is not your girlfriend...

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    4. Given that Becky was the girl the PC was lusting over in the first game (despite having a girlfriend), it's an easy mistake to make. And given the absence of Katie, Becky might as well be the PC's girlfriend in this game.

      If there's one idea that GB introduced to AIF (and which I really should have covered in my retrospective) it's that the PC's actions can have negative consequences. That's certainly something LS hasn't copied, since in both Pleasantville games everything magically works out for the PC no matter what he does. For example, in this game even though the PC becomes exclusive with Katie by the end he doesn't have to worry about his other women (Becky, Olivia, Emily) 'cheating' on him because they're all single (for one reason or another). And of course Katie didn't cheat on him either, even though they agreed on an open relationship.

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  2. I've yet to explore most of the Day 1 options, but I admit I didn't understand this game at all. So much so that I'm not sure I'm willing to try to figure out some of the encounters on my own. I just don't value the effort.

    The timer, irritating enough in the first game, is *beyond* annoying in this one, since so little happens in most locations. At least the first game has school, and a lot of examine-able and "think about"-able content. LS recommends going to the shows at the club, but there's still a huge time-suck (the player's, not in-game) involved. As with PiP, a "skip [time]" command is grossly necessary. I'm sympathetic to the argument that it would break the game, but not sympathetic enough from a player's standpoint.

    But from a perspective of not having played all the Day 1 options, so maybe I'm missing some tie-in, Day 2 seems like an entirely different game. *Again.* (As you say.) If, as I'm told, you can get Olivia and Becky to the cabin, does that affect Day 2 at all? And why should I care?

    Why is the PC having fun sex with his girlfriend after watching ritual murder and being chased by demons who aren't, as far as we know, dead?

    Why monogamy? For what purpose?

    Why is [spoiler] dead at the end of the game? What's the point? The character is barely introduced and then killed off, and while this *should* be consequential for the PC given his relationship with [spoiler] in the previous game, it's not. At all.

    The editing is atrocious. And there are so many badly implemented things in the game. (Intercom button?) Why identify locations that you can't visit?

    The graphics are quite good, the sound's good, the parts of the game that are implemented well are implemented well (and tautologically).

    But Day 1 isn't a game. Or rather, it's a game waiting for someone to explode the code and write a walkthrough, because it's annoying otherwise.

    Day 2 is a game, or at least could have been. Everyone was tied up, and then flees, and so little was done with it. GoP3 actually did far better with this scenario than RtP. In Day 2, there is (I think) a creepy GoP3 or (some recent LoP game I can't remember the name of) thing going on that could sustain a short game of "save X or Y or Z" intrigue and some interesting puzzles. But there aren't even any of those. It's just "run the maze."

    I share your disappointment. I actually hoped for improvement, but this was indeed a step back.

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    1. Oh, I see you've written a beta walkthrough.

      I admit, this does not fill me with eagerness to play through all the options. Without a save option, it just seems like an agony of repeat-z-ing.

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    2. That's basically how I wrote the walkthrough: going to each location and then waiting to see if anything happened. I gave up on actually trying to 'play' the game quite quickly.

      "Why is [spoiler] dead at the end of the game?"
      Given that he was being built up as a rival to the PC it was hugely anti-climactic. But so was the fact that she cheated on him with barely the slightest prodding.
      It's basically the same thing that happened in the second half of PiP, with Lance being conveniently written out without the PC having to do anything.

      "Why monogamy? For what purpose?"
      Maybe the PC realises that his life of endless casual sex is meaningless and unsatisfying. I doubt that was the intention, but day 1 got me thinking that way.

      "But from a perspective of not having played all the Day 1 options, so maybe I'm missing some tie-in"
      As far as I can tell there is no tie-in. The only day 1 decision that matters is who you invite to go camping and that only changes the actors, not the script.

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  3. "Maybe the PC realises that his life of endless casual sex is meaningless and unsatisfying."

    My sides hurt from laughing.

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  4. I wanted to write my review before I read yours, and I think you are pretty spot-on, though I felt like I ended up enjoying the game a little more.

    By the end of the game, I really, really wished that Sanford had just jettisoned the first half of the game and focused on the second half, including more of the characters from the original game with a bit more in terms of puzzles and branching storylines.

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    1. I think I perhaps my expectations going in were slightly higher than yours. I think the major problems (ie. the quality of the writing and the number of bugs) were failures of execution that could be blamed on a first-time author taking on a far too ambitious project. Conversely the intent seemed to be in the right place. If you talked to them (as I did, because there wasn't much else to do at school) the NPCs had a lot of implemented responses, and there were some nice puzzles. The only real misstep was the alien subplot, but at least that was adequately foreshadowed.

      So while I think we agree that PiP falls into the 'so bad it's good category', I still had some faint hope that LS could overcome his problems with construction and produce a better game. RTP clearly isn't it, in terms of both construction and intent, hence my greater disappointment.

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    2. Seem to have a problem, can't see the time, only the location and the day

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    3. Examine your phone. This is mentioned in the readme file.

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