Thursday, April 19, 2012

Spring Thing 2012 - Review: The White Bull by Jim Aikin

Here's my last review for the Sprint Thing 2012.

This game is in TADS and has given me the chance to try the new QTads interpreter for Mac. Two thumbs up! The new QTads interpreter for Mac has no icon. Two thumbs down.

Looks like we start even, here.


The White Bull is a very good game. Let's start by saying this because, as it always happens in my reviews, I'll go down on the flaws more than on the merits. And I don't want you to feel like I disliked this game, because I didn't. It will win the Competition for sure (although I think in the same exact way as Jenni Polodna does, here) due to its perfect implementation and size.

The story: You are a boyfriend -- and that's about as much as it can be told about the PC. Your girlfriend Julia is a sort of crazy archaeologist who found herself believing the Minos' Labyrinth really existed, while all of the scientific community obviously thinks different.
So, now you are on a boat determined to reach this sacred island (a very small rock lost amidst the oceans, I would say) and to find the Minotaur. Or sort of.

The premises all go in the same direction and the first half hour of play doesn't tweak it a bit: This is the kind of story for an action movie starring Jessica Biel and Timothy Olyphant. She's hollywood-beautiful, he has the face Apollo would wear for the best parties in Olympus. And the guts, of course. The other two players are obviously redshirts who will eventually die or trigger the armageddon or later become known as the evil ones. Some mythological background, a Great Underground Empire, some creature, a happily-ever-after finale. 

I like it. At the beginning (before playing the game, actually) I thought this was another Ancient Greece game in which Stiffy Makane does White Bulls too, but this is fortunately not the case.

Once on the island, things begin becoming creepy and the story unfolding. There's this barefoot girl (creepy), this old-man-who-knows (creepy), the usual object-which-triggers-the-armageddon (creepy), the male rival, the other girl (the one who eventually gets killed/pinned to a hook in a barn/blown to pieces with a bone sticking out of her leg or something). 

And the cave.

The setting is nice and works absolutely great. The exact number of rooms, not one more, and even a fake maze for another joke on ancient IF's mazes. The map is smaller during play than how it may appear from the unreliable maps provided with the game (nice trick stating "this map is not guaranteed to be correct or complete", it adds to the tension) and can be travelled at ease. At least the island part of the game: the Labyrinth map seems quite necessary to progress.

The writing is quick to the point though non-sketchy and this helps concentrating on the game. The story is narrated through interaction and events and the medium is (as one would expect from a veteran like Aikin) used at its best.

There is graphics and there is music, although both seem irrelevant to the game apart from adding (a bit) to the atmosphere. The music especially seems to have been ripped from the recent Xyzzy take-all CryptoZooKeeper, and doesn't quite fit the atmosphere, in my opinion. Given the premises, I would have expected something Jessica Biel/Tim Olyphant-ist, you know. Or, at least (pairing with the actual mood the game gets in very fast), something more dark and less happy.

The implementation is very strong (again: as we would expect from a veteran), although something still needs tweaking, imho. Trying to attack an NPC (the lousy Leo, which nobody will like, eventually) I get the response "You can't attack him!". Well: if this is standard Tads answer to >KILL X, I surely prefer the more Informesque "Violence isn't the answer." If it is a choice by Jim Aikin... please now you tell me why I can't. I want that sucker feel my fists. Holding me from doing that is bullying.
Another (bad) implementation issue is the fact that in my walkthrough I never entered the temple before day 2. The lady and the bull just got me high* enuf to try and find coverage, if you know what I mean. Nonetheless, the description of the said temple is something like "It seems longer/bigger/whatsoever than the first time you've been here."
But I've never been here, so that should really be addressed.

(I know: It is the kind of thing beta-testers usually don't catch. Make me the lucky guy).

Puzzle-wise, the game is brilliant. Although some of the midgame enigmas needed the provided hint system (also: nice work), they are pretty logical though not obvious. I particularly liked the dark cave in which you get to find the [important thing I'm not going to mention] using [the other object]. At the same time, I particularly disliked a couple of other puzzles. They involved looking behind scenery and searching a particular place twice. This is old style and absolutely deprecated, as many players made me aware of during last IFComp. So, now, you all go in your blogs and rant the hell out of Jim that looking behind scenery or doing the same action two times to solve a puzzle is BAD DESIGN. Or else I go crying in a corner 'cause you obviously don't love me at all.

The parser seems to understand or have a reply almost for everything I tried and that we could expect from a veteran (have I said this before?). I jumped on my seat when trying to XYZZY and the game exclaimed: "Gesundheit!".

I decided not to spoil The White Bull by resorting to the walkthrough and played it for 3 evenings just to get into the Labyrinth. It is the kind of IF that lives on that unnerving dichotomy of review/vote Vs. enjoy: If one has to vote for it (or write a professional review) he should have played it to completion; Too bad, doing so harms the time spent on it and spoils all the fun. Fortunately, I'm no professional reviewer, so no big deal.

Thus, that opens a door into a whole new territory.

What about in-game hints? Someone seems to love them. I'm quite certain about the contrary. I grew up in a world where (when?) the Internet was sci-fi and where you had to bang your head on a game for months when you got stuck somewhere. A couple of monthly magazines gave solutions or bits of walkthroughs for some game and you had to wait till you grew a grey beard to complete a piece of IF. I'm not exactly sure I finished Leather Goddesses of Phobos until after 1998.
Now we have the InvisiClues™ directly implemented in the game and, though this makes the experience on average far less frustrating, I guess no-one can feel anymore that sensation you got when finally understanding that the Tee Remover was to be used on the Rabbit. Betatesting games, lately, an environment where coders usually refuse to give off a walkthrough, I understood how resorting to hints can spoil a game. And I'm the kind of guy that, at 1AM, presses the "H" to get another clue rather than press "ESC", save the game and go to bed because "tomorrow will bring the solution".

Well, whatever.

Recapping the review, I must tell this game gives a very good experience. The story unfolds during play and not at the very beginning -- how much I hate the ones that go "there are 10 treasures, get them all and put them in a cupboard" --, the NPCs although not that deep are living and loving (or hating: you know who I am talking about), the puzzles are fine and the mood is engaging. It goes on for a while and the atmosphere builds up a bit at a time, like a full-length movie. Like a full-length movie it is funny, interesting, puzzling and sends good vibes. The White Bull flows so smooth that it will stay in your minds forever, exactly like a very good, perfectly written and almost perfectly implemented full-length movie.

If only it featured Jessica Biel and Tim Olyphant...

Giant Red • Small White • Orange Glowing • Azure • Cyanotic


* Let's try and rationalize, here: There's a scene, in-game, where the incredibly beautiful Fawn, the Girl with the Extremely Beautiful Name Also, starts licking her lips at the sight of the enormous beast who gives the game a title. If this is not the kind of soft porn that you'd expect in a game about a White Bull, then we are talking different languages, here. That said, c'mon. A bull?! In ancient Greece everything could be believable, but nowadays we should have respect with animals whose names became synonyms for overabundance...


  1. "The music especially seems to have been ripped from the recent Xyzzy take-all CryptoZooKeeper"

    Note that the music was created by Jim. It was not taken from anywhere.

    1. Yes, I have no doubt.

      I was just trying to say that they SOUND like the ones from CZK. Actually they don't even sound THAT MUCH like CZK's music, but I felt the same atmosphere.

      I wasn't trying to say he stole that from somewhere!