IF Comp 2009 – Grounded in Space

Today’s RSS feed filler is a poem, following Victor Gijsbers’ example:

Henry Charles Beeching (1859-1919)

Going down Hill on a Bicycle
-A Boy’s Song-

With lifted feet, hands still,
I am poised, and down the hill
Dart, with heedful mind;
The air goes by in a wind.

Swifter and yet more swift,
Till the heart with a mighty lift
Makes the lungs laugh, the throat cry:
‘O bird, see; see, bird, I fly.

‘Is this, is this your joy?
O bird, then I, though a boy
For a golden moment share
Your feathery life in air!’

Say, heart, is there aught like this
In a world that is full of bliss?
‘Tis more than skating, bound
Steel-shod to the level ground.

Speed slackens now, I float
Awhile in my airy boat;
Till, when the wheels scarce crawl,
My feet to the treadles fall.

Alas, that the longest hill
Must end in a vale; but still,
Who climbs with toil, wheresoe’er,
Shall find wings waiting there.

Now for the Comp game’s spoiler-free summary: Competent writing, but quite short. Recommended if you like systematic puzzles and/or “Hard SciFi”.

(Warning! Spoilers follow!)

Grounded In Space
An Inadvertent Adventure

by Matt Wigdahl
System: Glulx

Testing your homebuilt rocket engine outside sounded like a good idea, until you incinerated Mom’s greenhouse.
Now Dad thinks that a few weeks away from the home asteroid mining the Belt alone might teach you some self-reliance and caution…

This sounds like a funny setting, but the rest of “Grounded in Space” actually is quite straightforwardly serious.

The game is solidly crafted, although a few objects/synonyms are not implemented (in the relevant places, >x hangar, >x racks, >x probes, >x ship all produce “You can’t see any such thing.”).

The writing is good. The succinct location descriptions generally convey what’s necessary, the NPCs are effectively characterised, the prose flows well. The only problem is that the game is too short: there’s simply not very much to see, and there are few people to meet. The game takes place almost entirely on a small space ship, and you can neither explore the family’s home asteroid nor any other locations. The hero’s father and the damsel-in-distress Laura Wildsmith are only cut-scene NPCs with whom you cannot converse.

Being sent off for “a few weeks”, reading the copious instructions on the ship’s computer, and seeing the EVA suit and the airlock all led me to expect a much bigger game. I thought I would do (more) asteroid mining (possibly having to acquire various minerals), I’d quarrel with the Wildsmiths over the Spinward Claim and I’d have to repair my ship from outside.

Some of that did happen, but only in an abridged version. I only mined a single asteroid, and that sequence was marked mostly by the computer telling me what to do, and me following. I was tempted to do it Captain-Picard-style and just tell the computer “Make it so!”. The struggle for territory turned out to be not against the Wildsmiths, but against a mercenary who was doing the dirty work for a big corporation. This small subversion of expectations was a nice touch, but it stayed firmly in the realm of “old Western plot transposed into space”, which does not make for an intricate, involved storyline.

I still spent quite some time with the game, because it took me a while to solve the central puzzle, which consists in directing a laser beam via reflectors through nine ignition points in a square grid. Although the author does a decent job of describing the situation, I still had a hard time visualizing everything correctly. Going by the game’s diagram, I would expect the emitter to be at X and Y coordinates of 0, not at 0 and 8 (metres), respectively. Also, I know that the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection, and usually they are measured from a line perpendicular to the reflecting surface. So when the game says that the beam reflects at an angle of 180 degrees, that was a bit difficult to picture in my mind. Also (and this is really of key importance for the solution), I didn’t imagine the chamber as being wider than the grid of ignition points (Why should it be, really? Why waste valuable room on a space ship by constructing a chamber that is too big?).

Partly due to these issues, but mostly due to my laziness (and because I thought that there would still be a lot to see after the puzzle), I took a quick peek at the walkthrough after fiddling around a bit.

This is a clever and well-coded puzzle, and it provides that certain now-I-see-the-light-moment when one finally thinks of the logical solution. I’ve seen the same puzzle in printed form already (not with the laser context, of course — it was about drawing lines over dots), and it’s probably just attributable to me being dense that I didn’t recognize it before.

The big gripe I have about this puzzle is that it would be much easier in a real-world situation. If you were actually there, you’d obviously see the chamber, the beam, the reflectors, the distances, the angles and so on. The author does not do a bad job of describing the setup, but this is still a lot more complicated in interactive fiction than it would be in real life.

After this puzzle, the endgame follows fairly immediately. I found the finale to be a bit confusing: My ship’s computer tells me about the pirate’s actions, but the viewscreen at first only shows the frozen image of Laura Wildsmith’s emergency message. It seems that I have to fly to the Wildsmiths before the computer can show me the positions of the Wildsmiths’ home asteroid and the pirate vessel… but before that, the computer knew such details as “Unknown vessel has opened an external hatch and is launching a lifter” (whatever that is). Also, when I arrive at the Wildsmiths, my screen shows the asteroid which I mined earlier – how come that the screen can suddenly display faraway objects? Also, I’d have liked to be able to communicate with Laura or the pirate.

To close on a positive note, I really liked the multiple endings. They were well-written, wrapped things up, and felt like a good reward for finishing — that’s how they should be.

Summary: A competent work, but it revolves around one central puzzle and is too short otherwise.

A transcript of my playing session is available upon request, just drop me an e-mail at michaelNOSPAMnealNOSPAMtenuisATgmail.com. (Replace the NOSPAM with “.” and, obviously, the AT with the @ sign).

— Michael

P. S.: Why are BOTH of the Wildsmiths away to respond to the Vesta claim, leaving their 14-to-15-year-old daughter alone?


1 Comment »

  1. matt w Said:

    when the game says that the beam reflects at an angle of 180 degrees

    I’m pretty sure that the angles described here are all measured absolutely, from (I think) due east. So if you set up the reflectors to reflect the beam north then west, it’ll describe the beam as reflecting at a 90 degree angle then a 180 degree angle, even though it’s what most of us would describe as two 90 degree reflections.

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