Sci-Fi (formerly Jet-Blue) (review)

Everyone remembers the big names, the Shorts, the Cadres. Everyone also remembers the spectacularly bad names, the Pankses, the Celsiuses. To some people, the names Andy Phillips or Robb Sherwin are immediately recognisable because those authors have such a particular style; and John Evans is practically synonimous with ambitious, amazingly interesting gimmicks in games broken beyond use.

It’s easy to forget the authors who did some things very well, and with a passion, but whose games just never really measured up, or were never memorable enough.

Cases in point: David Batterham, author of Opening night, and Paul T. Johnson. Author of House of the Midnight Sun and Jet-Blue, games which he later revamped extensively into the games Dracula: Prince of Darkness and Sci-Fi.

I found those two Jonhson games very appealing. Dracula is very oldschool, and wears that on its sleeve unashamedly. There is no brilliance, no stroke of genius, hardly a story at all, but there is good, solid, puzzley entertainment and an accomplished atmosphere. It’s easy to dismiss these games as forgettable - but also a damn shame, because there’s something there. Something not bound by our usual IF conventions.

Sci-Fi’s ABOUT menu has some lengthy introductions, and the biggest acknowledgements are to Poe and 2001: Space Odyssey. Those are dead right. This author has managed to capture some of the atmosphere of Poe (very occasionally) and some of the atmosphere of 2001 (very often). The sense of surreality that you get in the last act of 2001 pervades this entire game, with some pieces of clear-cut reality invading much like the HAL sequence. I could not conceive of a better hommage to 2001; while lacking its scale and, of course, all of the multimedia experiences that make it a true Space Opera, it got the atmosphere, the feeling, very right. It mostly misses on the wonderment and goes mostly for bewilderment, true, but there is wonder to be experienced. There is scale. Just not 2001 style.

Poe references are also proeminent, but the direct ones are surprising: liberal use of the words Psyche and Ulalume, taken out of context and planted into game elements. Well, they work, and I can think of worse hommages.

The game is mostly story-driven, with three straight-up (easy) puzzles at the end. The writing is…

…I’m hesitating here. I’m not sure I can call the writing good, by the IF standards I’m used to. In fact, I’m not sure I can even call the game good, because it’s so linear and so transparent in everything it does. You get the bewildering beginning; in the second part you get into a lengthy ask-tell exposition; then you enter the final act and solve some puzzles. This is unusual design.

But that’s what I really, really like about it, when all’s said and done. Paul Jonhson wanted to make this game. He did not want to make an IF game, he did not want to make an Adventure clone, he wanted to pay hommage to 2001 and incorporate Poe - and he did, in his own way. And because he loves those subjects so much, that love comes through and makes the whole a lot better than you thought it could be. You don’t feel like you’re playing an IF game; you feel like you’re playing Paul Johnson’s game.

By the way, let me clarify: this is not a game full of newbie mistakes. Oh no. The programming is solid. You’ll never think for a moment that you’re playing a game whose author got too big for his britches.

In conclusion, I recommend this game. It’s not very highly rated, and I can understand why that is, but it’s not a game to be easily dismissed. What it achieves is at least engaging and entertaining; what it undertook to do, and how it did it, remains different enough to merit attention.

There are no mention of more modern games from this author, which I find a shame - and a repeating pattern. Maybe some people have a finite number of stories they can / want to tell before they move on to other pastures… in which case I can only say, thank you, Paul T. Johnson, David Batterham and all the other authors who gave us something to remember. Something that wasn’t flashy, something that wasn’t trashy; something that didn’t change our world; but something that did ring true somewhere inside us, and which makes us remember your game for a long time. Thank you both and thank you all.

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Er, upon re-reading, maybe I should make something clear - I mention Robb Sherwin because, Robb, your games are immediately recognizable. Your style is unique; a stamp. But re-reading I wonder whether the context I’ve placed you in is… not the one I intended. Are you ok with the way I wrote it, or would you rather I rephrashed it? Does it come across that I’m making no judgement on either you or Andy Philips except by saying that it’s instantly obvious which games you’ve authored, thus praising you both with having distinctive voices, styles and personalities?

Ha, Peter, you never, ever have to worry about how your posts come off to me. We are bros! And I understood your context completely. =)

Great review as well, by the way. Along sorta the same lines, I have scrolled through the IF Comp entrants over its history and I sort of idly wonder where a lot of them are now. It’s interesting to think that making a text game was a thing they did once, (hopefully) enjoyed the experience and went on…

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I played two sessions of Sci-Fi/Jet Blue after Peter posted this review, and I meant to wait to comment until finishing it. But time, time…

It’s great, though. The worldbuilding is real without losing the sense of traditional IF light-humor sarcasm. The monster mechanic is intriguing, and I’ll go back to it to see if I can figure it out. I’m intrigued about the secrets of the planet. Playing with the computer in the ship is delightful.

Thanks for mentioning it. There are probably many buried treasures like it on IFDB and/or the IF Archive.


I know I want to find these “alternative” works too.

As for everyone having so many stories to tell, I’ve felt the same way too. But if I worry I’m running out, I don’t write anything. It’s more–I follow what I see and I hope something’s there and usually it has been so far. But if I need to move on, I need to move on.

The thing is, “I just want to share what I found” is the motivation behind my stuff, too. I’m not trying to make a big statement. I just want to cover all the angles. And with a relatively small community I feel less pressure to make my works be everything to everyone.

I’m already a bit sad some personal favorites from IFComp 2010 on seem to be forgotten. There’ll be the big names who by and large deserve it. But then I seem to like a different brand of work than most people.

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Tell me what to do.
->turn light on
You can’t see any such thing.

Tell me what to do.
->go out
There are no exits.
What next?
You are carrying nothing.
What now?
->open eyes
You can’t see any such thing.
What now?
You can here strange animal cries in the distance.

so far, very lousy. I’ll try harder, but so far as depressing as Scott Adams games

Huh. That’s weird.

turn light on
You can’t see any such thing.
go out
There are no exits.
Tell me what to do.
You are carrying nothing.
What next?
First man: "Is it done?"
Second man: "It is done. Ulalume is hidden well."
First man: "It has to be. Everything depends on this mission. Ulalume will be our last option."
Second man: "Too bad they all have to die."
First man: "If this goes wrong we all die."
What now?

Could you confirm you version number? Mine’s Release 5 / Serial number 051012

If you’ve already hear that conversation, try LOOKing again.

Hmm. This may need a split-off topic, but I am wondering about a “parser player’s bill of rights” where a player can be sent relatively quickly to a list of verbs or have an explanation of what verbs work.

I’ve made efforts in my games to flush the player to where their replies get useful feedback–the generic errors in, say, Inform still seem to be an artifact from the Infocom days, and I think we could do so much better. Now that we have the memory and disk space, user friendliness should take priority.

You may want to play Signal Error, Andrew. It takes great pains towards user friendliness.

As regards this particular game, like I said in the review… I don’t think I’d change it. It is what it is, and its peculiar shine comes from that.

Anyway, the introductory sequence is not completely unclued. “Turn light on” and “open eyes” probably speak more to namekusejin’s experience from previous games and puzzles than anything else, and indeed are not commands one would expect to work if a) eyes aren’t implemented and b) a light hasn’t been mentioned.

As you may tell, HHGG is hardly my design bible. :wink: Some things can be done only once and never repeated or emulated. HHGG, The Gostak, Bad Machine…

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Thanks for the recommendation. The author actually tested a game for me once and was a good help.

It’s good that it won’t matter to most experienced players, but there’s always that worry that you may clue someone down the wrong path. I remember one review for Shuffling Around played devil’s advocate a bit with something I’d missed, but all the same–I’m reminded of how often I’ve just not clarified something that would’ve been easy. As a result I’m very forgiving of others being unclear, but I also know a lot of authors out there have “if I’d known I could’ve cleared it up, I would’ve” moments.

Yeah, that’s part of what makes them so special. Though it’s also wonderful when people find ways to riff on them. However, I admit to trying to imitate HHGG early on when I was imitating the bad parts. I think Jimmy Maher wrote about this tendency?

just to be sure, those were my immediate action after I had LISTENed to that conversation.


b) its absence was the very first description

a) how would I know if not by trying it?

anyway, “wake up” worked. And bizarrely enough, here’s what comes immediately next:


In the dark backward and abysm of time.


badly designed, Scott Adams wackyness alike… I’ll try a bit more, but really hate non-interactive paused cutscenes

Actually, I also remember being a bit lost after that sequence. Then I thought to LOOK - but I’d struggled a bit as well!

This one is one of thise things - you either like it or you don’t. It’s either the sort of thing that’s intriguing enough for you to put up with some oddness, or it’s not. Unlike Opening Night, which becomes better as you realise what it is, you can safely decide whether or not this game is to your taste in the first, oh, 10-20 moves of the game. If you’re at least not curious after that, you can quit with no qualms.

Heh, yeah - that happens a lot to me especially when games try to clue passwords or safe combinations. Heck, when I’m stuck I’ll start seeing clues where there aren’t any!

Hasn’t anyone written at lenght about this player desperation state? Where everything looks like a possible clue but nothing actually advances the game, where you stop making progress at all over the course of more than one session? Where exhaustion sets in and you get blurry-eyed looking at your inventory fifty times in close scrutiny, and at the game world, knowing that somewhere there is the little thing that’ll go CLICK in your head and make sense of it all but not knowing WHERE it is, and always wary you may have missed it? Surely this is something we all know from experience, and all game designers know their players may experience and want to avoid - so hasn’t anyone written about it?

it’s more gripping than I hoped for, specially after reading the watch. :blush:

reminds me a bit of Babel

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