(some vague spoilers below)
The two games by Bitter Karella that I’ve played before this year were both made with the Quest system. However, Lovely Assistant: Magical Girl, Bitter Karella’s IFComp entry for this year, was made with Inform 7. I think Inform 7 is a better system than Quest for writing and playing interactive fiction, and so I was looking forward to seeing the kind of irreverence and puzzles that I enjoyed in Guttersnipe: St. Hesper’s Asylum for the Criminally Mischievous and Basilica de Sangre but in an improved system. Unfortunately, though, I was ultimately disappointed with Lovely Assistant: Magical Girl. Mainly, this is because I think Bitter Karella is still learning the intricacies of writing in Inform 7 – particularly how it’s different from Quest.
(Edit: The updated version of the game – updated while I was playing the old version! – apparently fixes some of the problems I note below.)
Let’s start with the good parts. It’s been two years since I played Basilica de Sangre and three since Guttersnipe, but the writing in Lovely Assistant: Magical Girl is better than I remember in either of those games. It’s still mischievous and irreverent but somehow funnier than before. For example, the following over-the-top description of the PC made me laugh out loud:
It’s you, Trixie, Mugwort’s lovely assistant. It’s your job to do all the heavy lifting of distracting the audience so that Mugwort can dazzle the rubes with sleight of hand parlour tricks. Of course, with your golden blonde hair cascading over your shoulders like a shimmering waterfall, your full red lips so often coyly pursed into a tantalizing pout, and your ample bosom encased in a sheer sequined gown, distracting audiences is no challenge for you.
Names of various characters, such as Smithereens the robot butler, as well as villains Abracadaver and (my personal favorite) the Skeptical Rationalist, fit the tone here as well. The magician’s mansion that forms the setting is an eclectic’s dream, with decor inspiration from a variety of cultures and eras.
The puzzle design is also good – it’s as good as I remember in Basilica de Sangre, even though it doesn’t have quite the same kind of unified structure that Basilica does. Instead, Lovely Assistant requires you to put the standard tools of a magician’s trade to work to master challenges. You’ll need to use items such as a saw, a disassembling cabinet, a magic wand, a guillotine, a top hat, a collection of knotted handkerchiefs, and something called the “drill of death” in order to save the day. Some of these do the kind of thing you expect them to, and for some you have to think more creatively. The hint system takes the form, appropriately, of a crystal ball.
Overall, I think the writing and design of Lovely Assistant are better than in the two previous Bitter Karella games I’ve played.
As I mentioned, though, Lovely Assistant also bears the marks of an author still learning a new design system. There are several commands – one of which is DRILL [something] – that, when typed, give no response at all. You just get the command prompt back. Having experienced this very phenomenon when writing my own games in Inform 7, I know exactly what the problem is: A new verb has been created but it hasn’t been given a default response. So if you DRILL the object that’s supposed to be drilled then the game advances, but if you DRILL anything else the game doesn’t know what to do with it and so does nothing. The problem is easy to fix (just create a default response for all your new verbs), but players are going to find this frustrating.
Even worse, there aren’t enough synonyms for actions that will solve a puzzle. There were multiple puzzles where I knew what I needed to do but had to spend dozens of commands trying to find exactly the right phrasing that the game would accept. For one of the puzzles I even opened up my personal copy of the Inform 7 IDE and went through the verb list one by one until I found the right verb to use. In addition, the game does not give you enough feedback when you try an action that’s reasonable but that isn’t quite what you need to do to solve a puzzle. (For example, when you need to cut something and try to use the saw when you’re supposed to use something else, the game just gives you the default “that-doesn’t-work” kind of response.) The hint system wasn’t any help with this, either, since it gives hints on the conceptual level and not on the command level. All of this was extremely frustrating and greatly decreased my enjoyment of the game.
There are multiple other implementation issues that are Inform 7 specific, too, that affect the game’s polish. Some examples: Objects that should be supporters or enterable containers aren’t always declared as such, so Inform 7’s responses when interacting with them don’t always make sense; a couple of room descriptions show up in other rooms; and items sometimes have to be referred to by exactly the right terms (the hedgeclippers have to be called “hedgeclippers” and not “clippers” or “hedge clippers,” for instance).
In sum, Lovely Assistant: Magical Girl, with its strong writing and puzzle design, has the makings of a good puzzlefest. Unfortunately, the game is marred by its implementation.
Given the author’s work in the past, though, plus Lovely Assistant‘s very real strengths, I do think that the problem is just that the author hasn’t learned Inform 7 well enough yet. Thus, as the author learns this new system, I believe we are going to see some quite good Inform 7 games from Bitter Karella in the future.