Creatures

Creatures is a text-based role-playing game written with a custom engine. It’s almost entirely menu-driven, giving it the feel of a choice-based game. There are also a few puzzles.

While I like role-playing games in general, RPGs as IF-style text games nearly always come off feeling to me like they’re missing something. From a role-playing standpoint, an IF RPG suffers from the inevitable comparison with huge commercial games like Skyrim and The Witcher series; it’s just too difficult for an independent developer (often a single person) to compete with a team of programmers, artists, and designers working for a large company. In addition, a great deal of the development of an RPG has to go into stat-tracking, creating items that affect stats, generating monsters to fight, and thinking through a leveling system – not to mention maintaining some kind of balance among all of this so that the game isn’t a cakewalk or absurdly impossible. Thus there is less room for story development or puzzle design, meaning that an IF RPG generally isn’t going to measure up to the narrative depth of story-focused IF or the puzzle quality of IF puzzlefests. In other words, IF games that aim for traditional RPG gameplay tend to have to do too many things, with the consequence that they end up not doing any of them particularly well. By contrast, the best IF-style RPGs I’ve played tend to be RPG-light games, which downplay stat-tracking and leveling and put more emphasis on narrative, puzzles, or just being funny – traditional IF strengths. The exception is the excellent Kerkerkruip, which is in the simpler Rogue-like genre and largely jettisons narrative and puzzles to focus on getting stats, combat, and balance right. (I still find Kerkerkruip to be quite hard; I haven’t won it yet.)

Creatures is no exception; the game feels short to me. There are seven battles to fight at most, and you don’t even have to fight all of those. This doesn’t seem to me to be enough gameplay for an RPG, even accounting for the fact that I’m playing an IF-style RPG. Still, Creatures took me about an hour and a half to complete, which is on the longer side for an IFComp game. So Creatures isn’t really and truly short, it just feels that way – for the reasons I’ve mentioned above.

But enough about the difficulties of writing an IF-style RPG; let’s take a closer look at what Creatures actually does.

The stats and leveling balance in Creatures seems to me to be pretty good. Often I wasn’t quite ready for an enemy upon initially encountering it (I think I lost most of my battles the first time I tried them), but after obtaining some better equipment or a blessing or defeating an easier enemy to gain more experience I was able to go on and win. So none of the battles were too easy, and none were too hard; instead, they were just about right. I think getting the proper balance of difficulty in an RPG is quite a challenge, and so Creatures is to be commended for that.

There are also a few puzzles in Creatures: Two are of the find-the-right-information-for-the-secret-code type, one I managed to bypass completely without solving it (perhaps that was a bug; this was in Wilhelm’s quarters when I got locked in), and one I was completely mystified on until I looked at the walkthrough and realized that the author must come from one of those countries that uses a comma instead of a period to indicate a decimal point. If I had realized that 156,25 was supposed to be 156 and 1/4 instead of a list of the two numbers 156 and 25 I’m pretty sure I would have not only been able to figure out that puzzle but would have appreciated its mathematical aspect. (Puzzles that end up relying on cultural knowledge can be particular pitfalls for authors, especially since as an author you generally aren’t aware that your puzzle requires cultural knowledge! I’m reminded of the infamous USA-centric baseball diamond puzzle from Infocom’s Zork II, which I still didn’t manage to figure out on my own despite being American.)

My biggest critique of Creatures, though, is its user interface: text-input but menu-based. This means you have to spend a lot of time moving back and forth between various menus, and that slows gameplay down quite a bit. For example, it takes at least two menu selections to move from one room to the next: one to select your direction and one to select what you want to do in that direction. Moving from a location on one side of the game map to one on the other side of the map thus takes a lot of flipping between various menus. Equipping and unequipping weapons and armor is also slow, since an item’s stats, your inventory menu, and your overall stats are all separate menus. The process of comparing a new piece of armor against the armor you currently wear thus also takes a lot of menu-flipping. In addition, the interface features plain white text on a black background, in which line breaks often occur in the middle of a word. It looks exactly like what you get when you open a command prompt in Windows, down to the same font. This could be quite a bit more visually appealing.

Overall, while I can tell a lot of work went into designing Creatures, it gets the RPG leveling/stats/difficulty balance right, and I did have some fun trying to figure out how to defeat the various enemies, I can’t really recommend the game. Even if one enjoys IF-style RPGs more than I do, its user interface – requiring players to flip through multiple menus – detracts too much from the game’s good parts.

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