Review of:
Bullhockey by B.F. Lindsay
(IF Comp entry, IFDB)

If you’d like to see the other games reviewed this year, or understand my approach, head to the main page.

To be honest, I’ve spent a while out in the wilderness, and only recently have I come back to traditional interactive fiction. I love the old tropes. It’s appropriate that my first IF Comp game to review seems to be one of those classic interactive fiction standbys: “My Apartment”. These are usually zany, puzzle-strewn adventures set in the apartment, dorm room or university of a first-time IF author.

It’s an understandable approach — write what you know! IF requires a lot of incidental description, and even if you can’t just describe something you know, there’s always a chance to slip in an in-joke or reference. It’s fun, familiar and there’s a number of entertaining games in this genre.

Bullhockey is the game of first-time author, long-time player B.F. Lindsay. And it feels much like a “My Apartment” game.

You begin in the player character’s apartment, reeling from misadventures the night before. Your girlfriend Natalie has gotten mightily offended and strewn your clothes about the suburb. Not your entire wardrobe, but the items that you deem important (dress shoes and good shirts for job interviews). You have to go get them. Classic call-to-action.

Actually, I lie. The very start of the game has five coloured standing stones, as a way to on-board you and provide pre-game comments without disrupting the narrative. I really liked this section and it feels polished. Absolutely what you want as your first impression.

I expected an elaborate series of puzzles to acquire each piece of clothing, with a simple one to get the ball rolling. In actuality, the first puzzle is trying to collect some of your gear (a backpack and a staff) and get downstairs. When your girlfriend fights, she doesn’t mess around — she blocks the stairs down by toppling a set of bookcases.

Once you get downstairs, you catch sight of your first piece of clothing and you’re off and running. And running. And running.

The game world is not just your apartment, but the complex you live in, and the surrounding town. The game world is vast and somewhat sparsely populated. It’s not a huge grid of locations — there’s a complicated sense of spaces that is both interesting but also hard to keep in your head. For example, in the initial apartment there is a loft that stretches around through a hallway and then around and down into a central area with little nooks and crannies, and rooms only accessible by others even though you can see most of it from the central bit. This is a nice, intricate space, and probably a faithful rendition of an old apartment. But much of the complexity is for naught as you might only need a location for a single interaction and never return. And many locations are non-symmetric in that going SOUTH then NORTH won’t return you to the same location. It’s described appropriately, but might catch you unawares.

This is one of the downfalls of “My Apartment” games. Verisimillitude does not always make for a good player experience. You need to balance the environment and game. That said, there’s an appropriate sense of nostalgia in having to map out the game world on paper, just to get a good grip on the game.

The writing is a little bit lopsided. Ridiculousness is par for the course with “My Apartment” games, but you need to embrace it. I couldn’t quite grasp the tone here. The introduction sternly warns about themes of alcoholism, but then explains the much-diminished degree that such a theme plays here. The scoring system ribs you and drops unsubtle hints, but the narrator himself is a little self-conscious about your history with your girlfriend. Her notes were at times appropriately sarcastic, but others seemed a little too raw. You solve your first puzzle with property damage, but there’s this background existential dread about failing to get a job and thus failing at life. It could be my misreading of it. The prose itself is well-made for the most part.

Some of the implementation was smooth as silk, and others clumsy. To look in your wallet you need to take it out, open it, then look at it, and in this case no shortcuts seemed implemented. Similarly for doors with locks; I’m a man who loves his quality-of-life IF shortcuts.

The game thins out as you explore further. I’d adore if the entire game got the same loving attention across it as the first area. Or maybe if there was an editing sweep to tighten up the geography and game a little more.

In the end, I bounced off this game a little. I got stuck and glanced at the walkthrough, which had vast swathes of movement and waiting. I suspected there was something deeper going on with the story, but it looked like a large investment of time with minimal encouragement at the start. To be fair, the author signposts the pace, scope and style of game in his introduction with the standing stones.

Nevertheless, I think it’s a good first outing by B.F. Lindsay and worth playing if you like quirky scavenger-hunt games.