Monday, December 24, 2012

Reviewing Moment Games' Life in the Dorms

* Read this review as it originally appeared in the November issue of Adventure Lantern.

Ramen noodles, plastic lightsabers, frisbees, lumberjacks, black bears, psychotic resident assistants, and splenectomies -- these are all things you may or not encounter in college life, but they're certainly a major part of Life in the Dorms, a $1 adventure game currently available on Xbox Live Indie Games. You play as Dack Peeples, a college freshman experiencing his first few days in his new dormitory. Dack's time in college starts out reasonably enough as he adjusts to a new environment, but the situation quickly escalates as his RA comes up with increasingly devious and maniacal ways to get his new pupils to bond.

Life in the Dorms plays like any typical adventure game: you talk to characters, collect items, and solve puzzles to advance the story. Most of the puzzles are pretty creative, but what really makes the game enjoyable is the setting and its unique sense of humor. Not many games specifically focus on college life, and I frequently found myself laughing or smiling at the absurd situations happening around Dack. And for a $1 game, there's quite a bit of content to experience; it took me roughly 5.5 hours to finish the game, so you can definitely get your money's worth.

The premise is simple: Dack arrives at his new college dormitory as a freshman, missing his old high school friends and wishing he could just go back to high school. He says goodbye to his parents and starts unpacking his things, but his RA Brian shows up to inform him of the scavenger hunt -- a competition among floormates with roommates paired up in teams. Since Dack's roommate hasn't arrived yet, he has to do the scavenger hunt on his own, hoping to win the $300 prize and buy a new myPhone. As he works on the scavenger hunt, he begins to worry about what his new roommate will be like. Introductions with floormates follows, and soon his pet turtle goes missing, a ransom note left in its tank.

If any of this sounds mundane, it's anything but. At every other turn in this game, something outrageously absurd is happening. That's where the game's sense of humor comes into play, often stemming from obscure references and self-parody, but it's mainly a surreal element built upon hyperbole, absurdity, and logical defiance. Early in the game, Dack jumps to conclusions about his new roommate, fearing that he might be an axe-wielding, murderous psychopath (one of the movies he brings with him is titled "How to Tell if Your Roommate is an Axe-Wielding Psycopath").

It's amusing because Dack's paranoid thoughts about his roommate are so absurdly irrational, and yet every piece of evidence that he learns about his roommate (up until he actually meets him) seems to corroborate those irrational beliefs, at least in his eyes. It makes you think that Dack is just being paranoid, and so you smirk at how far he extends the irrationality, because it feels like that's supposed to be the joke in and of itself. When his roommate finally arrives, he's got an axe in his hands, and all of Dack's paranoid delusions are confirmed, as implausible as that might seem.

As it turns out, his roommate comes from a long line of lumberjacks and is going to college for its prestigious lumberjack program. It's all about subverting your expectations, and this particular joke manages to throw several amusing curve balls. That's kind of how the humor works; it takes a simple situation, pushes it to the extreme, and then puts a completely twist-ending on the punchline. Some of the jokes are a little hit or miss, but the attempts are always creative, and that's enough to appreciate the clever writing.

As an adventure game, the bulk of the gameplay consists of solving puzzles, and this part of the game proves fairly satisfying. Most of the puzzles feel naturally-implemented in the environment and story; you're obviously trying to solve a puzzle, but they make sense within the context and they give you clear goals to work towards. There's a nice variety to the types of puzzles, as well -- some involve combining items in your inventory, some involve saying the right things in a conversation, some involve performing a surgery while blind-folded, etc. It's also somewhat impressive how many puzzles the designers were able to fit into relatively few environments -- even though you spend most of the game in the same handful of scenes, there's plenty to do.

Where the puzzles fall short, however, is that many of them require a very specific order of operations to solve. One of your objectives in the scavenger hunt, for example, is to find a roll of toilet paper. You go to the restroom and find a bunch of rolls up on a high shelf, so you'd think you would have a few options at your disposal (using your plastic lightsaber to knock one over), but you can't actually reach this solution until you've checked each bathroom stall first. It's just kind of annoying that you know the solution, and yet you have to play along with meaningless, arbitrary steps to get there.

Some puzzles have really obtuse solutions, as well. In the same scavenger hunt, you have to move a refrigerator five feet. I'm not a very strong individual, but I've shimmied a full-sized refrigerator a couple of feet before without much physical exertion. But because this is supposed to be a puzzle with some kind of clever solution, Dack says he's too weak to move the fridge on his own. The solution to this puzzle is to slip plastic frisbees under two legs of the fridge so you can slide it across the floor .... but if Dack is strong enough to lift the fridge high enough to slip the frisbees under it, and strong enough to pull the fridge while balancing it on two legs, then why couldn't he have just moved the thing himself?

In the same puzzle with the refrigerator, when you try to unplug the refrigerator, Dack says he shouldn't do that unless he has a good reason to. The whole time he's saying this, I'm thinking "you HAVE a good reason to unplug it." He doesn't unplug the fridge until after you've already placed the improvised furniture coasters under it, another instance of a puzzle requiring a very precise order of operations to progress. Does it really matter whether you unplug the fridge before or after you place the coasters? This seeming lack of cooperation from your protagonist becomes extremely frustrating when you don't have the game's intended solution in mind.

Once again returning to the scavenger hunt, another item on the list requires you to construct a scale model of the dormitory, and you ultimately have to build it out of ramen noodles. Is there anyone who would honestly ever consider using ramen noodles to build a model a rational thought? It took me so long to come to this conclusion because I had an ample supply of crafting materials available to me (I got glue from some of my floormates, and I had a bunch of cardboard boxes I could've used in my room), and it got to a point where I was arbitrarily trying every single thing I could because the solution was just so obtuse.

Fortunately, the frustrations of the scavenger hunt are the worst offenders, and they're out of the way very quickly, happening very early in the game. Once you're through with the scavenger hunt, the puzzles become a little more manageable and sensible, but those kinds of problems still manifest themselves throughout the game, remaining a consistent (albeit slight) annoyance in the puzzle design.

Other than that, there are a number of little things that add up to detract from the overall experience. Whenever you click to examine something, you have to wait three whole seconds while your character slowly turns in place to face the camera, and then waits for the camera to zoom in on his face. He does the same thing whenever you decide to "flit" about something on your phone. This makes very simple actions far more time-consuming and laborious than they really should be.

Every time you want to talk to your floormates, you click the "use" icon on their door, and Dack says to himself "Maybe I should knock first." That's kind of implied by the action icon; you don't need to say it every single time. Some of the animations are a little wonky, like sitting down or typing on a phone, and I feel like conversations would've been more interesting if characters could have had very simple animations for their eyebrows, like angry and sad eyebrows to exaggerate the emotions of the dialogue. I also ran into an inventory glitch at one point (when Dack gets trapped inside a video game) that completely prevented me from doing anything, requiring me to load the most recent save.

Life in the Dorms is certainly not a perfect game, but except for a couple major annoyances with some of the puzzle designs, it's a fine game with a lot to enjoy. The humor and setting are particularly enjoyable, and its low cost means it's definitely worth your time and money. I would even love to see a sequel in the same style, where Dack gets to experience other aspects of college life for the first time, like dining halls, classes, student groups, sporting events, or whatever else. Here's hoping we can see more out of Moment Games in the future.

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