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About the StoryFinal Exam takes place in the near future after an AI revolution has led to the establishment of a new sort of government. You are seeking a job within this government: your performance in the “final exam” determines the outcome. You wake up on the day of your exam to find that your world has unexpectedly changed. You leave your room to seek answers, and find the Administration Centre deserted...
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The setting confused me: the idea that (Spoiler - click to show)your face was replaced by a featureless one is creepy and interesting, but the protagonist just shrugs it off. A lot of the rooms are empty, which is guess is meant to provide exposition but it felt like a lot of big empty rooms. And I'm having trouble placing the setting: (Spoiler - click to show)is the 'administration' and their motto/values meant to be commentary or satire? It's hard to know, since it seems close to what most governments do (free speech, laws minimising social unrest). I guess it hints as a role of leader, the Administrator, that you get by... doing a test involving nothing but computers and repairing them? Is this supposed to be commentary on the fact that a state leader doesn't have that much power or just needs to keep the system running? I don't know, maybe I'm overthinking it. (Or maybe I didn't understand what the author meant, what with English not being my native language?)
So I would say it might be a writing issue: the direction to where the setting is going is not very clear, and we don't know what's going on, why, and most importantly why should we care; I was dragging my feet for the most part. (Or, maybe it all makes sense if you find the secrets, I guess). It seemed like the game was (Spoiler - click to show)mixing politics and sci-fi in its setting, so I expected commentary, satire, going a bit further exploring our society or the future and its consequences. But here, it feels like "oh in 5 years a computer will govern us, and you're the janitor". And yeah, the position in which we are as a player is not exciting, so the game isn't exciting: if there's (Spoiler - click to show)a central authority attacked by an enemy with computer viruses, I don't know if I want to plug network cables. And the game seems very, very on-rails for a long while: it's basically "read the orders, do the orders". (But again, maybe that's why I missed the secrets.) It gets more open when you reach (Spoiler - click to show)the caves, but then I didn't really know what to do and kept looking at the walkthrough.
On the other hand I was *really* impressed by the cable that you lay in the cave, and the fact that the game kept track of where you went and laid the cable in all those rooms and in which order. You backtrack and collect the cable, etc -- it seems really hard to implement, and to be honest I'd love to take a look at the source code for that.
Overall it seems like a lot of effort went into making this game (which is why I feel slightly bad that I didn't enjoy it): the game is polished, typo-free, bug-free, with extra responses, and nice hints for players about how to talk to the parser... Props to the genuine effort that was put into it, but I guess I didn't really find it fun.
It was not a days-on-end maps and lists matrix kinda game, but it was a fun jaunt.
I'm curious to see if the author has longer games!
The prose is very dry (and not in a noticeably humorous way), though the narrative voice is self-aware enough to joke about parser IF's conventions of poorly anticipated default responses and of refusing to allow players to engage their kleptomania for practical management reasons by giving shallow narrative-based refusals.
Burkean political philosophy is referenced, and the descriptions of the paraphernalia scattered around the "Adminstration Centre" speak to heavy-handed authoritarianism. This sets up an expectation of a dystopian theme, if not necessarily a dystopian setting. However, the game does not follow through on this. Despite all the political beats struck by the beginning of the game, despite the fact that the player character is seeking power over Western civilization, the portrayal feels not much different than a generic slice-of-life day-at-the-job game. Granted, this could all be part of a grand joke, as exemplified by the Idiot's Guide computer book in the Security Administrator's office. However, in general the jokes seem to be simple nods to computer nerdiness or to IF tradition, such as a network connection labelled "Z5." The writing is too dry to provide either a sense of serious commentary or a pattern of irony.
As a parser game, Final Exam is quite successful. The central mechanics involve a complex implementation of a draggable cord, one of the conventionally difficult situations to code and to simulate within a parser model. This incredible feat of implementation and Inform programming involves a length of cord that must remember its path from fixed connections in certain rooms as it is extended into other rooms. Furthermore, the cord can be spliced to lengthen it or cut to shorten it at the player's will. The image of this complicated simulation is presented quite clearly and logically by the accompanying text. Naturally, the execution of this mechanic in the primary puzzle scheme can a bit murky at times, making the final solution to the main sequence slightly more confusing than it perhaps could have been. There is some tedium involved in using the cord mechanic; there are some situations that the code doesn't seem to have anticipated very tightly. However, it's impossible to judge this mechanic as any less than thoroughly implemented. It is strongly integrated into its environment. Playing with the cord mechanic will probably be a pleasure to most traditional parser IF players.
The central puzzle scheme involves a fairly small zone set off from the still smaller framing area. Going through the details of the rooms to uncover puzzle components is a large part of gameplay, although it is fairly easy. (For example, the "SEARCH" command is integrated into examining.) Mapping is probably necessary to solve the major puzzle, although there is no attempt to confuse the player regarding the layout of the rooms.
Like everything else about Final Exam, the map design evokes classic text adventure conventions without leaning on them too heavily. The game stands solidly in the tradition and even alludes to the legacy without leaning on it. The game carries its own weight in its own right, without depending on players' nostalgia. It's encouraging to discover that in 2015 excellent text adventures can still be crafted out of the old mold without too much meta baggage.
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