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Winner, Best Writing; Nominee, Best Individual Puzzle; Nominee, Best Use of Medium - 1997 XYZZY Awards
-- Duncan Stevens
>VERBOSE -- Paul O'Brian's Interactive Fiction Page
Sunset Over Savannah (hereafter called Sunset) is one of the most impressive, enjoyable, and successful games of the 1997 competition. Interestingly, it shares a strategy with another very successful game, She's Got a Thing for a Spring: both games present a natural world where fantasy-style magic is subtle to the point of nonexistence, but which nonetheless is suffused with wonder, divulging incredible sights which move the spirit as strongly as ever did any of Gandalf's fireworks. The game takes place on a beach whose implementation is exquisitely complete, a small space which allows a great number of options within it... narrow but very deep. In itself, implementation of this depth carries a kind of magic, the kind of delirious sense of possibility inherent in all the best interactive fiction. The magic goes beyond this, though. The puzzles in the game (at least, the ones I had time to solve) are focused on a single theme: finding magic and wonder in a seemingly mundane world. As you wander the game's beach and find ways to ferret out its secrets, those secrets display themselves in fiery sequences of enchantment and glamour. It's an effect whose emotional impact could not be duplicated in a graphical game, only imitated. The arresting visuals would be there, but they would only carry a pale shadow of the reverential awe conveyed by the author's excellent prose.
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Mr. Cockrum integrates the ordinary and fantasy elements skillfully: those parts of the story that go beyond ordinary experience are few, carefully chosen, and clearly surprise the player-character as much as the player. Just as importantly, those elements are out of your control and mostly independent of your actions, so the feeling of ordinariness juxtaposed with the fantastic is enhanced.
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[...] I would have to say that it is very well written from a literary view point, but quite textually verbose. Therefore I would not recommend it to anyone who dislikes massive wads of wordage or who likes their information in an uncomplicated fashion. It's also unsuitable for those with views against virtual cruelty to textual representations of little animals.
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Number of Reviews: 6
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Most Helpful Member Reviews
What makes this story so enjoyable is the lush, detailed setting and the sense of wonder with which it approaches seemingly mundane details. Savannah's beach, as seen here, is a surprising and beautiful place with surprising set pieces (Spoiler - click to show)such as a sandcastle made and apparently fused into glass by tiny sea creatures.
Supporting all this is a lot of hard technical work. Sunset Over Savannah allows the player interactions that most games would rule out because of the technical complexities of coding: there are passages set underwater, interactions with liquid and sand, ropes and tie-able objects. All of these things generally work, and work in a way that isn't fiddly or annoying for the player to specify; the result is the feeling of a very tangible, viscerally accessible world, where it is possible to affect the environment in precise ways. Few other IF games -- or other games of any kind -- offer quite this experience.
There's a lot of prose to read in this game, and the puzzles are not all easy, so it does require some commitment from the player. What's there is well worth exploring, though, rewarding the time you have to give it.
I wish I could give this five stars, but there were some puzzles that weren't well-clued and there were a few sections where I spent time wandering around and around trying to figure out what I hadn't done. The frustrating thing was that I had to look up hints for puzzles which I should have been able to accomplish on my own but for precise actions that had me needing to read the author's mind. The puzzles were clued, but the problem was that it's only in hindsight that you see that. If just playing the game, the clues feel like a part of the scenery description and don't necessarily prompt you to act on them.
On the upside, some puzzles had alternate solutions, which I ended up finding, so it wasn't necessary to find all the possible items. And there are a lot of items that are just red herrings, so don't expect to need all of them.
Oh, another thing I found frustrating was that you can only carry limited amounts of items, which means a lot of picking up and dropping and walking back and forth if you happened to be missing something you needed for a puzzle.
I also found some minor bugs. (Spoiler - click to show)I was digging with a sieve, but the text said I was using a shingle. When I tried to tie something to myself, it said I couldn't, and if I tied the object to my arm, it said I'd attached it to my wrist. There is a point where you can't take any more glass bottles from the pile. If underwater in the diving bell, if you type "exit bell," you leave the bell but don't lose any oxygen. Because of these text errors, some solutions were kind of spoiled.
Beware the hint system. It can be spoilery. And I don't mean in the sense that it gives away solutions. The various objectives are listed specifically and not really context-sensitive, so if you call them up, you'll get glimpses into puzzles you may not have figured out exist yet.
Still, the writing is excellent and the emotional impact of the various discoveries the player character makes is lasting and memorable. (Spoiler - click to show)Two of my favorites are the sleeping dragon and the crystal castle. And I got a perverse satisfaction out of killing and eating the crab. The setting and immersion are well done, with nice touches of color and detail that made the game world come alive. Emphasis on how the player character feels both physically and emotionally was a fun twist, and helped in identification and understanding. Also liked the option to list exits all the time. I hate the, "You can't go that way."
The strength of the literary aspect of the game is what makes this game recommended. If not for that, the game would have been three stars because of the puzzle frustration.
When the game begins, you are contemplating quitting your job. Here's where the first branch of the storyline could begin, depending on your own perspective. Is the game about convincing yourself to remain employed, or to realize that you should quit? You don't really know enough about the character to make a well-informed decision, and so instead... you follow your hunger to a snack bar and buy some boiled peanuts.
From that point on, the game expects you to know what to do next. Stumbling around the beach, you can find a lot of shells (Spoiler - click to show)that are never important, really and a few nice sand sculptures. You're introduced to a species of glass mite that, to my knowledge, don't exist in reality, so I suppose the player could start to infer that they're living in an alternate/fantasy world.
But again, you're just making assumptions. After a few more laps around the beach without making any kind of progress, I decided to check out the in-game hints. From there, I read the answer to the question 'What are my goals?'. Four or five hints later, I realized that there were a series of random astonishing events that you needed to experience. Since the most interesting thing I had discovered up to that point was a meticulously crafted castle of glass, I decided to find a walkthrough. When I witnessed the first event, it became clear that the character needed to be convinced to quit their job, but I had already stopped caring about the character's intentions and decided to just see how the puzzles played out.
And they were wonderful - not too challenging, not too simple. There were a few leaps of logic to be made, and again, some "magic" is involved. Even though I didn't believe in the goal of the game, I still found some delight in seeing it play out. There are very few mechanical flaws, if any, and aside from not being able to interact with any of the NPCs you find on the beach, the game responded to a lot of poking and prodding around.
In the end, the only reason I awarded it 4 stars instead of 5 is that the journey was delightful, but I didn't know how or why to start it.
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