Review: Forever Worlds

Hexagon Entertainment (creators); Dreamcatcher Interactive (publishers).

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

Not bad
Writing and dialogue
Bad to decent
Forgiveness rating
You can't die or make a fatal mistake, except at one point which is clearly a bug.

It sometimes happens that Dreamcatcher (The Adventure Company) publishes a crappy graphical adventure game. And then there are posts from people saying "Wow, Dreamcatcher writes sucky games. I'm never buying anything from them again." And then I have to dredge up my tired rant about how Dreamcatcher is a publisher; they don't write games. They publish nearly all the adventure games that hit shelves in the US, which mathematically means they publish nearly all the good ones and nearly all the bad ones. If a game is bad, blame the developers.

Forever Worlds is such a disaster that I blame the publisher. Dreamcatcher should not have let this one out. It isn't ready for people to play it. Either they should have kicked it back for a massive rewrite, or -- if the developers couldn't do any more with it -- they should have killed it.

A publisher's job is to pick the good stuff out of the slush, make it better, and get it to the customer. Yes, the adventure game market is weird: there's so little being developed that nearly anything can get published. And yes, once you sink the development money, and you have a CDR with "release candidate 73" scribbled across it, there's a temptation to kick the thing out and recoup what cash you can. But there's still a readily visible gap between "the game works" and "the game doesn't work". Don't ship games that don't work.

I am not, you understand, talking about technical bugs here. I did run into a game-killing bug -- if you solve one puzzle in the wrong order, the game forgets some state and the puzzle becomes unsolvable. But that's not what I mean. I don't even mean that the puzzles are badly designed and unfair, although they are both. I mean that Forever Worlds fails to convey what's going on. It's got gaping holes in the puzzles, the interaction, and the plot.

The authors know it's got gaping holes. You can see the duct tape they tried to stick on. They laugh apologetically about how the puzzles are ambiguous and illogical. They added hotspots that pop up plot-explanation windows. (Some of these hotspots aren't even attached to scenery -- they float on unmarked walls, hoping you'll notice the cursor change.) They put gobs of exposition in the included walkthrough.

I've used walkthroughs to solve games before. But this is the first game I've seen where you have to read the walkthrough to understand the story.

Forever Worlds has a story. Or rather, the designers started with a story. They started with puzzles, too -- game-world actions that the player would perform to progress through the story. It was a reasonable game story, and a reasonable set of puzzles and actions for a graphical adventure. The ending tied together the ideas of the story and the basic logic of the game world, producing a nifty final puzzle.

The designers then utterly failed to produce a set of game interactions which would convey the story and present the puzzles. The clues are not there; the feedback is not there. The game logic is impenetrable. You cannot solve the thing logically. You can't solve it illogically or intuitively either. Okay, some of the puzzles are straightforward (use a ladder to climb to a high place). But anything more complex than that can only be solved by brute force: try every object you have on every hot spot. When it works, say "huh".

On the up side, this means I can give detailed examples and the spoilers won't bother you! Heh.

Simple example. In a temple, you must put a heavy weight onto a pedestal to open a door. (Indiana Jones style, except with a good outcome instead of messy rolling death.) You have rocks in your inventory. How do you proceed?

How I'd do it: The pedestal has a hotspot on it. You select the rocks and move them to the pedestal.

How Forever Worlds does it: There's a hotspot on the floor behind you. You put the burlap sack on the floor. Then you put the rocks on the sack. Then you pick up the sack of rocks. Then a hotspot appears on the pedestal, so that you can put the sack of rocks on it.

Why do the rocks have to be in a sack? (Does it make them heavier? "Cursed Bag of Burden"? The pedestal has a bowl on top, it's not like the rocks would spill.) How are you supposed to know that a sack of rocks is createable? How are you supposed to know that the way to make a sack of rocks is to put the sack in this one particular spot on the floor? How are you supposed to know that the pedestal is important, since it initially has no hotspot? Overall -- how are you supposed to know (given that the pedestal seems unimportant) that you're trying to weigh it down in order to proceed, and that the perfect thing to weigh it down would be a sack of rocks?

Answer: you can't. You try every object on the every hotspot, or else you read the walkthrough booklet.

More complex example: When you enter a cave near the beginning of the game, you see a short video sequence. A blue guy in some sort of Inca headdress grabs you; there's a flash of light; and you switch places. This turns out to be one of the fundamental game mechanics. The blue guy just switched bodies with you. This is part of the story, and also a puzzle-solving mechanism: it gives you access to some of his powers. As you proceed through the game, you encounter more strange beings (nifty-looking figures of light). By touching them, you swap forms with them, and thereby gain access to new game areas.

But get this: I only know that because I read the walkthrough. The video sequence doesn't even come close to explaining it. Some of the pop-up exposition windows describe it, but they're solely there to tell you what to do. ("Touch this guy so you can swap bodies with him and get through the butterfly door.") There's absolutely no sense of complicity; nothing in the game leads you to realize that this body-swapping is going on, is important, etc.

(You can't even figure it out by looking at yourself! The few video sequences that show you, uniformly show you in your actual, original body. There is no explanation of this inconsistency.)

The designers simply ignored the design problem of conveying this vital game mechanic to you, the player. I assume that when testers utterly failed to understand it, the designers first added the pop-up windows -- blatant spoilers -- and then decided to include the walkthrough booklet with the game. I don't know if anyone considered the idea of fixing the game, but if so, they didn't go through with it.

How I'd do it: Put big flashing lights on the body-switching thing. Explain it in the manual (not the hint book). Have an inset window in the corner which always shows your current body. Have it glow and go "shinggg!" when you switch bodies with a person. Show the person as having your previous body, too. Have copious in-game narration (there's already an annoying comedy sidekick, make him earn his pension) the first two times you make use of a snarfed body to get through a door.

And leave in the last puzzle. Did I mention this? The final puzzle, or what seems to be the final puzzle, has been eliminated from the game. I assume it was eliminated because it's unsolvable without a deep understanding of both the body-switching mechanic and the story. Since the game doesn't give you any understanding of either, nobody would ever win, except (of course) by luck and brute force. Therefore, as far as I can tell, they eliminated all the interactivity and turned it into a long cut-scene demonstrating how clever you are. Or at least hinting at how clever you are. You can't figure out why it's clever without reading the explanation in the hint book.

These are not isolated examples. I was tempted to write this review as a comprehensive catalog of "things not to do" in graphical adventure gaming.

The panning interface is jerky and hard to control; the mouse sensitivity changes whimsically between screens. When you move, you sometimes wind up facing in a wildly wrong direction (sometimes backwards, which turns the long forest paths into unintentional mazes). Many areas don't have clear paths -- or any paths at all -- you have to spin around and hunt for cursor hotspots to see where to go. Using an object takes twice times as many clicks as you'd expect.

Important dialogue is hard to understand, and if you miss a line, you can't get it repeated. Major plot transitions -- things that you are doing -- are turned into half-comprehensible video cut scenes, or eliminated entirely. (Presto! You're halfway across the game, talking to somebody new!)

Plot sequencing is handled with the Lead Mallet of Interface: if acting in the wrong order would logically lose the game, the game takes away hotspots to block you. (Except for that one bug I mentioned.) You can't enter certain puzzles until you have all the objects needed to solve them. (Sometimes there's a bonus "You don't have enough stuff to solve this!" pop-up window.) On the other cack-hand, some puzzles force you to act in a certain order, even when other orders would logically work -- or would logically fail, but in an enlightening way. Don't expect useful feedback for failures, ever.


I don't want to make this purely a tirade of failure, because Forever Worlds has hints of good stuff.

It's got a complex layout. You don't just explore worlds in sequence, finishing one and moving to the next. You can do that, but you can also get into the maintenance hallways and explore freely. They have to wedge the plot back together at the end, and unsurprisingly the Lead Mallet comes out, but you can work on much of the game in any order you like.

It's got a lot of stuff to find. Red herrings are a tricky game element, but I enjoyed finding a bunch of items and thinking about what was useful. (At least until I realized that most of the puzzles couldn't be solved by thinking.) In the rocks puzzle I mentioned above, you can actually find rocks in two different outdoor locations. That's both realistic and player-friendly.

It's funny. Well, it's comedy, at least. There have been a thousand adventures where you go through a portal to explore two-to-four mysterious ancient hidden worlds. Every one of them is somber, serious, and so very atmospheric that if anyone dared crack a smile, the air would combust. I appreciate the idea of a game which does it with a measure of self-mockery. Forever Worlds is not a satire of the Myst genre, but it goes the goofy route. All the dialogue is comedy sidekick dialogue. The mysterious ancient world is managed by a confused bureaucracy.

Now, that said, it isn't good comedy. Don't get the idea that this is a brilliant script. It's baseline funny-accent talk-fast schtick, and the confused bureaucratic signs degenerate into lame repetition as often as not. But I appreciated the attempt.

The background, underneath the glaze of comedy, is whimsical and -- yes -- clever. Central American and Pacific Island influences are visible everywhere, with nice touches. Chocolate is money, for example. (Although it's modern-style truffles, rather than a hot bitter spicy drink. I never quite figured out whether that was part of the background or the comedy.)

The dream-logic of the hidden worlds is also pervasive. The Butterfly Penitentiary, for example, exists to harvest the power of giant butterflies. There are nectar tanks and butterfly management offices. At one point, a harried bureaucrat asks, "Have you got a pen? This one is out of honey." Later (or perhaps earlier), you find an animated pair of magical shoes, and put them on a boulder; the boulder traipses happily away, clearing your path. It's a terrible puzzle -- again, one can only solve it by accident -- but a wonderful image.

(Yes, I can imagine making it into a good puzzle, but it would take a lot of setup work and a lot of implemented experimentation.)

I noticed, after finishing Forever Worlds (and halfway through writing this review), that the game was written by Courtland Shakespeare. He was the designer of Jewels of the Oracle and its sequel, way back at the beginning of adventure history. The comparison is interesting. The Jewels games had no plot; they were puzzle collections. FW has a plot, albeit a poorly realized one. The Jewels puzzles were all logical. FW tries for dream-logic and only attains incoherence. The Jewels games were very serious... hm, no, I see that my Jewels 2 review mentions very bad comedy in the hint book. Perhaps Courtland Shakespeare is returning to his roots after all.

But I would have preferred an original puzzle collection, with a wacky background, and never mind the adventure-style trappings.

In short: Don't play Forever Worlds. Sorry, that's what it comes down to. It would be an interesting exercise to turn this into a playable adventure game. Since I know how to make text adventures, I can imagine turning FW into a very nifty text game -- if copyright law and a dozen of my own projects weren't standing in the way. But that's a tangent. As it stands, the game is unplayable.

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