Alone in the Park review
A mysterious note with the promise of treasure. An intriguing mystery with a unique gameplay approach... All of these seem like just the right ingredients for an entertaining new adventure game. And certainly Cheap Drunk Games’ Alone in the Park is quite a bit different than any other game. Unfortunately, its irritating mechanics have you tromping through a park full of “colorful” characters but not much else. While it does take you out of your dank apartment as a basement-dwelling video game junkie and into the fresh outdoors on a wacky scavenger hunt, the off-color humor may be off-putting to some and the writing struggles to rise above clichés and stereotypes.
In this first-person adventure, a note appears in your mailbox. You don’t get out much if at all, and the only thing that could entice you away from your games is the promise of hidden treasure. The letter mentions a map that has been torn into many pieces. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find the pieces to that map. Sounds easy enough.
To explore Spiegel Park, you’ll open up your own blank in-game map (using a map to find a map is oh-so-meta) to move about the park. Click down on the map and move your mouse to scroll and explore. A dotted line appears when you click, which will slowly uncover gently rolling hills, rivers, lakes, bathrooms, playgrounds, and just about anything else you might find in a large public park, all rendered as line drawings on the map you keep in your journal.
This was a novel idea at first, and I found it rather intriguing to slowly sweep across a blank canvas, uncovering "hidden" areas as I moved along. But holding a mouse button down and scrolling is not fun over large periods of time and can be quite the workout on this poor old carpal tunnel of mine. It's also frustrating that you aren’t given a large view of the map until later in the game. Luckily, at that point you’ll come across a few spots where you can view the entire park through binoculars to get a more holistic picture of what you’re exploring.
Bear in mind that when I say "explore", I really mean encountering a line drawing that you can click on to examine further. Doing so brings up a static photo of the area in question, which then gets placed in your journal. But because the window to view the images is rather small (it took up a quarter of the screen on the right-hand side in the Mac version I played), the view you get isn’t often that impressive, whether displaying hills with cacti, a river’s edge with an unusually large tree, or a lonesome house on the periphery of the park. Rounding out the game’s aesthetic is some slight background music that ranges from light jazz with some snare drums to emo wailing, depending on who you’re interacting with.
Rather more interesting than the scenery are the people that you’ll meet on your treasure hunt. Despite the game’s moniker, you’re never really alone in the park. In fact, you seem to have picked a rather busy time to begin your quest, and the people enjoying a day out all happen to have had some interaction with pieces of your treasure map. Of course, none of these fine folks will part with them or even with information unless you help them out with a task first. Whether that’s collecting dozens of eyes for a teddy bear (don’t ask), bringing down brain-shaped fruit from trees, or hooking up skeevy slacker dudes with chicks, there are no good Samaritans to be found at the park – they all want something from you first.
If you’re looking for well-drawn characters with detailed histories and motivations, then you’d best look elsewhere. Here you’ll only find thin stereotypes; among others, there's Cedric, the tree-hugging dreadlocked environmentalist, Janice the tightly wound type-A fiancée looking for her missing engagement ring, Matt the slacker with his fierce-looking dog who’s just looking for the next big catch, Moira the New Age guru who sets up shop at the Spiegal Park holistic retreat, and Carmilla the goth girl who communicates with her boyfriend in a pre-telecom avian way, though she does have an actual Facebook page that you get to visit. This last bit of interactivity was a nice touch that would have added another level of enjoyment if the game had incorporated more of it.
Despite the thinly characterized personalities, you may find yourself entertained by the game’s raunchy humor, though I wasn’t. This is an adult game. A lot of the protagonist’s misunderstandings head down a bizarrely sexual non-sequitur path. Interested in autoerotic asphyxiation? Seeing a man chained to a tree, do your thoughts immediately turn to a bondage fetish? If you answered yes to these questions, this might be the game for you. The language itself is definitely R-rated material, filled with expletive-laden phrases. The dialogue oftentimes borders on the misanthropic and bigoted (a character says to someone they’re not quite sure about, “Oh really, one of those lesbians, is she?”).
Compounding matters is that the writing is just plain bad at times, filled with purply prose nuggets like: “She said glancing informatively at the toy bear she clutched to her person, its face buried in her infantile bosom.” I found the humor was just trying much too hard to be funny. In your journal, you’ll encounter a list of “to dos.” And, of course, this being a really funny game and all, the to-dos have names like “Pimping for Matt” or “The Ecoanarchist and the Brainapple.” An example that crossed the line of bad taste for me was when the protagonist “hilariously” misinterpreted a rock climber describing a mountain-climbing episode, somehow inferring sexual innuendo from the figure of speech "climb that baby." I don’t need to like my main characters (though I’d prefer not to loathe them), but they at least have to be entertaining.
You don’t actually hear any of this dialogue. You must read it. Often multiple times. The entirety of the game is played within the pages of a journal. The left-hand pages contain text that types out as you discover items, meet people throughout the park, or move forward in the story. The right-hand side has the window for images of the scenes you're visiting and the people you encounter. Below that window is a grid that fills up with icons of those people and items as well as pieces of the map you’re looking for. You click and drag these icons up to the main image window to keep the action moving forward, to get questions answered, and to accomplish objectives.
On the far right is a set of tabs. Generally these allow you to quick travel to the different locations that you’ve already identified on your map. However, if you have the map open, clicking on that tab won’t transport you there instantly; instead you’ll have to watch the dotted lines on your map trek all the way back to the location you’ve selected. Similarly, by far one of the most annoying aspects is the fact that the story unfolds by typing itself out in your journal. You are given the option to speed this up, but there is no way to fill in the text completely rather than watching it all be typed out. And if you’ve already seen a bit of intro text, the game doesn’t remember this. It types it out each and every time you visit a different location or speak to someone.
Essentially the game plays out like one very large fetch quest. There is an interesting twist at one point. As you travel from area to area, time passes. You’ll need to pay attention to what time of day it is to solve one of the puzzles, but you’ll only need this for a single obstacle. Otherwise, you’re simply exploring the map, meeting people, and finding objects (like climbing crampons that you pick up in the park) and clicking them on people who might need them. When you click objects (or pictures of people) on other people, it’s usually because they’ll need those objects or because you need information from them about those objects. You’ll also have to deduce where things might have moved from one scene to the next based on the surrounding topography (for example, could something have rolled down a hill or traveled through a pond) or find something that is traveling from scene to scene. The solutions to these seem a bit random, so there is much backtracking involved (and much more typing to sit through each time you revisit a scene). Even so, this is still a short game, offering only two hours of play time.
While I found the actual search for the map pieces rather simple (if tedious), the final puzzle of putting the pieces together and then determining where the “treasure” was hidden turned out to be fairly difficult for me (I had to resort to a walkthrough). And even after I did, given all the effort I had put into reading and clicking to reach that point, I found the payoff to be far from satisfying.
Ultimately, Alone in the Park presents an interesting blend of text and graphic adventuring, but the implementation falls short. Though it might have shaved off a lot of time from an already short game, simply speeding up the text-typing process, eliminating repeated text, and allowing you to truly quick travel at all times would have gone a long way toward improving the gaming experience. If you’re looking for something different to play that's gratuitously saucy and risqué, you may want to check out this unusual indie title, even if your reward for exploring isn’t that #$%ing gratifying.
Alone in the Park offers a different approach to treasure hunting, though it’s anything but a pleasant, annoyance-free afternoon stroll.