Off-Season at the Dream Factory by Carroll Lewis (2021)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

The whole reason orcs as a concept exist is because sometimes you need mindless, murderous brutes to make a story complete. Sure, you can turn around and say, “Oh, but this particular orc reads books and doesn’t like violence!” but at that point your orc tale is basically indistinguishable from an ugly, green human tale and God knows we don’t need any more of those. Must woke IF authors destroy all of my fictional role models?

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I wish I’d had an uncle like Uncle Carroll when I was growing up. I definitely could have used a few spells of my own to ward off playground bullies and turn their attacks back on them. My actual uncle did know Wax Lips, but he was never interested in teaching the spell to me despite my pleadings every time I came to visit. On the plus side, my time with Uncle Charlie did leave me with permanently waxed lips and now I have to consume all fluids and nutrients intravenously. I was always a pudgy kid, but weight gain is no longer something I have to worry about!

My Verdict:

My showstopper closing sentence for a fifth grade book report on this would be, “It didn’t make any sense and it was very entertaining.” If Miss Pembroke doesn’t appreciate that line of genius, I’m dropping out of school and joining the circus.

Game Information

Game Type: Adventuron

Author Info: Carroll Lewis is the kind of name you get when your parents decide it would be fun to take the name of a popular Victorian children’s author, reverse it, and then slap it on their firstborn, irreparably scarring you for life. The good news is that a reverse Lewis Carroll is probably not going to turn out to be a pedophile. The bad news is I can’t Google this dude even when I use quotes and as such I was not able to find any information about him which makes for a rather pitiful Author Info section. We found a way to enjoy it anyway, though, didn’t we?

Play Online Link:

Other Games By This Author: I have no idea. Maybe none?

I think the primary difference between fantasy and science fiction is that scifi tends to have rules. Despite the futuristic technology, sexy aliens, and exotic planetscapes, you still expect a consistent world that probably resembles our own world in highly significant ways. When it comes to fantasy, there aren’t necessarily any rules. Things don’t have to make sense and the world doesn’t necessarily need to be consistent. The only real limit is the author’s imagination. In fantasy, a powerful spellcaster can leave destroyed armies and toppled empires in his wake only to be stopped in his tracks by one willful, precocious child. When this kind of thing happens in science fiction, it’s annoying as hell and people create angry threads about it on the Internet, but when it happens in fantasy, it’s completely normal (and also annoying as hell).

Off-Season at the Dream Factory is definitely fantasy by my definition. It’s not a world much like our own, and not everything makes sense or is explained. The game takes you to the kind of place where songs can be sung in color, dreams are bought and sold like commodities, items can travel freely between dreams and reality, newly planted cabbages spring up from the ground fully-formed, and orcs don’t necessarily like to kill things. In particular, the orc you play — a morose teenager named Zildud — is strongly pacifistic by nature. That’s problematic because your job at the local Dream Factory is to play a monster and fight with adventurers in their prepackaged, purchased dreams. You simply show up, barely put up a fight, and get “killed” over and over again like an unusually green and charmingly hapless Bill Murray, enraging your manager who insists adventurers want monsters to give them a good fight and even defeat them from time to time.

If you still have any doubt as to whether this game is actually a fantasy, I think the Dream Factory’s ostensible business model should effectively settle the matter. Who exactly is going to fork over good money to explore dungeons and fight things in their dreams? I like a good dungeon crawler and monster (sorry, Zildud) basher as much as the next guy, but I don’t want to have a bad day because my head got smashed in by an ogre in the dream I FREAKING PAID FOR. If Excedrin and a free sandy beach and palm tree dream aren’t included as part of the dungeon package, I’m guessing the Dream Factory has a terrible Yelp rating.

OatDF does several things quite well if you can look past the whole not making much sense at times thing. Personally, I AM quite inclined to look past it. It’s fun to shut your analytical brain off temporarily and go on a mad adventure every now and then. The quality writing throughout the game tells the story of Zildud’s journey through the realm of dreams and back quite vividly. The puzzles are fun though straightforward. The parser is solid, and the author does a good job of providing descriptions for everything and responses to many common verbs. The gentle game design makes errors easily irreversible — even the final fight can be repeated without needing to reload a save or restart. I tend to think it is generally good to have consequences, even dire consequences at times, in interactive fiction, but I also think forgiving games like this one can be very good for newbies who might need a more gentle introduction to the medium. There are times when the game spells things out only after first giving the player the chance to figure things out for him or herself. For instance, an experienced IF player is likely to figure out Zildud’s mom is giving him directions before the game breaks it down explicitly. Similarly, you have the opportunity to find the sponge by looking around before you get pointed to it more directly. There are also a number of secrets to discover that often give you extra points but aren’t vital to the story. I feel like there’s enough here to interest and please IF players of all skill and experience levels.

Combat in Off-Season at the Dream Factory is essentially a series of simple puzzles, but watching Zildud somewhat reluctantly climb up the ranks at the Dream Factory is one of my favorite parts of the game. For some reason (and yes, this is another thing that doesn’t make much sense), Zildud’s morality allows him to cast spells that turn his opponents’ attacks back on themselves even as it frowns on Dud making direct, physical attacks on anyone. I suppose the idea is that anyone fighting Zildud could choose to back away and not have anything bad happen to them because the spells only affect them when they try to attack. The test of each battle ultimately is to find the correct spell to thwart your enemy’s particular type of aggression. The opponents are interesting, fun, quirky, and among the most interesting of the game’s NPCs — I could imagine the demonic couple or the angels of death popping up in a Robb Sherwin game or a Slayer game for that matter.

The combat and Zildud’s attitude towards combat is the backdrop for the one major moral choice in the game: ultimately, is Zildud going to turn out to be a killer like the orcish stereotype or is he going to be true to his initially more pacifistic nature? I would say Carroll Lewis definitely and unambiguously has a preferred path he’d like to see players follow, but at least he gives us meaningful choices and appropriate endings that more or less fit the choices. I did find myself wondering if it was really so bad to kill people in dreams. Yeah, it’s bad when Freddy Krueger does it, but that’s because people tend to die in the real world when he does his thing and there’s no consent for any of it. If it stays in the dream and has no significant real world consequences, is killing really so bad? When Zildud is confronted with real world, remorseless evil, the game still seems to suggest killing in that situation might be wrong. I think it could actually be more wrong to NOT kill under circumstances like that. It’s to the credit of Off-Season at the Dream Factory that it makes you think a little when it’s not busy being silly and fantastic. Even if you struggle to relate to Zildud and his moral qualms at times, his sensitive heart is fundamental to his character. He’s consistent even if the human controlling him is not. Unfortunately, however, the evil Zildud ending I was hoping for never quite materializes because no matter what Dud does he never seems to get roasted by Heather Langenkamp starring as Heather Langenkamp.

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating:

Story: 6/10

Writing: 7/10

Playability: 8/10

Puzzle Quality: 6/10

Parser Responsiveness: 7/10

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