2000 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 3

(in the order I played them)

YAGWAD by John Kean as Digby McWiggle

Two years ago, the author whose rather silly nom de plume is "Digby McWiggle" submitted his first competition game, "Downtown Tokyo. Present Day." That game was a prospective entry in Adam Cadre's chicken-comp, but it wasn't finished by the deadline, and therefore ended up an entry in comp98 instead. I wonder if the same thing happened with this game, because it certainly would have fit the parameters for David Cornelson's Dragon-comp. You see, YAGWAD stands for "Yes, Another Game With A Dragon!", and the cheeky spirit of that title permeates the whole game, to wonderful effect. YAGWAD has lots of spots that are very funny, and the whole thing takes a playful poke at fantasy conventions. Sure, fantasy conventions have been tweaked a lot at this point, but YAGWAD still manages a certain freshness, as well as a few artful nods to funny fantasies like The Princess Bride. It seems the King (who, speaking of The Princess Bride, is burdened with a comic lisp) has had his daughter abducted by a ferocious dragon, and is offering sparkling rewards to anybody who can retrieve her. Naturally, every strapping adventurer in the province is instantly on the case. Then there's you: neither strapping nor adventurer (in fact, more of a portly, sloppy drunk), you still decide to undertake the quest.

From this premise, YAGWAD unfolds into an excellent melange of puzzles in the best Infocom style. In fact, with the exception of various Briticisms in spelling and grammar, YAGWAD feels like it could have been written by an Infocom Implementor -- it's not as lengthy as the typical Zork game, but definitely partakes of the same general feel. For example, at one point in your adventures, you may come across a massive set of reference books called the "Encyclopedia Gigantica" -- in the tradition of the Encyclopedia Frobozzica, this reference provides a great deal of humor, both in its actual entries and in the references to it scattered throughout the game. Also, as often happens to me with Infocom games, I found several of the puzzles in YAGWAD rather difficult. In this case, though, I think that might be mainly because of the time limit. I was quite keenly aware of the game's size, which is not insignificant -- I'd have to be about three times the puzzle-solver I am to be able to finish this in under two hours without hints -- and therefore was less restrained about consulting the hints than I would have been. If the competition is over (which of course it will be by the time anybody reads this review) and you haven't played YAGWAD yet, let me urge you not to use the hints. For one thing, the adaptive hint system is somewhat flawed, and it sometimes fails to give hints for puzzles that you may be facing. For another thing, pretty much all of the puzzles are clever and fair, notwithstanding my inability to solve them. In fact, one of the biggest problems I had is that there's one particular puzzle which must be solved before a number of others, and I was stymied on this puzzle purely because of my own thickheadedness. When I finally consulted the walkthrough, I looked at the answer and thought "but I did that!" In fact, I hadn't. I went back to an earlier save point and tried it, just so I'd know I wasn't crazy. Turns out I am crazy -- it worked at that point and at all other points. I was completely convinced I'd tried it, but I must not have. This happens to me sometimes in IF, and I sure do feel dumb when I encounter it.

To make matters worse, I had an unfortunate difficulty creating a transcript of the game, so I can't go back to my old game session and find out what it was that I really did that made me think I had already tried that solution. Guess it'll remain a mystery forever. In any case, there are one or two puzzles that just graze the "read-the- author's-mind" category, but even those have solutions that are fair and logical, if not particularly easy to think of spontaneously. The writing in YAGWAD is technically excellent, and I didn't find a single bug in the code, either. Like I said, if Infocom was a British company, they might easily have produced this game. I mean that compliment as strongly as it sounds. Anybody who likes Infocom-style IF ought to give this game a try. Even those of you who shudder at the thought of Yet Another Game With A Dragon. (And you know who you are.)

Rating: 8.8


When I saw the title of Withdrawal Symptoms, I wondered whether it would be a sort of follow-up to the drug themes in Nevermore and The Trip, an intense tale about a junkie's triumph over addiction. Nope. The title actually refers to a bank withdrawal -- it seems your recently deceased aunt left you the key to her safety deposit box at the bank. You've brought the key to the bank's lobby, and now all you need to do is find your way through a few fairly contrived problems to discover what's in that deposit box. WS is a short, inoffensive, and moderately enjoyable game based in the "real world", or at least the real IF world, where you're allowed to pick up and vandalize things that don't belong to you, and where obstacles to your progress hinge on some highly dubious connections.

I guess that sentence ended up sounding like kind of a slam, but I don't mean it to be. Once you've set aside the notion that you or the world will have to behave in more or less realistic ways, you can have a lot of fun with WS. I didn't have much trouble reaching this conclusion, but I can see how somebody without much IF experience might balk at some of the actions required, or in fact might not figure out some of those actions at all, especially since the game takes place in such a quotidian setting. My own deductions weren't based so much on the "What would I do in this situation?" model, but rather on the "I haven't done anything with that implemented object yet, so I bet it'll help me get past this problem" model. Once I moved into that mode of thinking, I found the puzzles in WS pretty enjoyable, aside from a bit of hunt-the- verb here and there. There weren't very many of these puzzles, and they led to an ending that was kind of funny, though (like the rest of the game) nothing particularly memorable.

Man, there I go getting negative again, so let me be clear: I enjoyed playing Withdrawal Symptoms. The code was bug-free, or at least I didn't find any bugs in my session with the game. The English had a few errors here and there, mainly misspellings and awkward phrasings. Based on the fact that the author's email address ends in .fi, I'm guessing he's not a native English speaker, and considering that, the prose holds together pretty well. I particularly appreciated the fact that although many first-level nouns were implemented by the game, a number of them simply gave the message "That's not something you need to refer to in the course of this game." That's all I need to hear, really -- it certainly beats "You can't see any such thing," which I always found a fairly irritating response for examining something that's clearly mentioned in a room description. Of course, ultimately I prefer that all nouns ever mentioned anywhere in the game get their own description, but I think that would have been overkill for this game, and could have even created some possible red herrings and confusion. It's not the harrowing, David-Crosbyish journey through hell I expected when I saw the title, and after I finished playing Withdrawal Symptoms, I actually preferred what it turned out to be.

Rating: 7.5

KAGED by Ian Finley

Kaged is totalitarian IF. I mean that in two ways. First, the game's setting is a paranoid, Kafkaesque dystopia, where a totalitarian government is clearly in control. The game tips us off quite early to the fact that it's placing us in a very dark world indeed. The introductory text is full of capitalized phrases, phrases like High Inquisitor and Citadel of Justice. These give us a clue that the powers in charge surround themselves with an overwhelming air of authority, and the intro's gory imagery makes it obvious that all is not well in this Stalinist wonderland. When we reach the first room, a number of standard props are waiting for us: heavy, immovable desks symbolizing the drudgery of work; a seal and inkpad hinting at numbing bureaucracy; a solid iron typewriter, a technological relic to tell us that we're in a place where innovation is squashed, where the status quo is upheld and even enforced for its own sake; and of course, a standard uniform, reminding us unsubtly that the PC is just one of a million pieces in the authoritarian machine. Then, finally, when we reach the first important scene of the game, we enter the chamber of the High Inquisitor himself. The Inquisitor's job in this society is described thus: " All decisions and power lay solely in the Inquisitor's hands, the legal hocus-pocus of the past swept away. True Justice at last." The irony is as thick as anything you'll find in A Mind Forever Voyaging, and if you don't get the point by now you never will. I found it all about as pleasant and effective as a hammer blow to the face. That is to say, Kaged is unremittingly, relentlessly dark in plot, setting, and characterization, and it certainly worked on me, spooking me into some of the sharpest paranoia I've ever experienced in IF.

Remember, though, I mentioned that there are two ways in which Kaged is totalitarian IF. Not only does it depict a totalitarian regime, it enacts one as well. With the exception of one branching point, both directions of which are functionally equivalent, and both of which put you at the same spot, your path through Kaged is very much predestined. Deviations from it are not tolerated. Commands that don't advance the story tend to be met with terse dismissal: "That's ridiculous." Others are rejected with the rationale that the risk they involve is too dangerous, not that the game minds your taking the risks it intends. A few choices simply aren't implemented at all. A great deal of this is quite appropriate and logical, given the game's setting. Surveillance cameras are everywhere, as are guards, and it's a sensible design choice to disallow obviously suicidal commands with a "You don't want to do that" type of message. In addition, this design dovetails neatly with the game's plot. However, there are times when Kaged oversteps even these bounds, laying a controlling hand on the player to enforce the plot very rigidly indeed. For example, I figured out much of the foreshadowing in the game rather early on, and tried some rather reasonable actions to test my conclusions. Despite the fact that these actions would not have placed the PC in danger, certainly no more than most of the actions that the game requires to advance the plot, they were forbidden under the simple rubric of "You don't want to do that." This bothered me -- if I've figured something out, why can't I act on that knowledge? Because it isn't time yet, the game tells me, and besides it wouldn't be in character. But when a game slips hints to you and then forbids you from acting on those hints, it has moved beyond simply shaping the character. In the case of Kaged, I felt very much that the game itself became an example of the kind of dictatorial control that it ostensibly was working to decry.

That being said, I'm in a dilemma about how to rate it. On the one hand, I have to admit that it does an outstanding job at achieving what appear to be its goals. By the end of the game I was twitchy, angry, and thoroughly awash in the reality-questioning quasi-madness brought on by works like Brazil and 1984. Like those works, Kaged is a kick in the head all the way through, and a very powerful kick at that. In a way, I love this -- I find it a brilliant indictment of authority run rampant, and perhaps even a radical thesis on the problems of non-interactive IF. All that makes me want to rate Kaged quite highly indeed. On the other hand, if I give it what it wants, doesn't that make me complicit? If I truly believe in resisting totalitarianism (and I truly do), then shouldn't I resist Kaged and its demands by giving it the lowest rating possible? Shouldn't I raise my voice as strongly as possible to insist that IF like this is unacceptable? Maybe I should. But then again, what about that old rationale of irony? Sure, Kaged shows us totalitarianism, and controls us with an iron hand, but isn't it just making a point by doing so? Sure. Of course it is. It's all ironic, you see? That's what it is. And it certainly would be overly paranoid of me to think of that as just a rationalization.

Rating: 9.6


The IF competition sure puts me in some weird situations. I never thought I'd play through an actual game based on an Infocom sample transcript, but I did it in 1998, when I played David Ledgard's Space Station. I never thought I'd read a mocked-up transcript of a fake game, then play a game actually implemented from that gag transcript, but J. Robinson Wheeler's Four In One proved me wrong that same year. Now I've encountered what may be the weirdest situation yet: I just played a text remake of Return To Zork. For those of you who didn't play RTZ, it was Activision's first graphical adventure to use the Zork license they had inherited from their purchase of Infocom. It was, in my opinion, pretty weak. It had a fairly cool interface, as graphic adventures go, and some nice features (like the various bits that took notes for you or recorded people's speeches), but it was cursed with an incomprehensible plot, highly annoying puzzles, and absolutely execrable voice acting. Most of all, it just didn't feel very Zorky, at least not to me. The cleverness was missing, and the splendor was, too. For me, it's completely baffling that somebody would want to actually remake this game. In fact, RTZAS isn't just a remake -- call it a "remake-plus". It takes much of the original structure from RTZAS, alters some things, and adds a bunch more. It's kind of like if somebody was such a fan of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier that they wrote an entirely new novelization of it, changing a few bits around and adding whole new scenes and subplots. Well, of course the other difference is that RTZAS was produced with permission of the license holder, yet another example of Activision's openness to the fan community. You can bet you wouldn't see Paramount behaving so freely with the Star Trek license.

When I played RTZAS, I couldn't help but be haunted by sounds and images from the original RTZ, bad voice-acting and all. This mental baggage already biased me against the game, sorry to say, and RTZAS's many, many problems did nothing to redeem it. First of all, as far as I could tell, the game makes no effort to clarify RTZ's tangled plot, and in fact snarls it further with the addition of new locations, characters, and subplots. Moreover, there are a number of bugs, though none very catastrophic. The biggest problem of all, however, is the language. The English in this game is very deeply warped -- almost every sentence features at least one bizarre error in spelling, grammar, or diction, sometimes so much so that it's hard to tell what the hell the game is talking about. For example, here's a sentence from the first room description: "The rocky underfoot descends ruggedly towards east in direction of a building that appears to be a lighthouse." Sometimes RTZAS feels like the offspring of an unholy union between Return to Zork and For A Change, just because the game's writing is so far from standard English. Much of it feels like it's been run through a translator program like Babelfish, with typically hilarious results. For instance, at one point you find an old mill that the game refers to as "delicious." Delicious? All I can guess is that some word like "adorable" was intended, but something got very, very lost in the translation.

Still, all that aside, I have to hand it to RTZAS: this game is obviously a labor of love. A great deal of care has been put into describing lots of objects, creating alternate solutions to puzzles, and lovingly recreating many of the scenes from RTZ. It also mercifully leaves out some of the very worst scenes from that game ("Want some rye? 'Course you do!"), which I certainly appreciated. It seems like a very odd thing to want to bring into the world, but RTZAS could be a fairly worthwhile game after its writing has undergone a major overhaul and it's been debugged more thoroughly. Nonetheless, even if it was at this point, it wouldn't really be an appropriate competition game. This thing is huge! I played for 2 hours and didn't even get halfway through, I don't think. As it stands, it's not only huge but very badly executed. And I just finished 2 hours with it. Maybe I will have that rye, after all.

Rating: 3.4

SHADE by Andrew Plotkin as Ampe R. Sand

Way back in 1996, I entered my own comp game. In his review of it, Andrew Plotkin talked about the fact that my game didn't give any warning when the PC's perceptions suddenly shifted. He said, "Maybe the author intended that effect, the world changing without any sensation of change -- it's certainly a disorienting effect when it really happens to you." This was a very charitable interpretation on Zarf's part; of course, it wasn't intentional, but rather one of the many novice mistakes I made in that game and corrected in the later version based on that kind of feedback. Shade, however, does use this effect in a way that I'm quite sure is intentional, and is in fact quite masterful. It's also rather difficult to discuss without spoilers. Let's just say that sometimes things change absolutely without warning in this game, in fact more and more often as the game goes on. When it happened to me the first time, I wasn't sure what to make of it -- I thought perhaps it was a bug, or some kind of misguided idea of providing variety. As the game went on, I realized that every detail of it is quite deliberate, and all of it calculated to deliver maximum effect. The effect it had on me was very powerful indeed. Quite simply, it blew me away. Not only that, it's one of those games that I wanted to restart right after I'd finished, just to try different things. When I did this, even more details came together in my head. Even now, little pieces are snapping together in my mind, and I'm getting flashes of realization about the meanings behind the meanings of so many of the game's elements. Few parts of the IF experience are as startling or as pleasurable.

Also a pleasure is the unwavering standard of excellence set by the game's writing and coding, especially the coding. The one-room setting is implemented brilliantly, shaping its descriptions based around what the PC is most likely to perceive first. For example, if you're standing in the living room, the computer desk and other items on the living room floor are described first, followed by mentions of the kitchen nook and bathroom nook. If, however, you're standing in the kitchen nook, the game will first mention the stove, fridge, and cupboard, then go on to talk about the desk and such. The mimesis achieved by this effect is remarkable, which makes it even more stunning when that mimesis is carefully, strategically bent, then broken. Even better, this kind of care has gone into pretty much every item in the game. They reveal themselves to you in ways that are not only character-appropriate, but which change to accommodate the PC's changing situation. Shade is the kind of game that puts a ton of care into its coding, most of which the player will never notice, because the very purpose of that care is to make the experience seamless for the player no matter what order she does things in. I noticed, because I think about those kind of things, and because I played it twice. If you liked Shade the first time, play it again -- you may be surprised at how well it wraps itself around your commands.

If you haven't played it once, then for goodness' sake stop reading this review and play it now. It's a short game -- in fact, there really is no plot to speak of, nor any puzzles. Actually, now that I think about it, Shade almost fits better into the category of IF Art (as exemplified by the entries in Marnie Parker's periodic IF Art comps) than the category of IF game. Still, like the best art, it creates an electrifying, unforgettable experience. I have to admit that it's an experience that shook me a little -- Shade has several surprises up its sleeve, not all of them pleasant. But don't let that dissuade you. Try this piece. I think it'll knock you out -- I know it did me.

Rating: 9.8

ENLISTED by Greg Barry

Enlisted, a military adventure with a Star Trek streak, imagines a Space Force that functions a bit like the French Foreign Legion reputedly did -- as a last resort for people in desperate circumstances who need to escape their lives. The PC, fresh from an intertwined bankruptcy and divorce, certainly fits this category, and from the outset Enlisted gives its space Navy a distinctly authentic feel. There are still forms, though they're now in electronic format. There are still humiliating medical exams, though now those exams are automated and high-tech. And there are still unpleasant surprises, like finding out that the length of your tour of duty is defined by how long it feels to you -- the time you sleep away in cryogenic fugue doesn't count. From the captain's mission briefing speech to the endless, identical corridors of your ship, Enlisted creates a very convincing world. Granted, there are a number of flaws that hinder the feeling of immersion -- the writing often feels awkward, and is sometimes burdened with errors. In addition, there are still some bugs left in the game, as well as some basic errors like listing incorrect information about exits from a location; overall, Enlisted feels like it still needs one more attentive round of proofreading and debugging. Nonetheless, though I can't claim a lot of personal authority on the subject, having never served in the military, the whole thing still just feels right. It captures the sense of being processed by a giant, bureaucratic system, as well as the excitement of setting out on a mission, encountering unexpected dangers and crises, and solving those problems. It's not mimesis, exactly -- a number of things are abstracted away in the name of high-tech -- but the objects, settings, and situations felt genuine.

The problem is that genuineness isn't always a virtue. Certainly, I was delighted when I encountered the other enlistees ("They look uncomfortable in their stiff and shiny uniforms and are mumbling amongst themselves.") and the bevy of governmental-sounding acronyms at every possible location, but I was very disappointed by some of the things that the game chooses to display realistically. In particular, I'm thinking of a puzzle that requires you to travel outside the space station in an EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity -- told you there were acronyms everywhere) suit. Using commands like "turnr" (turn right), "roll" (forward roll), and "lthrust" (low thrust), you must painstakingly maneuver the suit to a variety of locations based on x, y, and z coordinates. I went through stages with this puzzle. At first, it baffled me completely -- I ended up dozens of units away from anything, and totally unable to stop myself or correct my momentum. Then, after a restore, I started to get the hang of it, and thought it was amazingly cool. Once I had a mental picture of how the PC was traveling on x, y, and z axes, how turning and rolling could alter its orientation with regard to these axes, and how I could start and stop by turning and thrusting, it was fun and exciting to get myself maneuvered to the first place I needed to go. Then, when I realized that I'd need to go through this laborious process something like five more times, I started to get really annoyed. What started out as fun very rapidly devolved into tedium, and not only that, messing about with the EVA took the lion's share of my 2-hour playing time, so much so that I didn't even come close to finishing the game, despite typing straight from the walkthrough for the last half hour.

The more games I review, the more importance I place on one particular rule from Graham Nelson's legendary "Players' Bill Of Rights": "Not to have to do boring things for the sake of it." The EVA suit stuff from Enlisted felt quite realistic -- probably, traveling in a space suit via a backpack thruster and positioning system would be just as fiddly and drudging as the game makes it seem. However, reproducing this process does not make for enjoyable interactive fiction. As with regular fiction, we don't expect to have to sit through the boring parts of an adventure, even though realistically there would probably be many of those. This puzzle would have been excellent if, for example, the player needed to use the manual turn/thrust method to reach the first target, and that target had contained an autopilot module which allowed the rest of the EVA stuff to be done automagically via a Starcross-ish command like "SET X TO 2. SET Y TO -2. SET Z TO 0. START AUTOPILOT" Instead, we have a few minutes of excitement and then long stretches of painful and tricky mucking about. If I wanted that, I'd have joined the real Army.

Rating: 6.7

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Paul O's 2000 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 3 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2000