2001 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1

(in the order I played them)


Ah, another IF competition begins. There's nothing quite like unzipping that big pile o' games, firing up the random list generator, and diving into the first offering. Of course, the thing about diving is that you may find the water a bit less pleasant than you had anticipated. There's a misspelling on the first screen. The game engine doesn't recognize the "script" command. [I figured out later that there's a "start transcript" command from the menu, whose functionality is happily improved from last year. I'll keep it in mind for the next ADRIFT game I play.] Oh yes, and then there's the wonderfully opaque ADRIFT parser:
   Wear what?

   Wear what?

   Wear what?
It's not that The Cave of Morpheus is untested. The author's notes claim that the game "has been beta-tested fairly extensively", and I can believe it. Sadly, though, the testing cycles didn't quite catch all the problems, whether they be with voice ("I slap the palm of your hand"), room descriptions full of dialogue that repeats on every "LOOK" command, or glitchy parser trouble that leads to output like this:
   I pick up the library book and

Okay, enough bitching about the bugs. TCOM is a college game, combined with that wonderfully flexible genre, the nightmare story. Because much of the game's action takes place in dreamspace, you're not to take it amiss that, for example, you're naked and can't find any clothes in your own dorm room. Of course, once you see the game comment on the PC's penis, then dream or no dream, your reaction may be the same as mine: "Ew." When that comment turns out to be an extended metaphor about drooping flags... well, double ew. TMI aside, there are a few other strangenesses about the design, but the dreamlike setting makes it hard to know whether they're intentional or not. For example, there appears to be some random combat, and it can indeed kill you. All that's necessary to survive is to run away, but as a player, I was still left asking, "What was up with that?" I never really found out.

Inexplicably, the game is split into two files, and right about the start of the second one, I thought it was about to take off into something really cool. The PC plays Crowther and Woods' Adventure on his laptop, commenting along the way like so:

   {You scratch your head. This Crowther 550 thing is getting weirder
   and weirder. What the hell would a bird be doing hanging out in a
   Colossal underground cave? And if it did find itself there, what
   reason would it have to be happy??...}
"Wow!" I thought. What a neat concept -- a mini-implementation of Adventure, but seen through the eyes of a particular character, thus shedding light on both the game and the character. Sadly, it turns out that this cool idea wasn't the idea the game had in mind. Rather than a mini-implementation, the Adventure section is a very long non-interactive passage, one of those dismal IF moments where it doesn't matter at all what you type; the game keeps choosing your actions even if you just sit there hitting Enter, waiting for a chance to actually do something again. The interplay between character and game still happens, but it feels rather ironic to have interactivity completely removed just as the game is paying homage to a seminal example of interactive text. There are some pleasures available in TCOM -- the character of Alice is nicely delineated, and I found the PC's relationship with her quite believable. The spiraling, repetitive structure of the game made for some effective scenes, and the notion of some idealized version of Willie Crowther as Virgil to the PC's Dante is well worth exploring. Though these gems are embedded deep within a bland setting and an unfriendly implementation, their simple existence makes me look forward to the author's next game.

Rating: 4.5

TRIUNE by Papillon

The more years I write reviews for comp games, the more convinced I feel that my reaction to a game is strongly influenced by where it happens to fall in the random lineup chosen for me by CompXX.z5. I still remember how it felt in 1998 when I opened up Little Blue Men right after finishing Human Resources Stories -- I suddenly had this horrible vision of legions of IF authors sitting in dark, cramped basements, writing little opuses that allowed them to spew hatred at their day jobs. Similarly, as soon as I was a little ways into Triune, I thought to myself, "Oh dear, another dream game." This most likely wouldn't have happened had I not just finished The Cave of Morpheus, whose hallucinatory qualities covered over a multitude of design and implementation sins. The dreamlike sequences in Triune are much more powerful than those in TCOM, because Triune borrows liberally from fairy tale elements, squeezing all the Jungian, archetypal, collective-unconscious juice from them that it possibly can. On the one hand, the inclusion of these elements makes for potent storytelling, but on the other, it calls for a degree of control that the game doesn't always display -- sometimes the power of the symbols isn't harnessed as well as it could be, and they end up working at cross purposes. The effect, at the end of the game, is of an experience that offers some very strong moments, but doesn't quite all hang together.

The narrative frame of Triune gives us a teenage girl in an unbelievably abusive household, who escapes (perhaps literally -- the game leaves it unclear) into a fairy-tale world; that is, fairy-tale in the bloody, brutal Brothers Grimm sense, not the bowdlerized sweetness of a Disney flick. I'm not using that word "unbelievably" as a casual intensifier; the father comes across as such a caricature of an abusive alcoholic that it's difficult to believe in him as a real person. (The fact that some people no doubt act exactly as this father does, while a sad reality, does nothing to make him a stronger character, since stories are more about what feels real than what actually is real.) In fact, the whole thing feels a bit over-the-top: in the flashbacks and non-dream bits, there tends to be some adult who is being either amazingly wonderful or amazingly awful. The fairy-tale bits can tend towards the ham-handed: there's a serpent, a Tree of Knowledge, a character named Lilith, etc. Now, arguably, I've been guilty of this sort of excess myself, so I can understand how it gets into a game, but I still found it a little grating. It's true, though, that the circumstances of the narrative frame -- the fact that it's seen through a teenager's eyes, the fact that the archetypal forest invites archetypal dwellers, and the general sense of unreality about the whole thing -- mitigate these problems to a significant degree.

From an IF standpoint, Triune is a mixed bag. There's some fairly rich plot-branching -- the fact that I played through a session with the game that differed wildly from the walkthrough but still felt satisfying indicates how much the story space has to offer. On the other hand, while the implementation is generous in some places, it's quite sparse in others. It's fine that the game more or less only implements what it's interested in, but there needs to be some minimum degree of coding polish to avoid exchanges like this:

   The door is locked.

   I don't see any door here.
In addition, there were some definite lexical problems, such as the books who displayed their contents when EXAMINEd, but were stubbornly unavailable to READ. The jpeg image feelies provided with the game are excellent, again dipping into the well of ancient patterns, along with evocations of childhood, to set a dramatic scene. As an examination of femininity and how it works in culture, Triune is partially successful, offering some moments that are quite moving indeed, and bringing mythical elements into some interesting collisions, though not always as coherently as might be hoped. As a game, it's got some serious flaws, but is still worth exploring.

Rating: 7.7


[Note: Because Vicious Cycles gives so little away upfront about its content, this review could be considered a wee bit spoilery. If you're terribly averse to that sort of thing, go play it first. It's worth playing.]

Timing can really be a bitch sometimes. Vicious Cycles takes terrorism as one of its subjects, and isn't entirely unsympathetic to the terrorist in question. This choice was almost certainly made before 9/11, and before that date I think I might have been much better able to make the emotional leap that the game encourages. Today, though... having been inundated with news of the real people whose real lives have been affected by terrorism, and felt the consequent wrenching emotions, I found it difficult not to project those emotions onto the game's fictional scenario, and that made me a lot less receptive to the story than I probably should have been. That story was a good one (though perhaps just a trifle hackneyed in its presentation of a dystopic future where corporations rule the world and advertising is all-pervasive), but I just wasn't the best audience for it today. Still, even taking those reactions into account, there is a lot to appreciate about Vicious Cycles.

The game's best feature is its central concept, which is a great riff on the nature of IF. You play a character hooked into a "time-shunt" and trying to prevent a disaster from occurring. The way the device works is that it sends your consciousness back in time, to inhabit the body of a bystander, whose actions you may then control in your attempt to prevent the disaster. If you don't manage to stop the catastrophe, you're shunted back to the beginning of the scenario, to try again with a different sequence of actions. In Groundhog Day, a similar concept was played for laughs, but here the iterations are deadly serious, a race against time with horrible consequences. I thought this sequence was very well-designed indeed, going against the typical IF grain to fine effect. Here, not only do you learn from each death, but you actually must learn from your deaths in order to make progress on the problem. Having just finished (and loved) Planescape:Torment, where the main character is immortal and death is sometimes a necessary puzzle-solving component, I appreciated this twist very much. The overall puzzle is intricate and satisfying to solve, and the game does an excellent job of slowly doling out information as the PC gets closer and closer to completing the scenario.

Unfortunately, bad timing isn't the only thing that drags the game down. The author credits testers, and I've no doubt that the game has received at least some testing -- the main sequence hangs together well enough. However, either the author ran out of time to fix all the problems, or further testing is necessary, because little glitches abound. These bugs range from things like typos and misspellings to responses printed on the wrong turn, and in one case even a death that didn't restart the time-shunt cycle. Troubles like this happened frequently enough that I was often jolted out of an otherwise absorbing story by their presence. I sincerely hope the author puts out a post-competition version of the game, with the final polish complete; when and if that happens, Vicious Cycles will be a sparkling IF experience, at least for an audience not overly sensitized to the terrors of terrorism.

Rating: 8.6

STICK IT TO THE MAN by Brendan Barnwell as H. Joshua Field

Oh man, what a bummer. Here's this game -- I'm playing it, exploring the first scene. It doesn't take me long to realize that I love the writing. I only wish I could write dialogue and point-of-view descriptions that sound as natural as this. So I spend about a half hour exploring that first scene as thoroughly as I can: checking out all the rooms, talking to all the characters, really digging it. My IF time is up for the night, so I save my game.

Next day, I restore. Things seem a little stranger. Some paragraphs are repeating, weirdly. Some of the dialogue doesn't exactly seem appropriate to the scene, and some of the scenes appear to lack the appropriate dialogue. About then is when I choose an option and -- bang. Interpreter crash. Oh, no! So I restart, try another route. Another crash. Another restart. El crasho.

Oh, NO! Oh, yes. Oh, man. Oh well.

Rating: 1.0

NO TIME TO SQUEAL by Mike Sousa and Robb Sherwin

Sometimes two heads really are better than one. Take Robb Sherwin, an author with writing ability and panache to spare, but whose comp games have traditionally been major-league bugfests. Combine with Mike Sousa, whose Comp2000 entry At Wit's End proved that he was capable of thorough, polished implementation and taut pacing, though his prose didn't particularly draw attention to itself (for good or bad.) The result is a game that uses each author's strengths to its best advantage. NTTS had me on the edge of my seat almost immediately, invested in the characters and sweating through the rapidly mounting tension. That sick, scared, hollow-stomached feeling isn't one I tend to enjoy, even when it's produced by fiction -- that's why serial killer horror is a genre I usually avoid -- but I have to admit, this game did an excellent job at producing it. Very short scenes, whose interactions are limited to a few, very obvious moves, pile rapidly atop one another, screaming towards a conclusion that left me breathless, saddened, and a little confused.

Right about then, the game did something that really pissed me off. Of course, I didn't know at the time to be pissed off about it -- I only found out later, after spinning in frustrated circles, trying to make progress. And even though this move is one of the major surprises in NTTS, I'm going to spoil it now, because to my mind, it's a terribly unfair trap lying in wait for people who approach IF like I do. You've been warned. What happens is that NTTS appears to end tragically. It then offers the standard "Please enter RESTORE, RESTART or QUIT" prompt, and indeed, you can restore or quit from this prompt, and those functions will work as advertised. RESTART, however, doesn't really restart the game but instead moves it to its next section. Now, it's true that this is not a new idea. At least one other game pulls a similar trick, but in that game, no matter what you type at the question's prompt, the letters RESTART appear. NTTS, however, offers a system prompt at which some responses will generate system actions and other responses will generate game actions. This is a very, very bad idea. You know why? Because I chose RESTORE, that's why. I restored my game, trying to "win" that first section, and failed, not knowing that failure was the only option. I was about to restore again, but I just couldn't think of anything new to try, so I checked the walkthrough, and found out that the way to solve this "puzzle" was to type RESTART at a system prompt that really wasn't. This is dirty pool. If you're going to sneakily integrate system prompts with the game, at least have the courtesy not to make the feature into a puzzle, because solving a cheating puzzle isn't any fun.

I approached the rest of the game with wariness and caution, unwilling to get too drawn in, which is too bad because NTTS apes Photopia's viewpoint-fragmentation (though not so much its time-fragmentation) to great effect, in the service of telling an interesting, multi-layered story. Of course, it was a story that still left a few major plot danglers swinging even when it reached its real conclusion, not to mention threw in cultural references from Jack The Ripper to Lewis Carroll without much to support them. Still, it was engaging stuff, and was peppered with one or two really clever puzzles. The overall design was solid, save for the one flaw, but that flaw was so glaring, I really can't ignore it. No Time To Squeal demonstrates that great things can happen when two IF authors combine their strengths, but unfortunately, it also shows that even teams still have their weaknesses.

Rating: 7.4


For the past several years, the IF community has created a variety of "mini-comps" in the Spring of each year, competitions where the games are instructed to stick to a particular concept. These concepts can range from a required image like "a chicken crossing a road", to the inclusion of a particular element (romance, dinosaurs, the supernatural), to a stipulation about the game structure itself (include the verb "use", disallow the player from having any inventory.) Furthermore, for as long as there have been Spring mini-comps, they have had an effect on the Fall "maxi-comp," because inevitably some author has a great idea that fits with the mini-comp, but doesn't manage to finish by the Spring deadline, so instead polishes the game further and enters it in the Fall comp. This spillover effect has given us such past treats as Downtown Tokyo. Present Day., and Yes, Another Game With A Dragon!, and now "To Otherwhere and Back", a game originally intended for Emily Short's Walkthrough-comp. The concept behind this particular mini-comp was that entrants had to produce games (or transcripts) that conformed to a particular walkthrough; as a further twist, this walkthrough was in the form of an unpunctuated telegram, containing strings of commands like "TAKE NEXT TURN SMOOTH DUCK DOWN" and "LOOK UP DRESS BOOK SHIP PACKAGE PRESENT BOWL", which could be broken up in any number of clever ways.

To Otherwhere and Back meets the challenge ably, and in doing so, emphasizes an underrated IF technique: cueing. What we learn from games like this is that IF can prompt even quite unusual input from the player, as long as the setup has been executed with skill and the cue delivered fairly clearly. For example, in order to get me to type the first command from the walkthrough, the game presented me with this situation:

   The screen of the debugging terminal is covered with code and
   variable dumps. You stare at it with bleary eyes, trying to find the
   last, elusive bug that you've been chasing for the last 37 hours
   straight. You're so tired, you're having to make a conscious effort
   to think.
That first command was, of course, "THINK." That's not something I'd usually type in at an IF prompt, because most games just give a canned answer to it, if they give any answer at all. This piece of text, though, was enough to cue me that in this situation, that command might produce something useful, and indeed it does. It's not that good cueing leads the player by the nose -- in fact, the first thing I typed after reading the text above was "DEBUG", which actually put me into the game's debugging mode, hilariously enough. But after that didn't work, I looked at the text again, and was able to discern the right move without looking at the walkthrough. This sort of dynamic is the essence of good cueing, and TOAB does it over and over again. Of course, what's also true is that Alan's heavily restricted parser and the shallowly implemented game world had me looking to cues quite a lot, but in this game that paucity of options was quite appropriate.

What TOAB doesn't quite manage, though, is to construct a coherent plot. Granted, hewing to a deliberately challenging premise while telling a story that makes sense is quite a tall order -- most of the entrants into the walkthrough-comp either came up with some arbitrary reason why those words would be strung together (as in Adam Cadre's hilarious Jigsaw 2), or relied heavily on the dream/surrealism/hallucination device to justify the necessary contortions. TOAB pursues the latter option, and its story ends up feeling more than a little arbitrary as a result. Still, the game applies itself to the walkthrough's odder moments in some very clever ways, and provides some good laughs, such as the Polish phrasebook that "contains translations of many phrases useful to a traveller in Poland, such as 'Please develop this film', 'How much is the sausage?', and 'Am I under arrest?'". Overall, I enjoyed TOAB, and while the fiction element of it wasn't so great, its interactivity techniques got me thinking. That's not a bad track record for a comp game, no matter what comp it might belong to.

Rating: 7.1

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Paul O's 2001 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002