1997 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1

(in the order I played them)

UNHOLY GRAIL by Stuart Allen

Playing Unholy Grail puts me in mind of the old saw about the glass being half-full or half-empty. For each positive I can think of, a counterbalancing negative also comes to mind. While the prose creates sharp, clear, atmospheric images, it is also burdened with numerous grammar and spelling errors. While the game had an inventive plot, this same plot was punctuated with moments of tediousness, implausibility, and pure frustration. And while Grail is orders of magnitude better than Allen's 1996 entry The Curse of Eldor, it still fails to realize both its own potential and that of its author.

Allen has accomplished a noteworthy programming achievement: he has written his own IF engine, one which mimics much of the important functionality of the current front-runners Inform and TADS. Unfortunately, it still doesn't perform at the levels of either of these popular "standard" IF engines, and suffers greatly by comparison. Again, it's a yin and yang situation: a quality engine is written from scratch, but it's still a poor competitor to the dominant systems, marred by problems ranging from the complex (tortured disambiguation) to the amazingly simple (an inexplicably arbitrary pathname in the CONFIG file.)

Still, Unholy Grail is the first competition game I've played, and it's not an altogether inauspicious start. For one thing, it represents remarkable progress on the part of the author. [No, the comparison to non-competition games is not affecting my overall rating -- I simply mention it in this review for the sake of completeness.] Unholy Grail is not the fulfillment of Stuart Allen's promise, but it marks him as one to watch. With the improvements he's already made to his JACL engine it seems entirely plausible that it could one day match the quality of the current state of the art. Also, this game is one of the few conceptually complete pieces of IF I've seen in the "thriller" genre, a field which is in many ways well-suited to IF, but whose only significant representative has been Border Zone, a quality game but one whose gimmick of real-time has often overshadowed discussion of its generic groundbreaking. Unholy Grail was uneven; some things were really very good, other things really not very good at all. I hope it's a marker of better things to come.

Prose: I found the prose in Unholy Grail fairly difficult to read. Sentences seemed to string endlessly, clause following clause until I thought perhaps the author had asked Henry James to ghost-write. However, I also think that the lack of a status line and room name threw me out of my ingrained IF reading habits, the disorientation of which probably contributed to my difficulty in following the author's long narrative strands. Or it could just be my own denseness -- that's always a possibility. Despite the game's verbosity, though, strong images floated up to me out of the sea of words. I have a very distinct picture in my mind of the swivel chair and radar screen in the control room, of the battered hut whose floorboards parted to show the ground below, and of the elegant, elaborate hotel. The author clearly had done his homework, and was able to create a very convincing picture of the character's environment. I just had to read some of the sentences a few times before I felt sure I knew what they were saying.

Plot: The most ringing endorsement of the plot I can give is this: after the two-hour judging period had expired, and I was only 75% through with the game, I spent another half-hour on it because I needed to know how it ended. I found the plot difficult to get into at first (see Puzzles), and needed to refer often to the science encyclopedia so I could have a basic clue of what the hell the game was talking about, but once I understood, I was inexorably drawn in by the skillfully dropped hints and slowly unfolding drama. On the other hand (and there's always another hand when it comes to Unholy Grail), I found some things in the plot pretty difficult to believe. Small points like the layout of the complex were jarring: would the military really set up a female officer's room so that her only access to it is through a civilian male's room, and have her share a bathroom with him as well? Also, some larger points (such as the Rotenone) seemed only to serve as red herrings, but created major implausibilities in the plot: if I've determined that Rotenone is causing the fish deaths, how can it be true that they're being caused by something which in fact behaves entirely differently? For that matter, if my basic science encyclopedia tells me that Rotenone causes fish to drown, why do I blame it for cancer?

Puzzles: For the first hour I played the game, I was absolutely stumped. Finally, I resorted to the hint system and learned that because an extra-long sentence in the room description of the lab, I had neglected to examine the lab bench as closely as I ought. Once I found the global positioner, I was off and running. Consequently, I struggled with this game a lot more than its puzzles may have merited. Most of the puzzles were fairly easy, when they didn't involve guessing the verb (Can't turn the drum. Can't move the drum. Can't push the drum. Can't pull the drum. Can't look under the drum. Oh, look behind the drum!), and some were quite satisfying (especially the filing cabinet.) However, one puzzle was amazingly tedious -- it basically involved typing "n" 20 times and "w" 20 times, then doing the opposite. Here's where a "swim to" verb would have been much appreciated!

writing -- In addition to the stylistic factors I mentioned in "Prose", Unholy Grail was also plagued with grammar and spelling errors. Certainly there was some attention to proofreading, but one or two more passes were needed.
coding -- Unfortunately this is where Grail stumbles the most. JACL does a good job of imitating mainstream systems (especially Inform) in many ways, but in other crucial areas it falls critically short. For example, the system allows only one saved game at a time, and it lacks an "oops" verb. Also, its disambiguation is weak, a fact which caused a great deal of frustration for me as my reasonable answers to its reasonable questions kept getting the response "The sentence you typed was incomplete." The system also overuses Graham Nelson's famous "You can't see any such thing," applying it to sentences whose nouns are examinable and manipulable in other contexts. In addition to these general systemic problems, Grail itself had a number of particular bugs which I've reported to the author in a separate email.



It's not often that you see a thread from one of the newsgroups translate so directly into an actual piece of IF, but that's what's happened with The Lost Spellmaker. This summer, the discussion raged (and I do think that's a fair characterization) in rgif about "Gay characters in IF." Some people held that if a piece of IF were to feature a gay character, that piece would need to have homosexuality as its primary concern. Others, including Neil James Brown, contended that a character's sexual orientation can function simply as a vector to deepen characterization, of no more central concern to the game's theme than her gender, her height, or what food she likes to eat. The Lost Spellmaker proves Brown's point quite handily.

The game's protagonist is Mattie, a dwarf Secret Service agent dispatched to discover the whereabouts of Drew Tungshinach, last in a long line of local spellmakers who have disappeared mysteriously. The fact that Mattie is both a dwarf and a Secret Service agent is an indication of the clever world that Brown has created, which consists of equal parts Ian Fleming and Brothers Grimm. The fact that Mattie loves candy comes in handy in a couple of puzzles, and helps explain why she lives in the town Sweet Shop. And finally, the fact that Mattie is a lesbian has a bearing on the love-interest subplot with the local librarian. Yet none of these incidental facts impinge on the game's central concern, the rescue of its eponymous Lost Spellmaker. Instead, they enrich our understanding of the characters, for which purpose Mattie's status as a lesbian is no more or less important than, for example, her status as a dwarf.

I don't know whether Brown wrote this game to prove his point, but it certainly does. It's also a fun piece of IF apart from any political or identity considerations. The quest for Drew brings Mattie in contact with a number of amusing characters, and the milieu is small enough to make most of the puzzles fairly easy. Of course, I can't deny that I personally find it quite refreshing to play a game where heterosexuality isn't the implied norm, but The Lost Spellmaker has more than that to recommend it. It's a snappy quest in a creatively conceived world, a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

Prose: The prose in The Lost Spellmaker never jarred me out of the story, and I often quite enjoyed reading it. The village wasn't particularly vividly rendered, but the characters often were, and some of the game's lighter touches were hilarious. Dialogue was, as a rule, quite well-written, especially the Reverend's constant malapropisms, which made me laugh out loud over and over, even when seeing them for the second and third times.

Plot: Considering the weird, mutant setting Brown has achieved by breeding traditional fantasy elements (magic, dwarves, talking animals) with James Bond derivations (the Secret Service, a one-letter superior, his secretary "Mr. Cashpound"), the plot walks a fine line, and does it well. The plot is not simply a fantasy, though it does involve using magic to halt the decline of magic, and manipulating fantasy characters to solve puzzles. Nor was it simply espionage, though it did involve a heroic spy facing off against the obligatory Femme Fatale. Instead, it swerved back and forth between the two, making for a merry ride.

Puzzles: I only had to consult the walkthrough one time, for a puzzle which was logical, but could have used an alternate solution. The puzzles weren't the focus of the story, so they served the basic purpose of small goals to help advance the plot. In this role, they worked admirably well. There were no particularly witty or clever puzzles, but by the same token there were no unfair or "guess-the-verb" puzzles either.

writing -- I only noticed one proofing error in the game. The vast majority of the prose was competently and correctly written.
coding -- There were a few bugs in the game, one of which may be more of a library issue than a lack of attention on the part of the author. Also, there were a few places where a response beyond the default would have been appreciated. Overall, the code was relatively bug free. Kudos must go here to the title page, which employed a really nifty z-machine special effect.


BABEL by Ian Finley

Babel is not only one of the best competition games I've ever played, it's one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I've ever seen, period. The game starts from a well-worn IF trope: you awaken alone, with no memory of your identity. Then, Babel unfolds into a breathtaking, emotional story. The work of exposition and plot development is performed through the protagonist's enhanced powers of tellurgy, which the game defines as "the ability to experience past events by touching objects present when the event occurred." The clarity of these visions varies according to the emotional intensity of the event being witnessed. This device, reminiscent of that in Stephen King's The Dead Zone, is the central convention of the game, and it allows a degree of character development very rare in interactive fiction. Certainly other games (most notably Zork:Nemesis) have used this device in the past, but none have brought it about so convincingly and so effectively as does Babel. The tellurgic episodes gradually bring an awareness of the character's identity, and how he came to be in his amnesiac state, as well as tell a chilling story of scientific arrogance and attendant disasters.

Another interesting aspect of Babel is the moral ambiguity of its main character. Typical IF heroes (or heroines) have few ethical shades: they are either unambiguously on the side of good, working to save the universe or some version thereof, or basically self-interested seekers of wealth or fame. The hero of Babel falls into neither of these convenient categories. Instead, he appears first as a victim, then eludes that simple assignation as well, becoming a character of depth and complexity very rarely realized in IF. The experience of playing such a character was a powerful one, especially as the story gradually revealed just how willing a participant he was in his own undoing.

Finally, I think it's worth noting that after playing only three games from the '97 competition, I've already seen two that deal with a metallic research station where the player discovers the frightening results of unbridled scientific inquiry run amok. The meaning of this thematic fascination in a community devoted to the supposedly "archaic" text form is a speculation for another essay, but I feel safe enough asserting this: Babel is an outstanding treatment of the theme, the best I have ever seen in IF, and one of the best I've ever seen in any medium anywhere.

Prose: Babel's prose was nothing short of outstanding. It unerringly conveyed the experience of being stranded in a deserted Arctic outpost, addressing all the senses and the emotions as well. Powerful turns of phrase abounded, and extreme experiences (such as being out in the Arctic winter wearing only a hospital gown) were very vividly rendered. The characterization and dialogue in the cut-scenes of the tellurgic visions were sharp and effective, outlining strongly defined and complex characters. Small touches like tiptoeing across the cold floor in bare feet, or the equation of the cold-hearted scientist's eyes with the Arctic ice (notice the pun), combined with broader strokes for an astonishingly realistic and well-written whole.

Plot: The game's plot unfolds masterfully, revealed in dribs and drabs by the tellurgic episodes. The author provides a chronology for all these events with the (rather forced) device of giving the character a calendar on which he "instinctively" jots down the date of each occurrence. As the story develops, the tension becomes greater and greater: the unfolding mystery of the character's origin serves to heighten the power of the story's eventual climax. Some of the Biblical imagery is just a tiny bit heavy-handed, but the whole is strong enough to overpower any objection of didacticism or triteness.

Puzzles: The puzzles almost effortlessly achieved the ideal of blending seamlessly into the narrative. There were no arbitrary puzzles, and the artfully gradual revelation of the plot was served elegantly by simple but logical obstacles. There were no puzzles that were particularly ingenious or unique, but that wasn't the point of this game. The puzzles were there to provide some control over the narrative flow, and in this they served their purpose just right.

writing -- The prose mechanics were excellent. I only noticed a couple of proofing errors in this very word-heavy game.
coding -- Coding was equally strong. I found a couple of very minor bugs, but there were many, many touches that made it clear that a great deal of thought, foresight, and effort went into the coding of this game.



Here's my confession: I love superheroes. Ever since my first Marvel comic at age six, I've always been a fan. Even now, well into my twenties and possessing a Master's degree in English Lit, I still make sure I get my monthly superhero fix. Yes, I know that violent revenge power-fantasies do not great works of literature make. Yes, I love comics and I know that the comics market is overcrowded, to the exclusion of other quality works, with bulging musclemen in tight spandex. Yes, I know that the constant deaths and resurrections of the superhero set strain plausibility to the breaking point. (Though really, who cares about plausibility? We're talking superheroes, here!) And yes, I'm disturbed by the almost grotesquely idealized bodies (especially women's bodies) relentlessly depicted in superhero comics. But what can I say? No matter how guilty it gets, it's still a pleasure.

Consequently, I was anxious to start playing The Frenetic Five, and gave a small cheer when Comp97's magic shuffler put it towards the front of the line. I've always thought that the whole superhero genre would make a great one for IF -- if it's a great power fantasy to watch some comicbook character shoot fire out of his hands, how much greater to actually play the character that does it! I quickly learned that FF is in fact a superhero spoof (seems that very few people who think of themselves as sophisticated can enter the superhero genre without wearing the bulletproof bracelets of satire and ridicule), and a very funny one too, in the tradition of Superguy. You play Improv, whose power is the ingenious use of household objects, and other members of your team include a boy who can see tomorrow's headlines, and a woman who can find lost objects by clapping her hands (named, of course, The Clapper). The prose maintains a consistently high quality, from the characters' dialogue with one another to the snappy responses provided for some unlikely actions (">GET HOUSE" brings "You can count the number of superheroes you know who can lift an entire house on one finger: Forklift Man. (Come to think of it, Forklift Man could lift an entire house with one finger.)") It's hilarious.

Sadly, there are some problems as well. For lack of a walkthrough, I was unable to complete the game, and this frustrating experience revealed most of the game's shortcomings. First of all, I was disappointed that my supposed super-power was not implemented, as it would have been one of the most natural (and coolest) hint systems ever devised. Anytime I needed help with a puzzle, I could have just drawn on my "super Improv power" to help me make the intuitive connections between those ordinary household objects. Instead, the game left me to hope that I (as a player) developed those MacGyver talents on my own. Not likely, I'm afraid. In addition, the game did not meet the challenge of allowing me to use even this setup, because it did not allow alternate solutions to puzzles by using objects in unconventional ways. Very few alternate solutions were implemented, and few are even anticipated with a snarky response. For example, when tied up, I tried many unconventional ways to escape my bonds (cut them with my shard of glass, put eyeglasses into sunlight to focus the light into enough heat to burn the ropes, blow on the eyeglasses to put them in the right place, bite the ropes, wrap duct tape on my fingers to get more than one object at a time, etc.) Each attempt was met with one of two (equally lame) responses: either very clumsy non-recognition of the verb ("You can't see any bite here.") or "That's not really possible in your current state." I got the impression that the author hadn't really thought about all the clever things that could be done with the inventory objects provided, just the one clever thing that would solve each puzzle. Finally, there were a number of just plain bugs in the game, which always decreases the fun factor. The Frenetic Five has an excellent premise and, on the level of prose, an excellent execution. However, interface design and implementation are too important to be treated the way this game treats them, and it suffers for it. I'm still waiting for the game that does superheroes just right.

Prose: As mentioned above, the prose was excellent throughout all of the game that I saw. The dialogue and characterization for each member of the team was sharp and funny, and room descriptions (which adapted somewhat to the character's mental state) were both concise and vivid. Even some of the most everyday IF responses were considerably enlivened by the superhero treatment -- for example, saying "Down" in a locale where that direction is not available evokes the response "Sadly, you're not equipped with the ability to tunnel through solid ground."

Plot: Since I wasn't able to complete the game, I can only report on as much of the plot as I saw, which was basically pretty middle-of-the-road superhero cliche. Since this was a spoof, of course, cliches were a good thing, and many of the touches (like having to take the bus to the supervillains' hideout) were quite funny. The landscape, the premise (SuperTemps, whose logo is a muscled forearm holding a timesheet), and the spoofing of venerable superhero tropes (a mission interrupts relaxation, the villains explain their nefarious scheme to the bound heroes, etc.) were all very cleverly done. There were some coincidences which strained even the generous boundaries of satire, but I'll discuss those below.

Puzzles: In fact, I'll just discuss them right here. The puzzles were a weaker part of this game. I found basically two types of puzzles in the game. One group was the puzzle based on extremely contrived circumstances -- for example, the door to the villains' hideout uses a "guess-the-big-word" lock, and what do you know, I happen to have someone on my team whose superpower is guessing big words! Lucky me! The other type of puzzle was supposed to have drawn on my character's superpower, the ingenious use of household objects. However, since this power wasn't implemented (as a hint system) within the game, I was left to think of these ingenious uses by myself, the problems of which have already been discussed above.

writing -- I found no errors in grammar or spelling in this game.
coding -- I think the main failure of the coding was the one I've already discussed: the lack of depth in coding alternative uses for inventory items. When a game's main character is someone whose primary trait is the ingenious use of objects, it is incumbent on that game to provide specific code for as many of those ingenious uses as possible. Frenetic Five fell well short in this regard. The game also had a few regular bugs, including the most egregious occurrence of the typical TADS disambiguation bug I've ever seen -- when I and my team members were tied up, and I tried to do something with the ropes, I was asked "Which ropes do you mean, the ropes, the ropes, the ropes, the ropes, or the ropes?"



She's Got a Thing For a Spring (hereafter called "Spring") is one of the most delightful and well-written games I've played in a long, long time. Its author is one of the few professional writers who has created interactive fiction, and his expertise shines throughout the game. Spring is set in a mountain wilderness with no magic spells, no high-tech devices, in fact no fantastical elements of any kind. Yet this game imparts a sense of wonder that is matched by only the very best interactive fiction. I found some of the scenes absolutely breathtaking in their beauty. Living in Colorado, I've spent a fair amount of time is settings similar to those described by the author, and I felt that the prose perfectly conveyed the both the tiny joys and the majestic grandeur of the mountains. In addition, the game's code usually dovetailed neatly with its prose, creating at its best a seamless experience of walking in nature.

Spring also introduces an interface innovation for conversing with NPCs. The game keeps track of the last NPC with whom the player has interacted and what type of verb (e.g. "give", "ask", etc.) was used in that interaction. Then whenever the player is around that NPC and types in a word not recognized as a verb by the parser, the game tries to use that word to interact with the NPC, using the current verb type. It creates interaction like this:

>ask bob about woods
"Lots of aspen around here. I just love the forest."

"Aspens are my favorite trees."

This is a very smart move, and it works superbly in the game. What enhances the NPC experience even more is that the game's primary NPC (Bob, a friendly old gent who lives alone in the woods) is coded very well. He goes about his business with or without the player's presence, and it is possible to have a long conversation with him without breaking mimesis. The author has clearly gone to great lengths (including, I think, some close scrutiny of Gareth Rees' source code for Christminster) to make sure that his NPC is one of the most realistic and satisfying in IF. The depth of this NPC works along with the game's outstanding prose to create an extremely realistic gameplay experience.

However, the intensity and power of this realism brings with it a certain burden, and it's a burden that the game is not always prepared to handle. One problem was that some of the puzzles required me to act in a way that I felt was out of character. [SPOILERS FOLLOW] For example, one puzzle required me to take the roll of toilet paper out of Bob's outhouse and burn it. Now, a typical IF character would have no compunction whatsoever about this. But in Spring, the protagonist is supposedly a regular, kind person -- for her to steal and burn the only toilet paper from a man who shows her nothing but kindness and hospitality is a significant break from character, especially since Bob does not grant permission to do so. Other puzzles required a bit more verb-guessing than I care for, especially the walking stick puzzle. In addition, Bob is missing a few important responses, and the game also has some basic bugs. Still, the fact that these flaws are so jarring is a strong indication of what a high standard the game sets, and minor problems do not greatly detract from the fact that Spring is a wonderful piece of IF, as refreshing as a pine-scented mountain breeze after an invigorating hike.

Prose: The prose in Spring is simply first-rate. The author's professional writing experience is clear throughout the game. In fact, the prose is of such a quality that it's hard to talk about it without wanting to simply quote long passages and allow the writing to speak for itself. I'll save those surprises for the game, but I have to comment on one or two favorite scenes. I remember coming upon the fireflies and gasping in awe. The author creates a mesmerizing, magical picture of these fantastic creatures. I had similar reactions to all the wildlife in the game. In fact, though I said above that the game has no fantastical elements, that's not precisely true: the element of fantasy in the game is that it presents a nature trip as one wishes it could always be. Sighting elk clashing antlers with each other, encountering someone as nice as Bob, walking into a cloud of fireflies: these are magical moments. When they happen on a real camping trip, they are foremost among the memories you bring back home with you. In Spring, all that happens and more. Its magic is in bringing rare moments together to be experienced all in one sitting, yet never taking away the sense of preciousness carried within each moment.

Plot: Spring wasn't really a plot-driven game. It has a relatively simple goal, and the pleasure of the game comes from exploring the milieu rather than stepping through a more complicated story. Still, there were some interesting aspects to the plot pieces that were there. One thing that sets Spring apart is that its character is set within a warm, happy marriage. The context of that relationship bubbles under all the events in Spring, and even brings a degree of sexuality in the game's ending. Presenting sex in the context of a positive, healthy relationship is a rare thing to do in IF, especially since Spring is nature writing rather than romance. The one drawback to the plot, as I mentioned above, is that it sometimes required actions that were out-of-character. Perhaps with some fine-tuning to Bob, this problem could be remedied.

Puzzles: I thought the puzzles were a weaker part of Spring. While it was wonderful to wander around the lovingly described wilderness, it was hard to get anywhere without doing some things that I wouldn't expect the character to do. Perhaps the answer to some of these problems is to give Bob a little different attitude. [SPOILERS AGAIN] Perhaps have him offer to give the player a hint as to how to get rid of the wasps, then offer to let her use the toilet paper. Otherwise, she's doing something morally wrong by burning it. Again, this would not normally be a problem in most genre if, but Spring is a different sort of beast, or it feels that way to me. Other puzzles were rather non-intuitive, like the egg/foam connection. I used the hints for almost every puzzle in Spring, and I'm a good enough player that I think that means there's something wrong.

writing -- The writing was, predictably, flawless.
coding -- I'm a lot more inclined to be forgiving when an author takes on a significant coding project such as the NPC interaction innovation in Spring. Consequently, the fact that there were quite a few bugs in the game did impact its final rating, but not as significantly as it might have.


Go to the next page of reviews

Return to my IF page

Return to my home page

Paul O's 97 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002