1997 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2

(in the order I played them)

ZERO SUM GAME by Cody Sandifer

Zero Sum Game (hereafter called "ZSG") is like the proverbial apple which is shiny & enticing on the outside, but inside is rapidly rotting away. The game starts with a fun premise: You've won. You've collected treasures and solved puzzles, and now (before the first move of the game) you're bringing them home to your mother. Unfortunately, she doesn't approve of theft and killing and other such goings on, and orders you to go back and put right all the wrongs you've committed. Thus the game's name: you try to bring your score down to zero before your moves (5000 of them) run out. This could have been a fun romp of reverse thinking, or an interesting exploration of the morality of the traditional stock adventurer character, or even both. As it turns out, the game doesn't really succeed on either count.

The main problem that I had with ZSG is that it takes a much more callous approach to cruelty (no, not Zarfian cruelty. Real cruelty. [No offense, Andrew -- yours feels pretty real at the time.]) than I'm comfortable with. [SPOILERS AHEAD] For example, early on in the game you pick up a loyal sidekick named Maurice, a childlike being who follows you around making funny comments a la Floyd. In another similarity to Floyd, Maurice must die in order for the game to be completed. However, that's where the similarity ends, because Maurice does not sacrifice his life to save yours, nor does he suffer to save the world. No, you kill him to get a pear. The game describes it this way: "You split Maurice wide open; seconds before he expires, Maurice beckons you closer. 'Oooh,' he says, 'was that a mystical treasure?'". Then you take the pear from his dead body and tromp off to solve the puzzle which requires it. In another section of the game, you take your cute animal friend Chippy the chipmunk, cover him with honey and poison and feed him to a stereotypical "Beast guarding the door." These (and other) scenes make it apparent that the author has not taken a thoughtful, mature approach to the implications of his theme. That's OK -- not everything has to be thoughtful and mature. But ZSG reached such a level of cruelty that it wasn't much fun either. Dead bodies piled up in proportions comparable to any hack-and-slash MUD, and even though there's a resurrection spell in the game, you can't use it to revive Maurice, or the dozens of dead elves and villagers, or any of the other beings killed in the game, with the exception of Chippy. The game's ending provides the final barb -- it kills you. Not as penance for your sins, but because you're a "mama's boy" (or girl, as the case may be.)

To give it its due, the game does have a clever premise, a promising start, and some good puzzles. Some of these puzzles have no particular moral bent, but are cleverly designed (getting the scroll, getting the key). Others in fact do have the particular ethical direction of reversing wrongs: you give the candy back to the baby, for example. That's why it left such a bad taste in my mouth to learn that other puzzles required coldly slaughtering your friends for the sake of a few points. I learned this from the walkthrough -- I had already thought of killing Maurice to get the pear, but couldn't believe it was the right thing to do until I heard it from the author himself. After that point, I detached from the game, using the walkthrough to see the whole thing and make notes for this review. It didn't get better. Zero Sum Game's gimmick is one that works best the first time it is used -- too bad this game did such a poor job of using it.

Prose: The prose in ZSG is actually pretty good. It's what enabled me to become a little affectionate about Maurice and Chippy before I had to slaughter them. Still, much like the rest of the game, the prose is a good tool used for the wrong purpose. It's like a beginning carpenter using the best quality wood -- the result may look pretty, but it falls apart much too easily.

Plot: I think this is a game that doesn't know what it wants to be about. I considered the notion (and this is giving a lot of credit to the author) that perhaps the driving idea behind the game is that there is no escape from unethical behavior, that even in putting some things right other ethical boundaries must necessarily be crossed. If we allow this rather extravagant benefit of the doubt and assume that such an examination of ethical entrapment is the game's purpose, I can only say that it does a really poor job of it. The game's arbitrary limits force brutal answers to trivial problems -- not a very powerful demonstration of the concept. But I don't think the game is aiming for anything so thought-out. Instead, its plot is a wandering mess, ending in a big "piss off" to its player. Unsatisfying and unpleasant.

Puzzles: The puzzles represented both the best and the worst things about ZSG. On the one hand, the first couple of puzzles I solved (the baby and the key) were really clever and interesting, and they raised my expectations from the already high level achieved by the game's premise. Unfortunately, the excitement of these only intensified the letdown of consulting the walkthrough and discovering what cold solutions were required for the other puzzles. It's a pity that the author didn't keep a consistent tone throughout -- I was much more disappointed than I would have been had all the puzzles required nasty measures to solve.

writing -- I only found one grammar error in the entire text, a misplaced modifier.
coding -- The coding was relatively coherent, though there was one major problem: the warning system was a complete failure. To test it, I ate the candy, killed the merchant, and killed Maurice in the first few turns of the game. No response. Other than that, I found no major bugs.


THE TOWN DRAGON by David A. Cornelson

The Town Dragon is a game with a lot of problems. The fact that the game is confusing was evident from the very start: after a few turns, I was told "Peter is following, looking at you strangely." I thought, "Following? But I haven't gone anywhere!" Turns out that when somebody is following you, the game tells you so every turn. This type of sloppiness occurs throughout. There are numerous grammar and spelling errors, so many that I stopped keeping track of them. The game's prose is often terse and uninformative, reducing room descriptions to simple lists of exits and object descriptions to brief lines like "They're copper and few would trade on them" for a handful of coins. In addition, the game suffers from a number of technical bugs, including failure to properly define a short name for objects and failure to respond to player commands at certain points during the game.

In fact, the game reminded me of nothing so much as an early piece of homemade interactive fiction, perhaps vintage 1982 or so. What's amazing about this is that it was made with Inform, a very sophisticated tool. I found myself marveling that something with such a primitive feel could be constructed with materials so obviously intended to allow a programmer to avoid this kind of aura. I suppose that the experience once again brought home the knowledge that even the highest quality tools do not automatically confer high quality upon their product. From time to time the argument comes up that games with "from scratch" parsers are somehow more pure or have more integrity than games made from prefab libraries, on the grounds that the prefab games can't help but be good. I think that what the Town Dragon shows us is that sophisticated parsers and libraries are of no use unless they are put to a sophisticated purpose.

Still, with all these problems, I enjoyed the game for what I felt were its merits: sincerity and consistency. The Town Dragon impressed me as a game written by someone who cared about his story but didn't have much skill with prose or with Inform. This doesn't make for a great product by any means, but I enjoyed it a tiny bit more than the last game I played (Zero Sum Game) a piece with good writing and coding but a very cold heart. With an improvement in prose quality and code, this game could be enhanced into a fair example of standard fantasy IF. I could see that potential, and it helped to mitigate the game's other disappointments.

Prose: Even aside from the grammar and spelling problems, the game's prose leaves a lot to be desired. Several important locations were described in 20 words or less -- not much on which to hang a mental picture. The milieu was not well or thoroughly imagined, and some descriptions actually left out crucial pieces of information. People and objects also were not well-described, with many descriptions turning on some variation of "looks ordinary."

Plot: The plot worked to drop a few clues and build to a climactic revelation at the end, with mixed results. Certainly there was some degree of building the mystery, and there was a revelation at the end. However, some pieces of the game (especially the daughter's responses) gave the secret away rather too easily, and the crippled prose was unable to create tension or emotional investment effectively.

Puzzles: Puzzles suffered from the same afflictions as the rest of the game. The prose was sometimes too ineffective to convey sufficient information to solve the puzzle logically. The buggy programming hampered my confidence as a player that I would be able to tell the difference between puzzles and bugs. In addition, the game broke several commonly held "players' rights": An arbitrary time limit was imposed, a couple of gratuitous mazes created frustration (especially since there were too few inventory items handy for the 'drop and map' method), and information from "past lives" was often necessary to avoid disaster.

writing -- The game was littered with grammar and spelling errors. These errors ranged from the simple ("vegatation") to the subtle (a room description read "To the southeast you see a supply store and roads in all major directions," implying that all the major roads were to the southeast.)
coding -- There were several coding errors as well. Again, some of these were simple errors like missing new_lines. Others were more difficult to deal with, like the lack of a short name for the volunteers who follow the player.


PINTOWN by Stefan Blixt

Playing Pintown was an extremely frustrating experience. The game was loaded with errors, both in its writing and in its coding. Even the walkthrough had bugs. I went through two hours and two interpreters trying to get the program to respond in such a way as not to crash the game, and after 45 minutes I stuck with the walkthrough. Even with the walkthrough, it took me another hour to finally get the game to stop crashing, and once I had done that a runtime bug derailed three puzzle solutions and magically eliminated the person following me. By the time I figured out that the game is unwinnable (at least according to the walkthrough provided by the author) I really didn't care anymore. The game's puzzles were infuriatingly arbitrary, its plot made no sense, and its prose was both very unhelpful and heavily burdened with grammar and spelling errors. I recognize the fact that the author of Pintown is Swedish and therefore might not have the best grasp on English. That's why beta testing is important -- not only does it get rid of those pesky game-killing bugs, but testers who are fluent in English can help correct all those mechanical mistakes.

In Pintown you play a musician (though the game will only respond to "play guitar" in one location at one particular time) who's just come off a bender where you had a major row with your girlfriend. Now it's your task to find her and make peace. Of course, the game gives you no hint as to where she might be, and characters who seem to have no programmed responses to any questions or actions aren't much help either. A vital part of the plot hinges on your getting into a parking garage, but you can only get in there at one crucial point in the game, and your are given no hints as to when and how that point arises. I only managed to get that far with the walkthrough in hand. As to how the game ends, I have no opinion since I never got there -- the game's bugs prevented me.

This game recalled some of the more disappointing moments of last year's competition, and I found myself once again asking that question: why would anyone who cares about his work at all enter a buggy, error-laden, unwinnable game into the IF competition? There's clearly a precedent (upheld by many of this year's entries) of high quality among many of the competition games. And surely authors understand that the idea of the competition is to encourage the writing not just of IF, but of good IF. So why would people humiliate themselves by entering poorly written, untested games? It's a puzzle too tough for this adventurer to solve.

Prose: The prose in Pintown was weak. On the one hand, it's one of those situations where there are so many technical errors that the overall prose quality is dramatically impacted for the worse. Then again, even without all those errors, I still think the prose would be bad. There's a character who responds to every subject with "I don't know." Room descriptions leave out crucial objects. Sentences often make little sense. Clearly, there was a lack of effort here.

Plot: It's hard to use the word "plot" in connection with a work like Pintown. The game's basic goal, according to the designer, is "simply to get along with your girlfriend." Of course, this is hard to do when she's nowhere to be found until the endgame. Actually, the main goal of the game is to be in the right place at the right time, then to steal a car, set some random events in motion with an arbitrary action, then to clean up your apartment in exactly the right way, and finally to rescue a cat and "discover" your girlfriend's hiding place. These plot points are relatively unconnected by any sort of logic.

Puzzles: The puzzles are very much of the "read the game designer's mind" variety. First, you wake up and the first thing you need to do is go back to sleep. Then, you need to follow someone without really knowing why; if you don't do this, you'll never finish the game. Then, you steal a set of keys and a van to drive to your apartment. There is no alternate solution to the apartment puzzle. You can't call a cab, or walk there, or ask anyone where it is. You've got to be there at the right time to get those keys and steal that van. Well, you get the idea.

writing -- There were many grammar and spelling errors in the game. They include words missing letters, misspelled words, and made-up words ("trafficated?")
coding -- But if the writing was bad, the coding was downright awful. Playing the game under WinFrotz led to many game-killing bugs of the "FATAL ERROR: Illegal Object Number" or "Illegal Attribute Number" variety. Under JZIP, the game would just stop responding at random points. In addition, the game state was unstable enough to eliminate a follower and return two solved puzzles to an unsolved state, all at once. Unsurprisingly, beneath these major bugs was a panoply of minor bugs, including a dearth of synonyms, important missing verbs (like "pet cat"), and readable materials that only respond to "examine", not "read."



Erden is a sprawling, ambitious game which probably does not belong in the competition. This isn't to imply that the game is without merit; on the contrary, it seems to have the potential to become an enjoyable fantasy excursion. However, the game is huge -- I played for two hours and I didn't even visit every location, let alone solve many puzzles. Moreover, Erden could use another few rounds of testing; I found several coding bugs and a plethora of grammar and spelling errors. In my opinion, the best thing that could happen to this game is thorough testing and proofing, then release in the spring of 1998, when we've all recovered from our competition hangover and hunger for substantial new adventures.

I can see why there's a temptation to submit longer games to the competition. For one thing, there seems to be ongoing debate about the meaning of the "two-hour" rule: is it that your game can be any size but will simply be judged after two hours of play, or does it mean that your game should be winnable in two hours? And if it's the latter, what do we mean with an imprecise term like "winnable?" Hell, with a walkthrough and a good headwind even Curses is winnable in two hours -- that doesn't make it a two hour game! Then also there's the fact that historically, the games that have won or placed high in the competition (Weather, Sherbet, Delusions... the list goes on) have strained or outright flouted the two-hour convention. According to Whizzard, the idea behind the rule is to prevent new authors from having to be intimidated by the prospect of going up against a Jigsaw or Christminster, an epic game with a huge scope, and I think that this rule still has value, despite the beating it's taken over the years. I tend to be of the opinion that the ideal size for a competition game is something that I (an experienced IF player, but no great shakes as a puzzle solver) can see 90-100% of in a two-hour sitting. I designed Wearing the Claw this way, and I appreciate competition games that do the same. However, the way it's worked out in practice is that the large-scope games still slip in -- perhaps not epics, but much more than vignettes, and they often succeed. And perhaps that's for the best; after all, in a competition like this one (where the works are labors of love and the financial stakes are rather low) it's better to have fewer rules and more flexibility, thus to encourage more entrants.

Still, what Erden demonstrates is that there is another advantage of keeping your competition entry small: focus. I don't have an accurate idea of how big Erden is (since I didn't see the whole thing, probably not even half of it, in my two hours), but it seems to me that if the author had concentrated her energies on a game perhaps a quarter of the size of this one, she would have had time for much more extensive proofing and beta-testing, and the result might have been a tight, polished gem rather than the rough and gangly work she submitted. In addition, she'd have had the opportunity to implement a taut and crystalline design structure, which is beneficial to any game writer. I think that after serious and detailed revision, Erden could be a fantasy odyssey on a par with Path To Fortune; at the moment, however, it is neither that nor a particularly thrilling competition entry.

Prose: The prose in Erden is often awkward, and can be difficult to read. Misplaced modifiers, unmarked appositives, and endless strings of prepositional phrases abound. The author also seems to have a particular dislike for commas, stringing clause after clause breathlessly together. I often reached the end of a sentence and found myself wondering how it had started. There are times in which this turgid prose style makes for some nice effects, as it gives a baroque feel to some of the game's ornate artifacts. Other times, it's just confusing. Overall, Erden could be made a much more evocative game with the help of some serious editing.

Plot: One interesting aspect of Erden's plot is that it feels much more "in medias res" than most interactive fiction. You enter the mysterious fantasy land after the dragon has already been vanquished. Of course, there are other quests to be undertaken, but the absence of the dragon helps to give the milieu a satisfying sense of history. That being said, I'm not sure that I gleaned much more about the plot. Certainly the retrieval of a mystical ruby is your main goal, and several subquests pop up along the way, some of which I didn't even begin before my two hours ran out. However, what the meaning of the ruby is, or whether the plot offers any twists, turns, or even character development of any kind is still opaque to me.

Puzzles: I spent enough time traversing the land that I'm not sure I even encountered any puzzles. There's apparently a lantern to be obtained, but the parameters of doing so were so broad that I have no idea how long it would have taken to succeed. I collected several objects whose use was not immediately apparent, but I'm not sure if they ever come in handy or not. There was one area of the game that seemed pretty clearly to hide a gateway to underground caverns, but once I thought I had found the answer to opening the gate, the parser was stubbornly unresponsive to my ideas. So I have no idea whether what I was seeing was an unsolved puzzle or a red herring. What's more, the game lacked a scoring system so I wasn't ever sure when I had done something important, but let me put it this way: I didn't feel like I had done anything clever. Because of all this, I can't venture much of an opinion about the puzzles in the game.

writing -- There were dozens of writing errors in the game. Beyond the awkward, overloaded prose there were any number of misspellings and misplaced modifiers.
coding -- Erden suffered from many niggling coding errors, especially missing or added new_lines. Some important scenery objects are missing (for example, the game describes huge hieroglyphics carved into a cliffside, the examination of which returns "You can't see any such thing."). Like the writing, the coding would benefit from an attentive overhaul.


COMING HOME by Andrew Katz

Coming Home is an unremittingly awful game, one which never should have been released publicly. It's hard to think of it even as an exercise for the author to learn Inform, so buggy and illogical are its basic design and implementation. Perhaps it could be considered a first step toward learning the language; in my opinion, such bumbling, poor initial efforts have no place in a public forum, let alone a competition. It's not much fun wandering through somebody's ill-conceived, cobbled-together, inside-joke universe. In fact, playing Coming Home is a kind of Zen torture, an experiment in just how unpleasant interactive fiction can possibly be. Perhaps it's what IF is like in Hell.

Frankly, I don't feel like putting much effort into this review, since the author obviously put so little effort into creating a quality game for the competition. I know it wasn't a personal affront, but I felt insulted that he thought this jerry-built piecework was worthy of anyone's time. It certainly was a wasted 15 minutes for me before I turned to the hints, and another wasted 15 minutes before I decided to just let the recording show me the rest of the game.

I want to encourage anyone who is interested in IF to contribute to the medium by writing a good game. But please, until it's good (Lord, at least until it works)... keep it to yourself.

Prose: Coming Home doesn't waste much time on prose. Which is unfortunate, since it's supposed to be a text game and all. What's there is really bad -- not fun bad or silly bad like Detective, just bad. I think even the MST3K crew would get bored with this one.

Plot: Like the rest of the game, the plot is unclear, and what can be discerned doesn't seem to make much sense. Apparently you're a very small person (a child?) who has been away from home for a long time, can't survive without eating and going to the bathroom every few minutes, and lives in a haunted house where doors close and lock of their own accord, people behave like furniture in some rooms and mysterious forces in others, and the bathrooms are smeared with urine and feces until you tell Mom to clean them up to a nice sparkle.

Puzzles: Puzzles? How to interact with the parser. How to move from place to place as directions randomly disappear. Why people appear and vanish, apparently magically.

writing -- The writing didn't have terrible mechanics (nothing like Punkirita from the 1996 competition, for example), but it sure wasn't good either.
coding -- To even try to summarize all the problems with the coding would take more time than I'm willing to give to this game. If you've read this far, you probably have a basic idea.


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Paul O's 97 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002