1998 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 3

(in the order I played them)

CC by Mikko Vuorinen

CC is a dreamlike piece of work that starts out in a void and moves into a desert. Its landscape remains spare, and the meaning is never clarified at any point in the game. Things never make all that much sense, and even after the ending "revelation" I never felt like I had any more understanding of the game than I started out with. The author is aware of this, and says in the text included with the game "You probably won't understand what the game is about, but that's all right... I just wanted to write something that doesn't make much sense." Mission accomplished. Actually, that probably sounds like I hated the game, which I didn't at all. CC is rather evocative, and although I couldn't begin to offer an interpretation of what it means, it wasn't an unpleasant experience to wander through the game's strange desert artifacts. It also included an equally mysterious NPC who, when asked about almost anything in the game, would make some vague, mysterious answer along the lines of "You must discover the answer to that mystery on your own." Not very helpful, but that fits in with the tone of the game.

I wasn't as wild about the puzzles. The text file and the walkthrough both make the point that the game is so easy nobody should need a hint, but I didn't find that to be the case. True, in some of the puzzles the most obvious action was the one that was required. However, that wasn't true every time. There was a real guess-the-verb puzzle towards the middle of the game, where several obvious answers didn't work, and the correct answer worked in such a way as to make it very unclear why the others didn't. I don't think I would have gotten anywhere on this puzzle without the walkthrough. There was another puzzle on which I used the walkthrough, but in retrospect, it's probably one I could have figured out for myself. Unfortunately, I went to the walkthrough much more quickly than I would have had I not had the earlier guess-the-verb experience. I think there's a lesson for game designers in this: if some of your puzzles are poor, their effect is not limited to themselves. Instead, they make the player less willing to expend effort to unravel later puzzles, even if those puzzles are good ones. With every poor puzzle, you reduce the player's faith that later puzzles won't be equally poor. In a short game, this can mean that even one guess-the-verb puzzle is enough to send players to the walkthrough for the rest of the game, if they even bother to finish it at all.

The prose wasn't bad, although for me it did have a few moments of dissonance that I chalk up to cultural differences. For example, there are some footprints in the desert, but the game calls them "footsteps." I've always thought of footsteps as something you hear, so even though it wasn't difficult to figure out from the context what the game meant, it jarred a little. However, I found no outright errors in the writing, and the coding was equally error-free. As in so many of the games in this year's competition, this game was quite short, so the error-free conditions are only sustained for a very short time, but that's alright. I'd much rather play an error-free short game than a problem-ridden long one. CC is slight, and rather confusing, but it has its good points too. If these trends continue, Mikko Vuorinen's next competition game might be one to remember.

Rating: 7.1

RESEARCH DIG by Chris Armitage

Research Dig has pieces of a good story, inexpertly handled so that they don't reach their full potential. In fact, the experience of the game was a bit like a real research dig -- you have to mine through some errors, cliches, and unclear writing, but you can come away with some pretty good pieces. So let me first focus on the positive. The game has an intriguing premise -- you are a beginning archaeology student, sent on a minor dig on behalf of your research center to an old abbey where the groundskeeper has uncovered "something old." When you arrive, you meet the groundskeeper's daughter, who whispers to you that the old piece belongs "to the Little People," who live underground. (Exactly how little these Little People are remains in question, but I'll get to that in a bit.) From this interesting start the game lays out a sensible map which delivers mystery and magic in reasonable proportions, never so much that it seems like a simple dungeon crawl or D&D knockoff. The writing can be rather atmospheric in several sections and some of the design contributes to this feeling, such as some important red herrings which lead nowhere but help to flesh out the game world. Overall, Research Dig feels like it was written by a beginner, but a beginner with good ideas and a passion for interactive fiction.

That being said, it's also important to note that the game has a number of problems as well. Though the map was logical, it also felt quite a bit cliched, with underground tunnels, spooky crypts, mysterious rune-encarved stones, etc. There wasn't anything that felt very unique once the game got to this point, and it felt like a game with a lot of potential had devolved into another ho-hum underground excursion. In addition, the writing suffered at several points from basic proofreading errors. Spelling and grammar mistakes were not legion, but there were enough of them to be seriously distracting, especially since they sometimes turned up in places that would be read over and over again. For example, from the beginning of the game you find that you have a "referance book" in your inventory. After 10 times reading the misspelled word, my patience started to wear thin. It's the kind of error that could have been avoided so easily, I have a hard time understanding why it's there. The same is true for some key coding errors, like the key whose short name is "a key labelled 'Shed'." The problem with a short name like this is that Inform already provides articles for objects, so in the inventory the key is listed as "an a key labelled 'Shed'." Compounding the problem, there are two keys with this same error. The glitch is all the more aggravating because it comes up almost every time the game tries to refer to the keys. My favorite example: "Which do you mean, the a key labelled 'Shed" or the a key labelled 'Conservatory'?"

These mistakes were small, but sometimes small mistakes can make a big difference, and this game had the perfect example. However, before you read it, I should warn you that in order to explain my example, I have to spoil part of the endgame. Read on if you so choose. OK, so at one point you find an urn in the groundskeeper's house with a piece missing. Then later on you find a rune-encarved "slab of stone, about 2' square." That's two feet square. That's way too big to be a piece of an urn. However, at the end of the game, you find out that it is in fact the missing piece of the urn. Meanwhile, you see the groundskeeper defeated by "a small person, you guess at about 3" high." That's three inches high. That's mighty small! However, by this time you begin to suspect that the game confused its notations, and is using ' for inches and " for feet. This may seem like a minor error, but it changes the meaning of the things it affects so completely that it ruins any possibility of building the mystery. There's something to be learned here: in some ways writing (I mean creative writing) and programming aren't so far apart. Just as a missing semicolon can cause you no end of misery during compilation, so can a very small change completely deflate your story. Also, in both disciplines the semantic and syntactic errors are easiest to find, and your work is unacceptable until it is free of these. Logic errors are more difficult to detect, and take much more sweat to ferret out. Unfortunately for would-be writers, there is no automatic proofreading service for fiction that provides the error-checking of a good compiler. You have to do it yourself.

Rating: 6.2


OK, probably the first thing I should confess is that I'm not hip enough to know what a "dilly" is. My handy dictionary suggests that it means "something remarkable of its kind" -- their example is "a dilly of a movie." Somehow I don't think that's what's meant here. So, judging from context, I'm going to assume that "dilly" means "relatively enjoyable puzzle game with good coding and writing, but a few guess-the-verb problems and sometimes not enough synonyms implemented." If this is what dilly really means, then Trapped In A One-Room Dilly has the most accurate title of any game in the 1998 competition. Like many others in this year's competition, Dilly is very puzzle-oriented. Perhaps what we're seeing this year is a bit of a backlash against the periodically swelling outcries for "puzzleless IF." If backlash it is, I don't think that's entirely a bad thing. Sometimes because literature has so much more cultural capital than puzzles, we can get into a mindset which tries to shun puzzles in favor of an elusive brand of literary merit. Don't get me wrong -- I myself am much more interested in IF for its literary qualities than its puzzles, but I also think it's important to remember that (for some of us, anyway) there is also a pleasure in puzzle-solving, the "crossword" part of IF as opposed to the "narrative" part. I believe that interactive fiction can cover a very wide spectrum indeed, but that there will always be a place for puzzle-oriented IF on that spectrum, and I'll probably always enjoy a really well-done puzzle game.

Dilly is the closest I've seen yet in this competition to that lofty standard, but before I talk about the things it does right, I have to take one step back and talk about a game from last year. The author of Dilly entered a game in last year's competition called Travels in the Land of Erden. Ironically, these two games could not be more different. Erden was a sprawling, gigantic game with an enormous map, any number of subplots, and a generally broad scope. When reviewing that game, I wrote about the benefits of focus, and suggested 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." Well, when I'm right, I'm right. Dilly benefits enormously from having a much tighter focus than Erden. The game narrows its scope to (as you might have guessed from the title) one room, and the room is a really interesting room, full of enough gadgets and gewgaws to keep me busy for two hours. At no time in Dilly did I lack for something to figure out, look at, or do. The game crams about 10 puzzles into this one room, but it didn't feel particularly strained to me. In fact, Dilly makes a sly gibe about its lack of plot by including a bookshelf full of books whose plots are plausible explanations for your situation (Intelligence testing, alien abduction, the bomb shelter of a wealthy wacko, etc.). The puzzles are generally creative and fun, and all of the coding and writing is technically proficient.

Well, almost all. The only times I ran into trouble with Dilly were when I was close enough to the solution of a puzzle that I should have received some slight confirmation, but the game didn't provide it. For example, at one point in the game something is ticking and vibrating. If you listen closely to this object, you can hear it ticking. However, if you touch it "you feel nothing unusual." This is one of those instances where after I found out what was happening, I felt cheated. If I'm that close, I want at least a little nudge. In another instance, I had more of a guess-the-verb problem -- the game wants you to tie two things together with a rope, as in "TIE FROG TO LOG." (That's not really what you're tying, but I'm trying to avoid the spoiler here.) However, if you first "TIE ROPE TO LOG" you get a message along the lines of "That's useless." If I had tried "TIE ROPE TO FROG" first, the game would have picked up on what I meant to do, but I didn't make that lucky guess. I don't like to be put in the position of making lucky guesses. Nonetheless, these are relatively minor problems, easy to fix. They didn't stop me from enjoying my time in the one-room... whatever it was.

Rating: 8.5

SPACE STATION by David Ledgard

Several years ago, Graham Nelson released a piece of work he modestly referred to as a "parsing exercise." This exercise really was a short game, a competition-sized game before there was a competition. It included the spell system from Enchanter, and several good puzzles. In fact, it was very loosely based on the sample transcript included in Infocom's original distribution of Enchanter. This game was called Balances, and it was a big hit with the IF community. It's probably the most-played "exercise" in the IF Archive. It also spurred a discussion, which reoccurs from time to time, about what fun it would be to create games based on the sample transcripts from various Infocom games. Now, David Ledgard has been the first person to turn that notion into a reality. He took the sample transcript from Planetfall and (apparently with the permission of Activision) implemented it in Inform, also extending it a bit so that it would comprise a full, winnable game (the transcript ends with the player's death.) Where Balances only took a couple of ideas from the Enchanter transcript, Space Station lifts the Planetfall transcript almost verbatim. Unfortunately, the results are a little mixed.

The transcript itself is great reading. It's funny, interesting, and well-written. Consequently, the pieces of Space Station that are copied straight from the transcript are also funny, interesting, and well-written. This is not something for which the author can really take credit, though I'm certain it was a fair amount of work to do all the transcribing and implementing. Ultimately this section of the game occupies a rather shadowy realm of authorship, its text written by an Infocommie (one presumes Steve Meretzky), and its code implied by the written text, but the final code of Space Station was written by someone else, and while he certainly implemented it in the spirit of the transcript he also (of necessity, or from an enterprising spirit) added quite a bit of his own. The seams between the two parts of the game are sometimes all too visible. For example, a scene outside the space station's window is described (in part) thus: "Through the large observation window, you see the milky way. Where the stars are scattered thinly, and the cold of space seeps in." When I read that, I thought "Surely Meretzky didn't write that sentence fragment!" I was right -- he didn't. It was a part of the game's "extensions", and the grammatical error grated quite harshly against the polished, accomplished prose in other parts of the game. Sometimes the problem was just as bad when the game didn't extend itself -- it was quite jarring to try a legitimate (included in the room description) direction and run into the terse reply "Unimplemented!" On the other hand, there were some very funny moments in Space Station, moments that I was sure were a part of the transcript but in fact were part of the extensions as well. It was an extra treat to find out that those parts weren't authored by Infocom. The problem is that once any seams at all showed, the split between the transcript and the rest of the game was constantly on my mind, and grammar and spelling errors (of which the game has a few) felt all the more glaring because of it.

This is a cautionary tale for anyone who decides to implement one of the Infocom transcripts. The transcripts themselves are generally excellent, as they should be from a professional company which had the important task of explaining interactive fiction to a novice public. They are well-written and entertaining, with good settings and clever puzzles. To implement one of these transcripts so that it becomes a good game in its own right, you need a few things. You need to be able to write so well that nobody will be able to tell where the transcript prose stops and yours starts. You need to be able to make your sections of the game as entertaining as the transcript section. You need to be able to extend the setting of the transcript rationally, without introducing a foreign tone or feel. You need to be able to come up with puzzles that are consistent with those in the transcript, and are done as logically as the pre-written ones. If you can do all that, then absolutely write a transcript-based game (assuming you can secure Activision's permission, of course). Then again, if you can do all that, why waste your talent on adapting transcripts?

Rating: 6.4


I have to confess, I'm a little afraid to write this review. So let me just start out by saying Harry, I'm sure you're a wonderful person. I'll bet you have lots of friends, a loving family, and are kind to small animals. I'm sure you're not violent, or if you are violent, your violence is directed only at inanimate objects. Please accept anything in this review as purely constructive criticism, and remember that reviews are about the game, not about the game's author. If anything I say offends you, I will gladly retract it. Please don't hurt me.

OK, that being said, here's what I thought of Human Resources Stories: I thought it was the most unrepentantly bitter, angry, and unsettling game I've ever played. I started to get a hint of this in the game's readme file, in which the author proclaims "I am not a lemming," as though he has been accused of thoughtlessly following the crowd, and feels obliged to defend himself. He goes on to say that he will probably suffer for the small size of his game, and that he has "pointed out (much to the chagrin of a lot of people) that judges are discriminatory toward size." OK, so far I'd seen some defensiveness, a predilection to believe that the competition judges (basically any random r*if readers who bother to send in votes) don't judge fairly, and the suggestion that when he has pointed out this "fact", he has been shouted down. My guard was up. And a good thing too, because after I read the intro (which casts you as an interviewee for various high-tech companies, all of which take pride in "paying the best, brightest, most talented people in the industry sub-average salary"), I read the credits. These thank various helpers, and at the end: "other raif denizen: Except for some obviously rude, stupid people who think they are _so great_." Um, wow. That's some real anger there. Or at least, that's how I took it. Gee, I hope I'm not one of those "obviously rude, stupid people." I'd hate to be rude and stupid, much less obviously so. I wonder who these people are. I certainly wouldn't want to be the one to point out that flaming raif in the credits of your game and using a singular noun when you intend a plural isn't exactly polite and intelligent. I don't mean that in a hostile way, really. Just gently pointing out the irony I felt at that moment. If necessary, please reread my first paragraph. Anyway, once I got over the credits, I decided to type "XYZZY" for fun, since the readme file specifically mentions the author's bafflement at why modern IF games still include it. That's when I got the biggest shock yet. The response to XYZZY is a long, long, long diatribe. It probably has more words than the rest of the game and the readme file combined. It starts out as an interview scenario, the question advanced being "How do you work?" This question becomes the jumping-off point for a highly detailed rant about how this poor programmer got the blame for every bad thing in the company, is working on weekends with no pay, has had the project timeframe reduced by 75%, meanwhile the manager is off to Hawaii, and finally this programmer, who is a good person and a fine worker (and an excellent programmer who would write outstanding code except for it's impossible to do so under such oppressive conditions) pulls the whole thing together so that it works for the end users, only to have the whole process start over again. By the end of this, I was sitting there reading with my jaw hanging open, just in shock. Let me say that if I were interviewing someone and got this answer, not only would I never call the person back (in the game's words, "The phone never ring."), but I would be beefing up security and thinking about investing in a bulletproof vest, and phoning the interviewee's current and former employers to suggest that they do the same. The level of anger and bitterness there is just incredible. By this point, I had completely forgotten the original question, so I typed "RESTART." The game's response? "That's not how life works." Same response to "QUIT", which was my next inclination. And I thought Zarf was cruel! Certainly it's true that you can't do these things in real life (well, you can quit. See In The End), but disabling these basic commands made for a hell of an inconvenience when I actually did want to restart the game.

Perhaps "game" is too strong a word anyway. When I finally did get to it (by shutting down the whole interpreter then re-running it), I found that it wasn't a game exactly. It's advertised as a choose-your-own-adventure type of game, but beyond the initial prose there's really no story, no advancing narrative whatsoever. Instead, HRS asks you a series of multiple choice questions, as if it were interviewing you for a programming job. At the end, you either get the brush-off ("The phone never ring."), or you get the job with a series of letter grades for technical, teamwork, and leadership criteria, along with a salary. The best I did was an A, A+, and A+, with a salary of... $20,000. Now, I work as a programmer, for a state university no less, and I didn't find that to be my experience of a starting salary. I have to wonder if the anger I saw in other sections of the game might be biasing its results... just a bit. To be fair, the game does not reward you for being a bootlick. If you give the typical "What you think an exploitive company would want to hear" answers, you will get "The phone never ring" pretty fast. However, the set of answers I gave for my highest score still indicated some pretty brutal expectations on behalf of the hiring company. And this, the game would like me to believe, in the face of the biggest high-tech labor scarcity in... well, ever. Aside from whether HRS reflects "real life" or not, it's not much of a game. It's more like a test than a game, and more like a rant than a test. I can't really say I found it fun, though it certainly did provoke a strong reaction from me. I guess that in all honesty, I'd have to say that I really disliked being subjected to both the rant and the test. The game makes me glad I'm not looking for a job right now, but it makes me even more glad that I'm not looking for an employee. But that's just me. Nothing personal. Please don't hurt me.

Rating: 2.5 (I hope I've explained myself well enough to demonstrate that the length of HRS had very little to do with my rating. I, uh, am not a lemming.)

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Paul O's 99 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 3 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002