1998 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 4

(in the order I played them)

LITTLE BLUE MEN by Michael S. Gentry

WARNING: Because Little Blue Men uses obscenities in its text, that language will also appear in this review.

Well, the first thing I have to say is that starting Little Blue Men right after finishing Human Resources Stories was quite mind-bending. The game starts with a character who is sitting at his desk thinking of his job as "another day in the trenches," looking at his corner as his "own little slice of the shit pie those sons of bitches call an office." I had this sudden vision of IF authors as angry loners, driven by their misanthropy and lack of social skills into highly solitary hobbies like writing and programming, friendless misfits who hate their jobs, hate their lives, and generally hate people, and who write supposedly entertaining games that are really about how much the world sucks. Luckily, the vision passed as the game underwent a curious transformation. First of all, the game's disclaimer assured me that "at its most fundamental level, this game is about learning to love yourself." OK, maybe we're not loving anybody else yet, but loving yourself is at least a little positive. Next, I entered a few commands, the first ones that came to mind, really, and... won the game. Or did I? My final message said "*** You have learned to love yourself ***", which is what I was told the game was about. So I won, right? In 10 moves? I wondered how in the heck a game whose .z5 file was 171K could end up being so short. I wondered, in the game's words, "What the hell...?!"

It turns out that although LBM may be about learning to love yourself, if you do the things that help you reach that goal too quickly you end up missing the entire story. That story consists of scheming ways to kill or otherwise waylay your co-workers, destroy the things that aggravate you, discover the secrets hidden behind the bland office walls, and figure out just who or what your boss, "that bastard Biedermeyer", really is. In short, it consists of getting an unpleasant character to do unsavory things, in service of a plot that grows more and more metaphorical and surreal as you progress through it. When I finally got to the end, I wasn't sure that I was any more satisfied with the "real" ending than the one I got to in 10 moves. In his postscript, the author tells us that he wants the story's structure to help us question to help us analyze some of our assumptions about IF. For one thing, we should think about what really is the most "optimal" ending of the game, and whether it's worth it to actually play through a game if it's possible to reach a positive ending at the beginning, and/or if the motivations of the character are twisted and repugnant? Now, these are not new ideas. Andrew Plotkin's A Change In The Weather offers a similar situation at its outset -- if you rejoin the picnic, you end up having fun after all, but you also miss the story. To go back earlier, Michael Berlyn used a related technique in Infidel by making the main character a shallow, exploitive greedhead who probably deserves a desert demise, then asking you to solve puzzles and find treasure on his behalf. Little Blue Men, though, makes these propositions starker than ever before by making its main character thoroughly repulsive and an optimal ending immediately reachable.

Now, my answer to this question in its abstract form is that responses will vary depending on the player. Some people probably have no interest in playing a repulsive character, and so will just delete the game. Others might be driven by curiosity to complete the game even though they find the experience unpleasant. Still others will view it as a chance to get a glimpse into abnormal psychology, or to have some fun playing a villainous character. In this way, playing such a game is akin to watching a movie like Natural Born Killers, or reading a book like In Cold Blood -- it may be very well-done, but it's not everybody's cup of tea, and that's fine. Consequently, I guess I don't view the question as all that interesting, maybe because any assumption I might have had about IF characters having to be good was eliminated as soon as I finished Infidel (in 1986). But even though I feel this way, LBM still didn't work for me, not because of its main character but because of its choices of setting, imagery, and metaphor. The game invokes the movie Jacob's Ladder a couple of times, which is a movie I loved. That film was by turns profound, chilling, and inspiring. LBM only achieves glimpses of these things, and I think the reason is because I found its imagery muddled and incoherent. The game is obviously taking place on some metaphorical level, but it was never at all clear to me what the metaphors were supposed to be representing, and as they stack up it only becomes more confusing. In addition, there was basically no connection with reality, which left the game's symbols floating unanchored. Some flashback scenes, some glimpses of reality, some type of explanation for the heaven/hell dichotomy the game presents would have gone a long way toward connecting its symbolism with something more meaningful than just other symbols. There's a lot to like about this game. It is written well, and although it doesn't achieve an overall arc, it does contain moments which can be quite moving or frightening. Technically I could find very little for which to fault it, both in its writing and its coding. Its puzzles may have had some unpleasant content, but they were clever and engaging, and generally quite well integrated with the storyline. But for me, it did not succeed as a work of art. Nonetheless, I respect it for being an ambitious but flawed experiment -- I'll take that over competent repetition any day.

Rating: 6.3

THE ARRIVAL by Stephen Granade as Samantha Clark

The Arrival is the first HTML-TADS game I've ever played, certainly the first competition game ever to include pictures and sound. I was quite curious as to how these elements would be handled, and maybe even a little apprehensive. I wasn't sure that a lone hobbyist could create visual and musical elements that wouldn't detract from a game more than they added to it. But Arrival dispelled those fears, handling both pictures and sound brilliantly. The game's ingenious strategy is to cast an 8-year-old as its main character, which makes the fact that most of the graphics are really just crayon drawings not only acceptable, but completely appropriate. Just for good measure, the game chooses "Attack of the B-Movie Cliches" as its theme and subtitle, thereby making the cheese factor of the special effects (which is pretty high) actually enhance the game rather than embarrass it. The pictures are delightful -- the crayon drawings evoke a great sense of childhood and wonder while continuing the humorous feel of the whole game. The spaceship (two pie plates taped together) and the aliens (in the author's words "the finest crayons and modelling clay $2.83 could buy") are a scream -- I laughed out loud every time I saw them. The game also includes a couple of very well-done non-crayon graphics, one an excellent faux movie poster and the other a dead-on parody of a web page, both of which I found very funny. The sounds, though sparse, are equally good -- the sound of the alien spaceship crash-landing startled the heck out of me. I'm not used to my text adventures making noise! But a moment later I was laughing, because the noise was just so fittingly silly.

However, all the funny pictures and sounds in the world couldn't make Arrival a good game if it wasn't, at its core, a well-written text adventure. Luckily for us, it is. The game is full of cleverly written, funny moments, and has layers of detail I didn't even recognize until I read the postscript of amusing things to do. The aliens, who bicker like a couple of married retirees touring the U.S. in their motor home, are great characters. Each is given a distinct personality, and in fact a distinct typeface, the green alien speaking in green text while the purple alien has text to match as well. If you hang around the aliens you will hear quite a bit of funny dialogue, and if you manage to switch their universal translator from archaic into modern mode, you can hear all the same dialogue, just as funny, rewritten into valley-speak. The game has lots of detail which doesn't figure in the main plot but creates a wonderfully silly atmosphere and provides lots of jokes. For example, on board the ship is an examination room, where by flipping switches, pulling levers, or turning knobs you can cause all sorts of machinery to pop from the walls and perform its function on the gleaming metal table, everything from laser beams to buzz saws to Saran Wrap. In addition, Arrival is one of the better games I've seen this year at unexpectedly understanding input and giving snarky responses to strange commands, which has been one of my favorite things about text adventures ever since I first played Zork. Even if you can't (or don't want to) run the HTML part of HTML TADS, it would still be well worth your time to seek out The Arrival.

However, don't be afraid to rely on hints. I had played for an hour and hadn't scored a single point when I took my first look at them. Now, once I got some hints I determined that the puzzles did in fact make perfect sense -- they weren't of the "read the author's mind" variety and I would probably have come to solve them on my own. Perhaps the presence of pictures, sound, and hyperlinks threw me out of my IF mindset enough that I was struggling more than I should have with the puzzles. That's probably a part of it, but I think another factor was that all the details in the game ended up becoming a big pile of red herrings for me. There are quite a few items and places which have no real use beyond being jokes, and I found it quite easy to get sidetracked into trying to solve puzzles that didn't exist. It's not that I don't think those pieces should be in the game; I actually find it refreshing to play a game where not every item is part of a key or a lock, and even as it caused me to spin my wheels in terms of game progress, it helped me ferret out a lot of the little jokes hidden under the surface of various game items. However, if you're the kind of player who gets easily frustrated when your score doesn't steadily increase, don't be afraid to rely on a hint here and there. Just remember to replay the game after you're done so that you can see what you missed. Besides, that pie-plate spaceship is worth a second look.

Rating: 9.6

MUSE: AN AUTUMN ROMANCE by Christopher Huang

I've been sitting here for 10 minutes trying to find the right words to begin a review of Muse, but I can't seem to come up with anything that speaks as eloquently as the game's own prose. Muse is the most gorgeously written piece of IF in the competition -- I've still got several games left to play, but I would be very surprised if any of them even equaled Muse's marvelous skill with words, let alone surpassed it. The game is like the IF version of a Merchant-Ivory movie: quiet setting, stellar production values, highly character-oriented, and deeply, deeply felt. It's been a long time since I've been as moved by a piece of IF as I was by the "optimal" ending of Muse -- even some of the less satisfying endings are crafted so well that in themselves they can be quite emotional. The game takes place in a French village in 1886, as viewed through the eyes of Rev. Stephen Dawson, a 59-year-old clergyman from Barchester, England. It is not a typical IF setting, and Dawson is hardly the typical IF hero, but Muse is far from a typical game. It is a story, one of the most successful pieces of interactive fiction I've seen for pulling off the fiction as much as the interactivity. Its characters feel real, including its main character; it is the story of Rev. Dawson's own struggle for acceptance of himself and his role in life, of his journey past regret and into contentment. Through its masterful writing, excellent coding, and some clever techniques, Muse creates a story of someone else's emotional transformation, made all the more affecting by our direction of that character's actions.

One way in which the game accomplishes its goal is to eschew the traditional second person, present tense IF voice, settling instead on a first person past tense narration. A typical exchange looks somewhat like this:

I had on my person the following items:
  my pocket New Testament

I practically knew its contents by heart.

Oh, but the trunk was heavy! I managed to lift it just high enough for the 
purpose of moving it around, but I was getting far too old for this sort of 
At first, I was surprised how little a difference this made to me. The game still felt quite natural, which I think is another testament to its writing. On reflection, however, I think that the changes did make a difference. By choosing a first person voice, Muse sidesteps all of the controversy surrounding assigning emotion to the player character. In fact, the game is constantly ascribing emotions to the PC, but it never grates because the first person POV assumes this role quite naturally. Having a game say things like "you practically know its contents by heart" or "you are getting far too old for this sort of thing" would cause much more dissonance for me, especially as the game moved into its deeper emotional registers. The past tense achieves a similar sort of distancing from the player, as well as heightening the "period" effect, not that the game needs it. Muse evokes the Victorian feel extremely well, and the spell is never broken by any piece of writing, any detail of setting, or any development of character.

There's only one problem. One part of Muse's realistic, natural approach is that events go on without you if you aren't in the right place at the right time. On my first run through the game, I was off doing text-adventurely things like examining all the objects, trying to talk to various characters about dozens of different subjects (an effect which the game also pulls off remarkably well -- its coding is quite deep in some areas) and exploring the landscape. Even though the game was giving me gentle nudges to check into the inn, I didn't do so, because for one thing I couldn't find it right away, and for another thing I was having too much fun exploring the very rich world of the game. As a result, one of the major plot points happened without me, putting me into a situation where, as far as I can determine, the optimal ending was unreachable. What's worse, I didn't know I couldn't reach the best ending; because it was my first time through, I didn't realize I had missed anything I could have participated in anyway. I ended up wandering around, quite frustrated with my inability to cause the story to progress. When I finally looked at the hints, it became clear to me that I had failed to perform an important task, and that as a result the happiest ending had been closed to me. Now, this is of course very realistic -- we miss things all the time that could change our lives significantly, and we never know that we've missed them -- but I don't think it's the best design for a game, even a game so story-oriented as Muse. The loss was affecting in its own way, especially when I replayed it after completing the game with the happiest ending, but I didn't like it that I had "lost" without having any way of knowing I had done so. I don't think it had to be that way -- I can certainly envision how the game might have at least pushed (or strongly nudged) me into a less optimal ending, so that I might realize more quickly that I had missed something, or perhaps the game could even have left the optimal path open even when the plot point had been missed. I would have loved the chance to complete such an incredible story my first time through, without having to resort to hints.

Rating: 9.3

THE RITUAL OF PURIFICATION by Jarek Sobolewski as Sable

The feeling I got while playing Ritual reminded me of nothing so much as those old Dr. Strange comics from the 60's, back when the master of mysticism was drawn by Steve Ditko, himself a master of the bizarre. The game is full of strange, hallucinatory images: a road that melts into nothing, an arch with marble carvings on one side and black decay on the other side, exploding and melting universes. The whole thing made me feel like I was immersed in a Ditko landscape, and the fact that the main character is a spellcaster on an astral voyage didn't hurt either. Of course, some of the scenes in Ritual could never have taken place in a 60's comic -- at least, not one that adhered to the Comics Code Authority. There's nothing really outrageous, but there are scenes of sexuality, drug use, and gore that you'd never see Dr. Strange experiencing. I'm not suggesting that the game is some sort of Dr. Strange rip-off, or that Ditko was an inspiration for Ritual -- that's just what it reminded me of. However, one source of inspiration for the game was clearly some of the more obscure poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. At the completion of almost every puzzle, the game throws a box quote from Poe, usually one which has some relation to the obstacle just overcome. These quotes are well-chosen, digging deep into the Poe archives and highlighting how much he inherited from William Blake, as well as how much he prefigured H.P. Lovecraft. At its best, most deranged or sublime moments, the game evokes the weird, dark mysticism shared by all these creators. On the whole, the effect is very trippy, and a fair amount of fun.

Unfortunately, there are some false notes as well. From time to time a character will say or do something fairly anachronistic, which tends to break the spell pretty thoroughly. In fact, at one point you can get a character to whip out a bong and start taking hits from it, which brings the whole elevated plane of symbolism and wonder dive-bombing back to earth. The effect is not so much of Alice in Wonderland's "hookah-smoking caterpillar", but more of Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It just doesn't fit. There are also a few times when the game seems to slip into cliches or "AD&Disms" -- one beast is described as "biting easily through a set of plate mail", and some of the spells feel suspiciously close to ones I remember from 7th grade basement role-playing sessions. In addition, the game has a number of grammar and spelling errors, usually minor problems like missing punctuation or vowel mistakes, but again they break the spell. Finally, and worst of all, there's a bug in the game which causes it to not respond at all if a certain action is taken sooner than the game expects it. There's nothing that ruins immersion quite so much as when a game just doesn't respond to a command in any way. Well, maybe not nothing -- crashing the interpreter would probably ruin immersion more, but because of the lack of response problem I ended up turning to the hints, only to find that I had in fact given the right command to solve the puzzle -- I just gave it a little too soon.

The game suffers a bit from the "unconnected symbols" syndrome -- sometimes it feels like all of these dreamlike images are just images, with no meaning or substance attached to them. However, the game manages to pull them together somewhat through its title, intro, and ending -- the bizarre symbols with which the game is littered are all loosely connected through a theme of purification, of facing inner demons and the pain & joy of life in order to become a better person. It didn't entirely work for me -- some of the symbolism seemed arbitrary or cliched to my mind -- but I think it was a good beginning. I would really like to play a game with this kind of tone which had freed itself from shopworn images and RPG leftovers. Something with imagery like the more arresting parts of Ritual, but which really cohered to make a powerful statement on some aspect of the human condition, could really take advantage of IF's immersive capability to create a remarkable work of art. Ritual isn't it, but I hope it becomes the jumping-off point for someone (the author perhaps?) to create something like it but better: no writing errors, no cliches, no anachronisms, no bugs -- just the Ditko universes exploding and melting all around us, with meaning.

Rating: 6.9

PHOTOPIA by Adam Cadre as Opal O'Donnell

If there was a prize for "competition game most mentioned on the newsgroups before the deadline had passed," Photopia would win hands down. Everyone was quite courteous about it, spoiler warnings and rot13 and all that, but there was a marked impatience to talk about this game, recommend it to other people, make it the test case in any number of arguments. There is a reason behind this impatience: Photopia is an amazing piece of work. It's also very hard to talk about without giving spoilers away, so please forgive me if I'm a little vague in my language. One of the most brilliant aspects of the game is its plotting. It has what Adam Cadre, in an unrelated discussion, called a Priest plot, named for writer Christopher Priest. I don't know if this is a term that Adam just made up, but it's a useful term nonetheless. It refers to a plot which just gives you fragments, seemingly unrelated to each other, which coalesce at (or towards) the end of the story. When the fragments come together, and you figure out how they relate to one another, the result can often be surprising or revelatory. When they came together in Photopia, I found the revelation quite devastating. I won't say too much more about this, except to say that it wasn't until the end of Photopia that I realized what a truly incredible, powerful story it is. It's the kind of thing where when you've played it all the way through once, you can then replay it and all the pieces fall into place, everything interlocking from the beginning in a way you can't understand until the end. I think that this is the game that opens new frontiers of replayability in interactive fiction -- I needed to play through Photopia twice in order to see all the text again, knowing what I knew after the end of the game.

Actually, I hesitate to call Photopia a game, but not because it failed to live up to a standard of interactivity. It's just so patently clear that Photopia is not interested in puzzles, or score, or some battle of wits between author and player. Photopia is interested in telling a story, and it succeeds magnificently on this count. Unfortunately this deprives me of the use of the word "game" in describing it -- perhaps I'll just call it a work. In any case, it's a work that anyone who is interested in puzzleless IF should try. At no point was I even close to getting stuck in Photopia, because the obvious action is almost always the right one -- or else there is no right action and fated events occur with heavy inevitability. Oddly enough, this creates a strange contradiction. I was on ifMUD looking for a word to describe the plot of this work (I couldn't think of the phrase "Priest plot") and someone said, jokingly, "linear." But actually, that's true. Despite the fact that it's completely fragmented, and despite the fact that it jumps around in time, space, and perspective, Photopia is a linear composition. There's only one way to go through it, and the player has little or no power to make it deviate from its predestined course. I think the reason that this didn't bother me, that in fact I liked it, is precisely because Photopia isn't a game. Because it is a story, the emphasis is taken away from a teleological model, where the player tries to steer for the best outcome. Instead, you're really just along for the ride, and the ride is one not to be missed.

Now, this is not to say that Photopia may as well have been a short story rather than interactive fiction. In fact, it takes advantage of the capabilities of the medium in some very inventive and almost unprecedented ways. One of the foremost of these is its use of color -- each section of the game (oops, there's that word again. Make that "the work") is presented in a preset color, and these colors also play a part in the Priest plot. I understood their function by the end of the piece, and once I understood, I knew exactly why they were there and how much they enhanced the storytelling. Unfortunately I found the colored text a little hard to read at times, especially the darker colors on a black background, but I wouldn't go back and play it in blue and white. The colors, like everything else in Photopia, worked beautifully, adding artfully to the overall impact of the story. The work is interactive in other important ways as well. In fact, in many aspects Photopia is a metanarrative about the medium of interactive fiction itself. Again, it wasn't until the end of the story that I understood why it had to be told as interactive fiction. And again, to explain the reason would be too much of a spoiler. I have so much more I want to talk about with Photopia, but I can't talk about it until you've played it. Go and play it, and then we'll talk. I promise, you'll understand why everyone has been so impatient. You'll understand why I loved it, and why I think it's one of the best pieces of interactive fiction ever to be submitted to the competition.

Rating: 9.9

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Paul O's 98 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 4 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002