1998 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 5

(in the order I played them)

LIGHTIANIA by Gustav Bodell

After most of the reviews were submitted for the 1997 competition, there was the usual firestorm of controversy about what an IF review should do. Every time the subject of criticism comes up, there is a certain segment which asserts the idea that criticism should never be too negative, that it should nurture the developing author rather than blast the substandard game, and that reviewers shouldn't treat their subjects as they would a professionally produced movie or book, but rather as the amateur product of an amateur author, and make generous allowances for any problems in the work. Now, I don't subscribe wholeheartedly to these notions -- I actually think that honest criticism of a work's flaws is the best way to make sure that author's next work (or even the next revision of the current work) will be free from those flaws, creating better interactive fiction for everyone. However, I do believe in constructive criticism, and I certainly don't want to discourage anybody from writing IF, no matter how problematic their previous creations may have been. Some of the reviews for the 1997 competition were significantly harsher than mine, and I think (or at least I hope) that they were the primary spur for the subsequent criticism controversy. However, looking over my reviews from that year, I had a bit of a guilt attack, and posted a message apologizing for anyone's feelings I might have hurt with my reviews, and assuring all authors that reviews are not personal rejections, but rather that they are about the work itself and that no one should be discouraged from further writing by a negative review. I also promised myself that I would try to have a lighter touch in my 1998 reviews.

Therefore, I tread lightly. But some reviews are harder than others to write. This is one of the tough ones. Lightiania is a very deeply troubled game, which will take a lot of work before I can really consider it a quality piece of interactive fiction. Therefore, in the spirit of constructive criticism, here are some of the things that would really improve Lightiania. First on the list has to be correct English spelling and grammar. The mechanics of the writing in this game are just abysmal -- the nature of the errors lead me to suspect that perhaps English isn't the writer's first language, which would certainly make the problems understandable. I've taken some Spanish classes, but if I tried to write a text adventure in Spanish, you can be certain that the result would be nigh-unintelligible to a native speaker. However, due to my lack of ability I would recognize the need for a proofreader. This is the step that hasn't been taken in Lightiania. As a result, the language is so mangled that it sometimes doesn't even make sense. A sample sentence: "You get VERY supprised [sic] when you, after a smaller blackout, [no mention of blackouts before this point. Is this electricity, or drinking, or what?] realises [sic] that is [sic] is in fact a quite big space craft that has crashed in the middle of the meadow." The first step to take, and one that would improve the game a lot, is major, major proofreading.

The next thing that needs to happen is that some very basic design points need to be changed. Right now, Lightiania is a very simple game, with really only one puzzle, and virtually no plot. The plot (such as it is) is this: You are an inventor, and a flying saucer has crashed a few miles away from your house. You try to get this ship flying again. Why does it matter that you're an inventor? Where are the aliens? Why would you try to get the ship flying before finding the aliens? What does "Lightiania" mean in the first place? These questions, and many others, go unanswered in the game. What's worse, the game's one puzzle is virtually unsolvable without a walkthrough. It requires you to find a piece of a lock-and-key mechanism by LOOKing UNDER a piece of scenery. No problem, right? Well, the problem is this: that piece of scenery is never mentioned in the game. Until the walkthrough told me to "LOOK UNDER WARDROBE" (not the real solution, but analogous), I had no idea there was a wardrobe in the room. These are very serious problems. Many would be fixed by a good proofreader, or beta tester, or (dare I dream it?) both. I'm not saying these things to be harsh, and I definitely believe that someone with the imagination and enthusiasm displayed in this game should write again. But please, please: don't release it until it's in English and it makes sense.

Rating: 1.1

CATTUS ATROX by David A. Cornelson

Cattus Atrox begins with a warning. The warning says this: "This work of IF contains strong language, violence, and sexual descriptions. It is not intended for children or anyone with a distaste for such things." In my opinion, this warning does not tell the whole truth. I'd like to replace it with this warning: "This work of IF contains strong language, violence, and sexual descriptions. It also contains no plot, no characterization, and no puzzles to speak of. It consists of horrifying situations with no apparent logic behind them, graphic descriptions of gratuitous violence, and incident after incident that is unsolvable without prior knowledge (i.e. save-and-restore "puzzles".) Its world is only fully implemented enough to serve these goals. In a winning session, you will beat an animal to death, watch 3 people be literally torn apart, and strangle a friendly housecat. If you like slasher movies, this is the IF game for you. It is not intended for children or anyone with a distaste for such things." See, here's the thing: I really don't mind strong language, violence, or sexual descriptions when they're in the service of a story that makes sense. The "strong language, violence, and sexual descriptions" tag could be equally attached to Bride of Chucky and The Color Purple. As you might have guessed from what I've written so far, this game is on the Chucky end of that continuum.

Now, it may well be that there are people with a taste for such things. I don't really know who these people are, but I've been on the Internet long enough to know that it's a big, wide, crazy world out there. But I'm not one of those people. I really hated the experience of playing Cattus Atrox, which, by the way, is another game whose title makes no sense even after you've completed a winning session. I'm not saying that means it shouldn't have been written, but I am saying that when I rate a game on how much I enjoyed playing it, this game will not score highly. Here's the situation: you play a regular person who, for no apparent reason, is suddenly pursued by a psycho. Then you find out your friends are all in league with the psycho, and also want to kill you. If this feels like a spoiler, don't worry -- you won't solve the game without knowing this fact in advance. Now, this is a scary situation, right? One of the game's goals had to be to create a feeling of suspense, dread, and horror, and it succeeds on all counts. While being chased by the psycho, I felt suspense. While running around a maze (yes, maze) of fog-shrouded streets, never knowing when the psycho would loom from the mists, I felt dread. When I was injured by the psycho, I felt horror. All this lasted for about 15 minutes. Then I began to feel annoyance. The questions in my mind were: "What is the point of all this?" and "Is this all happening for no reason?" The answers are: I don't think there is one, and yes. That's all the story there is to the game. It's like one of those nightmares where everyone is out to get you and your actions don't make much difference. If you've had a nightmare like this, you know how this feels. Maybe it's a feeling you'd like to have while you're awake as well. Not me.

Now, don't get me wrong. It is possible to win the game, though not without doing and experiencing some really awful things, including one that is a part of the winning message. I don't know how this game could be won on the first time through, since several situations require knowledge you can only get after you've lost, but it can be won. It is also, as far as I could determine, fairly free of writing and coding errors. But there are a number of problems with the game that don't have anything to do with mechanics, or with violence, sex, and cursing. I think I've already mentioned that the plot doesn't make much sense. Also, there's this: lots of things aren't implemented, simply because there is only ever one solution available to any given problem. The street is covered with cars, but you can't set off any alarms on them because the game doesn't recognize the word "car". The streets are full of houses, but you can't go into any of them, because the game tells you that you can't see any such thing. There's one particular location in which you need to examine the street, but in all the other locations the street is "not something you need to refer to in the course of this game." The story is so bare that the player character doesn't know basic things, like where his house is or how to find a store, police station, or any sort of help. The PC has no other friends to call for help besides the psychos. There is no explanation as to who the PC's psycho friends are, why he trusted them, or why he's in the situation in the first place. There is no explanation as to why the psychos choose the PC to kill. The game is good at one thing, and that is producing fear and disgust. Unfortunately, unrelieved fear and disgust, without any reason behind them, aren't my idea of fun.

Rating: 3.2

PURPLE by Stefan Blixt

The world is ending. It's not immediately apparent at first, because you and your brother are living out on the remote island of Lino Kapo, quite isolated from the political troubles of your future Earth(?), whose nations have names like "the Kollagio Antarktika" and "the Oceanic Republic." But listen to the TV. (The nations have morphed so much that people are living in places like Antarctica, but we still get our information from the TV. Some things never change.) Political battles between the nations have led to the use of the deadly K-bomb, which releases, unsurprisingly, deadly K-radiation! (Where are you when we need you, Lane Mastodon?) This radiation turns the sky a disturbing purple, and threatens to choke out humanity in its menacing clouds. (By the way, the color of the sky is the meaning behind the game's title. Hallelujah, a title that makes a little sense!) Lucky for you, your brother is a bit of a tinkerer, and has come up with this device called a Phoenix Nest, into which you can climb and sleep away the death of the world in suspended animation. The Nest wakes you up when the levels of K-radiation have dropped enough for humans to be safe. So in you climb, as the world ends, to await its rebirth and greet it with your own. Now, I know I've made a bit of sport with the plot here, but details aside I like this premise. It has a drama and immediacy to it, it creates a perfectly plausible reason for the world to be basically deserted, as it so often is in IF, and it gives the author a blank slate onto which a compelling alternate world can be drawn. Not to mention the fact that the mysterious "K-radiation" can be an excuse for almost any biological oddity you care to dream up.

The good news is that from this imaginative premise, Purple takes several very creative steps. The flora and fauna of the post-apocalyptic world are pleasingly exotic and interesting. The landscape is convincingly changed, and the language used to describe the new reality can be quite vivid. The bad news is that these good ideas are very poorly implemented. Let's start with the writing. Purple isn't exactly riddled with errors in the same way that, say, Lightiania was. However, there are enough mechanical (spelling & grammar) problems to be a serious irritant. Many of these problems aren't exactly errors, but rather awkward turns of phrase that make the game harder to read. Purple's descriptions often sound as if they were translated from another language into English, by a somewhat inexpert translator. The awkwardness throws off the rhythm of the game's prose, and I found myself frequently reading text more than once in order to figure out what it was saying. Then there are those sentences that really don't make sense, like this one: "Urging to cover your eyes from the bright light, you still can't move a finger." I think that what this means is that you have the urge to cover your eyes, but you can't because you're paralyzed. I figured this out, but it took a minute, and for that minute I was thrown out of the story; in a text adventure, where prose is all there is, being thrown out of the narrative like this is problematic. Add a few outright spelling and grammar errors, and the game starts to feel more like work than fun.

Compounding this problem are some trouble spots in the code. There were several instances of disambiguation troubles, almost enough to make me feel like I was playing a TADS game. Scenes like this were not uncommon:

Which do you mean, the up, the ceiling or the hole?

Which do you mean, the ceiling or the hole?

Which do you mean, the ceiling or the hole?
To make matters worse, I also came across several run-time errors of the flavor ** Run-time error: [Name of object] (object number 211) has no property to read **, and in fact once crashed WinFrotz altogether with a "No Such Property" error. Besides these basic errors in the code, there were also a number of problems with the way objects were implemented. For instance, you have half of a tool that you have to complete by improvising the other half, and putting one piece into the other. Unfortunately, unless you choose the right piece to insert, you are told that the other half "can't contain things." I also had trouble with a number of the puzzles, and was unable to figure them out without a walkthrough, but I can't tell if that's because of the stumbling English and buggy code, or the difficulty of the puzzles, or just my own denseness. On balance, I'd say that Purple is a very rough version of what could become a good IF vignette. After it's undergone a few vigorous rounds of beta-testing, you might want to give it a try.

Rating: 4.1


What is it with all the one-room games this year? There must be some kind of movement happening in the collective IF unconscious which says "Plot? Who needs it? Give me one room, and as long as it's got one or more puzzles in it, I'm happy." Well, sometimes I'm happy too. And, more or less, this is one of those times. Despite its title, Enlightenment has very little to do with gaining awareness or understanding Zen koans. To say what it does have to do with would probably be a bit too much of a spoiler, but it involves deliberately placing yourself in a situation that most text adventurers would avoid at all costs. Because of this, it took me a little while to actually catch on to how the game is supposed to work -- I just couldn't believe that deliberately placing myself in danger was the right path. It is, though, and getting there is all the fun. Like last year's Zero Sum Game, Enlightenment puts the PC at the end of an adventure of dizzying proportions. Unlike Zero Sum Game, Enlightenment isn't really an unwinding of the PC's accomplishments -- you get to keep your score, and even increase it. You've already overcome dozens of obstacles, collected lots of treasures, and scored 240 points out of 250; now there's just the little matter of getting past a canonical troll bridge and scurrying out of the caverns with your loot. But how? In the game's words:
	If only you hadn't used your Frobozz Magic Napalm on that ice wall... 
	If only you hadn't used your TrolKil (*Tm) to map that maze... 
	If only you hadn't sold your Frobozz Magic Tinning Kit.
	If only you hadn't cooked and eaten those three Billy Goats Gruff... 
	... or that bear ...

	If ONLY you'd checked the bloody bridge on your way in.
This brief excerpt is representative of the writing in the game: it is both a very funny parody of the Zork tradition as well as an enthusiastic participation in that tradition. In fact, as you can see from the above quote, the game actually features some familiar parts of the Zork universe, such as Frobozz Magic products, rat-ants, and even certain slavering lurkers in dark corners. Activision apparently granted permission for this usage, as they did for David Ledgard in his adaptation of the Planetfall sample transcript for his game Space Station. Activision's willingness to grant permissions for such usage, as well as their donation of prizes to the competition and their sometime inclusion of hobbyist IF on commercial products, is great news for a fan community like ours -- their support of IF means that more people will devote their time to it, resulting (hopefully) in more and more good games. Enlightenment is one of the good ones, and one of its best features is its writing. Another way in which it is unlike Zero Sum Game is that it doesn't take an extreme or harsh tone. Instead, the writing is almost always quite funny in both its comments on text adventure cliches (the FULL score listing is a scream) and its usage of them. The game is littered with footnotes, which themselves are often littered with footnotes. Sly allusions and in-jokes abound, but they're never what the game depends on, so if you don't catch them, you're not missing anything important. Of all the one-room games I've seen this year, Enlightenment is definitely the best-written.

It even includes some fun outside documentation in the form of the HTML edition of the latest issue of Spelunker Today: "The magazine for explorers and adventurers." This kind of mood-building file has been included with a few competition games this year, and Enlightenment's extras are definitely the best of the bunch. The writing in the faux magazine is just as good as the writing in the game, and the graphics look sharp and professional. I like these little extras -- they really do help set the mood of a game -- and they definitely add to the fun of Enlightenment. The one problem I had with this game was that, although the writing is funny and clever, it is sometimes not precise enough to convey the exact nature of a puzzle or its solution. In a heavily puzzle-oriented game like Enlightenment, this can be a major setback. For example, at one point in the game you're called upon to cut something, but it won't work to use your sword on it. You must find something else to cut with. Well, there is something else, but that object is never described as having a sharp edge. This is one of those puzzles that made me glad I looked at the hints -- the only way I would have ever gotten it is by brute force, and that's no fun anyway. In another instance, a part of the setting is described in such a confusing way that I still don't quite understand what it is supposed to look like. Part of the difficulty, I think, is that the game features a gate, with metal spikes at its bottom set into the stone floor. Now, this made me think of bars, like you might see on a portcullis. However, as far as I can determine the game actually means a solid wall, with spikes at the bottom, which I wouldn't describe as a gate. This kind of imprecision is a real problem when the objects so imprecisely described have to be acted upon in precise ways in order to solve puzzles. So I used the hints for a number of the puzzles, and I don't mind that I did, because I wouldn't have solved them on my own anyway. But imprecision aside, I'm still glad I used them, because it enabled me to play all the way through Enlightenment, and the trip out of that one room was well worth taking.

Rating: 8.6

THE CITY by Sam Barlow

The City gave me a very strong sense of deja vu. So many parts are hauntingly familiar. Here's the story: You wake up, not knowing who you are, where you are, or why you are wherever you are. Sound familiar yet? If not, here's more: You seem to be trapped in a surreal and inescapable institution. (This institution is called "The City", hence the name of the game. Yes, that's right. It's not about an actual city.). Does this ring any bells? OK, here's more: your situation is iterative, bringing you back to the same point over and over again. No? Well, how about this: at one point during the game, when you give a command that goes against the narrative's wishes, the parser replies, in bold letters: "That's not how you remember it." This should definitely sound familiar to anyone who's played the latest Zarf offering. Plotwise, it's as if somebody chopped up Mikko Vuorinen's "Leaves" (another escape-from-the-institution game whose name had only tenuous relation to its contents), added two tablespoons of Andrew Plotkin's "Spider and Web", garnished with a sauce of Greg Ewing's "Don't Be Late", threw in a pinch of Ian Finley's "Babel", put the mixture into a crust made from tiny pieces of various other text adventures, stirred, baked for 45 minutes at 350 degrees, and served it up for this year's competition. Now, I'm not entirely convinced this is a bad thing. I think that lots of great works of art, interactive fiction and otherwise, are really just inspired melanges of things that had come before, so I'm not particularly opposed to such derivation on principle. For me, though, some of the derivative aspects of The City didn't work particularly well. This was especially true for the "Spider and Web" stuff -- I felt that the game crossed the line between homage and rip-off, heading the wrong direction. In addition, the convention of waking up with no idea of who you are or where you are, despite how well suited it is to IF, is starting to feel very tired to me. Perhaps I'm just jaded, or burnt-out, but when I saw the beginning I said "Oh, not another one of these!".

Now, this is not to say that the entire game was derivative. The plot certainly didn't break any new ground, but certain aspects of the interface were imaginative and innovative. The City does away with status line and score, not to mention save and restore. Abandoning the first two precepts did lend the game a greater sense of rawness, of the interactive experience being immediate and unmediated by any artificial tracking devices. The absence of save and restore, on the other hand, was a pain in the neck. See, as much as IF might want to emulate real life, it's never really going to be real life. Consequently, there will be times when I only have 15 minutes to play a game and want to at least get a start into it. Or when a fire alarm goes off and I have to shut things down. Or when my wife wants to go to sleep, and I need to turn off my computer (which is in our bedroom.) You get the idea. At those times, I want to preserve the progress I've made. I don't want to have to start from scratch, and I don't care how short the game is, I don't want to waste my time typing in a rapid series of commands to get to where I was when I had to leave the game last time. Especially since with my memory, I'm likely to forget one or two crucial actions which will then oblige me to start over again. Here is the lesson for game authors: please do not disable interface conveniences in the name of realism. It will not win admiration from your players, at least not from this one.

One innovation I did like in The City was its expansion of the typical IF question format. The game allowed not only the typical ASK and SHOW constructions, but also questions (both to the parser and to other players) like "Why am I here?", "Where am I?", or "Who are you?" Now, it didn't allow question marks, which made the whole thing look a bit strange syntactically, but I found it did have a pretty good record of responding realistically to reasonable questions. I can imagine how much work must have gone into this feature, and I think it really made a difference -- I felt much freer to question NPCs in a much more lifelike way. Even when I bumped into the limits of this realism (with questions like "what is going on here?") I still felt outside of the bounds of traditional IF. Unfortunately, the energy that went into this innovative question system must have been leached out of other technical parts of the game. There were a number of bugs in the game, including one that rendered the game completely unwinnable, forcing me to, you guessed it: restart. Since I couldn't save, and since the bug happened about 2/3 of the way through the game, I had to completely restart and type in all the commands that had brought me to that point -- you can be certain I was grinding my teeth the whole time. In a non-competition game I almost certainly would not have bothered, choosing not to finish rather than to waste my time in such a manner. If anybody needs another reason not to disable save and restore, it's this: when bugs in your code force the player to go backwards, that player will not appreciate having to back all the way up to the beginning. In addition to the bugs in the game's coding, there were also a number of mechanical errors with its writing as well. These were not egregious, but they were there, and wore on what little patience remained after the bugs, the disabled conveniences, and the ultimately frustrating nature of the plot itself. I think the question system from The City is a valuable tool that could be well-used elsewhere (though I'd appreciate the ability to punctuate my questions with question marks). I would be very happy to see that system integrated into a game with an original plot, working code, and error-free English.

Rating: 5.5

THE PLANT by Michael J. Roberts

You know, by the time I get finished writing these reviews, I'm pretty tired. It takes a lot of energy to put out twenty or thirty thousand words about competition entries, and even though my reviews are shorter than last year's, and there are fewer games involved, they were also written in a much more compressed judging period, so my exhaustion level is about the same. However, every year I've been reviewing the competition games I've gotten a little reward in the final game of the batch. In 1996, I was playing the games in order of filename, so the last game I played was Tapestry, an excellent piece of work by Dan Ravipinto which ended up taking second in the competition as a whole. Last year I let Lucian Smith's Comp97 order my choices randomly, and ironically the last game on the list ended up being Smith's own The Edifice. And true to form, that was another excellent game to finish on, and it ended up winning all the marbles in the 1997 comp. So it was with both trepidation and eagerness that I broached the final game of this year's batch, The Plant. When I saw it was by Michael J. Roberts, the legendary implementor of both TADS and HTML-TADS, my anticipation was increased even further. I've never played one of Roberts' games, having been an Inform initiate when I started programming, and having entered the IF scene just shortly before Roberts' departure. And after this buildup, I'm pleased to say that the Plant completely lives up to my mini-tradition of grand finales. It was a great game to end the competition with -- the reward I was hoping for, so that this review wouldn't be too hard to write.

Probably the thing I liked the most about The Plant was its puzzles. I know there were several other games this year that were focused on puzzles, and some of the puzzles in those games were excellent. However, I liked The Plant's puzzles better precisely because the game wasn't focused on puzzles. Instead, its puzzles were very well integrated into its story, so solving the puzzles really propelled the narrative. It's much more interesting to solve a puzzle when it opens the door to the next piece of the story, rather than being just one of a roomful of puzzles that you have to solve to escape that room. The Plant was probably the only game in this year's competition to give me a feeling similar to what I have when I play Infocom games. I love that feeling of uncovering an exciting story by cleverly putting pieces together, using items in unexpected ways, or doing the right thing at just the right time. And the game's story is definitely an exciting one. It begins as you are stranded on an abandoned side-road with your boss, marooned by his unreliable car. It's up to you to find a phone or a service station and get moving again, but when you go looking you may find more than you bargained for. I won't give too much away about the secrets that are eventually revealed, but the game definitely packs plenty of surprises. The pacing is excellent -- I only felt completely stuck once. I turned to the walkthrough to solve the problem, just because I wanted to finish as much of the game as I could in the two-hour time limit, but if you're playing The Plant for the first time, let me urge you not to check the walkthrough unless you're completely stuck. All the puzzles are completely logical, none of them require reading the designer's mind, and many of them are quite satisfying to solve, requiring several steps or clever combinations of objects, or both.

Now, the story itself does have some flaws. There are some parts that felt quite implausible to me, and from time to time the fact that your boss follows you around in your travels doing the same two or three things all the time starts to feel a little artificial. In addition, there are one or two minor spelling errors in the game. Outside of this, the plotting and writing are quite good. The Plant's prose often conveyed a very vivid sense of the visual. I drive by a plant like this about twice a month, and the game's descriptions of it, how its completely industrial and utilitarian networks of pipes and lights can seem almost like an abstract fairyland when glimpsed from afar, are right on the mark. I could really visualize most of the places in the game, and the mental pictures the game's text creates are quite dramatic and compelling. In addition, the game uses a few small touches here and there which utilize the power of HTML TADS. No pictures or sound, but a few well-placed hyperlinks in the help text and one or two spots with specially formatted text really make the game look sharp, and add to the very visual quality of the prose. If you sometimes start to feel a little impatient with all the growing that the medium of interactive fiction is doing, and long for a good old-fashioned Infocom-style thrill ride, check out The Plant. I think it may be just what you're looking for.

Rating: 9.0

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Paul O's 98 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 5 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002