1999 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 5

(in the order I played them)

STONE CELL by Steve Kodat as Middle Edge

Joining Bliss in the rapidly burgeoning subgenre of jailbreak IF, Stone Cell doesn't take too long to throw the PC into the eponymous prison. What happens just afterward is one of the most interesting parts of the game. When the PC is initially put in the cell, it is much as you'd expect: a simple room with a locked door to the north, and a mat and chamberpot within. However, after the PC sleeps on the mat and awakens in the cell, the mechanics of the game change radically. Suddenly, rather than just a one-location room with an exit to the north, the cell is now a 3 x 3 grid of locations, with door in one corner, the chamber pot in another, and so on. This can be a highly disorienting shift at first, but I thought it was a really cool technique, because it uses the mechanics of location in IF as a way of presenting the PC's state of mind. Every so often the argument crops up on raif that what IF ought to do is present location and navigation in terms tied to a specific simulated physics, so that you can specify exactly how far north you want to walk, how many degrees you'd like to turn and in what direction, etc. Predictably, these discussions bog down quickly in the face of how difficult it would be to implement and how incredibly tedious it would be for players to have to constantly type things like "WALK TWO METERS NORTH." But even if it were possible to implement a smooth simulated physics in a text game, the question raised by Stone Cell's technique is whether that physics would even make a positive contribution to the interactive fictional project. The insight is this: IF with a characterized PC isn't simply presenting a setting. It's presenting a setting as perceived by a particular character. Consequently, a cell that seems small at first might grow in perceived granularity and detail the longer the PC is imprisoned within it.

Unfortunately, the excitement generated by Stone Cell's navigation-altering technique is quickly dampened by some of the game's weaknesses. However, I think those weaknesses also have some excellent lessons to offer potential authors and anyone else interested in design and writing issues in IF, so I want to discuss them in some detail. In order to lend a little focus to the discussion, I'm going to concentrate on the portion of the game that takes place in the cell, despite the fact that there's an entire section of the game that takes place outside the cell. I don't think I'll give away any spoilers, but if I do I'll clearly mark them beforehand. Now then, having said all that, here's the basic problem: having created a unique space for the PC's expanded subjectivity in this prison cell via its use of navigation and location, the game fails to follow through with a similarly expanded parser and set of environmental descriptions. For example, the cell initially has a description several sentences long, a description which engages several senses and mentions some of the PC's emotional reactions to the cell. However, once the cell has metamorphosed into a grid, the descriptions of each grid location are extremely terse, sometimes not even full sentences. Some examples: "You slept in this corner."; "The heart of the cell."; "One side of the cell." What an opportunity was missed here! Just as the PC's perception of the cell's size expands, so too should her awareness of the minute details of her surroundings. It seems to me that simulating the perception of being trapped in a tiny room ought to involve more description, not less. Perhaps there would be a danger of monotony, but this could be addressed through appealing to various senses and touching on emotions, even as the original description does. Instead, it's as if she only gives the most cursory glance to her location, despite the fact that she is trapped inside and desperate for a way out.

Speaking of appealing to the senses, that brings up the other way that Stone Cell falls short of being truly involving: the parser is far too shallow. Think about the things you might do if you were trapped in a dungeon. Perhaps you'd listen at the door? Smell your straw mat? Feel along the walls, hoping to find a secret passage? If you did find a crack, might you try to pry it with something? I think so. Yet "listen", "smell", "feel", and "pry" are all unimplemented, along with a host of other verbs that ought to be there. Authors, take note: if you plan to trap your players in an enclosed space, and make a puzzle out of how they are to get out, the puzzle won't be much fun unless that space is very well implemented. The more often a player tries logical things that aren't accounted for in the parser, the surer that player will feel that the solution is simply arbitrary. That's one of the worst consequences of breaking mimesis -- reminding players over and over that they're in a game, and not a very complex game at that, tends to derail any sense of emotional or intellectual involvement that those players have with the story the game is trying to tell. I was going to go on to make the same point about alternate solutions, but it strikes me that alternate solutions aren't even necessary if enough verbs are implemented with sensible responses that nudge the player in the right direction. Unhappily, this sort of thing is exactly what Stone Cell lacks, and the lack degrades it from a great game to merely an interesting experiment in IF techniques. The experiment does teach us something, but the flaws that surround it teach us even more, and the learning process isn't as much fun.

Rating: 5.5

EREHWON by Rick Litherland as Josiah Pinkfoot

Erehwon reminded me of a Saturday Night Live skit I saw years ago. I don't remember the details very well, and no doubt somebody will step in to correct me, but the basic premise was something along the lines of a group of people who wrote a numbered joke catalog, and when they'd get together for their annual convention, they'd just sit around and say things to each other like "Hey, number 534!" and then roar with laughter. Wandering through Erehwon, I felt like an outsider at that convention. There were plenty of inside jokes, some of which seemed to be oriented towards residents of the U.K., though of course, I couldn't tell. Even the walkthrough would occasionally say things like "If this doesn't mean anything to you, don't worry about it." OK, whatever. But it wasn't even so much the inside jokes that made me feel like an alien visitor as much as it was the heavy emphasis on mathematics and geometry. For me, a game that says "the dual of a Platonic solid!" means about as much as a game that says "Hey, number 534!" Erehwon seems to make a basic assumption that the player will find things like dodecahedrons and Hamiltonian circuits interesting, and that assumption led me to suspect strongly that I'm not part of the target audience for this game. Am I confessing to some sort of failure to reach the proper heights of geekdom here? (And I mean "geek" in the positive sense, let me hasten to add.) I know a lot of IF devotees approach it from the Computer Science side, and could sit endlessly enraptured in discussions of, say, non-Euclidean geometry. I'm not one of them. I come more from the Lit. side, and could sit endlessly enraptured in discussions of, say, feminist theory and postmodernism. There is an appearance by Stanley Fish, the namesake of a prominent literary critic and advocate of a theory of reading which fits in particularly well with IF, but the game never gave much indication that it recognized the allegiance. Or if it did, it sailed over my head along with many of the other references. For these reasons, Erehwon underwhelmed me, not primarily through any specific fault of its own, I think, but just because we're not a particularly good match.

However, I do have some complaints that stem specifically from my viewpoint as an IF player. Heading the list of these is a huge maze. Again, I recognize that this is probably my own prejudice, but I just don't like mazes. I don't care how mathematically cool they are -- I still don't like them. Now, in fairness, I must point out that the game does provide for a couple of solutions which obviate the need to map the maze. However, as a player I had no way of knowing that without reference to the walkthrough, and therefore ended up spending much of my first hour of Erehwon gritting my teeth and trying to map this giant maze. You might contend that I should have understood that mazes without alternate solutions are simply unacceptable in modern IF and looked harder for the alternate solution, taking it on faith that one existed. Maybe so, but I find that I can take very little on faith in comp games -- after all, I would think that proper spelling and grammar would be de rigeur as well, but plenty of games lack those basic ingredients (not that Erehwon was one of them.) Besides, the path to those solutions is blocked by the other problem puzzle in the game, a puzzle which echoes one that appears in Trinity, but enlarges it for no clear reason. The main problem with this puzzle is that it violates one of the basic tenets outlined in Graham Nelson's classic Player's Bill of Rights: not to have to do boring things for the sake of it. Indeed, a winning session will involve several trips through this puzzle, each of which entails ten moves at the very least, and it's not at all clear that the size of the puzzle adds anything positive to the game. Aggravating the situation, the puzzle also has a rather arbitrary solution, at least so far as I could tell, and following any other track will get you hopelessly lost, making the whole thing into the basic equivalent of yet another maze.

It's clear that there is a crystalline and beautiful mathematical philosophy behind each of these puzzles, but for me as a player, the translation of those philosophies into interactive fiction was awkward and unsuccessful, an ambitious washout. Much the same could be said for an alternate mode of navigation with which the game experiments. I tried it for a bit, and indeed was forced to use it at a couple of points in order to solve puzzles (puzzles that seemed arbitrarily constructed to require the alternate navigation method), but avoided it much of the rest of the time. I did appreciate the irony, though: in most games, the objection to the compass rose approach to navigation is that you don't have a compass. In Erehwon you actually do have a compass, but are nonetheless forced to abandon compass-rose navigation at several points. I thought that was pretty funny. Indeed, there are lots of funny moments in Erehwon, one of its main strengths being its humor. Most of the inside jokes were past me, but there were quite a few funny moments that required no special knowledge to enjoy. For instance, this exchange with the parser:

   North Boulevard

   On both sides of the so-called boulevard (more of a dirt track) is an
   impenetrable ferret.

   Did I say ferret?  I meant forest.  It's stoatally impenetrable.
As I laughed, I was reminded of some of the funnier moments in Hitchhiker's Guide, where the parser momentarily rears up to take on a personality, using its trusted status as the reliable narrator to pull the rug out from under us and make us laugh at the same time. Those of you who've played Hitchhiker's will know what I'm talking about. Those of you who haven't: Hey, number 534!

Rating: 5.4

CHAOS by Shay Caron

Most interactive fiction games use the second person voice, and make it clear from the outset that this is their mode. Think of "You are standing in an open field west of a white house," or "You are Primo Varicella." Chaos appears to follow in this tradition, describing a character named Captain Chaos but using the second person form of address several times in asides like "You know what I mean" or "you guessed it." Admittedly, the "I" in the first phrase throws a bit of a spanner into the works, and a player might well have cause to wonder who the "I" is that's apparently speaking. The parser? The author? Some sort of in-game narrator? For me, though, it went by so fast that I allowed myself to suspend that question. From the introduction, I presumed I was Captain Chaos' sidekick, there to help him with a sudden power failure on his jerry-built hovercraft. But then I typed in my first command, and this is how it went:
   > I

   Chaos has a Evil Overlord list. 
What? But what's in my inventory? After a few commands, I slowly began to understand that the game was responding to my commands as if they were guiding Captain Chaos himself, then describing the results referring to the Captain in the third person -- "Chaos walks south", "He picks up the screwdriver," etc. What's more, from time to time the Captain Chaos character will offer some commentary on the command chosen, relating tangential or backstory facts about the parts of the environment he encounters while being guided by the player's commands. The more of this that goes on, the more prominent one question becomes: Who is the PC of this game? Apparently the introduction was addressing me -- me the player, not some avatar within the story with whom I am expected to identify. And who is Captain Chaos addressing with his asides? Again, it's the player. In a real sense, the player is the PC in Chaos. You, the player, control Captain Chaos with your commands, but he is aware of your presence, at least enough to make the occasional remark to you. And if all that's not complicated enough, wait until he finds (or you find, or something) the technology that allows him to control another entity remotely.

This is all rather haphazardly done in this particular game, as evidenced by my confusion at the first few prompts. I found myself bumping into unexpected forms of address, and having to puzzle out exactly what was supposed to be happening, or at least what it seemed like was supposed to be happening. Moreover, many of the questions raised by these narrative choices, such as those I mentioned about the use of "I" in the introduction, are just never answered. In fact, there is no announcement of any kind -- subtle, blatant, or otherwise -- that Chaos will overturn a fundamental IF convention, and the result is a rather jarring feeling of displacement. The creation of this feeling doesn't really seem to serve the story, at least not in any specific way I could determine. Nonetheless, I found it quite interesting. I was reminded of other competition games which have fiddled with the narrative voice, such as Christopher Huang's Muse and Graham Nelson's Tempest. Both of these games took a slightly different approach, having the parser itself take on a character, speaking to the player in the first person and executing the player's commands as if they were that character's own actions. "Tempest" even complicated matters further by explaining that its player's role is as "the magical will" of Shakespeare's Prospero, guiding Ariel (the parser's character) through the various scenes of the play. These tactics have a bit of a distancing effect on the player, setting identification at one remove and shifting the action from the player character to the parser character. Chaos, though it explains nothing of its strategy, actually creates one further remove by allowing neither a player character nor a parser character but another character altogether to be the focus of the action. Yet when this third character (third person, you might even say) speaks outward in the second person voice, it addresses the player (in a "Dear reader" sort of way) and brings the game and player closer together than almost any other IF I've seen.

Orchestrated strategically and used creatively, these techniques could make for a masterful, groundbreaking work of IF. Chaos isn't that work, but its experimentation does open up some very interesting, and mostly unexplored, territory. Beside this, the plot of the game seems quite inconsequential. There's a ship to be repaired, and various puzzles to solve, some required and some optional. These puzzles are decent, and the writing is passable, and although there are a number of coding problems, the game is at least finishable. It's a bit of a throwaway, though, a mediocre competition entry except for the unique approach it takes, almost offhandedly, to forms of address in IF. I enjoyed thinking about Chaos more than I enjoyed playing it, but if the author's next game explores the techniques employed here in a consistent, systematic, and clear way, the result will be well worth a few false starts.

Rating: 6.6

HUNTER, IN DARKNESS by Andrew Plotkin as Dave Ahl, Jr.

[Several sections of this review could be considered plot spoilers when viewed from the proper angle. You have been warned.]
   "Actually, Wumpus and Wumpus II are in 'More Basic Computer Games.' Which
   has 84 games, and is indeed by David H. Ahl. Wumpus rules. All IFers
   should play it. Indeed, play it before the competition so that you have
   a sense of our collective roots. Then marvel at where we've come."
                                        -- Adam Thornton, 9/18/99
Hmmm. I didn't follow this advice, but I remember Hunt the Wumpus. It's a classic computer game, but pretty primitive. It involves locating a target within a grid of rooms, avoiding deathtraps and teleportation traps (the latter of which was adapted for a clever, though irritating, tribute in Zork I). It is almost nothing like Hunter, In Darkness. And yet... And yet one wonders why Adam was exhorting us so enthusiastically to play this game, preferably before the competition. I suppose we'll find out our answer soon enough. In the meantime, let's examine the game before us. It is a marvelous game, gritty and atmospheric with writing and coding savvy to spare. It is a true "cave crawl", with much of the action involving literally crawling through sections of a remarkable cave, rife with tight passages, underground pools, and dangerous rock formations. And it is also an update of Hunt the Wumpus... sort of. As in the original game, you play a hunter, armed with a crossbow and five bolts. You can smell your prey from several rooms away, and must struggle with dangerous pits and threatening bats. But that is where the similarity ends. Where Wumpus was bare, even abstract in its depiction of the cave, Hunter is rich with description. In fact, the levels of description can run so deep that the detail of the game becomes almost dizzying, as in the following example:
   Narrow Ledge
   This ledge is barely two feet wide at most. You try not to feel like
   it's angled slightly outward. The pit stretches above and below you; but
   you can see no way to climb from here, either way.

   A rope hangs across the pit, a gentle arc well above your head.

   You can make out the pit floor. It's only two or three body-lengths
   down; but the stone formations directly below you look vicious.

   Sharp spires rise directly below you -- some chance result of dripping
   minerals and flowing water. If you try to descend farther, you'll slip
   and probably fall into them.
I have a terminology I've made up to talk about this sort of thing. In this terminology, first-level nouns are those nouns that are mentioned in room descriptions. Second-level nouns are those nouns mentioned in the descriptions of the first-level nouns. Third-level nouns are in the second-level noun descriptions, and so on. The deeper these levels go, the more detailed and immersive the textual world. Most text adventures don't even fully cover the first-level nouns, but Hunter does, and often many of the deeper levels as well. The result is a cave environment that feels hauntingly, sometimes terrifyingly, real. I have crawled through a few caves in my life, all of which were much safer (thankfully!) than the cave depicted in Hunter; the game matched my experience quite accurately, adroitly capturing the spelunker's combination of awe and fear.

Along with being extremely well written, Hunter is also brilliantly designed and implemented. I went through the game several times and not only did I find no bugs whatsoever, I also discovered that the game very cleverly allows multiple routes to the same puzzles. There aren't many puzzles in the game, but those that exist are very good indeed, and quite original. They belong to that rare breed of puzzle that is perfectly integrated with the story and the environment, and is a great pleasure to solve because it requires lateral thinking within a very logical framework. I didn't find any multiple solutions to them, though seeing the care with which this game was designed, I wouldn't be surprised if some existed. In addition, there is at least one point at which I think you can make the game unsolvable, but the situation only comes up because almost every logical action is implemented. I kept finding myself surprised at just how many actions were accounted for. Even those that were disallowed were often disallowed with a message that was specific to the particular circumstances of the PC, and that sometimes gave a clue as to how to proceed. As impressive as all this was, I was even more wowed by the way that the game subtly arranges itself so that it appears to allow a very wide scope of action, but in fact moves the PC through a specific plot. I can think of several junctures where multiple choices are possible, all of which lead, very logically, to the same point. This is a game that clearly took great care with its design, extending the illusion of freedom a long way while maintaining a fairly specific structure.

Also, several rooms have initial descriptions which describe the experience of arriving in the room, and the features that are most salient at first. Once this description has been displayed, further looks at the room will stabilize into a more settled description, one which takes details into account and bears reading multiple times. Attention to detail like this just permeates the game, and makes it one of the most engrossing competition entries I've ever had the good fortune to play. Its origins do sometimes undercut it a bit, such as when the fearsome beast is first revealed as a Wumpus -- the comical tone of the name jars against the serious and deadly atmosphere of the rest of the game. However, the contrast between the original Hunt The Wumpus and this game is amazing. It's like the difference between a limerick and a Stephen King novel. Follow Adam's advice -- play Hunt the Wumpus (there are several versions available on the web) and then try Hunter, In Darkness. You too will marvel at where we've come.

Rating: 9.8

DEATH TO MY ENEMIES by Jon Blask as Roody Yogurt

I guess this is another ifMUD in-joke game. I make this guess partly based on my interpretation of the included readme file, which suggests that the majority of the author's support came from MUD denizens, and partly on the fact that I recognize a very few references in the game, like "Eeagh!" and "Awwwk, want cork nut!", as being from the MUD. I already talked about this kind of game in my review of Pass The Banana, so I won't rehash all that here. I will say that the ifMUD in-joke game is rapidly climbing my list of least favorite competition entry genres. Right now it's hovering just below the simulated-house and learning-Inform genres. I don't know, I guess it's funny if you're in on the joke (though maybe not -- not being in on the joke, I wouldn't know one way or another), but to me it's just really boring. There were some jokes that didn't feel like they required outside knowledge, but I didn't find them very funny. In addition, I can only believe that the solution to the game is another kind of in-joke, because I can't see any logical way that players could come up with it on their own. This makes Death a slightly worse offender than Pass The Banana -- at least the latter game was solvable for a MUD outsider. For outsiders to solve this one, they'd have to engage in quite a bit of random guessing, and spend a lot of time trying to do things with barely implemented red herrings. Being such an outsider, this is what I did for about 15 minutes before I gave up and looked at the walkthrough. I didn't have fun.

Add to these flaws the fact that Death has quite a few spelling and grammar errors, and some really ugly formatting (the game seems to have an aversion to blank lines). Also factor in that the readme suggests that the game makes heavy use of "WHO IS " and "WHAT IS ", but the game almost never seems to recognize such questions, responding instead with another irritating nonsensical reference. Did I mention that the solution doesn't make sense either? Let's not forget the fact that the game offers several objects to play with, but most of them don't offer the slightest trace of interactivity. There's a bottle that's "not something you can open." There's an eggplant that's "plainly inedible." There's a dustbuster that's "not something you can switch." The list goes on. Anyway, put all these things together and you've got one pretty tedious interactive experience on your hands.

The author announces that he plans to put out a "hopefully less buggy version of the game" after the competition is over. This is a good idea, of course, but I think that even after such a version emerges, it will only appeal to a limited audience. Basically, if you hang out on ifMUD a lot, you might enjoy it. If, on the other hand, you're like me... you probably won't.

Rating: 2.0

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Paul O's 99 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 5 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002