2000 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2

(in the order I played them)

NEVERMORE by Nate Cull

Nevermore calls itself "An Interactive Gothic", and lives up to its billing with aplomb. A loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven", Nevermore builds on the foreboding and melancholy of Poe's poem, injecting elements of alchemy, forbidden magic, and thematic whispers of Shelley's Frankenstein. You play the speaker of the poem, a dejected wretch pining for his lost love, "a maiden whom the angels named Lenore." The difference between the PC and the protagonist of Poe's verse is that this PC is willing to challenge Death itself to retrieve Lenore, and has the mystic lore, the alchemical elements, and the dread hubris to bring about her resurrection. I thought this was a fabulous premise, and the game succeeds admirably at delivering that frisson that is an indispensable part of eighteenth and nineteenth century gothic literature. To Poe's already powerful imagery, Nevermore adds the illicit thrill of cocaine and opium, the dark power of occult magic, and the appropriate hints of colonialism and oppression. For me, the combination worked very well at evoking the rich purple feel of novels like Frankenstein, The Monk, and the template gothic novel, Walpole's Castle of Otranto.

The game's writing and coding don't let it down either. In fact, in some spots the detail is so rich that it feels like almost every noun mentioned in any room description or object description is accounted for with a description of its own. Nevermore uses Inform's "box quote" feature to bring up excerpts from the poem at various appropriate points in the plot, and this device adds considerably to the game's atmosphere. Also adding to that atmosphere is the writing style of the various books discovered by the PC. These books, while not burdened with Middle English spellings like the alchemical quotes in Christminster, do an outstanding job of conveying the spooky and arcane feel that such forbidden texts should have. All in all, Nevermore builds a magnificent gothic atmosphere with a combination of well-judged plot, good writing, and bug-free code.

What a pity, then, that it all comes crashing to Earth, victim of its horrendously flawed design. For one thing, the game features the equivalent of a starvation puzzle in its first few moves. This puzzle is no less forgiving, and perhaps even stricter, than the one that used to be a standard feature of TADS games (check out something like Deep Space Drifter if you don't know what I'm referring to.) What's more, the "starvation" problem (it's not really starvation, but it might as well be -- it's a timed necessity for action that kills you off if not appeased) continues to occur throughout the game, cropping up every twenty moves or so. Even if starvation puzzles didn't bother me, this one's fuse is way too short. Beyond that annoyance is the far greater problem of the game's main puzzle. This puzzle involves following a highly complex alchemical ritual, requiring dozens of steps and fairly precise actions. Multi-step puzzles in and of themselves aren't a problem, and certainly it makes sense within the context of the plot that the PC's actions should involve complicated magical rituals, but the way this puzzle is implemented is deeply problematic. Nevermind the fact that one particular object is required for at least four of the steps, one of which destroys it. Nevermind the fact that the instructions for the ritual are couched in highly figurative language, language that is open to multiple interpretations. Let's even forget about the fact that some of the necessary steps aren't particularly discernible without glimpsing into the author's mind -- the thing that sent me over the edge about this puzzle is the fact that its instructions (the figurative, abstract ones) are spread over six different books, books which only reveal their contents randomly. That's right, each book contains between four and ten critical pieces of information, but each time you type "READ BOOK" you get a random selection of one of those pieces. Consequently, not only can you never be sure if you've obtained all the information you need, you have to perform the same command over and over again, wading through dull repetitions of already-printed information in the hopes that you'll turn up something new. Once I figured out what was going on, I turned to the hints and never looked back. This tactic allowed me to get through the game (though even that required several restarts, due to the "destroyed object" problem), but the fun had long since drained from the experience. Nevermore is IF with marvelous writing and a chilling gothic atmosphere, but until its fundamental design problems are repaired, it will remain as lifeless as Poe's lost Lenore.

Rating: 7.4

MAROONED by Bruce Davis

Marooned was the first ADRIFT game I've ever played. Anytime I review a game whose system is new to me, that review can't help but be partly about the system as well as the game itself, since it's often difficult to disentangle who is responsible for what in the overall playing experience. Unfortunately, what with all the growling on the newsgroups from ADRIFT advocates who feel their system isn't getting a fair shake, it's a little tough to advance an opinion on it -- anything less than unadulterated praise runs the risk of getting me labeled a "snob" or an "elitist" or something. Nonetheless, I shall brave the waters, and try to discuss the entire experience of playing Marooned, starting with the things for which I suspect ADRIFT was responsible, then moving on to those things that I'm guessing were done by the game's author. In the interest of diverting the WOAA (Wrath of ADRIFT Advocates), I'll even begin with the things I liked about the interface. The ADRIFT runtime has a clean environment with two windows: one for the command line and one for the game text. The overall presentation was attractive and aesthetic, though the text window used a few too many newlines for my taste. One particularly interesting feature is that clicking on any word in the text window will insert that word into the command line. I'm too much of a typist to be messing with the mouse in that fashion, but I can see where it could be a really cool feature, especially after one got used to it. (I was so unused to it at first, unaware of it in fact, that when I clicked back onto the interpreter window after doing something in another window, I accidentally clicked on a command word and couldn't figure out why the game seemed to be executing commands without my typing them!) A similar convenience is the "auto-complete" option, which allows you to just type a couple of letters from any dictionary word and attempts to guess what you mean, Microsoft-style. This option was a little wonky at times -- for example, you find a "dented gas can" at one point which the game will auto-complete if you start typing "gas", but not if you start with "dented" or "can". Still, quirkiness aside, this was a great time saver, because it also shows you right away which nouns in the descriptions haven't been implemented. Some other cool options are available from the menu bar, most notably an excellent automapper, which operates in a separate window but creates a lovely map of the game's landscape. This is an innovation for which many people have been clamoring, and it was especially welcome in this game, where many of the locations have the exact same name. There's also a "control panel" which can execute common commands for you, even a "goto" command which gives you a listbox of discovered locations and sends you there via the best path. Finally, I must mention that I appreciated the inclusion of "Verbose" as a menu option, something I can just leave turned on for all games rather than having to explicitly request it each time.

OK, so there are a substantial of things I liked about the ADRIFT interface. Sadly, there are also a number of things I really hated. First and foremost is the problem of the parser. ADRIFT's parser violates all three of the current tenets in Paul's Parser Manifesto (which I made up in response to another nonstandard parser, the one in last year's homebrew game "Lunatix".) Those tenets are as follows:

  1. Parsers must not pretend to understand more than they do.
  2. Parsers must not give smarmy, unhelpful error messages.
  3. Parsers must not ask questions without being prepared to receive an answer.
Well, I'm not actually sure it breaks #3 -- I got too angry to try it. The exchange went something like this (I've inserted prompts before my commands for clarity's sake -- ADRIFT doesn't put command prompts in its text):
   > look in it
   (the first aid kit)
   This is a standard issue first aid kit. The first aid kit is open.
   Inside the first aid kit is a small bottle.

   > x bottle
   This is a small bottle for pills.  The bottle is closed.

   > open bottle
   You open the small bottle.

   > look in it
   (the small bottle)
   This is a small bottle for pills.  The bottle is open.

   > x bottle
   This is a small bottle for pills.  The bottle is open.

   > look in bottle
   This is a small bottle for pills.  The bottle is open.

   > empty bottle
   I don't understand what you want me to do with the small bottle.

   > get all from bottle
   You are not holding a small bottle.

   > get it
   (the small bottle)
   You are not holding a first aid kit.

   > get kit
   Take what?

   > ^%$# you! [Expletive removed to protect the easily offended]
   I really don't think there's any need for language like that!

Frustrating exchanges like this were not uncommon, but even more infuriating were ADRIFT's violations of tenet #2. Probably the worst offender was this one:

   I can't undo your blundering.

Let me tell you an easy way to get me angry fast: give me an insulting message in response to a reasonable command. This one broke all previous speed records. Finally, there were the violations of tenet #1, most obvious when you type "x [anything the parser doesn't understand]" -- instead of telling you it didn't understand you, it just says "Nothing special." I hope that Santa will still bring me presents this year despite the fact that I couldn't resist typing "x adrift." All these parser problems more than blew away any pleasure I derived from ADRIFT's other innovations, because the parser is more important than the nifty features. Let me say that one more time, and listen up, system authors: THE PARSER IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE NIFTY FEATURES. Further crippling the ADRIFT experience was the sublimely aggravating policy that there is no scripting option as such -- only a menu command that will record a transcript of the game thus far, a command that is naturally unavailable after a game ends! Who uses scripting, you ask? I do -- I use it to write reviews.

Because I didn't find my way around this misfeature until I'd been playing Marooned for an hour or so, it's difficult for me to assess my experience with much accuracy, except to say this: Marooned is not the game I'd use to champion ADRIFT. To the problems in ADRIFT's parser, this game adds its own irritations. For one thing, there's a starvation puzzle. Game designers, please quit it with the starvation puzzles. Like mazes, they were interesting long ago, but no longer. They're not clever, they're not challenging, and they're not fun -- they just suck. This one was especially offensive because none of the food you find actually staves off starvation, and a couple of perfectly legitimate food items aren't edible, according to the game. Compounding this problem is the fact that there are tons of red herrings in the game, which means that you waste your time trying to figure out how to use something that's actually useless, and consequently you keep dying over, and over, and over again. Dull, dull, dull, and ultimately rage- inducing. The premise of the game was fine, but it's hampered by severe design problems, as well as the more fundamental weaknesses of the ADRIFT interface. All in all, I'd rather play Guess the Verb again.

Rating: 3.6

DESERT HEAT by Papillon

Playing Desert Heat made me realize something. In the first five years of the IF Competition, I don't think a single "true" Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style branching narrative has been entered. Sure, we had Human Resources Stories, but despite its title, that game had no story -- it was just a weird quiz. We also had Life On Beal Street, but that game didn't really offer any choices, unless you count "quit" and "don't quit" as legitimate story branches, which I don't. So along comes Desert Heat, a true CYOA story, forcing me to decide what I think about such a format for a comp game. Here's what I ended up with: I have nothing against CYOA; in fact I like it, and nurture fond childhood memories of CYOA books by the likes of Edward Packard, R.A. Montgomery, and the amusingly pen-named D. Terman. However, in an interactive fiction competition where its competitors boast full-blown parsers, maps, and the like, it just doesn't feel very interactive. Desert Heat does an excellent job of presenting its milieu, but I kept wishing for many more choices than the story offers. Perhaps part of the problem is that the game's narrative doesn't actually offer that many real options. Most of the branches aren't branches at all. Instead, they generally do one of three things: one, they reveal themselves to be dead ends, forcing you back to a previous node; two, they only offer the illusion of choice, because every option leads to the same node; or three, they result in an abrupt ending. Endings are plentiful in Desert Heat, but branches aren't, and that probably accentuated the feeling of restriction I was already experiencing as a result of dropping from the wide-open ambiance of a text adventure into the more streamlined mode of CYOA. Consequently, I found that I was having less fun with Desert Heat than I had with the good parser games I've played so far, though to be fair I did find it more fun than the bad parser games, so format isn't the only thing at work here.

The other unique thing about DH is its genre. It calls itself "A Romance Of Sorts", and because I'm not a reader of romances, I couldn't say how closely it hews to the conventions of that genre. I can say that it was written well, proofread well, and programmed well (though the programming chores are obviously more minimal when it comes to CYOA, and the author apparently had help from Mark Musante's CYOA library for TADS). The Arabic, desert milieu is one I haven't seen very often at all in IF (the only other one I can bring to mind is a section of TimeQuest), and it feels fresh and interesting. The characters are believable, the intrigue plausible, and there are even some quite subtle moments of humor. (Read the descriptions closely if you ask one of the characters to dance.) As the author's warning suggests, there are some sexual scenes available, and in fact the options to include or exclude these scenes represent some of the most significant choices available in the game. Again, I'm not sure what the conventions of the genre are when it comes to this kind of scene -- some of them made me a little queasy, but I only encountered these when I was systematically going through the game looking for text I had missed (the inclusion of "undo" was much appreciated.) They didn't appear in my first few plays through the game, which probably says something about how I tend to play a character.

In the end, while I appreciated Desert Heat for its experimentation with an untried format for comp games, and while I enjoyed its presentation of an unusual setting, I just couldn't get very into the story. This is no doubt partly just because romances like this aren't really my cup of tea -- I'd never seek one out for pleasure reading. Also, there are some continuity slips in the game, highlighting the fact that although CYOA takes the burden out of coding, it places much more stringent demands on plotting -- characters shouldn't seem surprised to discover something that was already revealed in a previous node, or by contrast claim knowledge of something that hasn't been revealed yet in this particular narrative trajectory, and those things sometimes happen in Desert Heat. In the final analysis, it was probably a combination of factors that made me say, "Nice try, but it didn't really work for me." I still think a CYOA could work in the comp, but the lesson of Desert Heat is that such a game would not only have to be well-written and very well-plotted, but also wide enough and with enough available choices to provide a feeling of freedom at least somewhat comparable with parser games.

Rating: 5.4

LITTLE BILLY by Okey Ikeako

And here I thought Desert Heat had a paucity of choices! OK, here's something I never wondered about: What if you took Life On Beal Street and gave it a really snazzy interface, one that eliminated all that tedious typing "1" to continue and instead replaced it with an attractive "click here to continue"? What would you have? I never wondered about it, but now I have the answer: You'd still have Life On Beal Street. Little Billy follows this inglorious model -- it's not interactive fiction at all. There's a "click here to continue" prompt (or, at times, a differently worded but functionally identical prompt) that basically just lets you turn the pages in a linear story. Even the two opportunities you get to make a decision don't influence the narrative in the slightest -- one is a dead-end road that shunts back into the main story, and the other makes cosmetic, inconsequential changes that dissolve after a couple of paragraphs.

But maybe if the story and writing were really great, the lack of interactivity wouldn't stick out so much? Maybe, but we'll never know. The author warns us at the very beginning. "The author of this game has no writing talent whatsoever", he says, and oh-so-cleverly punches up the "click here to continue" prompt with an "at your own risk!" Heed this warning. The plot is utterly standard, and the writing doesn't do much to sell it. What's more, the final sentence throws everything into total confusion, in a bad way. This sentence is supposed to be a grim epilogue, I think, but it appears to use the wrong name, which turns it into more of a hilarious head-scratcher. If it wasn't using the wrong name, it's just a head-scratcher without being hilarious, so I'm rooting for the former case.

The interface is fairly snazzy, though it's clearly adapted from another game. There's a picture of an ancient-looking water jug at the start of the game that has absolutely nothing to do with anything that happens in the story. Each character, amusingly enough, has a hit-point counter, even though there isn't a shred of combat or anything approaching combat in Little Billy. Well, actually there is, but it happens offstage -- Billy must have gotten the drop on his combatants, because he's obviously just a 1st level Schoolkid (chaotic good, of course) with a mere 10 hit points. His dad, on the other hand, has a whopping 54 hit points, which must make him a 6th or 7th level Cleric. He apparently got all his combat experience beating Little Billy to within a hit point of his life. Oh well, enough silliness. Making up stuff like that was the most fun I had with the game, but I can have that kind of fun without any comp game at all.

Rating: 2.5

THE TRIP by Cameron Wilkin

The Trip is a rather clever title, for a few reasons. Of course, there's the obvious double-entendre: not only does the main character go on a vacation-kind-of-trip (to Utah or Arizona, the game can't seem to make up its mind which), he also indulges in several drug trips, courtesy of the marijuana and peyote found in his inventory at various points. However, beyond that simple pun, there's also the fact that while the character is taking these trips, he is at the same time going nowhere. He's graduated college, but hasn't obtained gainful employment (one gets the impression he hasn't looked very hard), and is sinking further into depression. In fact, both kinds of trip serve to underscore how stuck the character is; the trip he takes is to just hang out with his buddy (who the game describes as "just your average happy-go-lucky stoner") and smoke a lot of dope, which doesn't exactly seem like a promising route to get his life on track. Even beyond this more subtle resonance, another trip occurs in this story, one that actually does get the character unstuck -- it's a spiritual journey, and one that couldn't have happened without the other trips. The neatest thing about this last trip is the fact that the game sets it up so that it actually happens through traversal of the landscape. The source of spiritual enlightenment is physically moving from one location to the next, and the PC has to follow it from place to place in order for the spiritual journey to happen properly. This is a lovely example of how powerful it can be to map abstract or emotional concepts onto IF conventions.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the game doesn't live up to the promise of its artful title. Spelling and grammar mistakes are strewn throughout it, and coding errors aren't terribly uncommon either. I'd like to be really charitable about it, and suggest that the writing errors are simply the reflection of a character who isn't very literate, sort of a very mild example of what Adam Cadre did in his Flowers For Algernon Textfire demo. However, if this is the intention, the style isn't strong enough to put it over, and besides, some of the errors just aren't in line with the way people talk. For example, when examining a lighter, we are told, "You once knew a guy who insisted that white lighters were bad luck, because something bad always happened to him when he was carrying him, but this theory holds no sway with you. You've never been a particularly superstition person." "Carrying him"? "Superstition person"? These come across less as mannerisms of a subliterate stoner than as grammatical slips from a non-native English speaker. Mostly, they just come across as basic proofreading errors, and the presence of bugs in the code tends to confirm this theory. In addition to these cosmetic problems, there's the fact that the spiritual stuff in the endgame just really isn't all that weighty. To me, it came off as sort of a weak rehash of the Simpsons episode "El Viaje Misterioso De Nuestro Homer." In your face, space coyote!

On the plus side, however, The Trip does contain what is by far the most realistic depiction of four guys sitting around getting baked ever to appear in the history of interactive fiction. This wasn't the most exciting moment of computer gaming I've ever had, but it did have its own Bill-And-Ted-ish charm. That scene, along with several choice touches like the way the stoners react to Arches National Park ("That's a big-ass rock, dude") had me laughing quite a lot. Not quite as much as the characters in the scene, mind you, but laughing nonetheless. In the end, this game feels a lot like some trips can be: long stretches of mild enjoyment, boredom, or even disappointment and annoyance, punctuated by flashes of beauty and brilliance. Or at least, that's what it felt like at the time.

Rating: 6.3


I like cyberpunk, though I prefer it in small doses. I'd never go on a cyberpunk reading jag, but I thoroughly enjoy the occasional William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, or Pat Cadigan novel. I also think that IF in the cyberpunk vein could be really cool -- after all, if cyberpunk has one defining characteristic, it's a certain atmosphere, and atmosphere is something that IF does very well. There is a danger, however: with IF conventions having been shaped out of a stock fantasy/D&D tradition in games like Adventure and Zork, the temptation might exist to just slap a cyberpunk sheen on standard fantasy tropes and call it good, when good is something it very probably wouldn't be. It's exactly this trap into which VOID: CORPORATION falls. Instead of a shiny silver key to open a locked door, we find a "silver slab" imprinted with microcircuitry. A pistol instead of a sword, a cube with liquid metal software instead of a spell scroll, et cetera. And instead of wandering kobolds and bugbears and such, we get wandering FMI (Federal Military Intelligence) agents and "cyberpunks." (It works much better as a label for a genre rather than for a group of people, by the way.)

Let's talk a little bit more about those wandering monsters. Ask any Quake or Half-Life player this question: "How would it be if every time you fragged something, you dropped your weapon, and had to explicitly pick it up again before you could frag something else?" I think we both know that their answer would certainly be some variation on "It would SUCK! A lot!" Yet this is exactly how things work in V:C. At the beginning of the game, we are told this about the PC: "more people have died at his hands than braincells at a 'Silver' party." Unfortunately, the guy seems to be more butterfingers than trigger-finger. Even worse, the game doesn't even tell you that you've dropped your weapon -- it was quite a surprise the first time I tried to shoot somebody and was told, "You don't see any gun here." Strange enough that the game seems to want to emulate the random-stream-of-bad-guys dynamic of action games, despite the fact that typing "kill cyberpunk" carries absolutely none of the visceral thrill of an FPS frag. But for god's sake, why why why would this trained professional killer drop his weapon after every single kill? (Nevermind the fact that these kills happen on crowded streets and shops where nobody seems to bat an eye at gunplay.) Adding to the irritation is the fact that certain monsters can only be killed by certain specific weapons, even though both weapons are basically guns. For example, if you try to kill a "mean-looking cyberpunk" with your shotgun, you are told "You strike at the cyberpunk with the shotgun, but your weapon bounces off it harmlessly", almost as if you tried to clobber the guy with the stock rather than the far-less-strenuous effort of pulling the trigger. Yet a pistol takes him out without fuss? What could the difference possibly be? This bizarre behavior, coupled with the fact that every dead bad guy disappears in "a cloud of red smoke" made me feel sure that at some point the game would have the PC "discover" that he's in a VR scenario. But no, that never happened, and the only explanation I'm left with is that some serious slippage into fantasy has occurred in these portions of the game.

Some of this behavior may be due to the fact that the game is written in AGT. I haven't played many AGT games, since most of them seem to have came out between the fall of Infocom and the release of Lost Treasures, which is a period during which I had given IF up for dead. However, I have vague recollections of people asserting that the wandering monster stuff is default behavior in AGT, and that it has to be explicitly removed for a game not to have it. Or maybe I'm thinking of GAGS or something -- they all sort of blend together for me. In any case, there are problems in this game that definitely cannot be blamed on AGT. For example, one of the critical puzzles in the game depends on the PC going in a direction that is not indicated as available in the room description. This, mind you, when every single possible exit is listed in every other room description. Hasn't the UN passed a resolution or something against games behaving like this? In fairness to the game, it's true that a hint toward this action is given at one point, but in fairness to me, the descriptions do little to indicate in what location the hint is applicable, and in any case that's still no excuse for leaving an exit unlisted when all others are. This is definitely the worst offender among the puzzles, but every aspect of Void, from the design to the writing to the plot to the coding, is tarnished with flaws. Some of these aspects have a genuine spark of excitement, or at least the possibility of such, but in the end, VOID: Corporation is a game that promises far more than it delivers.

Rating: 4.4

Go to the next page of reviews

Go to the previous page of reviews

Return to my IF page

Return to my home page

Paul O's 2000 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002