2000 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 7

(in the order I played them)

MY ANGEL by Jon Ingold

Interactive Fiction is a new enough medium that at least once a year, usually more, a work appears that approaches the form in a way that has never yet been attempted. The IF competition, with its emphasis on short works, has become a haven for this kind of experimentation, and this year is no exception. The most interesting experiment I've come across thus far is this game, My Angel. My Angel's experiment is to offer the player a "NOVEL" mode, one which actually fulfills both senses of the word: not only does it more closely resemble a prose novel than does any other IF, it is also something that has never quite been seen before. In NOVEL mode, all input and stock parser responses appear in a two-line status window above the main game text window. In the lower panel, story-related output appears in neatly formatted paragraphs. Because this format can sometimes be hard to follow (it's difficult to tell where the last output leaves off and the new one begins), the game thoughtfully provides an ALTERNATE command, which prints every other piece of output (more or less) in bold text. I've sometimes thought about how IF might be done in this format, but could never quite get past certain mental stumbling blocks: the possibility of repetition, the need for stock responses, and the problem of sequiturs. My Angel applies a number of ingenious solutions to these problems. First, it adopts the already rather oblique tone of literary fantasy -- this particular prose style suffers from a dearth of sequiturs anyway, so the sudden shifts of focus brought about by a flailing player become less obvious. In addition, the game takes stock responses such as "I don't know the word <whatever>" or "You can't see that here" and shifts them to the status line, not allowing them to interrupt the flow of the story. It's also, as far as I can determine, not above simply ignoring the player's input and continuing with the story, though this doesn't happen often, and it's rather difficult to tell for certain when it has happened, because there's sometimes a significant (but not complete) disconnect between the player's input and the game's responses. Finally, My Angel restricts the player's choice of verbs (though not drastically) in order to reduce the combinatorial explosion of necessary text.

As for repetition, well, My Angel didn't quite lick that one. I still encountered several instances where the game repeated the same output two or more times in a row. You wouldn't see this kind of sequence in any but the most avant-garde literary novel, so its appearance detracted from the game's illusion of an unfolding prose story. For the most part, however, My Angel succeeds admirably in maintaining that illusion. Its writing is mostly quite good, and the intersection between its writing and its coding sometimes verges on the brilliant, not just for NOVEL mode itself but for the way that it deftly picks up on a player's command and weaves it into the ongoing narrative. The narrative itself, on the other hand, is a bit confusing, or at least it was to me. Ironically, I think the story's problem may be one of too much novelty. We are presented with an unfamiliar world, one which appears to be more or less the generic medieval pastoral setting of copious genre fantasy, but which occasionally hints at mysterious magics, the logic of which we are left to figure out. Complicating the situation is the fact that these magics are the sort that are only visible to one person, and therefore we can never be entirely certain that they aren't simply the delusion of the viewpoint character. That character shares a very unusual relationship with another character, one which (again) isn't clearly spelled out. Finally, these two are embroiled in a specific plot, one which begins entirely in medias res, leaving us to piece together the backstory through flashbacks that sometimes obscure more than they reveal. Between trying to decipher the setting, the plot, the characters, the backstory, and the sometimes impenetrable prose style, I frequently found myself feeling very much at sea in the story, lacking adequate purchase in any sort of familiar concept. When the climactic moment came, it didn't have much of an effect on me, because I never quite understood what exactly underlay the climax's emotional thrust.

On the other hand, the parts that I did understand, I found quite evocative. There are a number of very arresting images in the game, some wonderful turns of phrase, and the central relationship is a fascinating one. Even better, there are a few lovely puzzles. These puzzles are the best kind -- unique and interesting, but of a piece with the story rather than simply tacked on. NOVEL mode makes them feel even more integrated, creating as it does the appearance of an unbroken flow of text. I encountered one or two grammatical errors while traversing the story, and the occasions when it appeared to be ignoring my input annoyed me somewhat, but overall I came away feeling impressed as hell with My Angel. It's a daring experiment, executed with grace and care, and it provided me not only with some vivid impressions of setting and story, but with a good deal of food for thought about the possible future directions of IF.

Rating: 8.6


A favorite trick in Interactive Fiction, especially short works like those that appear in the comp, is to make the PC some kind of unusual or non-human creature. We've seen it with animals, as in Ralph and A Day For Soft Food. We've seen it with monsters, as in Strangers In The Night or Only After Dark. We've seen it with children, as in The Arrival and On The Farm. A Bear's Night Out did it with a plush toy. In the freaky realms of Rybread, we've even seen it with things like car dashboards. When the game is written competently and sufficiently debugged, this trick often works remarkably well, even better than its static fiction equivalent might. Why is that? I think it's because IF has an advantage over static fiction in the area of character identification. When you're reading a book, you may read third-, first-, or even second-person accounts of a particular entity's exploits, and with sufficiently effective writing and characterization, you may even identify with that entity quite strongly despite its non-human traits, but no matter what you are still watching that entity from a distance. IF, however, literalizes the process of identification one step further. Not only does the prose put you in someone else's head, you actually have to guide the choices of that someone. I'd submit that when a reader is compelled to guide a character's actions, especially if there are puzzles involved, that reader will try to think like that character would think. When this happens, the identification process has reached a place where static fiction can rarely take it.

It is exactly this place that The Djinni Chronicles limns with skill and imagination. The game puts the player in charge of a succession of spirits, each of whom has a unique method of interacting with humans and the physical world. These spirits perceive reality quite differently from corporeal beings like ourselves, and the game leaves it to the player to figure out just what those differences are. Luckily, it provides enough clues (and sometimes even outright explanations) that if you're paying attention, you should be able to get the basic gist of how the system of djinni magic works. This system is ingenious in several ways. First, it is quite alien from conventional portraits, which only makes sense, since those portraits have always been from the point of view of the summoner rather than the summoned. Second, despite its unfamiliarity, it makes perfect sense, or at least it did to me, as a plausible explanation for spirit magic. It uses the logic of "undercurrents", in the game's terminology, to explain things like why a djinn's blessing can so often be accompanied by a curse -- humans always ascribe a malevolent motive to such curses, but the game suggests that this may be just because we've never known the djinn's side of the story. Finally, the system works well on a gaming level -- Djinni Chronicles tells an interesting story that fits many folktale motifs, but doesn't forget to be a computer game at the same time.

If it sounds like I was impressed by the game's magic system, that's because I was. To my mind, it did an excellent job of combining story and game into a seamless unit, providing fertile ground for puzzles that always made sense within the context of the story. Best of all, the system really made me feel like I understood what it was like to be a magically summoned spirit, and also why it is so difficult for humans to understand why such spirits so often bring more misery than happiness to their human summoners. The writing helped further this character identification, such as in this passage:

   Vault Entry Room
   The location of my summoner was a room between the surface of the
   world [physically west] and a complex of vaults [physically east].

   The room was a trap for physical beings. On one side of the room, a
   portcullis barred the way to the outside. To the other were the
   vaults for storage. A patterned stone wall blocked their unauthorized
This description does a lovely job of tracing the outlines of a location, because the spirit wouldn't care about the details, while still giving its human reader a fair impression of the location's real purpose. The game also indulges in judicious use of made-up synonyms for familiar concepts, thereby deepening our sense that the djinn population sees what we see, but through very different eyes. I mentioned that the puzzles are integrated well into the story -- they are also pitched at just the right difficulty level, or at least they were for me. I often found I had to think carefully, to think like the djinn I was directing, and that when I did so, I was properly rewarded. This experience added further to my sense of immersion in the PCs, since I never had to break the spell by consulting the walkthrough. The game wasn't perfect -- a few typos lurk here and there, a section of verse has badly broken meter that jars against the elegance of the spirit world, and the routine that causes death when a certain point score drops too low is always one turn behind. Overall though, Djinni Chronicles puts a new spin on a well-loved IF gimmick, and makes it work like a charm.

Rating: 9.4


Today is November 7th. It's 11:30pm, Colorado time. I'm writing this review on my creaky but trusty 386 laptop, the television on in front of me (muted) so that I can continue to keep tabs on the US presidential election, which is still in a dead heat after seesawing all night long. It was, to say the least, a bad day to play Castle Amnos. Not that I didn't have the time -- I played my first hour over my lunch break at work, then did another hour after the commute home, dinner, watching election returns, and being at least somewhat present in my marriage (oh yeah, that). Then a quick shower to clear my head, and I'm ready to review. With most comp games, this time investment would have been sufficient. Not with this one, though. For one thing, Castle Amnos is big. I didn't expect this, since the game file size is 122K, but that'll teach me to rely on file sizes -- turns out you can squeeze in quite a few rooms, objects, and puzzles when you implement hardly any first-level nouns, code minimal responses for reasonable object actions, and only give your NPCs the bare minimum necessary for them to participate in their puzzles. Consequently, even when I reached the end of my two hours, I had no sense of closure at all -- I doubt I'd even seen a third of the game. What's more, there are several mazelike sections in the game, and a few others where the geography is quite non-intuitive. I had made maps of these during my first-hour session, but I forgot and left them at work, and I'd be damned if I was going to draw them again. I have a pretty good memory for IF geography, so this didn't cripple me in my second hour, but it did slow me down. I wonder how many comp judges' experience is like mine: fragmented, squeezed in at the edges of our lives. I wonder how many others felt frustrated at playing a game that clearly didn't fit into those small spaces we can create for it.

This is my 42nd game of this comp, and usually by this point I'm ready to name a trend for the year. Last year it was non-interactive games. The year before that, one-room games. This year, though there are some rather surprising similarities -- two games prominently featuring peyote (?), several pointless joke games, far too many starvation puzzles -- I'm not sure I can put my finger on one overall trend among the games for the entire comp, except that their index of quality has tended to be higher. I have, however, noticed a personal trend: I'm getting more and more impatient with games that, in my opinion, don't belong in the IF competition. Mostly, these are games that are so large, it's really unlikely that most players will see anything like a majority of the game in two hours' playing time. It's discouraging to make a sincere effort to play a huge number of games in a six-week timespan, only to discover that several of those games simply cannot be played to any satisfactory conclusion in the two hours allotted. It makes me want to just avoid playing anything over a certain file size, but even that strategy would fail: My Angel is almost twice the size of this game, but it's easily finishable in two hours. Amnos, on the other hand, is anything but. I'm not sure what the solution is, but I will say this: Authors, I implore you. Please think carefully about whether your game can be played in two hours. If, realistically, it cannot, I urge you not to enter it in the competition. I know about the feedback problem -- people are working on it. In the meantime, isn't it better to have your game played all the way through by 50 appreciative people than to have its first 25% played, then the whole thing dropped, by 200 people who are terribly pressed for time?

Okay, I realize that I've gotten on my comp soapbox and delivered very little useful feedback about the game itself. To remedy that: Castle Amnos appears to have some very interesting ideas at its core. I found sections, and resonances, that intrigued me a lot. I obviously wasn't able to get far enough in the game to get any sort of resolution on what had been set up, so I don't know if the payoff fulfills the promise of that setup, but if it does, I think it'll be an interesting game. It is, however, hampered by several problematic design decisions which are a bit of a throwback to the earlier days of IF. There's a more or less pointless inventory limit, which forces you to keep all your objects in one central location and trundle back and forth between it and whatever puzzle you happen to be working on. There is a room somewhat reminiscent of the Round Room in Zork II, only about twice as aggravating because you have to perform an action before the randomizer will run again each time, and it opens on fewer options, making repetition more necessary. It appears to be somewhat circumnavigable, but only somewhat. Then again, who knows whether there isn't some later section of the game that makes that room behave in a deterministic fashion? Certainly not me. In addition to these problems, there are (as I mentioned earlier) several mazelike sections of the game. To me, that kind of thing is just no fun. Mileage, I'm sure, varies. All this is not to say that it's a bad game. It is implemented minimally, but competently. I don't think I found any major bugs, though the game's fascination with non-standard geography and randomness sometimes made it difficult to tell what was a bug and what wasn't. The prose, like the code, is sparse but error-free. Perhaps, if I was able to play it all the way through, I'd even think that Amnos is a really good game, or at least a draft of something on the way to becoming a really good game. With what I was able to see, though, all I was able to tell was that its entry as a competition game impaired my ability to enjoy it.

Rating: 5.7

AT WIT'S END by Mike Sousa

"Expect the unexpected" may be a cliche, but there are a few things for which it is the perfect description. At Wit's End is one of these things. This game's plot has more twists and turns than a mountain road, and most of these surprises consist of various misfortunes for the hapless PC. In some games (e.g. Bureaucracy), I think this kind of plot could be intensely aggravating, but in this one, I thought it worked beautifully -- each new twist injected drama and suspense into the situation, but the combined weight of all of them gave the story a comic feel which counterbalanced nicely against all the cliffhanging turmoil. Of course, since the surprises are half the fun of AWE, I certainly won't give them away here, but suffice it to say that the game strings together one fairly plausible situation after another, ending up with a string of bad luck that's so unlikely it's funny, even though it's hard to laugh while you're frantically trying to think your way out of the latest mess. In fact, the one thing I was worried about during my initial time with the game was that the whole thing would be too linear: "something bad happens -- solve it. OK, something else bad happens -- solve that..." for 10 or 15 bad things in a row. Luckily, after an admittedly lengthy opening sequence of linear puzzles, the game wisely broadens into a more traditional middle section, where several puzzles must be solved in order to bring about one overall result.

Speaking of puzzles, most of them worked quite well for me. Certainly the opening sequence presented situations that were quite logical -- I found I sometimes needed to think a bit before I could come up with the right answer, but when I did come up with it, it felt right and made sense. Because of the tightly timed nature of some of these puzzles, I did come up against the death/failure message a bit more often than I'd have liked, but this is more my own fault than the game's. AWE isn't one of those games that give you one move to figure out the right action and kill you if you don't do it; some of the puzzles have four- or five-move time limits, but these limits make sense in the context of the puzzle situation, and they did succeed in creating a strong sense of urgency in me, whereas shorter time limits tend just to annoy me. There's a time limit for the midgame, too, but it's quite generous, and I found that it wasn't necessary to motivate me -- I was already frantic from the initial string of puzzles. I think this is a smart design choice on the game's part, one that lent a sense of tension to a midsection that might otherwise have sagged. Rather than feeling a letdown at having to explore and put together multi-step processes, I continued to feel on edge, as befit the character's situation.

Unfortunately, these multi-step processes comprise the game's one significant flaw. Sometimes, in its fervor to crank up the puzzle intensity along with the story intensity, the game overloads certain puzzles, thrusting them into the Babelfishy realm of the ridiculous. One puzzle in particular, probably the most byzantine of them all, really strained the bounds of believability for me. It's one thing to have a plot where misfortune piles upon misfortune, but when consistent, ongoing bad luck is a key feature of a puzzle, it's hard not to feel that the game has unfairly stacked the deck against you. I guess the lesson is that, for me anyway, when rotten luck is part of the plot, it still feels like the game is playing fair, because really bad days happen, but when the rotten luck is part of a puzzle (especially the kind of rotten luck that makes you think "but that wouldn't really happen!"), it feels like the game is cheating. This quibble aside, AWE is an excellent piece of work. The writing, though nothing special, is serviceable, and the coding is really outstanding. The game notices and comments on lots of little things, which really deepens immersion, as does AWE's thorough implementation of all first-level nouns. The best part, though, is the plot. At Wit's End has one of my favorite plots of any competition game from this year, one that kept surprising me even after I had figured out to expect the unexpected.

Rating: 8.8

1-2-3... by Chris Mudd

For the past few years, each competition has had one game that I found unremittingly unpleasant, a horrible experience from start to finish. Last year, it was Chicks Dig Jerks, with its pounding misogyny and seething nests of bugs. The year before that, it was Cattus Atrox, whose relentless but shallow horror and totally logic-free plot I found impossible to stomach. I was beginning to think that I'd make it through 2000 without such an experience, but no such luck: 1-2-3... wins the prize for Most Repellent Comp Game, hands down. It doesn't suffer from bugs, though -- it doesn't really get the chance, because it is as linear as a short story. Basically, the game is one long string of guess-the-noun or guess-the-verb puzzles. In fact, for most of the game, each move is in itself one of these types of puzzles, since the game will allow no other action than the one it's waiting for you to guess. The most freedom it ever allows you is when it spreads seven or eight guess-the-noun puzzles in front of you, which you can do in any order, but all of which must be done before the story can proceed. Actually, I use the word "puzzle" but that's being rather generous. Really, the situation I mention above is that you have a couple of NPCs, both of whom must be ASKed ABOUT three magic topics each before the game will continue. These NPCs are so minimally implemented (as is pretty much everything in the game) that they only answer to those three topics -- all others will provoke one of three random default responses. As if this extremely minimalist implementation didn't make guessing the noun difficult enough, the topics you're expected to type in sometimes verge on the ridiculous. If a character doesn't respond to ASK HIM ABOUT ADVICE, why would I expect him to respond to ASK HIM ABOUT WHAT HE WOULD DO? Of course, the game gives me an unsubtle shove in the right direction by having the character say, "Do you want to know what I would do?" But this is a pretty desultory form of interactivity. The game may as well just tell you what your next command should be, since it has no plans to respond to anything else anyway. If you think that's interactivity, you probably also think ventriloquists' dummies come up with their own punch lines.

Non-interactivity is annoying enough, but consider the context: 1-2-3... is about a serial killer. It puts you in the role of this serial killer. It won't let the game continue until a murder is committed, then another, then another, and these murders can be triggered by rather innocuous (if unintuitive) commands. Now how much does it suck to have no choices? The killings are horrific, misogynist gorefests, with nauseating specifics lovingly enshrined in detailed descriptions, capped by attempts at psychological pathos that would be laughable if they didn't follow such revolting excesses. The first murder scene made me feel literally sick to my stomach, and I seriously considered quitting the game there and then, abstaining from rating and reviewing it. I'm still not sure why I didn't do that -- perhaps some overactive sense of fair play among the comp entries, perhaps a misplaced hope that the game would produce some artistic justification for its ultraviolence. In the end, I had such a horrible experience playing 1-2-3... that I almost wish I hadn't played it, but since I did, I want at least to give others the warning I didn't get.

Thankfully, the game doesn't keep you in the serial killer's role throughout. You are privy to a couple of other viewpoints, most prominently the police detective whose mission is to find and apprehend the killer. Unfortunately, the scenes from the detective's POV are no more interactive than those from the killer's. You must follow, more or less lockstep, exactly what the game has in mind for you, if you want to finish the story. Is 1-2-3... a psych experiment of its own, a kind of test to see how much gag-inducing content a player can take before switching off the computer and (to steal a line from Robb Sherwin) switching her hobby to "Scattergories"? Is it the IF version of Lisa Simpson testing to see how many times Bart will grab for the electrified cupcake? Maybe it is, and if so I certainly seem to have failed the test, because I played through to the end. But my emotional engagement with the game had ended long before that, having suffered multiple stab wounds from the vicious, senseless violence that permeates the game. I was taking every one of the game's cues, typing in what it told me to and letting the text scroll by in the vain hopes of some Rameses-like epiphany. None was forthcoming. Now excuse me -- I have to go take a shower.

Rating: 2.5

GOT ID? by Marc Valhara

Note: There are a couple of obscenities in this review.

I am being tested. That has to be it. How else to explain the fact that immediately after playing 1-2-3..., a game that practically dares you to stop playing and pummels you mercilessly with ghastly, brutal descriptions if you don't, I end up with this game? This game comes across like a schoolyard bully, one who not only wants your lunch money but who wants to make sure you know that you're weak and ugly, too. It misses no chance to sneer at and belittle both the player and the PC. Get this: you play a high school kid, and your goal in the game is to buy beer with a fake ID so that you can bring it to the party at the house of the most popular girl in school, so that maybe she'll let you sit at the lunch table with her cool clique for the rest of the year. Talk about a concept that I could not relate to -- when I was in high school, sitting with the so-called "popular" kids would have been my idea of a punishment, not a reward. Combine this with the fact that from the first sentence, the game makes clear that the PC is less a character than a laundry list of faults: fat, ugly, stupid, deceitful, shallow, etc. etc. Take, for example, this description of the shirt you're wearing:

   Glittery, sparkly, metallic-looking fabrics are all the rage this
   season. Unfortunately, they're also extremely expensive. To
   compromise, you've glued tinfoil to the front of your tee shirt.
So the game sticks you in this role, and wastes no opportunity to remind you that the character you're playing is pretty much a waste of oxygen. Then, on top of all that, the game is designed to fling taunts at the player as well. For example, if you do the most obvious thing at the beginning of the game, in fact the thing that is necessary to continue the story, a little sign appears. The game won't let you alone till you read the sign, reminding you of its presence every turn. What does the sign say? The sign says YOU SUCK. See what I mean about bullying? I half- expected it to print "An asshole says what?"

Now, let me back off a step or two. It's true that the game is an insult machine, and that I did not enjoy the abuse it heaped on me. However, it may have chosen this approach as a part of its overall tone, which attempts to be a kind of gonzo, over-the-top parody. A parody of what, I'm not sure, since the game seems to hold pretty much everything and everyone in contempt. Perhaps it wants to be a kind of dark, cutting satire -- certainly the reference to Jonathan Swift embedded in one of the locations would suggest that it aspires to that kind of humor, but the difference is that "A Modest Proposal" had a point to make, and this game does not, or if it does, the point gets buried under an avalanche of condescension. However, it wasn't unremittingly awful. I laughed at a few points. I can envision somebody who might even enjoy this kind of tone, and for that person, the insults would probably fit right in, and might even be funny rather than annoying. I have a small suspicion that this game was written by the same person who wrote Stupid Kittens -- they share a few things, like their in-your-face tone and their fascination with dead cats and with refuting cutesiness (oooh, real tough target.) This game feels like what Stupid Kittens might be like if it was more interested in being like a traditional IF game than in being a dadaist excursion. It didn't appeal to me at all, but perhaps it might appeal to somebody.

After all, it's not as if the game is badly implemented. All the words seem to be spelled correctly. Its grammar betrays no glaring errors. It'll insult you, but at least it will do so correctly. Similarly, with the exception of one major bug, its implementation is tested and clean. The puzzles, while rather arcane, all make some kind of sense within the extremely exaggerated world of the game. Of course, that doesn't make their content any more appealing. In fact, one major portion of the game is unpleasantly reminiscent of I Didn't Know You Could Yodel -- will IF authors never cease to be fascinated with flushing toilets? Excremental obsessions aside, I found I had a more difficult time than usual with the puzzles in the game, and I think it was because I found the insults so offputting that my travels through the game became more and more desultory. In addition, the hints weren't as much help as they might have been because, like the rest of the game, they're working hard to make you feel like an idiot. They mix in fictional and factual hints pretty much indiscriminately, and they don't give you any hints as to which is which. Between these two factors, I hadn't solved the game when, after about 110 minutes of play, something happened that forced me to go back to a very early restore. Faced with the prospect of playing through the whole tedious thing again, I declined. I had been itching for a reason to quit anyway, and relished the fact that it was finally my turn to tell the game to go fuck itself.

Rating: 3.9

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Paul O's 2000 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 7 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002