2001 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2

(in the order I played them)


First of all, how big a coincidence is it that I'm playing two games in a row penned by New Zealanders? Are we seeing the harbingers of a Kiwi revolution in IF? Well, maybe not. Journey From An Islet isn't a bad game, but it doesn't give much context for either the PC or the story, and the result feels a bit like walking around in a painting. The beginning of the game deposits you on a mountaintop, with only these words by way of introduction:
   You have seen many strange and wonderful places in your travels, but
   the world where you have fallen remains quite dark and enigmatic.
   What will time bring; how will you continue your journey...?
Fair questions, but I was hoping I could get some others answered, like: "Who is the PC?"; "Why is he/she traveling?"; "How did he/she get to this islet in the first place without a boat or something?" These questions never got answered -- not even close, really -- and consequently I felt pretty disconnected from the gameworld even as I explored it. Granted, even some of the most revered IF offers empty PCs and no explanations, but those games (like the Zork series) tend to offer an absorbing setting and tons of clever puzzles, which help shift the emphasis away from questions about the story. Journey is pretty sparse in every department, and I found it pretty hard to engage with.

Actually, I should amend my earlier statement. The game isn't sparse in every department -- one thing it provides is a fairly thorough implementation of first-level nouns. Of course, given that most of the game concerns itself with describing a pretty landscape, most of those nouns have to do with the landscape, too. Usually, I find exploration satisfying, and feel pleasantly immersed by deeply-implemented description, but for some reason, this game's text just left me cold. I think perhaps that vivid, forceful landscape description is a lot harder than it looks. Take, for example, the game's description of a mountain path overlooking a forest:

   Southwestern mountainside
      A narrow path twists dangerously around cliffs and chasms as it
   passes down the mountainside. Protruding crags cast weird shadows
   against the snow. A dark green carpet of dense treetops rolls across
   the west, smothering the ground, not penetrated by sunlight.
Compare this with a similar passage from Andrew Plotkin's A Change In The Weather:
   Rocky Outlook
   A wide angular tongue juts out from the hillside. The park stretches
   off to the north and west, a vast expanse of bright meadowland,
   patched with dark woods and stitched with streams that glitter in the
   sunlight. In the distance, a lake reflects white fire from the
   setting sun.
In the first passage, the room name is as one might identify the spot on a map, while in the second, the name reflects the direct experience of the PC. In the latter passage, we get striking, original images -- a "tongue" of rock, a lake of white fire -- whereas in the former, the images are flatter, more cliched: "weird shadows", a carpet of treetops. Finally, Plotkin maps inanimate landscape features onto active verbs, further strengthening the imagery by relating the woods to patches, the streams to stitches. The Bencroft passage attempts the same trick by having the treetops "roll across the west", and indeed that's a stronger point of that passage, but the sentence ends up tripping over itself by throwing a final descriptive clause that is too distant from its object and unlinked by any connective phrases, making us pause to figure out whether it's the ground or the treetops that the sunlight isn't reaching. And once we've made that pause, we have to wonder: how is it that we know from way up on the mountain whether or not the sunlight is penetrating the trees beneath?

I don't intend that breakdown to demonstrate that Journey's prose is awful -- in fact, it's quite serviceable throughout. However, while serviceable prose describing a puzzle can be pretty transparent, it is unable to carry landscape descriptions all on its own; these require something stronger. For this reason, I was most engaged with the game when it was describing puzzles, and least so when it was in its more common contemplative, exploratory state. Between the flat writing and the lack of context, I found it difficult to care what was going on in the game -- it all seemed a little arbitrary. The game employed some visual tricks that were helpful. Crayon sketches were scattered judiciously throughout, and unlike Arrival's crayon-work, these sketches had the effect of creating a soft, watercolor ambience rather than a childlike one. Also, the game selects the background color based on the time of day, and this too is an effective trick. Still, these techniques weren't enough, for me, to counterbalance the sluggish prose, and I left the game feeling pretty unmoved. I know from experience that about the only way to become a better writer is to practice, and I look forward to seeing the author's next game, to see that improvement in action.

Rating: 5.3

2112 by George K. Algire as George K. George

Unlike the other game at the IF Archive by this title, 2112 is not an adaptation of the 1976 Rush song. There are no Red Stars of the Solar Federation, no Temples of Syrinx... really, no Ayn Rand-inspired dystopian sci-fi whatsoever. Instead, this game just happens to be set in the year 2112, and casts the PC as a middle school student taking a field trip to humanity's scientific outpost on the planet Mars. The futuristic trappings are there, but I wouldn't exactly call this game science fiction. Its vision of the future is more or less a straight transplantation of present-day life into a century from now, with very little extrapolation for change. The students travel to Mars in a Boeing 797, and upon reaching the planet, the PC finds a Starbucks, a Gap, even a "2113 Dodge Aries Planet Hopper." As the author jokes in the readme, "It's a shame they don't offer a prize for most corporate name-dropping in a single work." The game reserves a little sneering for the various corporate presences, but I'd hesitate to call it satirical -- the swipes are rather too blunt to deserve that label. Of course, the game was so large that I didn't reach the ending in two hours, even after I spent the second hour more or less typing commands straight from the walkthrough, so there may have been a stinger that I missed later on in there, tying the whole thing together and making some kind of point. More on the size a little later.

This not-quite-science-fiction, not-quite-satire game was also written as a Windows executable, using a homegrown parser. Every year, the IF competition seems to attract one or more of these, and I have to say, I find it rather interesting that there are enough people willing to write their own parsers and world models to actually provide a number of new creations, all with their own from-scratch code, for each and every annual IF competition. I've mentioned before that the urge to keep reinventing the wheel is quite a foreign one to me, and that I tend to dread these homegrown entries, as their parsers are much more likely to be problematic, snide, and annoying. Due credit, though: 2112 has one of the best homegrown parsers I've ever seen. Yes, it still breaks rule #1 of Paul's Parser Manifesto: "Parsers must not pretend to understand more than they do." One small favor is that its violation applies only to verbs, as in the following exchange on the occasion of finding a stuck hatch:

   >pry hatch
   You don't figure doing that would help you much. 
Well actually, I did figure doing that would help me. That's why I typed it. Turns out the game would have responded exactly the same way if I had typed "rpy hatch." However, on the positive side, the parser has a very useful and ingenious way of disambiguating. For instance:
   >drop note
   . . . note
   Which of the following do you mean? 1) the small yellow note, 2) the
   pile of notebooks? Just hit 3) to forget it.
After issuing this question, the game disables all keys except 1, 2, and 3, thus preventing accidental input while preserving (through the last option) player freedom. I thought this was a great way to prevent the pernicious "Let's try it again: Which do you mean, the note or the note?" problem. 2112 also had several fun features available, such as a customized game window, appropriate (and sometimes startling) sounds, and multicolored text. It even provided most of the features I've come to expect from IF, such as scripting capability and undo, though I was hesitant to use the latter because it required restarting the former.

Usually my screed on homegrown games is that nifty features don't matter as much as a solid parser. 2112, though, has both. You'd think I'd be satisfied. Well, it turns out that reasonable game design is nearly as much of a must as a good parser, and it's here that 2112 doesn't quite make it. I'd played the game for about an hour and couldn't figure out what to do next -- the game was telling me I was still in the preface, despite my having explored a couple dozen rooms and solved a variety of puzzles. So I checked out the walkthrough, and guess what? I'd failed to find a vital item in the first 10 moves of the game, and there was no way to recover that item, nor to substitute its use in the puzzles that involved it. I had to restart, and let me tell you, I was gritting my teeth. From that point, I was going straight from the walkthrough, and although I did this for a straight hour, I still wasn't able to finish the game. What this means to me is that 2112 is in no way a two-hour game. Consequently, it dodged the pet peeve I expected it to hit (shoddy homegrown parsers) and ran smack into two others (games inappropriately large for the competition, and games that close off without warning.) Oh, I almost forgot to mention: the game suffers from a number of spelling and grammar errors, too. Make that three pet peeves. 2112 is a slick piece of work, and it didn't need TADS or Inform in order to be as richly interactive as it needed to be. What it did need, however, was to take a few lessons from the game design ethos that the IF community has evolved alongside its development systems.

Rating: 6.6

GREYSCALE by Daniel Freas

There are some strange anomalies about Greyscale. Take this, for instance: the game is centrally concerned with words, to the point of scattering literary quotations all around, spending nine locations on a library stocked with classic works, offering generous doses of original poetry (apparently by the author), and throwing in for good measure another room whose puzzle revolves around novel titles. Yet for all this concern with literature, Greyscale is shockingly careless with its own prose. This is a game profusely littered with grammar errors of every stripe. Run-on sentences are everywhere. In fact, punctuation in general is a serious problem. Compound words lack hyphens. Commas are conspicuously absent, except at the end of independent clauses, where they stand in for periods. We're even treated to the ever-popular it's/its error. Given all these major weaknesses in the game's writing, I struggled to give much credit to its literary pretensions -- if you want me to think that you take language seriously, start with your own.

This contradiction isn't the only one in Greyscale. There are also some instances of what I suppose I'd call "false advertising." For instance, the game's credits text claims this:

   Finally, throughout the game you will undoubtedly come across various
   writings. They have all been attributed to their authors in a fairly
   straight-forward manner...
Actually, not so much. There are some textual passages whose authors are clearly marked, but then there are others that are only labeled with "S.C." or some similar set of initials. If you're fairly well-read (or bored enough to do a web search) you can probably determine what the initials stand for, but in no way does that make them "fairly straight-forward" attributions. Okay, so that's a minor quibble. For a more important example of such contradictions, observe this suggestion in the game's info text:
   You may notice that when you start the game you are given no obvious
   goal, but as you examine your surroundings and interact with the game
   the goals and the story behind the game will become clear.
Once again, not so. I spent a good two hours with this game, and pretty much felt the entire time like there was no particular plot, no real backstory, and that the only goals I could discern were the typical goals of plotless IF: wander around, pick up what's not nailed down, identify puzzles and try to solve them. There were hints throughout of another narrative layer, and the ending confirms these hints, but that's a far cry from what I'd call an actual story.

In point of fact, the majority of the game consists of wandering around the author's fantasy house. How do I know it's the author's fantasy house? Simple: he embroidered his name on the handtowels. All throughout the place are rich-dude features like marble, seashell-shaped sinks, mahogany furniture, deep pile carpet, massive gardens, statuary, and so on. The kitchen has a freaking stainless steel floor, for heaven's sake. This idea is a few degrees off of the well-known and deeply-dreaded "here's an implementation of my house" genre, but only a few. There are some puzzles, at least, but they're not really original enough puzzles to compensate for the poor writing, misleading claims, and the general vacuousness of the setting. It's not that the game was particularly offensive, but it felt sloppy, empty, and lacking in imagination. What I hope is that this practice run will enable the author's next game to achieve a level of polished prose and compelling story that this one just didn't quite reach.

Rating: 4.3


Okay, first: When I say "Alan" in this review, I'm referring to the programming language, not the author. Second: it's always bugged me that Alan provides no scripting capability, but it's never annoyed me more than it did for this game. That's because this is the first Alan game I've encountered that's been more about language than interactivity, and I desperately wanted to keep a copy of my interaction with the game so that I could refer back to its language when I wrote this review. I finally ended up hacking together a solution by periodically opening the scrollback buffer (thank you Joe Mason for porting Arun to Glk!) and copy-and-pasting the contents into a text file. Now that I've got that text file to peruse, I'm becoming even more aware of the strangenesses in the game's use of words. The main gimmick is obvious from the start: the entire game is written in the first person plural voice -- as in, "Wait, we must stop." Sometimes an approach just makes me sit back and say "wow, never seen that in IF before" and this was one of those times. The game is apparently from the point-of-view of a monarch, and therefore it's fairly easy to assume that all this plurality is due to the use of that kingly favorite, the "royal we." However, there are hints here and there that the "we" doesn't just refer to the monarch and his subjects, but to some sort of actual multitude. For example, the narrator offhandedly mentions that "We like to coif our hair into shape, exactly like each other." Each other? Granted, this could refer to the hairs themselves, but that's not the only reference to multiplicity. For instance, in the first room description, we (that would be the "reviewer's we", dontcha know) see this:
   Cozy Throne Room.
   This is where we rest, tarry, and make our fears vanish. There is
   enough room for all of us here.
Is this monarch of such tremendous girth that most rooms fail to hold him? Well, probably not, given the reference to "razorthin hips" in the response to "X US" (the game cleverly replies to "X ME" with "'me'? We're not aware of that word.", thereby deftly employing a parser default response to further delineate the main character.)

All this would be quite enough to take in, but the game has other plans up its sleeve, too. To confusion of voice, The Isolato Incident adds a pile of words whose meaning has simply been displaced. Take this sentence: "We watch our bees, smear their history on our arms and legs." That's not some sort of metaphor about honey; instead, it's a recontextualizing of the idea of bees and the idea of history into an entirely new grid. All this, and we haven't even left the first location yet! After spending some time with the game, I started to figure out why my response felt familiar: it resembled my reaction to Dan Schmidt's 1999 entry For A Change. I'd look at a passage like this:

   The Crux Of Our Landscape.
   Still, there is much to be admired here. The green slopes are
   flatter; thus, the cleft of the wind is much stronger. There are also
   choices etched in the road. South leads to the nearly endless royal
   road, and to the east of us is the bonegrass field and (further east)
   the treasury. We can also pitter-patter back to our hut to the north.
and run it through my hastily-constructed mental filter. "Okay, 'cleft of the wind' probably just means a breeze. 'Choices etched in the road' is probably indicating that this is a crossroads." This filter felt more natural as the game progressed, but I never stopped feeling at a distance from the PC, and therefore unable to invest any particular emotional commitment into his struggles.

The game's not-terribly-surprising twist ending might have removed this barrier, but as it happens, I still felt just as distanced from the game even after it revealed another layer of itself to me. I think this occurred because even after the twist, the game didn't do much to connect with any particular reality to which I could relate. In the interest of not giving away the surprise, I'll refrain from going into detail, except to say that the ending happened suddenly enough, left enough context unexplained, and raised enough further questions that it didn't give me much of that feeling of satisfaction that we tend to expect from the ends of stories. For me, a narrative layer a little more grounded in reality would have done wonders for my emotional connection to the game. As it was, I could admire the prettiness of the words, but only from a remove.

Rating: 7.5

FINE-TUNED by Dennis Jerz as Dionysius Porcupine

Dammit, people, stop this! I played Fine-Tuned for an hour, and loved it. Aside from a few spelling mistakes and stray bugs, it was a delightful game with terrific writing, fun characters, and a great plot. But the further we get into that plot, the more broken the game becomes, until it finally implodes with a fiery crash that can even bring down the whole interpreter. Naturally, this happens at a climactic point in the story.

This experience SUCKS. It makes me wish I could give negative ratings. It's much worse playing a game that would be great except for how horribly broken it is than it is playing a game that's weak but bug- free. It's IF interruptus.


Rating: 1.0

YOU ARE HERE by Roy Fisher

I'm looking over the lists of comp games from past years, and I think I can say that You Are Here is the first comp game I've seen whose main purpose is to serve as advertisement. Sure, the "IF as ad" idea isn't new. We've seen jokey endorsements like the wonderful Coke Is It!. We've seen bonus releases advertising new commercial games, as Zork: Undiscovered Underground did for Activision's Zork: Grand Inquisitor. In the comp, we've even seen games that supposedly served as demos for their fuller, more epic, and (natch) as yet unreleased versions (e.g. And The Waves Choke The Wind or, in a somewhat different sense, Earth And Sky.) You Are Here, though, is of a different breed. It's a real promotion, and it's not advertising a game, but rather a play -- Trina Davies' "Multi User Dungeon". Of course, given that the play is taking place (or rather, "took place", since I'm writing this review in October but won't release it until the show has ended its run) in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in early November makes it highly unlikely that I will be attending it. Hey, if it were showing in Denver, I'd probably buy a ticket. But an international flight for the sole purpose of playgoing isn't exactly within my means, and I suspect the same is true for the vast majority of comp judges. Consequently, it could be argued that as an advertisement, You Are Here can hardly be anything but a staggering failure, so supremely mis-targeted it is. Thus, I can't think it was entered in the comp with any particular hope of pumping up the house receipts for "Multi User Dungeon" -- it must want to be evaluated on its merits as a game. Fair enough.

So what about it? Well, results are mixed. On the plus side, this game was obviously not just thrown together for the sake of media saturation. It's a substantial piece of work, just about the exact right size for the comp. It uses a heretofore-unseen setting, simulating the environment of a MUD right down to emotes and the "who" command, and does a darn good job of it. Unlike our beloved ifMUD, this MUD is more in the hack-n-slash mode, a standard cliche-medieval environment in which you select your gender by choosing between wearing a "Barbarian loincloth" and a "Valkyrie breastplate." It contains several entertaining moments, such as the couple whose hookup is spilling over from their MUD personas into their real lives, or the woman making a vain attempt to become one of the "Wizards" (i.e. coders) of the MUD before having spent a substantial amount of time there. Best of all, there's an NPC companion who is a thoroughly entertaining replica of a typical MUDizen. I particularly enjoyed the things he'd shout out (like "Whodaman? Whodaman?") when we'd win a battle. There was also one puzzle I really enjoyed solving -- it involved a mix of experimentation, lateral thinking, and object combination that worked for me.

So much for the positives. The game is also burdened by a number of problems. There are typos and grammar errors sprinkled lightly throughout. There are bugs, including a Vile Zero Error From Hell that spits out a screenful of "Programming Error:" messages. Far worse than these is the game's greatest sin, a sin of two parts. Part the first: the game closes off without warning -- performing a completely standard action causes one of the puzzles, one most people won't encounter until much later, to become unsolvable. This is bad enough, but it's grievously exacerbated by part the second: You Are Here's "about" text claims that "it is impossible to get yourself into a situation where you cannot solve the game." Okay, bad enough to actually design a game this way, but to design it that way and claim that it isn't designed that way? No, no, no -- don't do that! Granted, it's possible that the problem is with the programming and not the design, but either way, I ended up floundering around for quite a while, sure that the game wasn't in an unwinnable state because, after all, the game told me it wouldn't be! Actually, it's occurring to me at the moment that it's also possible I just wasn't clever enough to find out the alternate solution. If that's the case, all complaints are retracted. But until I find out otherwise (and given that the game provided no walkthrough, it may be a while), my verdict stands: a clever, interesting game (especially for a promotional work), flawed by some minor errors, a serious design weakness, and a false claim.

Rating: 7.2

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Paul O's 2001 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002