The verse itself is more or less doggerel, a mock epic in Seussian meter, though without the nonsense words or moral messages we tend to associate with Dr. Seuss. The story it tells is a brief one, almost like a fable, except that its rogue hero is never redeemed, and the moral is muddy at best. Still, not every poem needs to be sublime, nor every story uplifting, and the poem (as a poem) had its pleasures. There were some rather clever rhymes, and some nice bits of characterization. The meter mostly kept a pleasant, singsong pace, though there were times it stumbled quite badly, usually on the last line of a stanza. The illustrations, similarly, were not of the highest quality but some of the better ones definitely made a positive contribution towards enhancing the game's mood. One well-used feature was the way the game changed to centered text and a monospace font when displaying the poem, but stuck with left-aligned proportional text for the actual interaction. This formatting choice set off the poem nicely, though it did emphasize the schism between poem and game, thus making it plain just how much the latter was grafted onto the former.
That's basically the problem with A Night Guest. It's an amusing poem (what there is of it, anyway -- the whole thing is quite short), but it's very clear that the game was built around the poem rather than vice versa. Thus, it feels rather like reading a book that forces you to say a magic word before you can turn the page. The "puzzles" (really just figuring out how to respond to the game's cues) don't add much, and I was left with the feeling that the whole thing would have been much more pleasant had it been just an illustrated chapbook rather than a narrative poem pretending to be interactive. Of course, I recognize how amazingly difficult it would be to create a game that actually expressed itself in verse but was a game first and foremost. No doubt that's why it hasn't been done yet.
Road. The road goes on to the northwest and to the south. Gualtier's house is to the east.Descriptions like this are obvious placeholders, just marking distance between the areas in which the game is really interested, and even in those latter areas, description often feels perfunctory rather than immersive. There's nothing in particular wrong with such writing, but it doesn't do much to spark enthusiasm either.
The same might be said for the plot. The Chasing's premise is that your seven prize horses have escaped to various corners of the valley in which you live, and you must spend the day rounding them up. The PC takes this rather shocking lack of basic stable management in stride, emitting "a short amused laugh" and thinking, "Looks like it is going to be a chasing-day today..." In fact, the latter comment seems to imply that this is not the first time such an escape has happened, which in real life would be even more likely to irk the horses' owner. However, instead of immediately firing the stable staff, the PC instead casually makes a walking-tour of the valley, chatting with neighbors and solving various problems for the valley's denizens. Of course, this being a text adventure, those problems take the form of puzzles, and after every puzzle, one more horse is found. Only one of the puzzles actually involves looking for a horse; the others are totally unrelated, but end in a sentence reading "Now that you have solved Bob's problem, you happen to notice your horse grazing happily just north of here," or something to that effect. This, obviously, feels rather contrived, and is made more so by the fact that the horses all have names like Patience, Serenity, Unhesitancy (unhesitancy?) and such, and the solution to each puzzle gets reflected in the name of the horse that is the reward for that puzzle. In other words, you find Patience (the horse) after solving a puzzle by being patient, etc. It's a cute conceit, and that's all. After puzzles (none of which are brain-breakers) are solved, the game ends, without ever having given much offense nor granted much excitement.
The game's implementation follows this theme. On the one hand, it's quite thorough in most places. Most first-level nouns are described, or at least implemented with a "that's just scenery" message, and a number of second-level nouns are treated as well, especially in the "thicket" puzzle, probably the best puzzle in the game. NPCs, on the other hand, are numerous but very shallow. Basically, they exist only to give tasks to the player, and refuse to answer most queries, no matter how basic. In fact, the npc implementation is so shallow that even the one topic that most will react to ("horses") lacks a singular synonym (that is, NPCs will tell you about "horses", but not about "horse".) In addition, there are a few objects in the game which simply provoke nothing whatever in the way of description, like so:
> x house >See what I mean? Every aspect of The Chasing has its good points, and all of it is competent, if undistinguished. You aren't likely to remember it long after you've finished, but it does make for an agreeable afternoon's diversion.
Let's talk first about the writing. It's pretty apparent that the game's landscapes are inspired by the Myst series, and that's not always such a bad thing. There are moments throughout where a vivid picture arises from a paragraph, or even a sentence. However, grammar is a serious problem through the entire game. Poor grammar is a writer's bane, because as a rule, it impedes the communicative arts; the prose in this game is no exception to that rule. Take these sentences, for instance:
You are standing in the fresh outdoor air again, a spray of salty water hits you in the face. The weather has taken a turn for the worse as dark clouds roll across the sky like and army of black horses marching to war.The first sentence is a run-on, meaning that it's really two sentences held loosely together by a comma. What this does to me as a reader is basically to pull the rug out from under me. I read the first part of the sentence, then hit the comma, which signals to me that I'm about to read something related to the first clause, probably either a dependent clause or an appositive. Instead, I get hit with another independent clause, and consequently I have to stop and try to figure out what the connection is. A moment later, I realize that there is no connection, because it's just a run-on. But by then it's too late -- I've already been thrown out of the prose. All this happens very quickly, but the result is devastating to the story's power, because it makes me remember that I'm reading words on a screen rather than inhabiting a surreal world. The second sentence has a more obvious problem: instead of "like an army of black horses", it says "like and army of black horses." Typos like this are similar to heavy static on a TV screen. If we're looking closely, we can see what's supposed to be there, but after a while, it hardly seems worth the effort. Words are the game's only conduit to our minds, and if the words don't make sense, the game doesn't either. There are also several NFIEs, but I have taken a deep, cleansing breath and promised not to rant about those.
Implementation is also a serious issue. The game is apparently programmed in GAGS, a precursor to AGT. Now, why in 2001 someone would want to use such a primitive development tool is a complete mystery to me. Even if one is too intimidated to broach something like Inform, TADS, or Hugo, there are plenty of newbie-friendly languages that are far more robust than GAGS. That choice of tool alone limits the game's audience severely, since it's only playable via MS-DOS, and even among DOS users, there are plenty of people who are unwilling to put up with a rudimentary parser and absent features from a modern text adventure. On top of that, some of the most important items in the game are unimplemented, even with a "That's just scenery" sort of description. No matter how much one loves text adventures, parser-wrestling is just not fun, and tools like GAGS make for lots of parser-wrestling. There is promise in a game like Surreal, but it's a promise largely unfulfilled. My advice to the author is to learn a high-level IF language (it's not that hard, really!), review basic grammar, employ proofreaders and beta testers... and write again!
Even aside from these, there are some significant programming achievements in Carma. Animations show up here and there, never to excess but adding pleasure with their presence. In fact, one of the best of these comes with instant replay and reverse replay capabilities, so that it can be savored over and over. Finally, in the most impressive piece of implementation, the game offers a punctuation test, in which the player can deposit punctuation marks into various unpunctuated sentences via the mouse. The game even gives a little giggle when you arrange a sentence into its most clever or unusual variant. Of course, the game fails to take account of all correct variants, which diminishes the joy somewhat. There are other implementation problems as well. In one of the only sections of the game containing significant interaction, guess-the-verb problems are rampant. In another section, my attempts at interaction ended up freezing the game completely. To its credit, Carma warned me that there might be problems with what I was attempting to do, but this is rather cold comfort in the face of a crashing game. Features so problematic that they cause fatal crashes are features that should not be offered.
As I implied above, Carma is not a very interactive work of IF. Great swaths of it consist mainly of hitting the space bar to allow the graphics to advance to their next frame, or to prompt the next piece of text. In fairness, the game is upfront about this, even going so far as to issue a stern warning before the first prompt: "This is not a 'game,' so you will enjoy it more if you don't approach it as a game." People looking for a great deal of interactivity should look elsewhere. In addition, as the presence of scare quotes in the above warning suggests, one of the great ironies of Carma is that it is itself quite imperfect when it comes to punctuation. Aside from the fact that the punctuation test excludes valid variants, there are also occasional howlers in there like "People v.s. Wanna-Be Writer." Fortunately, Carma's cheerful and self-deprecating attitude saves it from looking too ridiculous by these errors, and even if it is more of a show than a game, it's a show well worth watching. You might even learn, something. :)
Warning: This game is hard and requires large amount of thinking power, do not attempt if you expect to complete it in 5 minutes. Hints are available, and for the faint hearted a walk through.Warnings like this are a big red flag for me (even when they aren't run-on sentences), because they very frequently lead to games whose puzzles require authorial telepathy to solve. In addition, they carry a most unwelcome undertone of condescension, as if the author is sneering, Wile E. Coyote style, "Who among you has the brainpower to solve a game created by such a Sooper Genius as myself?" This implication of superior intelligence is especially hard to credit when the very sentences that express it are improperly punctuated and lack crucial articles ("requires large amount"?). So I went into The Test with my hackles raised, and my expectations low.
But, whoa! Apparently they were not anywhere near low enough. I don't mean to be harsh, but this game is just awful. The writing alone is enough to sink the game by itself. A sample room description:
You don't want to be here unless running on conveir belts is your kind of thing. You're in some kind of factory, in a think passage way standing on a conveyer belt, which is going backwards into a big machine which crushes stuff between giantic steel teeth.Okay, first of all: "conveyer"; "gigantic". Game, meet Dictionary. Dictionary, meet Game. Second of all, "a think passage way"? What the hell is that? There are some things even spell check can't save. Finally, how about mentioning some of the crucial items in the room? Like, say, maybe the exit door.
As it turns out, the puzzles don't so much require authorial telepathy as they demand an almost insatiable appetite for tedium. The solution to one combination lock puzzle requires that the player try every number, starting from 1, in sequence and try to observe a pattern in the lock's reactions. Oh yeah, sounds like fun. And they get worse from there. I can't think what would motivate someone to even attempt the game's last puzzle -- what possible reward could it have to offer? Maybe that's what the title really refers to -- it's a test of just how much you can put up with before you quit. I hope I passed, but I have a feeling most other judges will have caught on much quicker than I did.
Of course, no matter what development system had been used to write this game, Lovesong would still be deeply troubled. The big problem here is English. Apparently, English is not the author's first language. As the game's author bio asserts, "Please forgive me, but me English are not fluent enough. I pray that some mistakes won't ruin your gaming experience." Well... sorry, but it's really hard to enjoy a text game written in broken English. (Unless the English is broken on purpose, a la Gostak or For A Change, but that's a different matter entirely.) In fact, I have to wonder: if someone isn't fluent in English, but wants to create a game, should that game really be a text adventure in English? I'll probably get flamed for that, and really, I don't mean to be some kind of Guardian of IF Purity, but a text adventure is a piece of prose, just like a novel, short story, or poem. If you're not fluent in a language, how can you possibly craft a good piece of prose in that language?
Maybe it can be done, but Lovesong isn't it. Its plot is sorta sweet, but the whole thing is so hampered by the twin burdens of its straitjacketed development system and its badly mangled writing that there's not much opportunity to enjoy anything else about the game. In addition, it has its own implementation problems, though it's always hard to tell what's the game's fault and what's the system's fault. Several times, the game just had no response at all to a command. About halfway through, the mouse buttons stopped working. Towards the end, the "save" command stopped working. Oh well -- at least I can now say I've tried a Quest game.
Paul O's 2001 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 6 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002