2001 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 7

(in the order I played them)


I played this game on Halloween. I was alone in the house. The lights were off. There was a full moon outside. I was experiencing an eerie lull in the trick-or-treating. I could not have been more primed to be creeped out, frightened, and made into a paranoid wreck. Sadly, even when conditions are perfect, this game falls far short of effectiveness in the creep-out arena. The only thing that's really scary about it is its writing. Observe, IF YOU DARE:
   A swirl of icey air rushes past you, with bringing the sound of a
   womans screams. Just as you are about to make a run for it , the
   bloody decapitated body blocks your way. Holding her head in front of
   your face, so she may get a good look at you, the bloody head
   whimpers, "You are not the one" with that the ghost flees with a ear
   piercing scream.
Hmm, let's see. "Icey" instead of "icy". "With bringing the sound"? "Womans screams" instead of "woman's screams". Bizarre space before the comma (following "run for it".) "The" bloody decapitated body? It was never mentioned before this. "Holding her head... the bloody head whimpers" -- very funny misplaced modifier. "With that" should begin a new sentence, and there should be a period after "the one". "A ear piercing scream" instead of "an ear-piercing scream". And that's just three sentences! It's too bad this game didn't give out points every time I spotted an error, because if it did, I think I'd have earned 524,000 points out of a possible 200, earning me the rank of Gibbering Grammarian.

Oh, or how about this: forget the writing errors -- what if the game gave out points every time I spotted an implementation error! Man, I'd have scored big-time during scenes like this:

   You are in the dining room [...] The room is dark, lit only by
   reflections from lightning outdoors.

   This is a nostalgic oak dining table. The surface reflects the
   overhead lighting. It has a beautiful oak finish.
So the table's surface reflects the overhead lighting, even when there is no overhead lighting! Oooh, spooky! Elsewhere, a whiskey bottle contains more spirits than just the alcoholic kind:
   You open the bottle of whiskey.

   I don't think you'll get anything out of the bottle if it isn't
   opened. Your mouth is dry, palms moist. 

   The bottle of whiskey is already open!

   I don't think you'll get anything out of the bottle if it isn't
   opened. Your mouth is dry, palms moist. 
I keep opening it, but some invisible force stops me from drinking it! Don't look now Scooby, but I think that whiskey bottle is... HAUNTED! Too bad, because I could really have used a belt at that point.

Then there were the numerous problems that were probably ADRIFT's fault rather than the game's. There's the famous "Nothing special" line whenever you EXAMINE <any word the parser doesn't know>, including EXAMINE PARSER. Always a pleasure. There are the pop-up graphics that I think failed to pop up. (I'm guessing this based on the fact that I had files like "UfloorPL.bmp" in my directory, yet X UPPER FLOOR PLAN yielded no graphics.) There are the "cannot draw map -- too complex" errors that the mapper gave me EVERY SINGLE FREAKING TURN after a while. There's this sort of interaction:

   It is a large stainless steel refrigerator, with magnets strewed
   about the surface. You don't notice any kind of fingerprints or
   smudges on it. The refrigerator is closed.

   You open the refrigerator.

   It is a large stainless steel refrigerator, with magnets strewed
   about the surface. You don't notice any kind of fingerprints or
   smudges on it. The refrigerator is open.
Yes, I know it's open, but what's inside it? Apparently the ADRIFT parser searches on keywords and just ignores those other tiresome words that might happen to surround the keywords, thus neatly avoiding pretty much the entire concept of prepositions. My favorite extreme example of this tendency (from this game anyway):
   Take what?
"Hey man," says the ADRIFT parser, "I don't care what else you say -- as long as you type "GET" anywhere in there, I'm going to ask, 'Take what?' Um... not that I'll be able to handle it if you actually answer me." Okay, one more example then I promise I'll quit:
   You can't lie in the bed.

   You can't lie on the bed.

   You lie down on the ground.

   I don't understand what you want me to do with the bed.

   You stand up.

   You stand on the bed.
Yay! Endless hours of fun. Not the sort of fun that the game seems to expect me to be having, but still. The endless well of humor from a terrible game was just the thing to lighten up a potentially scary Halloween night. Too bad that sort of thing doesn't factor into the rating.

Rating: 2.3

THE BEETMONGER'S JOURNAL by Scott Starkey as Aubrey Foil

When I wrote LASH, one of the things I had some fun with was splitting up the functions that we traditionally assign to the PC. The conceit of the game was that the player was controlling a robot via the IF interface; the robot reported its experiences in a first person, present tense voice, resulting in exchanges like this:
   >x me
   I cannot see you. We are only connected by a satellite link.
The Beetmonger's Journal takes this sort of complexity one step further. The game begins, told in the first person voice by the Dr. Watson-ish assistant to Victor Lapot, famous archaeologist. However, unlike Infocom's Sherlock, where Watson actually was the PC and Holmes just tagged along, in this game it is Lapot whose actions are controlled by the player, even as the results continue to be reported by the assistant in a third person past tense voice, resulting in exchanges like this:
   >x me
   Lapot looked over in my direction. I stood close by, available to
   offer my assistance in any way possible. Just in case, I kept my
   possessions handy: a shovel, a pick-axe, a canteen, a steno notebook,
   a pencil, a package of "gorp", a 50' length of rope, a compass, a
   pistol, and a clean pair of undies.
I thought this response in particular was lots of fun -- not only did it immediately make clear that the voice of the parser and the object of the commands were two different characters, but it also subtly provided a pretext for compass-based movement, lent plausibility to the two characters as a legitimate archaeological expedition, and poked a bit of fun at the voluminous inventories of typical IF PCs. And to put the cherry on top, the Watson character's name was Aubrey Foil -- the same as the author's comp pseudonym, thus reeling the various character layers neatly back into the matrix of a memoir written by a famous scientist's close companion.

Even better, a little ways in, the game does a POV shift that adds yet another narrative and character layer, and this shift is handled as neatly as can be. The background color changes, the tone of the writing alters a little, and little touches like an epigram, a printed date, and and a cleared screen smooth the transition handily. The voice remains third person past tense, but the parser's voice and the object of commands have dovetailed back into one character, a different character from the two introduced in the frame story. Then, at intervals, we get glimpses of what's happening in that frame story, and those bits are literally enclosed in a frame, backgrounded with the appropriate color from that narrative layer. I have to say, I was quite impressed with all this POV manipulation -- I think it was the best part of the whole game. I got excited just thinking about the possibilities for parallel action and dramatic irony that this technique opens up. This particular game doesn't take much advantage of these possibilities, but it does a fine job of breaking new ground on the trail blazed by games like Being Andrew Plotkin. There were some other nicely programmed conveniences as well. For instance, one puzzle involves an action that the player will have to repeat several times throughout the game; The Beetmonger's Journal implements this by requiring that the proper action be entered the first couple of times, then handles it automatically from that point forward. This sort of sophistication requires extra work from the programmer, but it really pays off in the player's experience, and this game extends that kind of thoughtfulness to the player throughout.

Amidst this smooth coding, there were a few flaws. Typos, factual errors, and formatting problems were infrequent, but far from absent. In addition, there were a few places in which the game sported outright bugs. The most glaring problem, however, was with a puzzle. It's not a puzzle everyone will encounter, because at a crucial decision point the game bifurcates into two separate plot paths, and this puzzle is only on one of those paths. However, that was the path I chose, and this puzzle tripped me up enough that I was forced to go to the walkthrough, which is unfortunate, given how smoothly the game had delivered hints up to that point. Basically, there are two problems with this puzzle -- I'll discuss them in fairly vague terms to avoid spoilage. First, the clue for the puzzle seems to be embedded in an environmental "atmosphere" message that only prints randomly. This setup has the dual disadvantage of fading into insignificance after several instances and possibly not printing when the player most needs to see it. A crucial clue whose absence will stop the player from progressing probably shouldn't be random. The other problem is that the correct response to this clue entails the use of a verb that's both logically unlikely and undemonstrated anywhere else in the game. Consequently, even if I had seen the clue when I most needed it, I'm not sure it would have occurred to me to use the necessary verb -- I just would never have thought it would work, because it's rather unusual and because it's a bit implausible. These problems are a bit of a letdown within a game containing so many excellent portions, but they don't detract enough to take away the essential fun of being enveloped by all those wonderful layers.

Rating: 8.8

FUSILLADE by Mike Duncan

In my review of Prized Possession, I mentioned that the game felt like a long series of opening sequences. Fusillade does it one better, stringing together an even longer series of vignettes, each of which only lasts a couple of dozen moves at most before it shifts radically, changing not only time period, but character, plot, and milieu as well. Fusillade is certainly an appropriate name for such a work -- there's never any time to settle into a particular character or story, and the effect is rather like being bombarded with prologues: eyeblink IF. The problem here is that, like many prologues, none of these sequences offers much interactivity at all. Each sequence is quite straitjacketed, and although it might allow other input (or it might not), its responses will be minimal until it gets the magic word it's looking for. At times, this is rather transparent, as the situation is enough to compel most players into typing the right thing without much prompting. At other times, it can get a little frustrating:
   >go to house
   A fine idea.  You can crawl, walk, or run.

   For once you're tired of struggling on your elbows. You want to walk.

   Walk? Why walk? These fields are endless and the world is yours. Run!

   In a sudden frenzy of insanity, you hold onto your dress and run like
   the wind toward the house. [... and another paragraph after that]
This exchange occurred after I had already gotten long responses from "crawl", and then from "walk" (very necessarily in that order.) But the game still tells me I can "crawl, walk, or run", when in fact it's only prepared to offer me one of those choices at a time, at which point it ceases to make much sense to even talk about them as choices.

This problem reaches its zenith a few scenes in, and I'm going to give a direct spoiler now, because in my opinion it's a scene that potential players should be warned about. I certainly didn't appreciate having it sprung on me without warning. But if you're adamantly anti-spoiler, you might want to skip ahead to the next paragraph. Warning over. The scene I'm talking about is a rape scene. You're thrust into the POV of the victim (not that it'd be any better if it were from the rapist's POV), and there is absolutely nothing you can do to affect the scene in any way. I tried leaving. I tried dropping what I was carrying, which the narrative voice told me I was supposed to give to the rapist. I tried biting. Hitting. Killing. I tried pouring water on him, given that I was supposedly carrying a jug of water, and the game appeared not even to have implemented the water. So Fusillade threw mocking prompts at me, even though it didn't matter what I did at those prompts -- the rape is inevitable. Once this became clear, I got angry, and emotionally disengaged from the game. I don't mind short scenes. I don't mind brief stretches of non-interactivity, or even long stretches if there's some point being made, as in Rameses. I don't even particularly mind violence, as long as it's also in the service of some sort of useful storytelling, though I prefer that violence of this level be flagged with some sort of warning upfront. But when you put me through a rape scene, for no apparent reason except that it's "just another scene", and offer no real interactivity, despite the appearance of choices, I find that unacceptable. From that point forward, I was going through the motions, not about to engage with another character, in case the game had any other nasty surprises up its sleeve.

The other thing that becomes apparent after a while is that these scenes just keep coming. The idea might have worked over the space of 5 or 10 scenes, but this game just keeps bringing them on and on. Between the non-interactive nature of each scene and the emotional disengagement I was already experiencing, this endless procession of vignettes started to feel grindingly tedious after a while. When the end came (and the first real option in the game, though it only makes a few paragraph's worth of difference), I was relieved. I'm not sure if this is the response the game intended, but I doubt it. The whole thing ended up feeling more like a way for the author to show off his (admittedly impressive) MIDI composing skills than any kind of attempt at actual interactive fiction. So despite the fact that the game is pretty well-written and well-implemented (though there are a few glitches here and there), I ended up not enjoying it too much. It's fine for a while, but one scene had a devastating effect on my emotional engagement, and there was way too much to get through after that. Perhaps one of these scenes really will become the prologue to a full game of actual interactive fiction (rather than just prompted fiction) -- I think I'd enjoy that, as long as it isn't that one horrible scene.

Rating: 5.8

YOU WERE DOOMED FROM THE START by Jeremy Carey-Dressler as Noob

I hate to say it, but once I saw the author's name, I knew the title couldn't be more appropriate. Doomed is like a very stripped down, simplified version of The Last Just Cause, and is put forth by the author as "more of a 'Example work' to teach programmers how to program a Text-based game more that [sic] a full game." This is too easy a target, so I'll just say this: people interested in writing a text game should evaluate a few different games, perhaps sampling among the systems used in this competition, and decide which ones they'd most like their game to resemble.

In some ways, the fact that this game is even more primitive (amazing as that is) than TLJC, is actually a good thing. For one thing, the supremely irritating combat engine is absent, as are the zillions of rooms and nonsensical puzzles. On the other hand, they haven't really been replaced with anything much. There are a few rooms to go through, a key in each one. Unlock the last room with all the keys, get the key from that room, and that's it. The ending of this game is just as mocking and irritating as anything from TLJC, but at least it's over quickly.

This game also shares with TLJC the hallmarks of nonsensical world design and in-jokey object descriptions. The fact that there are fewer of them counts for a little, but only a little.

Rating: 2.5


In what is either a shameless rip-off or an unwitting duplication of the Heechee backstory behind the Gateway games (and novels), this game posits a "mysterious race known as the Builders [who] had left many traces and artifacts throughout the galaxy." The game opens as a planet has been discovered that might yield the secret of the Builders' demise, though it's unclear how the simple existence of "an energy source" would promise such vital information. No doubt the answer could be supplied by the foremost expert on Builder civilization, a fellow known only as "the Professor." (I was torn as to whether to picture him as the Professor from Futurama or the Professor from Gilligan's Island.) The PC's role is that of a starship ensign who has become "quite friendly" with the Professor (though apparently not friendly enough to learn a first or last name), and who is sent down to accompany said Professor on his investigative mission in this Builder artifact. Now, it can fairly be said that this scenario is rather illogical -- would a lowly ensign really be the only one to accompany a scientist on such an expedition, and if so, would he really be asked to wait around in the ship instead of providing armed support, and would he only start worrying after the Professor goes missing for almost a day? However, such objections aside, I enjoyed the setup of this game. It felt pleasurably reminiscent of sci-fi juveniles from the 1940s and 50s, right down to the cheesy idioms uttered by the characters. ("Thank Space you're here!") I especially enjoyed how Star Trek and its clones have become so ingrained in the culture that when the game provided a blaster "set to kill", I knew that "SET BLASTER TO STUN" would work, even though the game provided no explanation of the blaster's settings. It worked. Unfortunately, letdowns occur throughout the game that prevent it from being a fun romp through Golden Age and TV sci-fi tropes.

The problem isn't with the writing, which is pretty serviceable throughout, even earning extra points from me for using "its" and "it's" correctly the entire time. The formatting is fine too, although it seems to miss a few blank lines here and there. The implementation, on the other hand, is a bit more deeply troubled. Several times, the game seemed to want to produce the effect of the room's contents shifting in front of the PC's eyes; the room description would print, then a line reading "The world around you suddenly shimmers and changes...", encased with blank line or two on either side, and another room description would print. So far, so good. Except that sometimes, the descriptions were identical. Other times, a third room description would print after the second one, with the "shimmer" line printing without blank lines preceding it. I doubt this was intentional -- it's a feature that needed more testing before the game's release. Another serious problem is that in a climactic scene, the most important object is unimplemented. I was more than a little nonplussed to be told about a Nasty Evil Menace by the game, but to be told, "You can't see any such thing" when I asked to examine the Menace.

The biggest problem, though, is the puzzles. First of all, there's a maze. There's no redeeming twist to make it interesting or better -- in fact, the only twist makes it worse: the maze doesn't use compass directions, instead relying (quite arbitrarily) on "left", "right", "forward", and "back" instead. Consequently, you not only need to keep in mind where you are in the maze, you have to keep in mind which way you're facing. This is the sort of thing that feels a lot more like work than fun to me in a game. Perhaps even worse are a couple of authorial telepathy puzzles, which demand highly implausible or even nonsensical actions to solve, and offer no clues whatsoever as to these solutions. I'm not sure whether I object more the puzzle whose solution seems impossible based on its object's description, or the one whose solution is just totally illogical. Either way, having them both in the same game is not a good thing. I have sympathy for people who struggle with puzzle design, because I'm one of them. But it's better to have no puzzles at all than puzzles that aren't any fun.

Rating: 5.2

ELEMENTS by John Evans

Elements is another pure puzzle game, and now that I'm recognizing this subgenre of IF (see my review of Colours), I'm starting to come to a stronger understanding of just what that genre requires. For instance, a pure puzzle game must be constructed with only the most minimal attempt at a story, if any at all. Elements certainly fills the bill here, even mocking the idea of narrative by setting up a false one in the introduction, then immediately snatching it away. The pure puzzle game must also key many of its puzzles and landscape ingredients off a particular theme, and Elements fulfills this one as well, making its theme, predictably enough, the elements. Apparently, naming your game after its puzzle theme is another requirement, though perhaps that one's optional. On these aspects, Elements is strong, but alas, although they are defining aspects of the genre, they aren't the most important parts of a pure puzzle game.

More important than plotlessness and theme, for example, is solid implementation. In a story-heavy game, a few bugs don't derail things as long as they don't impinge on the plot. In a puzzle game, however, the player is relying on the game to provide a fair, unambiguous, and bug-free setup within which to work, and without this, even the best puzzles lose their charm almost immediately. On this count, Elements is laden with problems. Despite the help text's exhortation to "examine the scenery", a great many scenery objects are completely unimplemented in this game, including some that good sense would indicate ought to at least have a description. For instance, there are carvings on the wall in one room -- unimplemented. There are holes in the wall of another room -- unimplemented. In a pure puzzle game, these things are just distractions. More serious problems lurk here, too. There's a room with no description at all. There's a room whose description is flat-out wrong, gives away the solution to a puzzle, and makes that solution seem impossible, all at once. There are severe guess-the-verb issues in lots of places. Even the pointless inventory limit is one more needless frustration among many. A pure puzzle game with implementation failures like these is like a crossword puzzle whose black squares are misplaced in the grid.

So good implementation is a must, but a pure puzzle game could probably get by with a few minor bugs, so long as they don't ruin the puzzles the way the bugs in Elements do. I would argue that the most important piece, the one overriding quality that a pure puzzle game must have in order to succeed, is good puzzle design. Sadly, Elements lacks this crucial factor as well. I suppose it's just barely possible that someone might struggle through this game without recourse to hints, but I doubt such a person exists. They would need to be the sort who retains faith in a game despite very buggy implementation, and whose authorial telepathy is exceedingly strong. And even they certainly wouldn't solve it in two hours. I found that when I finally looked at the hints in bewilderment, my reaction was: "How in the hell was I supposed to guess that?" The game routinely demands highly unlikely actions without providing enough cueing towards those actions. For instance, certain objects in the game possess uncanny powers, though only in very specific contexts. No clue is given as to what these contexts are, and the rest of the time the objects are useless, except as treasure. In addition, there are instances where the most obvious solution is not only unimplemented, its lack of availability isn't even given a perfunctory explanation. In one of the most egregious moments, putting one thing on another is a solution to a problem, despite the fact that the latter object's default message remains "Putting things on the <object> would achieve nothing." Players cry foul at moments like this, and they are right. Oh, did I mention the game's way too big for the competition? The game's way too big for the competition. Just one more problem element to be found in Elements.

Rating: 3.6

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Paul O's 2001 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 7 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002