First Floor, by desk An exit is north.This sort of thing just doesn't really do it for me. That's purely a matter of taste, I suppose, since there isn't anything particularly wrong with omitting the room description, especially since the game isn't really trying to tell a story. To me, it just feels like wandering around in somebody's unfinished prototype. Your mileage may vary.
What would be good is if the few words that are present were properly proofread. Even with the dearth of prose in this game, I still ended up finding things like an "electrionic scale" or a mouse that spends its time "examing" the things around it. Prose problems aside, the game is implemented competently enough. The puzzles are mostly rudimentary, but sorta fun. I made the final puzzle harder than it needed to be, because I failed to find a crucial inventory item until I'd spent considerable frustration on the puzzle. After that, I solved the puzzle, though I never did quite figure out how I was supposed to do it without liberal use of UNDO.
The other noteworthy thing about this game is that it is implemented entirely as a Java applet. Consequently, its verb set is very limited, and save/restore is absent due to the lack of file I/O. Because of the nature of the game, these things aren't as big of a problem as they might be. Goofy is a very small game, so although it was a pain in the neck to have to play it through rather than restoring, the process was relatively quick. Similarly, when the gameworld is as spartan as this one, not many verbs are required. Then again, such a bare-bones experience doesn't produce much fun, at least not for me.
The question it brings up for me is this: what happens to IF when logic is removed? There are plenty of bad games that lack logic unintentionally, and some of these can be as surreal as anything in apple, but they are unsatisfactory, because we can sense that their incongruencies are a bug rather than a feature. When the illogic is intentional, the IF prompt carries a different sort of subtext. Normally, the presence of interactivity tells us that the game wants to shape itself around our commands, and challenges us to enter into a dance with the text whereby we both lead and are led. When a game makes it clear that its responses to our commands may only be tangentially related to what we type, and may not be related at all, it has taken the lead in that dance and turned it into more of an amusement park ride. Now, amusement park rides can be a wonderful thing, and I'd even suggest that there is some room for exploring the ways in which participation can enhance surreality -- Shade is an excellent example of this sort of thing done right.
apple, however, has a different agenda than Shade. At the core of Shade, there was still a story being told; all its unreal occurrences were very clearly included with a purpose in mind. In this game, such a purpose is harder to discern. It's awfully brief, for one thing, so we don't get much of a chance to make the connections that might lead to a story. For another, it jumps, Fusillade-style, through a variety of characters, settings, and even writing formats (a few scenes are written as a sort of interactive screenplay.) It was well-written enough, and certainly well implemented. There was very little interactivity, but that's hardly the point in a piece like this. Ultimately, I think it was apple's lack of cohesion that failed me. When I reached the end of this game, I blinked, and then I shrugged. Some people can look at a Pollock and see emotion made visible. Other people just see chaos. This game may be similar, and while I enjoy surreality and even randomness, I don't think there's much here that will be sticking with me.
Temple Way The grimy, ramshackle buildings of Oldtown dutifully try to reform themselves as you progress east down Temple Way, but nothing besides the temple itself makes any real pretense of belonging anywhere other than Oldtown. Or rather, nothing besides the temple and Baron Sedmon's nearby mansion. Shadowy Road Sturdy, functional buildings lie in and out of shadow on the road to the temple square. Simple architecture, devoid of handholds; closely spaced buildings, devoid of alleyways; uncut walls, devoid of windows: the builders in this area knew how to encourage amateurs to go elsewhere. East-West Road Randomly arranged paving stones form this street, proceeding east towards a more attractive arrangement. The darkened buildings lean sloppily over the edge of the street, reducing the energetic potential of the strict east-west layout. West the road leads back into the seething mess that is Oldtown.I can't say enough about how much I loved this. Because the characters are each limited to their own viewpoints, but we are able to see them all, the game gives us a far more complete and interesting picture of the area than any single viewpoint could provide. In addition, because we have seen the area through other eyes, we gain insight into the viewpoint character by noticing what that character does and doesn't observe. Where the adventurer simply notices what ways are open for travel, the enchanter observes how those avenues impinge on a geometrically-oriented magic system; where the enchanter notices only the direction of the walls' lines, the thief notices the lack of handholds and windows. Some games have begun to explore this dynamic -- Wishbringer and LASH displayed the changes of a landscape and the shifting meanings attendant to that change, while Being Andrew Plotkin gave us a variety of characters whose reactions to a particular area conflicted, to wonderful comic effect. Heroes takes the next step, opening up an endlessly fascinating vista.
Correspondingly, the game's design also reflects a diversity of viewpoints. Each character has the same goal, but none of them will go about it in quite the same way. The adventurer's method combines both NPC interaction and object manipulation, first learning what an NPC wants in order to stop being an obstacle, then obtaining that desideratum through various clever mechanical operations and trickery. The difference between this and the enchanter's method is similar to the difference between the PC of the Zork series and the PC of the Enchanter series -- instead of pushing, pulling, turning, and moving things, the mage casts spells that have different, but equally useful, effects. The thief utilizes shadows and rooftops, while the king depends almost completely on NPC interactions such as gossip and courtly intrigue. It's just a lovely idea, and for the most part, the game carries it off very well. In addition, several neat choices appear to prevent the game from ever becoming unwinnable, but not by preventing missteps on the part of the player. Instead, as it becomes clear that an action may have closed off the game, Heroes offers the player opportunities to undo the consequences of that action, or to take another shot at the crucial action. After playing so many games in this comp that really do close off without warning, it was a great joy to realize that in this game, I didn't have to restart after all, especially since restarting would have meant starting each viewpoint story from the beginning.
With all this going for it, Heroes easily would have scored a 10 from me (by which I mean somewhere between 9.5 and 10.0) if not for a few problems. For one, a couple of the puzzles appear to lack sufficient information about their components, making it very tough to guess their solutions. At least one other had a solution that appeared to contradict some of the stated rules of the situation. In addition, there were a number of instances where I felt that the game failed to give me enough feedback about whether I was on the right or wrong track, or where a perfectly valid idea was unimplemented (even if just with a failure message that provided a clear reason for denying the action.) Finally, and most problematic, one of the sections appeared to be broken in such a way as to allow its main puzzle to be bypassed entirely. Heroes is an ambitious project, and in some ways it's not surprising that the game should still be pretty rough around the edges. Its problems prevent it from reaching the very top echelon of competition games, but what it does have to offer is dazzling indeed.
Now, here's something about me: I suck at chess. When it comes to computer chess games, well, I'm a great text adventure player. I can see, in an abstract sense, the beauty and elegance of it all, and in the right mood I can appreciate the intellectual rigor of chess problems, but for whatever reason, my turn of mind doesn't lend itself to such strategic amusements. Consequently, I really don't enjoy computer chess that much, and that held true for this game as well. Moreover, even if I did enjoy computer chess, I don't think the z-machine is a particularly good environment for it. A drag-and-drop mouse interface is about a thousand times easier and more logical than "move b1c3", and while the little IF touches like the genie and the object descriptions are fun, they don't do much to improve the clumsiness of the main experience. In fact, there are some problems with even the minimal IF content of this game -- there's not nearly enough cueing for the transition between IF and chess match, making that transition into a rather pointless puzzle.
Finally, there are some serious flaws to the chess section as well -- I don't think it's completely functional. One of the command styles described by the game, "move <piece><space>", as in "move nc3" (move knight to c3) doesn't appear to work at all. In addition, although the game described how to perform castling, I couldn't get it to respond to the command it suggested ("move O-O"). So although I was impressed as hell with Silicon Castles' technical achievements, I found it a rather unsatisfactory experience. As chess, it's not bad, but its interface is clunky and it appears to be missing some critical functionality. As interactive fiction... well, it's pretty much absent.
So why did this game leave me feeling so unsatisfied? I think the problem is sparseness. For all that Crusade does provide, there's a distinct sense that the game has no real interest in creating an interactive environment, but instead wants the player to pretty much follow the walkthrough to hit the interesting parts, and encourages such behavior by making everything else really, really uninteresting. The problem was immediately apparent when I started the game with five items, each of which was described, "You see nothing special about the <item>". There's a mixed message here. Clearly, some of these items are in my inventory not because they're useful, but because they establish character in some way. But their utter vacuousness undermines that purpose considerably, and makes the game feel boring as well. Even the new verbs seem to be implemented with the absolute minimum of effort:
>convert hermit You're not very persuasive. >forgive hermit Forgiven. >worship hermit You drop to your knees with great reverence.NPCs abound who only respond to one or two things, failing to even generate a stock reply for the rest. There are a few non-essential areas, but a great many times I found myself faced with flat, uninteresting library messages after attempting legitimate actions. I got the impression that the game just didn't really care that much about being interactive.
That sort of attitude is poison to interactive fiction. I don't so much mind linearity, if the line is fairly wide and provides lots of interesting stuff to look at on the way. This game, however, was reminiscent of its initial image: a long, thin line trailing its way through a trackless desert. Sure, it gets you somewhere eventually. But the trip is pretty dull.
A suspicious-looking individual enters the area from the north.Subsequent mentions can and should use the definite article ("the"), as in the following:
The suspicious-looking individual enters the area from the north.Using the indefinite article all the time would imply that perhaps a different instance of the noun is at hand in each mention -- in the case of this example, it would imply that the island might be crawling with suspicious-looking individuals. However, using the definite article each time, as this game does, is rather worse, because it insists that the noun has already been mentioned, as if the suspicious-looking individual has already been introduced (perhaps in the mysteriously absent introductory text) and that some kind of bug has prevented that mention from displaying. It is by such small omissions that sense erodes.
All that is to say: please forgive me if I seem a little impatient. It's been a long comp, and has felt even longer than usual because I'm an entrant this year and thus have the added anxiety of worrying about how my own work is faring. Consequently, Volcano Isle, with its sparse implementation, mindreader puzzles, maze, and inventory limit, annoyed me greatly. The game clearly wants to pay homage to Zork -- that suspicious-looking individual carries a "vicious-looking stiletto"; there are various treasures to collect, and a place to deposit them; there's a tree to climb, a rope to descend, and, of course, a maze. Unfortunately, the whole thing ended up feeling like an amateurish copy of something that was a) more than the sum of its parts because of quality implementation and writing, and b) interesting because it was doing some of these things for the first time rather than the 500th. Volcano Isle is neither. In addition, it is plagued by random messages that print every 25 turns or so in the form of "visions" supposedly experienced by the PC. There are probably two or three of these, and each is interesting the first time, then increasingly irritating on every repetition thereafter.
Just so I don't trash the game entirely, let me point out one thing that I really liked a lot. The game puts the background color capability of HTML TADS to moderately creative use throughout, but by far the best is when the PC enters a pitch-black room. The background goes black and so does the text. The effect feels remarkably similar to what it's really like to be in a pitch-black room -- you know you're doing something (like typing "turn on light") and it's having an effect, but you can't see it happening. Then, when the action is successful, the evidence of activity is visible once more. I thought this was a pretty neat effect. The game was also fairly free of bugs and writing errors, and has at least one entertaining puzzle. So it's a partial success, I suppose -- certainly far better than some of its competitors this year -- but wasn't what I needed to give me that burst of energy as the finish line appears.
The problem here, and it's a considerable problem, is the writing. The prose feels like a bad translation from some other language, or perhaps like a writing sample from someone for whom English isn't a first language. For example, after addressing an NPC with the SPEAK TO verb and selecting "Ask her if she knows you" from the menu, the game puts these words in the PC's mouth: "Excuse me... Do you casually know who am I?" In one memory, he says, "I go down for having breakfast, Carmen is at the kitchen." One half-expects the PC to whip out a phrasebook and carefully enunciate, "My hovercraft is full of eels." Unfortunately, everybody (including the game's narrative voice) speaks in this sort of broken English. The game is reluctant to let you leave a queue because "you don't know how important is what you are waiting for," and says that you see "wealthy people together to beggars" in that queue. A guard asks, "do you think you've always acted the better you could?" In my favorite example, that same guard chides you, "If you had any good reason to leave yor place, you should have said it to me firstly." He's not yor frend!
There are probably people for whom mangled syntax, crippled spelling, and broken grammar don't ruin a game, but I don't think I'll ever be one of them. In my opinion, if you're not fluent in the language you're using, you must have someone who is fluent proofread your game before you release it. You must fix all the errors that person finds, no matter how many there are. You wouldn't expect a publisher to disseminate a novel, short story, or essay written so poorly, so why is it reasonable to expect gamers to enjoy a game with equally weak English? It's basic logic: if an IF game is equal parts prose and programming, both must be bug-free before the game can be any good.
Paul O's 2001 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 8 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2001