2002 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 6

(in the order I played them)

THE TEMPLE by Johan Berntsson

There are some scenes that are so iconic, so familiar, that they almost transcend cliché, gaining the power to singlehandedly drag a game into the realm of the tired and hackneyed no matter what other scenes surround it. Such a scene is the sacrificial altar. You know the one -- bloodstained altar, hooded priest, big scary dagger, chanting cultists. IF authors have been thinking about it as far back as Zork III, no doubt in tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, who in turn more or less stole the riff from the Aztecs, I think. The Temple prominently features a sacrificial altar scene, and I wish I could say it throws in some fresh new twist that reinvigorates the whole thing, but... it doesn't, really. The game is a Lovecraft pastiche, which itself has become a bit of an IF cliché, what with Lurking Horror, Theatre, Anchorhead, HeBGB Horror, Awakening, and lots of others. I think it may be time to declare a moratorium on the genre unless you've really got a new and interesting take on it. The Temple has no such take, and consequently the entire experience felt a bit overfamiliar to me.

The lackluster, error-ridden writing didn't help matters either. One significant danger in creating a work that pays homage to a skillful author is that your own writing may suffer badly in the comparison, and that's exactly what happens here:

   Before A Dark Tower
   This area in front of an old tower offers a nightmarish view over a
   monstrous tangle of dark stone buildings. Most buildings are
   elliptical, built of irregular-sized basalt blocks of irregular size.
   None of them seem to have any doors or windows. There is a square
   further down to the southwest. The sole passage to the tower is
   through the door to the north.
"Irregular-sized basalt blocks of irregular size?" "Elliptical" buildings? (They're oval-shaped, I guess? I'm assuming the ovals are lying on their sides, though even then it's hard to picture something so curved being made out of "blocks", no matter how irregularly sized.) Where Lovecraft's vistas were (at their best) ineffable, this is just inept. The coding is better, but still rather spotty, because there's a distinct split in the implementation. NPCs and objects are coded pretty well, with the main NPC able to understand a respectable range of queries and capable of interesting independent action. Most first-level nouns are implemented, and outright bugs are fairly few. On the other hand, there is a severe dearth of synonyms for both actions and objects, and the game made me struggle with some of the worst verb-guessing problems I've encountered in a while. In particular, there's a rather critical action that I was totally unable to make the game understand without resorting to hints. I knew exactly what I needed to do, but the half-dozen ways I came up with of expressing it were summarily rebuffed -- only the game's approved syntax won the day. Problems like this should have been caught in testing.

So now that I've railed on the game for being unoriginal and unpolished, let me take a moment to point out something I really liked about it. Early on in the action, you acquire a sort of "sidekick" NPC, who follows you through most of the story, and who himself becomes the crux of an optional puzzle. There were several things I liked about this NPC. First, as I mentioned above, he was well-implemented, responding to lots of sensible queries, including many of the things mentioned in his responses to the PC's initial questions (second-level conversation topics, I suppose.) Also, he serves an interesting purpose in the story's structure, functioning as a sort of nominal hint system in his sporadic knowledge of the environment. Best of all, he and the PC really function as a team in several instances. I'm writing a series of games that ostensibly feature a PC/NPC team, but thus far I've copped into having the PC do most of the work while the NPC has some excuse for being out of the action. I thought The Temple was an excellent example of how to really create interdependent action between a PC and an NPC, and it got me excited about the challenge of doing so in my next game. For that alone, it repaid the time I gave to it.

Rating: 6.8

MYTHTALE by Temari Seikaiha

MythTale is a mixed bag, with weaknesses alongside its strengths in every area. The writing, for instance, can be effective -- the opening scene, of a PC struggling up a freezing cold mountainside, works well, involving the senses and evoking the feeling of numbed exhaustion. There are a number of good jokes, and several places where well-chosen words made me smile in appreciation. In other areas, the prose is far worse. Punctuation seems to be a particular problem, with comma splices rampant and periods frequently missing from the ends of sentences. There are plenty of other mechanical errors, too. Then there are those troubles that may be cultural, but are quite confusing nonetheless. Foremost in my mind among these is this sequence, found outside the PC's house in a vegetable patch.:
   You can see a bonfire and a metal barrel here.

   >x bonfire
   A tumbled pile of hawthorn branches. Odd though, in the middle of the
   bonfire is something that appears to be your coolbox!
Now, for me, a bonfire is a big, raging fire, used to burn lots of items or to light up the night in a celebration of some sort. Consequently, I was quite surprised that the PC left a huge fire burning just outside his house. Then I read the description, and figured that the "coolbox" was either a freezer or an air-conditioner of some sort, and that it had shorted out and set fire to the pile of branches. Strangely, though, even though the metal barrel is full of water, pouring water on the fire doesn't seem to put it out, just dampen the branches. After a while, I finally figured out that when the game says "bonfire", what it actually means is "pile of fuel for a bonfire, not actually burning." For me, it was one of those instances when a game's language is so opaque that figuring out what the heck the words meant became a puzzle in itself. I don't really enjoy those sorts of puzzles too much.

The coding was similarly uneven. For one thing, the game is full of cats, but it doesn't understand the command PET. This may be another cultural difference, because it does understand STROKE. Nevertheless, I hereby serve notice that I am officially sick of games that offer dogs and cats that can't be petted. Game authors, if you're going to give us a cute, fuzzy animal, let us pet the animal. Thank you. Also, just a little reminder here to Inform authors: turn off the debugging verbs. To do this, compile with -~S -~X -~D set. Otherwise, your game will do things like this:

   What do you want to tie?

   [game lists out every single fricking object it contains]
Speaking of tying, if you implement a rope that you want me to use to tie something to something else, please implement the syntax "TIE <object> TO <object>." This seems only sensible, especially compared to MythTale's method, "TIE ROPE TO <object>. TIE ROPE TO <other object>." Glitches like this aside, the game seemed pretty well-tested, and there was a good hint system for the inevitable times I got stuck. I didn't find anything that was just broken, and lots of nicely judged custom responses were present, especially when dealing with the cats.

Those cats provided some of the game's best design moments. There were a couple of puzzles that were both logical and entertaining, and the entire conceit of searching the house for items hidden by the cats was one I enjoyed quite a bit. Also, some of the re-enactments of Greek myths were good IF vignettes, bringing the stories to life in an exciting way. I liked the concept of the multiple endings, too, though the game's implementation underwhelmed me enough that I wasn't interested in exploring them. Predictably, alongside these good design choices, there were some pretty bad ones too. One puzzle is just excruciating, a fiddly device whose workings are not only boring to test and extremely tedious to solve, but which also requires some pretty farfetched guesswork to even arrive at the correct answer. You'll know the one I mean when you get to it -- I recommend turning to the hints without hesitation. Also, some of the puzzles require fairly unmotivated actions, forcing the player to get in a text-adventurey frame of mind rather than acting in character. Overall, despite the fact that it has some fun moments, MythTale is pretty much hit or (must... resist... cheesy... pun...) miss.

Rating: 6.3

COFFEE QUEST II by Anonymous

Before I started playing this game, my thought was, "What happened to Coffee Quest I?" After I started playing it, my thought was, "I really really hope I never find out." Lord, but this game is bad. It's so depressingly bad that the thought of spending three paragraphs enumerating its faults fills me with a yawning despair. I do care about the constructive criticism thing, but at this point in the comp judging, I find it hard to stick to that ideal when faced with a game like this. Add to this the fact that the game knows it's bad -- it calls itself a "travesty" in its ABOUT text, and says, "you are welcome to distribute it as long as you can find someone who's willing to take it." So what's the point of constructive criticism, anyway? Why bother offering suggestions for improvement when quality is so clearly not valued? So instead, a randomly selected cornucopia of bad moments:

I guess that's enough. This game is what Little Blue Men would have been if it had been poorly written, poorly coded, and poorly designed. In fact, entire sections of it seem swiped directly from that game, but in such a way as to drain them of everything that made them interesting. There are a few grins here and there, several of which are apparently unintentional, but overall it's a pretty grim experience. Just pray there's no Coffee Quest III.

Rating: 3.1

JANITOR by Kevin Lynn and Peter Seebach as "Seebs"

Note: Janitor is one of those games where you figure out what you're supposed to be doing as you go along. It doesn't take a terribly long time to reach this conclusion, but I'm going to talk about it, and that could quite reasonably be seen as a big spoiler.

We're in the 8th year of the IF competition, and we seem to be at the point where we're officially recycling stuff. Having just finished a game (Coffee Quest II) that often feels like a cut-rate knockoff of Michael Gentry's Comp98 entry Little Blue Men, I discover Janitor, which more or less recapitulates the gimmick from Comp97's Zero Sum Game, by Cody Sandifer. That is to say: an adventure has just happened, the score is at full, and the PC's job is to go around unwinding all the accomplishments and setting things back to how they were. Janitor seems more or less unaware of Zero Sum Game and its "game over" successors like Comp98's Enlightenment and Comp99's Spodgeville Murphy -- for example, it doesn't do anything entertaining when asked for the FULL score tally -- but happily, it implements the unwinding idea in a more fun way than ZSG did. I was pretty turned off by ZSG's callousness towards PC, NPC, and player alike, and the way it motivated the PC to undo everything (the PC's mother didn't approve of killing or stealing) was undercut by the game's taunting of the PC as a "mama's boy" (or girl). Janitor's more sensible approach is to cast the PC as an employee of a text adventure company who must reset the game world so that the next player will find all the puzzles unsolved and the treasures in their original locations. To accomplish this, the PC can use magical "access corridors" that connect to various rooms in the "proper" game scenario, along with a "mimesis disruptor" that's good for quite a bit of nifty description-switching. The locations and objects are described with a great deal of humor, and the layout and puzzles are imaginative and clever. I wasn't able to finish the game in the two hours allotted, which disappointed me, because it looked just about ready to open up into a new and fascinating level. I'd recommend this game to those who enjoy puzzles and IF metalevels, but I'd also recommend waiting to see if there's a debugged post-comp release.

I say this because unfortunately, Janitor's implementation doesn't quite match up to the wit of its premise and its writing. For instance, there's a puzzle that can be solved over and over again, bringing the player's score down to zero in a flash (which is the goal) without really accomplishing much. There's a bucket that is supposedly full of water, but is also described as empty. What's more, this bucket ends up being the game's sack object, which really makes very little sense -- why would I automatically store stuff in a bucket of dirty water? In addition, there is a thin but even layer of punctuation and spelling problems in the prose, and the writing sometimes fails to mention certain critical actions that the game undertakes on behalf of the PC; I went a good long time thinking an object had disappeared, when in fact the game had actually moved it to my inventory without ever saying so. Perhaps most irritating of all, the first portion of the game doesn't tell you what your goal is supposed to be, except for the rather vague explanation that it's your first day as a janitor. This would be fine, except for the fact that it fails to respond well to your attempts to actually clean stuff -- most such actions are either unimplemented or met with a discouraging message. I'd much rather have seen the game obligingly handle every request to clean something, and let the score mechanism clue the player in to the larger goal.

Also, while I certainly appreciated the effort put into the hints, I was frustrated by the fact that they didn't go so far as to lay out all the necessary tasks. Consequently, I was left wandering around the game with 4 points out of 100, unable to progress to the next stage because I couldn't figure out the last lousy task the game wanted me to perform. The hints' reassurance that "our beta testers consistently beat the game" was the opposite of reassuring, helping me instead to feel stupid as well as aggravated. I can most certainly appreciate the impulse to avoid giving the game away in the hints -- I didn't even include any hints or walkthrough in my entry last year, foolishly thinking that anybody would be able to stumble through it. Even this year, I wanted to just include hints and no walkthrough, but thought better of it. When somebody only has two hours to play my game, I want them to be able to see as much of it as they can, and it's really not my place to police their "fun level" by making sure they do it the hard way. Despite its problems, Janitor was interesting and amusing, and I wish I could have seen it through to its end in the space of two hours. A walkthrough or more explicit hints would have allowed me to do that. Instead, I'm left wondering what I missed, in more ways than one.

Rating: 8.2

TOOKIE'S SONG by Jessica Knoch

Apparently, it's the Year Of The Squid. When I wrote Another Earth, Another Sky, I was pretty pleased about the squid. "How many other comp games," I might have thought to myself, "are going to include a squid?" Turns out there's a freaking avalanche of them. Well, maybe not an avalanche, but two others besides mine, in a field of 38 games, really is rather a lot. The squid in Till Death Makes A Monk-Fish Out Of Me! is essential to the plot, though, while the one in this game is more or less decorative, so I have to say that TDMAMOOM wins on Squid Points. On the other hand, Squid Points don't figure into my ratings, nor, I believe, anyone else's, so who cares? Besides, this game has plenty of charming and wonderful assets of its own to recommend it. First of all, and still my favorite, are the altered library messages. I hereby nominate the following for Comp02's most delightful response to X ME: "You are, and I say this in all honesty, as good-looking as you have ever been." There are plenty more where that came from:
   >break it
   You raise your hand to strike, but something mysteriously holds you
   back. It's as if a voice inside your head is telling you that random
   violence is not the answer to this one.
TOOKiE'S SONG takes most of the standard Inform messages and, without substantially changing their content in most cases, tweaks their tone so that they fit in perfectly with the game's lighthearted world. In those cases where the game does change the message substantially, it's for the better, such as its replacement of "That's not a verb I recognize" with "That's not a verb you need to rescue your Tookie."

"Your Tookie" is the PC's beloved pet bloodhound, captured by rascally alien felines. These diabolical outer-space cats have, as they so often do, placed the PC in an artificial environment with a bunch of puzzles, promising that if those puzzles are solved, maybe they might consider freeing the dog. This premise is utterly arbitrary, and the game knows this and revels in it. The writing is joyful and funny throughout, and many of the puzzles are rather clever. TOOKiE'S SONG (really don't understand what's up with that capitalization, but whatever) hangs out near "pure puzzle game" territory for much of its duration, with themed areas (after the seasons), themed treasures (different-colored gems), and parallel puzzles in the various areas. Design is generally strong, with alternate solutions provided for many puzzles, interesting connections between the areas, and a fun ending that provided more evaluation of my actions throughout the game than I had been expecting. The game also takes care to provide lots of extra flourishes, such as an EXITS verb, which lists available exits in a room, and a terrifically complete HELP/HINTS section.

Unfortunately, I can't praise the coding uniformly, because I encountered a number of problems during my time with the game. Most severe among these had to do with the "story problem" puzzle. Yeah, that's right -- one of the game's puzzles is a math problem, couched in the old standard form: "Alice leaves city A at 9:20 a.m., traveling east toward city B at a speed of 60 miles per hour..." and so forth. For the word-problem-phobic, there is an alternate solution available, but I'm not particularly in that group, so I worked it out for myself. Unfortunately, the game was unwilling to accept my correct answer, no matter how I tried to express it. I tried saying (answer changed to prevent spoilage) "5:00", saying "five o'clock", writing them on a sheet of paper and handing them to the puzzler, but no dice. After employing the alternate solution, I learned that the game was looking for "FIVE P.M." I really dislike being told I have the wrong answer when I actually have the right answer -- call it residual math class trauma. There were other difficulties too, mainly with objects used in unexpected ways, or error messages that were either too strange to be right, or too vague to be helpful. Happily, the author seems quite dedicated to collecting bug reports, so I feel fairly confident that there will be post-comp releases that take care of these problems. Once those bugfixes are complete, I would recommend TOOKiE'S SONG without hesitation.

Rating: 8.7


For the first several years that I judged the comp games and wrote these reviews, a nifty thing kept happening on my last game -- it was always one of the best of the comp. In fact, one year the last game I judged was The Edifice, which went on to win all the marbles. The trend had trailed off over the last couple of years, but I'm very happy to report that it has returned. The Moonlit Tower is a rich and gorgeous piece of work, and a very strong debut from an excellent new author. Easily the most striking thing about this game is its writing, burnished and evocative prose that sets a very elevated tone. Here, just a haphazardly chosen example:
   >play ocarina
   The ocarina's notes are high and sweet.

   In this place, they remind you of that first court dance, when you
   and you brother first saw the justiciar, a vision of red and black, a
   flash of gold. Someone played an ocarina that time, too. Flutes,
   zithers and lutes join in the cheerful clamor of instruments being
   tuned, though none of them are to be seen. Some of them play swift
   phrases while others sustain long, low tones. 
Of course, the risk of elevated writing is that it can easily slide into self-parody; in IF this risk is even sharper, because at least some of the prose must perform fairly mundane interface and state management tasks. The Moonlit Tower occasionally veers close to this territory, especially with its "You can't go that way" replacement messages, which, while charming at first, can quickly begin to seem overblown. In the end, though, it worked for me, and the words are crafted with enough skill that I never found myself snickering at the tone.

If anything, the game feels almost too rich, like trying to eat an entire cheesecake at one sitting. It belongs to the genre of games whose backstories unfold themselves as you explore their landscape, so to say too much about the plot would be spoilery. Even if I wanted to, though, I would be hard put to explain exactly what this game is about. Part of my problem may be that I've only played the game once -- I get the distinct impression that this piece was designed to be experienced and re-experienced, with different paths revealing further facets of the character, and the history behind his situation. Lacking the benefit of these further layers, I sometimes found myself just guessing at what was going on, performing actions not because they made perfect sense to me, but because they were implemented and seemed like a good idea at the time. The highly figurative language, while it continued to draw me in throughout the story, also frequently served to veil some of its more practical levels, prompting me to piece together disparate phrases and concepts in order to maintain my shaky grip on narrative. I've criticized other games in this very comp for that kind of behavior, but I found that in The Moonlit Tower, I didn't feel unsatisfied when I reached the game's end. Enough information came through, even in my one traversal, that I didn't feel totally at sea. As a matter of fact, the game strummed a deep emotional chord for me when it drew together two of its metaphorical strands, confirming a guess I had made earlier about how those strands interrelated.

So much for the writing and the story. The coding was fairly impressive, especially for a first-time effort. A number of non-standard verbs were implemented, and the scenario is frequently described to an impressive level of depth. Some rookie mistakes are still evident -- GET ALL lists all the objects in every room (there's a chance this may have been intentional, but if so it was a tactical error, in my opinion), and a stray message still told me I had scored 0 out of 0 after I won the game. For the most part, though, the programming functions smoothly in sync with the writing to deliver a memorable experience. Exploring the splendid mysteries of The Moonlit Tower was a wonderful way to end my journey through Comp02, and I look forward with considerable anticipation to the author's future works of IF.

Rating: 9.3

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Paul O's 2002 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 6 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002