2003 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2

(in the order I played them)

CURSE OF MANORLAND by James King

So here we are in 2003 and people are still writing games in AGT. Even more disheartening, they're still writing terrible games in AGT. Most bad comp games at least have the virtue of being short, but not this one -- it's huge, and unrelentingly bad all the way through. Now look, I want to offer constructive criticism, although with a game like this it's hard to imagine that any suggestions will be implemented, since quality doesn't exactly seem to be valued. Nevertheless, in lieu of a detailed review, here are ten ways to improve Curse Of Manorland:

10) Don't use AGT. There are better tools out there now.

9) Settle on a point of view. In the beginning section, I had this exchange:

   Chrissy's room
   Your room is covered in rock posters but has Rupert the bear bed
   sheets there is a full length closet mirror on the east wall. On the
   south is a window. The carpet is bright pink

   > x sheets
   I loved Rupert - it was my favourite show when I was little - I want
   to get Buffy now - she's such a strong character.
Thus, in just a few lines, I got third person ("Chrissy's room"), second person ("Your room"), and first person ("I loved Rupert"). Pick one.

8) Puzzles need to make sense. I can't imagine anyone (except maybe the author) ever getting through this game without the walkthrough. Actually, I didn't even get through it with the walkthrough, since the walkthrough failed to specify the exact moves for the nonsensical maze, and the game itself was (unsurprisingly) no help. I was using that walkthrough from the very first puzzle, a puzzle whose solution makes absolutely no sense at all.

7) Sentences get to have both a subject and a verb. If one of those is missing, then what you have is a sentence fragment. These are fine, in certain circumstances, but avoid them until you've mastered writing regular sentences.

6) While we're at it, both fragments and real sentences end in periods, not commas, and certainly not just nothing. This is unacceptable:

   > x window
   A white painted window,
It's especially unacceptable when we need to know that this window is the size of a mattress. Actually, that comma is sort of an exception -- the vast majority of stand-alone sentences in the game have no terminal punctuation whatsoever.

5) If the player is supposed to interact with some object, the game should maybe mention that object. It's pretty hard to come up with "TIE ROPE TO TREE" when there's nothing about any tree in the room description.

4) Error messages must not lie. If you're looking for "CHOP TREE WITH AXE" and I type "CHOP TREE", do not reply "Don't know how to chop here..." That doesn't tell me to try another syntax. Instead, it tells me to forget the chopping idea altogether. The game lied to me like that over and over again.

3) For heaven's sake, do not put random messages in the game that prevent commands from being carried out without saying so. And certainly do not litter the game with them for hundreds of moves before a solution is available.

2) Please, forget the inventory limit. And please please please, if you're going to make me drop stuff, let that stuff not disappear.

1) Spell-check. Beta-test. Have your prose proofread by someone fluent in English. Don't enter long and/or terrible games in the IF competition. Give us a break, huh?

Rating: 2.0


INTERNAL DOCUMENTS by Tom Lechner

After Curse Of Manorland, it was a relief to start into a game that seemed at least to be composed of coherent sentences, although the incredibly long, clause-upon-clause opener was a bit of a red flag. Still, the premise of the PC as civil servant investigating electoral fraud in a small town seemed like it had potential, and I began the game excited and interested. Sadly, Internal Documents fails on a number of levels, and by the end of the game I was just annoyed and disgusted, typing straight from the walkthrough. Some of its problems are pretty standard, such as the writing issues -- typos and grammatical errors are common, and a noticeable number of sentences just fail to make any sense. The coding is similarly problematic. At one point, I tried to read a document that (according to the hints, anyway) contains important clues. Here's what happened:
   >read manual
   Chapter 1 reads:
              Xy                  Yi                  Z
     Zm              x                    b      k       a  c         k
         a  d         k      a  e         k       a  f        k       a
    g   Y   k       a  h   (   k      a  i     k       a  j   
   y   k       a  k   0y   k       a  l   1u   k       a  m   2o   k
      a     3c                  3u  
I think this freakiness happens because of a particular quirk in Inform, because I vaguely remember using it intentionally in LASH to demonstrate illiteracy. However, in this game it obviously wasn't intentional, and even the most basic testing should have revealed that it wasn't working properly.

Another one of Internal Documents' big problems is one that I'd like to discuss in more depth, because I think it's a signpost for anybody who wants to design good IF. Basically, the mantra is this: THINK LIKE A PLAYER. This game doesn't, and falls down badly as a result. Here's an example: early on in the game, I walk into a bar, and after the room description and a bit of incidental business, I get this:

   The bartender cuts in and asks you, "So what brings you around here?"
Remember now, I'm a player. I'm trying to be immersed in the game's fictional world, to do what the PC would do. So I type TELL THE BARTENDER ABOUT DUE DILIGENCE. In the game's words, "This provokes no response." So then I try to TELL THE BARTENDER ABOUT several other things, with no results. I proceed to strike out with TALK TO BARTENDER, ANSWER BARTENDER and ASK BARTENDER ABOUT <a variety of topics.> With sadness, I realize that the game has asked me a question but has no intention of providing me with a way of answering. So much for immersion. See, as a designer, I might know that the bartender isn't useful, and therefore give him only the bare minimum implementation. Maybe I want him to seem a little bit alive, so I give him a line of dialogue when he's first sighted, and maybe I don't so much care just what that line is. As a player, though, I have no idea whether the bartender is useful, so if he has some dialogue that encourages further interaction with him, I'll take it as a cue that indeed he is supposed to be interesting. Then, when I encounter his minimal implementation, I'm annoyed and disappointed. The solution? Make the bartender surly and uncommunicative, so that his thin implementation seems like a natural aspect of his character. Your game is going to shape your player's expectations -- there's no way around that, so it should shape them to its advantage rather than to its detriment. On another "think like a player" point, remember that what's fun for you isn't necessarily fun for your player. You may really dig writing up three hundred slightly varying descriptions of the same sort of rather ordinary room, but by all that is holy, it is not fun to walk through them. Don't set up situations where the player ends up wandering huge swaths of useless, pointless territory, or has to sit around or walk around aimlessly for dozens of moves waiting for a random event to trigger. That's not fun, and it produces no particular emotional effect except for irritation. That's not what players want from their IF.

Another aspect of thinking like a player is recognizing that if the game prevents a particular action repeatedly by use of unlikely coincidence, the player is going to believe that this action is forbidden and unimportant. If you think that the player will later be moved to attempt to do that forbidden thing as a way of solving a major puzzle, you're probably wrong, especially if much more sensible solutions are disallowed. If I the player end up looking at the walkthrough, you want me to think "Oh, of course! Why didn't I think of that?" Instead, I end up thinking, "First of all, I thought the game didn't allow that action, and second of all, how does that make sense as a solution to that puzzle anyway?" There's a larger point here, which is that implementation generates expectations. If 99 out of every 100 nouns in your game are unimplemented, as is indeed the case with Internal Documents, I will come to expect a very bare-bones experience. I will not type out a long and unusual command construction, because what possible reason would I have to believe that the game would understand it? If you do expect me to do things like that, the game becomes either an intolerable exercise in attempted authorial telepathy, or else it ends up having to dole out sledgehammer-like hints (such as 1-2-3's notorious "Don't you want to ask me about her breasts?") Before you even begin coding, think about what it will be like for players to experience your game, and if the answer is "boring", or "irritating", or "confusing", stop those problems before they start. Otherwise, you end up with something that's great fun for you, but not for anybody else... something like Internal Documents.

Rating: 5.3


THE ADVENTURES OF THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES by Mikko Vuorinen

It's been a long time since I've played a Mikko Vuorinen game. The last one was his 1999 comp entry King Arthur's Night Out, which bizarrely recast King Arthur as a henpecked husband in a domestic farce. Some people, like Adam Cadre, apparently found this hilarious, but it mostly left me cold. Still, I was pleased to see Vuorinen's name on a comp entry this year, and playing TAOTPOTUS felt like a reunion with a seldom-seen relative -- even though its behavior was often exasperating, I couldn't help feeling a certain fondness for it, both because of its reliably predictable traits and because of my sense of shared history with it. Vuorinen hasn't lost his affection for putting iconic figures into strange and comical circumstances, and indeed one of the most charming things about TAOTPOTUS is its gleeful disregard of realistic IF conventions. Consider, for example, this bit of game territory:
   The United States of America.
   Good old USA, in your mind the greatest country in the world. Home of
   you and millions of other fellow Americans. The White House is a
   magnificent place, but once in a while it's good to see the real
   world. As you know, Canada is to the north and Mexico to the south.

   > n
   O Canada.
   Their home and native land. 
   Lots of trees and that's about it. 

   To the west is Alaska and to the south the rest of the United States.

   Next to you is a particularly tall maple tree.
This isn't any kind of carefully worked-out fantasy trope -- it's not as if the President is suddenly a literal giant, walking across the continents in state-spanning strides, though at times it's hard to avoid that mental image. Instead, it has the childlike feel of marching an action figure around a big map of the world, having little adventures in different places without much regard for any sort of fictional coherence. I mean this in the best possible way. I loved feeling like I was part of an innocent "let's pretend" session, miniature toys tromping across a world-themed game board. From the game's title, I was wondering if it would be a political satire, but as close as it comes is to suggest that perhaps our President really does see the world in terms as abstract and simplistic as these. Then again, maybe that's plenty. There are some moments that suggest a gentle satirical agenda, such as when you try to go south from Russia and are told "You don't want to go to the Middle East. Some people there might not like you." There are also some moments that that made me laugh out loud, such as when I typed HELP and was told, "You do not need any help. You are the President of the United States of America." I tried to STOP THE WAR, but sadly the game informed me that the word "war" is not recognized. If only that were true.

Unfortunately, fun with icons wasn't the only Vuorinen trait that made it into this game -- there are also a handful of good old guess-the-verb puzzles as well, along with the typical admonishment in the walkthrough that there are no guess-the-verb puzzles, and that the game should be simple enough for anyone to finish without clues. I got stuck on the very first puzzle, and discovered from the walkthrough that, just like in King Arthur's Night Out, there's an item that needs to be SEARCHed, even though examining it yields a dismissive response. Some of the puzzles made sense to me, but there were others that really felt like an exercise in reading the author's mind. The environment (what there was of it) was reasonably well-implemented, though there were several bits of dodgy English, and I struggled from time to time with the deficiencies of the Alan parser. I also need to take a moment here to grouse about the typically feeble Alan game engine, which fails to include such essential bits of functionality as UNDO, AGAIN, and especially SCRIPT. I really dislike having to periodically copy the scrollback buffer into a text editor in order to keep a record of my interaction with the game, especially since I only belatedly remembered that this buffer keeps a rather paltry amount, and consequently I lost the transcript from my first 15 minutes or so with the game. Okay, I feel better now that I've vented. Overall, TAOTPOTUS is brief and kinda fun, and if you're a Vuorinen fan, you'll probably like it a lot.

Rating: 7.5


EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF AN ARTIST by Peter Eastman

My wife used to teach a college course called "Shakespeare For Non-Majors," which was usually full of business and engineering students, there either to fulfill their dreaded "Literature and the Arts" core curriculum requirement, or else to, as she sometimes put it, "get their Cultural Literacy cards stamped." Students generally came into this class with one of two attitudes towards Shakespeare. Some of them hated him -- they called him "boring", and groused of having him thrown at them all their lives as some sort of ultimate authority. Usually, a major part of these students' problem was that they actually just didn't understand the meaning of the words when they looked at a Shakespeare text. The other category of students loved Shakespeare, and actually embraced and revered him as an ultimate authority. They would claim stridently that he was the Greatest Author Of All Time, that he had a perfect understanding of Human Nature, that his works are Timeless, and that every scrap of his texts embodied Deep Truth. Interestingly, these students usually also didn't understand the meaning of the words when they looked at a Shakespeare text, but they knew enough to recognize that much of our culture sees Shakespeare as a dispenser of wisdom, and believes that if you can quote strings of words from his sonnets or plays, that ability indicates that you're an intelligent person with great insights about life. The PC of Episode is one of this latter type. His life could hardly be more mundane -- he gets up, gets dressed, eats breakfast, and goes to work at a factory, where he spends all day in front of a conveyer belt putting green widgets on red wodgets. Yet he thinks of himself as smart and wise -- an artist, in fact, and hence the title. "No one could put those widgets together like I could," he says of himself. A large part of his faith in his mind and soul comes from the fact that he carries around a book of quotations, of which he has memorized great swaths, and he can pull out a quote for even the dullest occasions. Yet, as the text makes plain, knowing a quote isn't the same thing as understanding it. For instance, when an unexpectedly blue widget suddenly appears on the conveyer belt:
   Ralph Waldo Emerson said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin
   of little minds, and he knew what he was talking about. He knew that
   sometimes the widgets would be green, and sometimes they'd be blue.
   So I've been doing this job for eight years, and every widget I've
   ever seen has been green. That doesn't mean the next one won't be
   blue. You've got to just take what comes and go on with your job.
   Emerson understood that, and that's why he was such a great genius.
Of course Emerson wasn't thinking of blue and green widgets when he wrote the "foolish consistency" line, and of course that line comes from a much larger explanatory context, but those things don't bother the PC a bit -- in his mind, he has access to Emerson's "great genius", to what literary critic John Guillory (swiping a term from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) called his "cultural capital", and that genius is helping the PC deal with a difficult situation. In fact, all he's really doing is taking his own thoughts and slapping the label "Emerson" on them so that he can call them wise and not have to question them any further. This trait permeates the character, and makes him one of the most intriguing PCs I've seen in an IF game for a long time.

The design of Episode nicely reinforces the PC's character. At first, I was annoyed with it for making me go through such extremely quotidian tasks as showering, picking out clothes for the day, and so on. Once I grokked the PC a little better, though, I loved the game for doing that. By forcing me to step through those tasks, and to experience the PC's unwavering interest in and enjoyment of them (as well as hearing his ceaseless grab-bag of quotes applied to them), the game let me become closely acquainted with the PC's mindset in a way that still felt interactive and advanced the plot. Because it's preceded by such an exceedingly ordinary morning routine, that blue widget and the PC's shock at it carries much more of an impact than if it had been the beginning scene of the game. Speaking of shock, I was rather jarred by the fact that the game apparently takes place in the Zork universe. The PC carries a five-zorkmid bill in his wallet, finds a Dimwit Flathead lunchbox, and so on. Now, granted, one of the game's major plot points rests on its Zorkian setting, but it feels a little strange to see references to people like Emerson and Shakespeare, or to see crates labeled "USDA GRADE A", as if those things had some part in the Zork universe. There's also the fact that nowhere does the game acknowledge that permission for use of these things was sought or received from Activision. It's almost as if the game itself takes some part of the PC's simple-mindedness.

That's what's so puzzling, and vexing, about this game. For all that it seems to be very cleverly written and designed, it also suffers from these logic gaps, as well as from sloppy coding and some serious bugs, one so bad that it can derail the game completely and force the player to a RESTORE or multiple UNDO. With a game like Rameses, part of the clue to look beyond the surface of things is the fact that the game is obviously coded with intelligence and care. I didn't find that to be the case with Episode -- aside from the aforementioned bug, I suffered synonym problems, guess-the-verb, and basic weirdnesses like the fact that the score stayed 0 out of 100 for the entire game. I found no mechanics problems with the prose, which made the lackluster coding feel all the more odd. I still can't decide whether this game is the product of great writing skill paired with novice coding abilities, or whether it's just a not-very-good game that ended up unintentionally profound. If it's the former, Episode would benefit greatly from a once-over by someone like Mike Sousa, who enjoys collaboration and whose TADS skills are impeccable. If it's the latter, well, I guess I'm about to give my highest score ever for a bad comp game.

Rating: 8.4


THE ATOMIC HEART by Stefan Blixt

Comp03 is starting to feel like Old Home Week. First there was the return of Mikko Vuorinen, and now here's a brand new game from Stefan Blixt, author of Comp97's Pintown and Comp98's Purple. Pintown, in my opinion, was an unwinnable disaster, and I found Purple to be very poorly implemented as well, albeit full of fun ideas. The Atomic Heart, I'm sorry to say, is in just about the same shape as Purple. The game's concept is that old science fiction nugget about the machines gaining consciousness and battling mankind, but it's enlivened by the IF presentation, in which the PC is a nanny robot (albeit with a very minor twist, revealed only in game-ending scenes) who bears no hostility towards humanity. "PC as robot" has certainly been done and done much better by other games, as has the twist gimmick, but not in combination (so far as I know) with the "robots vs. humans" plotline, and I liked the idea of playing a robot whose mission is to save humanity from other robots. There were a number of interesting details in the writing, and the structure of the story was good too, with surprising revelations, an exciting climax, and a satisfying ending.

Unhappily, though, the game's incredibly shoddy implementation demolished any chance I had of enjoying its story. Even more irritating, most of the game's problems are attributable to nothing but carelessness. For example: synonym problems. There's a photo that can't be called a picture. There are "trainers" that can't be called shoes. There's this exchange:

   >examine bulk integrity module
   I only understood you as far as wanting to examine the bulk integrity
   module.
"Well," I had to ask, "isn't that far enough?" There's more, though. Newlines are added or subtracted willy-nilly, giving the game a sloppy appearance. Losing endings are utterly unmarked as such, making them feel more like bugs than dead-ends. There's a database that supposedly can provide all kinds of information to the robot, but when CONSULTed, even about the topics the game says it knows, all that ever seems to happen is that "You discover nothing of interest in the database." Then there's the delightful old "Which do you mean, the eighteenth century bottle or the eighteenth century bottle?" problem. Worse yet, one of the game's main actions requires incredibly finicky syntax, and that action must be performed again and again in a successful game session. After about an hour, I was so frustrated with the game's inability to understand basic things that I started going straight from the walkthrough, and was gobsmacked to discover that even the walkthrough is loaded with commands that don't work. I can think of no possible excuse for this. Apparently the walkthrough is a command transcript of the game's author, or someone who has similar inside knowledge, playing the game through to conclusion, but if even the freaking walkthrough document can't easily figure out how to phrase its commands, isn't that a really big clue that the game is under-implemented? I think so.

I have to say, I really can't figure this out. You take good idea, write an interesting story, make up some cool puzzles and such, then you put it together in such a slapdash way that almost nobody could enjoy it. I dunno, maybe there'll be a big handful of glowing reviews for this game and I'll discover that I've just become uptight and overly picky, but my experience with it was just so aggravating. The game even credits testers, but if the evidence of the walkthrough is any indication, just because a problem is obvious doesn't mean it will be fixed. But WHY NOT? Why why WHY release something that is so much worse than you know it could be? Take some pride in your work, for heaven's sake. I guess this is all getting a little ad hominem, and I don't mean it to be, but games like this just make me want to pull my hair out. There is just no plausible reason for a game to have problems like this, not with testers and playthroughs that clearly found them. Look, your job as a game author is to make sure your game is the best it can be. Do your job.

Rating: 4.4


NO ROOM by Ben Heaton

In a cheeky display of one-upsmanship (or maybe it's one-DOWNsmanship), No Room trumps the one-room game by having no locations whatsoever. The author explains in a brief note that the PC resides in "the Inform Library itself, which is the most sense Inform could make of my game." No rooms were harmed, or even created, in the making of this game. Consequently, the entire thing takes place in a dark, empty void, though I don't think the location description or reactions are the Inform defaults. Thinking about how they got the way they are is making my head hurt, so I'll stop.

The gimmick is fun, but doesn't make for much of a game, of course. So No Room is a piece of micro-IF that basically consists of one puzzle. The puzzle is a good one, though it relied on some basic scientific knowledge that was, embarrassingly, just a bit beyond my grasp. But only a bit. Since there's no location, the entire thing takes place in the dark, and between its darkness and its scientific-puzzle storylessness, the game feels like a cross between Aayela and In The Spotlight, except, of course, there's no spotlight.

No Room could have used a bit more depth of implementation. Many of my ideas weren't implemented at all, and a game this small can afford to take a great deal of care in making lots of options possible with its few items. On the other hand, the implemented parts were coded fairly well, and relying entirely on the sense of touch was an intriguing way to experience a puzzle. I was surprised to discover that a few uncommon Inform commands (like PRAY) were given special messages. Some of these messages felt desultory or over-the-top, but some (again, like PRAY) were funny. In fact, if the implementation had been a little less thin, I probably wouldn't have found myself trying to PRAY in the first place, so maybe it was intentional...? Nah.

Rating: 6.2

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Paul O's 2003 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2003