2003 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 5

(in the order I played them)

BIO by David Linder

NOTE: I'm going to be spoiling the first puzzle, but don't worry, you'd never have solved it without the walkthrough anyway.

Somebody please MST this game. It's just so perfect for it -- terrible but in very entertaining ways. Take, for instance, the first puzzle. You awaken inside your room in the scientific complex (yes, it's a scientific complex game. I was so worried Comp03 wouldn't have more than one!) to find gas seeping in under the door. What kind? Hard to tell when the game doesn't know the word "gas". There's a bandage handy, but the bandage can't be stuffed under the door ("I don't see any door here."), nor can it be worn on the face, mouth, or nose (because the game doesn't know any of those words.) Simply entering WEAR BANDAGE yields the mystifying response, "You put the bandage on your arm and wrap it around the cut." Cut? X ME shows no sign of injury -- turns out that you acquire the cut much later in the game, but the bandage always assumes you have it already. Anyway, back to the gas problem. Here's the room description:

   Your Room
      Your standing in your room or apartment (whichever you want to
   call it). It's about the size of a large bedroom, complete with all
   the furnishings. There's a small bed in the southwest corner with a
   nightstand next to it.  On the other side of the room is a small TV.
   There is a dresser along the west wall.  The exit lies to the north.
Rather than focus on the non-contraction in the first word, I'll try to concentrate on the puzzle. "I don't know the word 'dresser'" tells us that the dresser isn't implemented. The nightstand and bed are no help. Examining the TV gives us this very amusing response:
   >x tv
   On the screen, you can see that it's a Fastlane rerun.  Since it's
   your favorite episode, you watch for a few minutes.

   The room is nearly filled with gas!
Man, the PC must really love that show! HOLD BREATH predictably fails. ("I don't know the word 'hold'.") Oh, and just walking through the exit engulfs the PC in a cloud of lethal gas. Well, guess we'd better consult the walkthrough.

Hey, the first command in the walkthrough is OPEN ARMOIRE. Now, the question must be asked: WHAT FREAKING ARMOIRE?! It wouldn't be this dresser, would it? No, of course not, since the game never refers to it as an armoire. The PC must just be so familiar with the armoire that he no longer notices it when he looks at the room, instead just thinking of it as "all the furnishings," and therefore it is known only to those players who have read the walkthrough. Those lucky people can open it and find -- how convenient! -- a gas mask. No clothes or anything, but sure enough, this janitor is well-prepared for gas attacks, thanks to the gear he keeps inside the rustic antique that he's somehow hauled into his onsite living quarters, which presumably are necessary due to the remoteness and/or secrecy of the scientific complex, 25 long miles away from the nearest town. Later we find out that somebody else in the complex also has an armoire. Maybe this complex devotes itself equally to scientific discovery and antiquing. Anyhow, that entertaining exercise in puzzle-solving is entirely emblematic of the level of gameplay on offer in Bio, where slipshod coding, dreadful spelling, simplistic themes, juvenile imagery, and ghastly design all jostle for pride of place at each moment.

I dunno, though. Compared to some of the games in this comp, Bio just charms me a little. I mean, yeah, it's sort of fascinated with blood and disease, and heaven knows it's loaded with clichés, but it's not outright nasty like Lardo was. And yeah, maybe its prose is in serious need of proofreading, but it's nowhere near as dire as that of Amnesia. It's at least nominally interactive, unlike RPG, and has a modicum of story, unlike Little Girl. It's the right size for the comp, and while it certainly lacks any sort of testing, it is finishable (with the walkthrough, anyway.) Don't get me wrong, Bio is nothing like a good game, but it feels well-intentioned to me, more or less. I think it's possible that some future work from this author may end up being pretty good. That'll go some ways towards living down the hilarious MSTing of this game that simply must happen.

Rating: 3.5

SARDORIA by Anssi Raisanen

Okay, I know it's bad form to start out a game review with a screed about the system it's written in, but Alan is on my last nerve. First of all, I think I've mentioned before that I really dislike its lack of scripting capability. I keep having to remember to call up the scrollback and copy my latest moves into a text editor, and this is irritating in two big ways. First, having to constantly keep an eye on this really breaks immersion for me -- I can't get fully into the game when I'm having to manually monitor this administrative task. Second, if I do happen to become immersed, then I invariably end up forgetting to bring up the scrollback until too late, when the buffer only has half the moves I've made since my last copy-paste operation. Bad enough to have to copy from the buffer at all, but the fact that it only seems to hold a minimal amount of the scrollback makes the whole thing extremely aggravating. The other problem that I just discovered with Alan is the apparent lack of portability in its save files. The way I play comp games often involves a lot of switching machines -- laptop on the bus in the morning, work machine at lunch hour, home machine at night. Usually, this is no problem; I just drop my saved game onto a floppy and start up from it at the next machine. However, I discovered that whenever I try to restore a saved Alan game from another machine I get this infuriating message: "Sorry, the save file did not contain a save for this adventure." It's very, very annoying to restore "sardoria.sav" and be told that it's not a save for Sardoria. I don't know whether these flaws are in the language or the interpreter, but they just drove me crazy with this game, maybe because it's a little larger or more ambitious than most other Alan games. (Certainly more so than The Adventures Of The President Of The United States, the other Alan game in Comp03.)

Whew, thanks for letting me get that off my chest. On to Sardoria. Well, I'm sorry to say that Sardoria also drove me crazy in its own ways, beginning with the very first room. It's one of those games that starts with the PC imprisoned -- thrown into a locked cellar, in this case -- so the first puzzle is getting free. I must have spent 20 minutes trying out different commands in that room, none of which seemed to do anything for me. Finally, I turned to the hints and was told that I "need to find another object hidden in the cellar." Well thanks, but that's what I've been trying to do for the last 20 minutes, without success. Any more hints? Nope, "[t]here are no more hints for this location." Finally, I turned to the walkthrough, and found that the command the game was looking for was something that I would never have thought of doing, because it doesn't really make much sense. The result is that as I'm doing the nonsensical action, I happen across the hidden item. "No fair!" I cry. It was especially galling because I had specifically checked the area where the item was hidden, and was told in clear terms that there wasn't anything there. This sort of frustration happened to me over and over in the game; I tried on all of them, but I think I ended up looking at the walkthrough for every puzzle but one or two. Often I'd come close to the solution but failed to find the exact route desired by the game (shades of Gourmet), and sometimes the solutions just flat-out made no sense to me. There were also occasions when the actions required made a sort of sense, but were far too vague or arbitrary.

Many of these problems could have been overcome, or at least alleviated, if Sardoria had provided better feedback. More and more, I'm convinced that this is a crucial element of successful interactive fiction, at least IF with puzzles in it. When a player gets close to the solution, the game should indicate that rather than giving a flat "nothing happens" sort of response until it gets the exact right set of commands. Moreover, if players think of an alternative solution, the game should be able to either let them utilize that solution or provide a convincing reason why they can't. How can an author provide this level of feedback? It's all about the testing. Get at least three testers for your game, with a sufficient variety of approaches between them. Then, watch for the things they try. If they get close to the answer, your game should provide some appropriately encouraging feedback. This is especially important in a game like Sardoria, where many of the puzzles are one kind of combination lock or another, most of whose combinations verge on the totally arbitrary. This is a subject that deserves a more detailed treatment, but I'm unable to do that in a spoiler-free review, so all I can say is that designers must anticipate the majority of player responses and handle them appropriately. It's a lot of work, yeah, but it can be the difference between exciting and exasperating for puzzly IF.

Rating: 5.3


Here are some things about this game: It is cute. It is buggy. It is huge. About "cute": the whole thing is written from the perspective of 8-year-old Sophie, the daughter of a couple of retired magic-users, both of whom seem sunk well into strangeness now, but then again perhaps they'd look a little different through someone else's eyes. There were many moments in the game that brought a smile or a chuckle, and much of the writing found a place between overly edgy and overly twee. Sophie has a rather hardheaded perspective, or so she seems to think anyway, and while she's really rather spoiled, she does have some valid points about the foibles of those around her. For instance, her mother has an inexplicable predilection for decorating in bright colors, and Sophie quite reasonably finds things like her painfully bright quilt rather difficult to stomach:
   > x bed
   It's hard to look at your bed with the colourful quilt lying across
   over it like that but you know there's nothing very interesting in it
   because you were lying there only a few minutes ago. You remember
   when you were a kid (well, a younger kid than you are now anyway)
   you used to worry that there was an evil gremlin that lived under the
   bed who would creep out after nightfall and eat you. But when you got
   a bit older you realised that no self-respecting gremlin would be
   seen anywhere near a bed with a quilt like that.

   > look under bed
   You look under the bed, searching for the gremlin you were convinced as
   a child was under there.

   Nope, no sign of him.
Writing like this lends a wonderfully strong personality to Sophie as a PC. The NPCs, too, are distinctive and interesting, and the menu-based dialogue can be a source of great amusement. On the basis of the writing (leaving out, for now, the issues of "buggy" and "huge"), I'm strongly inclined to recommend this game for kids, except for the fact that there are several parts that are outright gruesome. Sophie encounters gory battlefields, piles of corpses waiting to be burned, and dead bodies lying in pools of blood. Now, I don't have kids, and haven't read children's books for a while, so I don't have a good sense of what are considered "appropriate" levels of gore and violence in those stories. I'm also a believer that what's appropriate for kids isn't so much determined by their ages as their personalities. Nevertheless, just because Sophie is 8 doesn't mean the game would be great for any 8-year-old. Personally, I was able to ignore the gore, and so found it charming, though it would have been a lot more charming were it not so buggy and huge.

About "buggy": Sophie's Adventure breaks frequently, and often in the most unexpected ways. For instance, this exchange:

   > n
   You can't go in that direction, but you can move north, northwest,
   west, southwest and down.

   > north
   You can't go in that direction, but you can move north, northwest,
   west, southwest and down.

   > go north
   You move north.
I've had games forget to implement exits before, or forget to mention them in the exits list, but I don't think I've ever seen a game that forgets in one place to make the directional abbreviations available. I'm surprised ADRIFT even makes this possible -- I can't think how it would happen in a more robust development system. Speaking of ADRIFT, all its parser deficiencies are still hanging around like unwelcome guests: the way it pretends to understand more than it does, the way it asks questions but doesn't listen to the answers, and the way it totally ignores prepositions (LOOK UNDER = LOOK BEHIND = LOOK IN = EXAMINE, except when it doesn't.) Another bizarre way that Sophie's Adventure frequently breaks is in its menu-based conversations; once out of every 20 or so times, the game just wouldn't understand when I'd enter a number to choose a menu option. There wasn't any pattern to this that I could discern -- the broken choices might be first, middle, or last entries in the menu. It was always very aggravating when it would happen. The game is broken in larger ways, too, or at least it seemed so to me. Several times, I'd get information that suggested a roadblock puzzle -- you know, the old "you can't go this way until you perform this task for me" routine. However, if I simply walked in the forbidden direction: success! No puzzle-solving required. This is either a bug or head-scratchingly odd design. There are also tons of typos throughout the game, some quite hilarious ("It also looks remarkably similar to Golem in Lord of the Rings.") All in all, the game is a couple of betatesting rounds away from being ready for release, and maybe more, given that it's probably difficult to test because it's so huge.

About "huge": there's no maximum score listed in Sophie's Adventure, so I'm not sure how many points are possible, but after two hours with it, I'd scored two points. There's also apparently a "niceness" score, which not only never changed, but never even seemed to offer any opportunity to change. Also, even after circumventing quite a few puzzles via the bugs mentioned above, I still think I'd only seen a fraction of the game's locations. I already gave my spiel on too-big-for-the-comp games in my review of Risorgimento Represso, and most of those points apply here as well. However, where that game felt disappointing because I hated to rush through something created with such skill and care, Sophie's Adventure evinces sort a flip side to that problem, which is that gigantic games are much harder to get right. I boggle at the amount of work that must have gone into this game, and so I don't mean to badmouth it, but at the same time, I can't help but feel it would be a much better game if it were much smaller in scope. Fewer locations, fewer puzzles, fewer things to go horribly wrong. It goes without saying that this game is totally inappropriate for the comp because of its size, but I wonder if it's simply the wrong size full stop. I say this because frequently, object and room descriptions seemed freighted with resentment for even having to be written:

   As cracks go it's not a very interesting one and you kind of wonder
   why you're even taking the time to examine it.

   Somehow you doubt the fate of the world relies on you examining rat

   East Road
   The land from here on eastwards is desolate to the point of having a
   not-very-finished look to it. If anything, it looks like whoever was
   given the job of designing this landscape got bored and decided to
   just scribble in a few trees and bushes and leave it at that. [...]
There's the straightforward problem with these that I don't know whether something is interesting until I examine it, so would rather not be chastised for wasting my time, but there's also this: when the descriptions themselves start complaining about being boring, there's probably too much stuff in the game. I think the best thing that could happen to Sophie's Adventure would be if it were scaled back considerably (say to a size that is finishable in two hours), tested and proofread much more thoroughly, and entered in the comp in that tighter and stronger form. Too late for all of that now -- I won't be returning to this game after the way it aggravated me -- but these lessons can be learned for future games, by this author and others.

Rating: 3.0


Here's the premise of Adoo's Stinky Story: you're a college student, returning home for the summer to find that your parents have decided to sell the house you grew up in. Because of your sentimental attachment to the house, you decide to... sabotage the sale by making a big ol' stink bomb. So even before the first prompt, we're out of the realm of realism and being asked to swallow a fairly ridiculous set of assumptions. By itself, this isn't a bad thing, if the concept or the ensuing plot is funny, but what humor there is in Adoo's wasn't particularly my cup of tea. Silliness infests the game, but not in a particularly lighthearted way -- it's more a matter of nonsensical plot elements piling up on each other like a freeway crash. These elements were absurd, but not really amusing, at least not to me. The stinkbomb idea, for instance, isn't so much a joke as just a random direction. With it, as with many of its subcomponents, all I could do was shrug and say, "okay, whatever." When the game isn't trying to be silly, it couldn't be more plain -- it's set in the dreaded Ordinary Suburban House, with Mom, Dad, brother, and dog all going about their fairly dull lifestyles. Adoo himself seems less like a college student than a wayward 10-year-old, Bart Simpson without the style or wit.

Now, having said that, Adoo's doesn't do such a bad job with the materials it chooses. The ideas behind many of the puzzles may be arbitrary or meaningless, but their basic structure is sound, and some parts of the recipe that provides the game's backbone are rather clever. Certain puzzles would have benefited from having more solutions implemented; the fur puzzle is a prime example. I thought of three different ways of solving it, none of which the game addressed, before finally giving up and looking at the hints. The scoring system does a great job of providing a sense of progress and of indicating the relative importance (or lack thereof) of Adoo's various tasks. In addition, though the game can be made unwinnable, hefty point deductions are assessed for doing so, which is enough motivation to restore or undo instead of continuing down a futile path. The coding is more or less solid, and I found no flagrant bugs, though the game felt underimplemented in some areas. For example, the crux of the plot is Adoo's unhappiness about the upcoming sale of the house, but when he asks his parents about the house, rather than offering excuses or explanations, they say, "Um... we live here. Say, are you bored or something?" Also, the dog can't be petted. Listen up, designers: if you put a pet in your game, let players pet it. On the other hand, NPCs wander around the landscape in a convincing manner, going about their own lives and even interacting with each other, rather than sitting and waiting to be activated by the PC. They have randomly varied "I don't know that topic" responses, which greatly helps the illusion that they're more than chunks of code.

As for the writing, it's fairly undistinguished. Problems are distressingly common: comma splices ("Welcome home, Adoo, time for a relaxing Summer!"), redundancy ("you return home to the familiar surroundings of Texas, home sweet home"), and spelling woes ("so imfamous, and so stupid") among them. And that's just in the first two paragraphs! Still, after a round or two of proofreading, the prose will do a competent enough job of setting the scene and describing objects. It'll take a lot more than that to make it entertaining, though. I guess that's my main problem with Adoo's Stinky Story: the whole game is just rather flat. It doesn't ever summon much excitement, humor, or panache; it just sort of sits there. That's why this review has been hard to write. It's a lot easier when a game is really great or really terrible, because I find myself with a lot of things to say about those situations. This one is simply mediocre, and I'm not coming up with a lot of great ways to improve it, except perhaps to raze it entirely and start over with a little more experience. And aim higher next time; that will result in either an interesting failure or a dynamite success. This game is neither.

Rating: 6.8

CAFFEINATION by Michael Loegering

Caffeination (it can't seem to decide whether it wants the middle "n" capitalized, so I'm going to forego it) starts out like a more intelligent version of last year's Coffee Quest II. The setup is nearly identical: you're a depressed, sleepy office worker in an oppressive, cubicle-filled corporate environment, and your object in life is to get a really good cup of coffee. Happily, the literacy level of Caffeination is several steps above that of CQ2, and at first the game seems like it's going to be a lot of fun. Alas, it quickly sinks into a bog of misguided design, buggy code, and error-laden prose. In addition, rather than presenting any kind of sharp or thoughtful satire of office culture, the game instead tends towards the hackneyed and the juvenile. For instance, the boss' name is "Mr. Norom." Ooh, "moron" spelled backwards! There's wit for you. Norom is a walking (well, sitting) "evil boss" stereotype, and the clichés continue from there: the bimbo coworker hired strictly for the boss to leer at, the depressing and decrepit building fixtures, even the sleepy, slackerish PC himself. Instead of giving us a fresh, fully-imagined setting, Caffeination just shows us the same dull office we've seen a hundred times before. What's fun about that?

This game also suffers from the same syndrome that seems to plague many entries in this year's comp: a lack of sufficient feedback and cueing. I struggled against the constraints of the first major puzzle for quite some time before turning to the hints, but these were much less helpful than I thought they'd be. The game has a hint system with great potential -- you find a notepad left by a former co-worker who had allegedly amassed all sorts of interesting tidbits about the office. Unfortunately, CONSULTing the notebook about nearly every topic gives you either no information at all ("Bill left some detailed notes, but you cannot find any info on that.") or no more information than is present in simple object and location descriptions. A hint system in a consultable object is a great idea for integrating metagame activity into ingame mechanics, but to succeed, it must be much more deeply implemented than this. So finally, I turned to the walkthrough and was astonished to discover that there are no fewer than three different solutions to it. The problem is that all three solutions rely on extremely improbable actions, ones I'd certainly never have thought would work, given the fairly limited implementation of most game objects. For instance, one path involves finding out about a particular bit of office intrigue through dialogue, but even very direct questions about this exact topic elicit no response whatsoever from the NPCs. In fact, most questions to the NPCs elicit the default response, which leads one to stop asking questions in fairly short order. Another path requires discovering an object hidden in a cubicle. However, an object mentioned in the room description that should be in roughly the same spot as the hidden object not only doesn't lead the player to discovery, it isn't even implemented, which certainly leads one to believe that searching that area of the cubicle won't be fruitful. It's all well and good to provide interesting and unusual solutions, but you can't expect players to read your mind to get to them. You have to provide cues, feedback, and evidence that will lead the player in the right direction.

In a similar vein, if a game's coding is focused on its solution path(s) rather than on making a fully interactive environment, it will almost certainly be extremely buggy to anybody who isn't strictly following the walkthrough. I associate this problem most strongly with Robb Sherwin's earlier comp games -- if the game was a story, it'd go pretty well, but IF isn't a story so much as a place, and when an incomplete place tries to be a story, problems ensue -- even though Caffeination provides multiple solutions to each of its puzzles, they're all pretty hard to guess, and exploratory moves towards them founder in a morass of bugs. This may be a problem that deserves its own category: the "walkthrough-driven game". These games end up making me feel like one of the time travelers in Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder," terrified to step off the path lest everything around me be screwed up forever. That's certainly what happens with Caffeination. Especially after the first puzzle, I found myself confronted with one bug after another when I tried things that the game didn't expect. Now, like the bugs in Sophie's Adventure, many of this game's bugs were beneficial to me, including one that allowed me to win without solving any of the coffee shop puzzles at all. I've been surprised by the games in this comp that go to great lengths to explain the obstacles to you, but then don't bother to actually use those obstacles to prevent winning actions. Still, winning lacks its usual pleasure when it's done by exploiting a bug. I was happy enough to have the game overwith, but I wish it could have been different.

Rating: 5.5

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Paul O's 2003 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 5 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2003