2004 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 3

(in the order I played them)

PTBAD 3 by Jonathan Berman as "Xorax"

When I saw the title, I thought this game was going to be a sequel to Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die. Because the acronym seemed to be missing a number of letters, I thought it was going to be a badly-done, amateurish sequel, but a sequel nonetheless. For those unfamiliar with this long-standing IF in-joke, in 1996 Rob Noyes released a very simple game called Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die. The title is more or less also the walkthrough. There are other ultra-minimalist joke games, but PUTPBAD attained iconic status because of the humor of its writing and the sheer ludicrousness of its premise. The joke inspired one sequel by Noyes, which fleshed out the simplicity of the original by adding some more funny stuff. It also inspired a much better joke, Pick Up The Phone Booth And Aisle, in which a huge number of IF authors collaborated to combine the original with the "one-move IF" concept pioneered by Sam Barlow in his game Aisle.

Well, if this game was meant to connect to any of those, it fails completely, and consequently, I have no idea what the title is supposed to represent. In fact, representation is a vexed issue for the entire game, which bears more resemblance to gibberish like Comp2000's Stupid Kittens in that all of it seems like offhand, random, unconnected thoughts that make no sense whatsoever. To borrow a phrase from the game itself: "Rather disgusting dada surealist [sic] foolishness." PTBAD 3 offers a badly-spelled, creakily-coded trip through what purports to be someone's mind, perhaps someone who was the victim of a severe closed head injury. It's got a maze, toilet humor, and a complete lack of proofreading. It's quite a waste of time, though it's short enough that it at least doesn't waste much of it.

I wonder, though: why does PUTPBAD work when this game doesn't? After all, in Baf's Guide, Carl Muckenhoupt dismisses the original PUTPBAD in almost the same terms ("Would be a waste of time, were it not so short as to be almost nonexistent.") They're both tiny, nonsensical games that discard nearly all IF conventions. The difference, I think, is craft. Even though it only consists of maybe 200 words beyond the standard Inform libraries, PUTPBAD is clever, solidly coded, and impeccably written. PTBAD 3, on the other hand, seems as though it couldn't care less about its prose or its code. And because of that, neither could I.

Rating: 2.9

STACK OVERFLOW by Timofei Shatrov

From the outset, it's clear that there are some problems with the English in this game. The intro's admonition that I'm "really getting late to the work", and the game's description of my garage as "a small brick building with heavy iron door" signaled clearly to me that it's clumsy translation time again. Occasionally, it almost seemed like a parody of broken English, with diction worthy of Martin and Aykroyd's Czech brothers:
   >open door
   You pull the door to yourself, but what do you think? It's locked!
In any case, if you're writing a game in a language in which you're not fluent, I highly recommend having someone who is fluent check the prose.

About 40 minutes into the game, I stumbled into an area where nothing was implemented, not even a way to get back to the place I'd stumbled out of. Feeling merciful, I decided not to call this a game-killing bug, restored, and continued on for a while. However, after a while of bashing at mysterious machines, I decided I was stuck, and checked the hint system, which let me type HINT <object> for whatever object I needed help with, and then issued utterly useless statements like "A little experimentation should probably be helpful for you" and "No giveaways on that one!" Groaning with frustration, I turned to the walkthrough, despite the game's insistence that I "shouldn't need it because of the revolutionary hint system this game provides." Snort. Guess what? The walkthrough didn't work either -- it expects objects to be present that are not. In my book, that's a fatal bug.

Oh well, at least fatally buggy games are very easy to rate.

Rating: 1.0

GOOSE, EGG, BADGER by Brian Rapp

One of my favorite things about interactive fiction is its ability to surprise me. Not only can IF deliver all of the surprises available to static fiction -- plot twists, unexpected turns of phrase, and so forth -- but it can also delight me by understanding a command that I never thought it would, or by altering its internal objects in a way that casts new light on the story, and sometimes on the medium itself. Goose, Egg, Badger offers both kinds of surprises in abundance. The former are difficult to talk about, since I don't want to reveal any spoilers, so let me focus on the latter for a bit. GEB kept on thrilling me with all the things it understood. Over and over, I'd try a kooky verb and find that the game handled it with a response that was usually funny and occasionally even useful. It's clear to me that a whole lot of effort was poured into expanding Inform's standard library of verbs, and the result is a parser that kept making me smile and say, "Wow!" In addition, many standard Inform library responses have been replaced with whimsical substitutes, to great effect. Besides the good parsing, GEB introduces a handy goal-tracking device, similar to the to-do list from Shade: throughout the game, an "urge" remains in the PC's inventory. Examining the urge will give a clue as to what the player's current goal ought to be. The innovation works well in this game, though I found it to be slightly buggy -- on occasion, it seemed to be urging me to do something I'd already done. In addition, its contents are sometimes too vague. This problem may be unavoidable when some of the puzzles involve performing a wholly unexpected actions rather than combining mundane actions to achieve a desired result, but I found it sometimes vexing nonetheless.

In fact, the main problem I had with GEB was that while its implementation is terrifically robust, I often found its writing a little insufficient. One stylistic choice that didn't work too well for me is that GEB changes all room descriptions after the first visit. This approach can work well to help characterize a PC who is very familiar with her surroundings, as is the PC of GEB, but I found myself floundering without exit lists, and frequently checked the scrollback because of the nagging feeling I'd missed something. Even with a PC who knows the lay of the land, a game's room descriptions should still meet the minimum standards for IF: mention of all important nouns and exits. Similarly, if you embed clues in your prose, that prose should be repeatable without too much trouble. This is one of those rules to which there are a bunch of exceptions, but I what I found in GEB is that occasionally an important bit of information is smuggled inside a description that prints once and once only; when the hints intimated that I should have seized upon this clue, I felt a little indignant. One other area in which the game is a little under-described is in its depiction of certain NPC actions. In particular, there's an NPC who follows the PC around, but this action is never mentioned by the game beyond the fact that if you do a second LOOK in the current room, you'll find that the NPC is there with you. This should have been made a little clearer.

This obliqueness affects some of the puzzles -- in fact, there's one object on which the game offers so little information, it's a bit of a puzzle just to figure out what the object is. Despite this, many of the puzzles are quite nice indeed. There some arbitrariness here and there, and every so often a situation will come clear out of left field, but I can't deny that I thoroughly enjoyed winding my way through the game. GEB rewards experimentation, and thanks to the deep implementation, there are a lot of things to try, some of which may succeed in totally unforeseen ways. In addition, the writing does an excellent job of balancing humor and scattered surreality -- I particularly enjoyed that the ape in the game has a theme song, and that the SING command prompts the PC to sing that theme song. Best of all, though, is the extremely clever conceptual gimmick at the heart of the game. It was subtle enough that I got through and enjoyed the whole game without recognizing it, but interesting enough that once I figured it out, it opened up new vistas for me. I definitely recommend playing this game, and I recommend not typing SECRETS until you've played through once. Then play it again -- if you're like me, you'll be too entertained not to.

Rating: 8.8


Who Created That Monster seems to want to be several different things all at once, but it doesn't really succeed at any of them. At first, I thought the game would be some kind of trenchant political satire or commentary. After all, it's set in Iraq, 22 years in the future -- what better premise to examine the complex situation in Iraq today? Indeed, there are some moments that seem to be clearly satirical, such as this statement by an American TV commentator in the game:
   "For the longest time, the Arab world insisted on calling America
   'The Great Satan.' What's really insulting about that is the way it
   lumps the entire United States together into one monolithic entity.
   In reality the US is a nation of 400 million people, with a wide
   variety of ethnicities and points of view. Keep that in mind, Arab
That's certainly satire, and not the most subtle satire at that. But aside from a few moments like these, the game seems oddly reluctant to actually adopt a point of view. I kept waiting for some kind of twist that never came. For instance, throughout the game, the PC finds himself confronted by terrorists, and he must kill them or be killed by them. These threats are announced with the sentence, "A terrorist enters the area," as if the PC can immediately identify an "evildoer" by sight, even in a world where everyone, including investigative reporters, carries around an assault rifle. I kept expecting some revelation from the game -- maybe the PC accidentally kills someone he thinks is a terrorist but who is actually a national leader, or maybe someone identifies the PC as a terrorist and starts taking pot shots at him -- something to break down the PC's painfully simplistic and artificial point-of-view. But no. The terrorists are never developed into anything but simple wandering monsters. They might as well be orcs.

So okay, forget political commentary. Maybe WCTM is just supposed to be an exciting science fiction thriller. Here, too, it misses the mark, this time due to its unenthusiastic writing. Here's a perfect emblem:

   >x mysterious note
   It looks like an ordinary mysterious note to me.
Yawn. If the game can't be bothered to provide some detail about the objects in its world, how am I supposed to become immersed in that world? Granted, there are some nice touches, like the surveillance spheres that float everywhere, or the occasional holographic advertisements that pop up in front of the PC's eyes. These fillips are sf cliches by now, but they still provide a nice futuristic feel. Then again, some of what might be intended as science-fictional is so underexplained as to appear magical. For instance, when you shoot a terrorist, it vanishes "in a puff of smoke." Now, this might be the result of some kind of advanced disintegrator bullet technology or something, but even if it is, the game never mentions that. Instead, the result is more or less equivalent to what happens to the troll in Zork (albeit less compellingly described), which only adds to the feeling that the terrorists are lazily imagined wandering monsters. Perhaps the most interesting part of the game is the way that it occasionally decorates the action with a blurb about the past or future history of Iraq. Even these, though, suffer from prosaism:
   1920 .  The history of Iraq begins when British mandate is declared.
What? This statement makes it sound like the British issued a mandate in 1920 stating "Today the history of Iraq shall begin!" We need a little more.

The satirical and speculative elements fall away from WTCM like flakes of dry skin, leaving only a bog-standard IF "collect the gems" game. Sadly, even this falls prey to some truly bizarre design decisions. For instance, there are four different buildings in the game, all of which have the same basement. Not just four identical locations -- one location, to which the DOWN command leads from all four buildings. No explanation whatsoever is offered for this behavior, but it's not a bug. In fact, one of the puzzles hinges on this extremely strange geography. In another spot, the game is terribly heavy-handed with its cueing, robbing players of the opportunity to put the pieces together themselves. Finally, WCTM seems to have trouble keeping track of what and where its objects are. A manila dossier becomes, in some scenes, a green dossier. A building is reported as being to the southwest when it's actually to the northwest. Between its bugginess, its bizarre design, and its apparent unwillingness to put much craft into its world-building or its futurism, WCTM ends up being a pretty dull game.

Rating: 4.6

THE REALM by Michael Sheldon

The Realm feels like an old-school IF throwback. I mean, for one thing, it's about a knight on a quest to obtain the head of a dragon. It's set in the usual faux-medieval milieu -- a castle, a king, a tavern, and so forth. There are the typical old-school IF anachronisms, such as a monk who gets a "Habits'R'Us" catalog, and library with a book by Charles Perrault, who lived several centuries after any knights were running around any castles. Then there are the mimesis-breaking in-game instructions, in the form of a pamphlet object that teaches players about the basic commands of IF. Oh, and let's not forget the red herrings. The Realm delights in offering tons of puzzling objects and blocked directions that serve no purpose in the game but to send the player spinning off on futile chases. Most of the puzzles consist of giving an NPC something they want, and getting something in return from them, so I suppose a few red herrings are probably necessary to keep player interest alive.

Still, the old school has its charms. Once you stop expecting an interesting story or a logically consistent world, The Realm can be a pleasant place to spend an hour or two. It attends to some implementation details well; animals can be petted and doors can be knocked on, which I greatly appreciate. A couple of the NPCs have some funny shtick, and the ending was fun, if a bit predictable. The red herrings can get a little frustrating -- I often found myself thinking of alternate solutions that would work perfectly with the game objects, but that weren't implemented because those objects were meant only to mislead. On the other hand, according to the walkthrough, one puzzle has a very entertaining alternate solution that never even occurred to me. The description is never going to win any writing awards, but it's not overly confusing either. There was one really annoying "guess the noun" puzzle, but the rest were okay, though not terribly inventive. I guess it sounds like I'm damning the game with faint praise, and maybe I am -- the sum of my feelings about The Realm are that it was inoffensive and enjoyable enough, which is not exactly an enthusiastic endorsement. Then again, in the IF Comp, "inoffensive and enjoyable enough" can be a very good thing, since plenty of comp games fail to achieve one or both of those marks.

What did bring the game down was the too-frequent clumsiness of its prose. Comma splices seem to be a particular problem, as in the second sentence of the game's introduction:

   Realizing this you become suddenly very alert, rushing on your
   clothes you spring to your feet.
These two sentences are fused like tragically conjoined twins, so let's try a little surgery. The first thing that needs to happen is that the comma should be replaced with a period. However, even on their own, each clause would have some problems. The comma after "alert", whose job we just outsourced, should migrate over to the end of "this", since "realizing this" and "you suddenly become alert" are two separate pieces of verbal logic. As for the second clause, "rushing on your clothes" brings to mind running a naked 100-yard dash on a track made of trousers. The problem is the preposition: you may rush into your clothes, but you don't rush on them. In addition, "rushing" isn't the most felicitous verb to use there -- perhaps "hurrying" instead. That second clause could also take a lesson from what we did to the first, separating the sequential logical pieces with a comma. So, as they come out of anesthesia, here are our newly split twins:
   Realizing this, you become suddenly very alert. Hurrying into your
   clothes, you spring to your feet.
I'm happy to announce that the operation was a success. The patients will live, although it may not be a very normal life -- they're too similar and too close together, leading to a choppy flow. Still, they can't help it -- they are twins, after all. There were a few little problems in the code, too -- the occasional hiccupped bit of text and so forth. Ironing out these kinds of problems will help The Realm be the best old-school throwback it can be.

Rating: 6.3

TRADING PUNCHES by Mike Snyder as Sidney Merk

Trading Punches is a lovely piece of work, with a good story and a fine design. It's also got some flaws, so let me tackle those first, and then I'll move on to the loveliness. The first problem I had with the game may be more just an idiosyncratic reaction: I found much of its prose rough going. It's not that the writing was error-laden or terribly awkward -- it's just that I kept finding myself wanting to skim over it, and having to concentrate to actually read it. The problem was most severe in long room descriptions and infodumps, of which the game has many. I'm not sure whether the prose was just too dense for me, or whether it was some question of style, or what. I know that's an unhelpful reaction, but it was my reaction nonetheless. One definite problem with the style is that the game goes way overboard on a particular gimmick for making things sound SFnal: word-mating. Thus, the PC wanders around a landscape of "mossgrass" and "elmpines", watching the "peacrows" and then later drinking some "brandyrum" and "whiskeygin". Yeesh! A little of this strategy goes a long way, and Trading Punches had way more than a little; it sounded pretty silly in short order. Finally, though the game was obviously tested, a few significant bugs made it into this version. For one thing, certain commands, like "score", draw no response at all from the game. Even more seriously, there's a class of locations with one exit that consistently thrusts the player into a formless void from which there is no escape. At first, I thought this effect might be intentional, but further experimentation demonstrated that it's almost certainly accidental.

So yes, Trading Punches has some problems, but I still ended my play session feeling very happy with it. Why? Well, for starters, I enjoyed the story quite a bit, and aside from the excessive word-mating, the setting felt nicely realized as well. In general, the plot and the game-world felt reminiscent of the work of Orson Scott Card, which I like very much. I don't know if the author of Trading Punches is familiar with Card, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to discover that influence on this game. It's got plenty of Card's hallmarks: bitter rivalry within a family, affecting the larger world and universe on a grand scale; a gifted protagonist with a strong moral center who has a significant impact by helping (or trying to help) others; and strong familial bonds offsetting the deep familial schisms elsewhere. The aliens in the game feel original and well-imagined, and lend themselves to symbolic use as well. I also appreciated the design of the game -- its central story of sibling rivalry is told through chapters that don't hammer the point too hard, but still make it quite clear how the enmity grows between the two brothers. By skipping forward in time to the most important incidents in their relationship, the game develops the character of both the PC and his brother quite satisfyingly. Situating the chapters within a frame story works very well to knit the disparate pieces, and the game does an excellent job of weaving revelations about the frame story into the content of the chapters and vice versa. Unfortunately, two hours wasn't quite enough time for me to get through it, partly because of my denseness around one of the puzzles. However, a glance at the walkthrough shows that I was most of the way through, and I felt regret at having to stop the game and write this review, which is clear evidence that the story had me hooked.

Even aside from the story and the design (and its bugs and prose tics notwithstanding), Trading Punches boasts an impressive amount of craft. Especially noteworthy are the game's cool multimedia components. Each chapter (and each return to the frame story) begins with a full-screen graphic. These graphics are quite lovely, and do an excellent job of establishing the landscape. I found this especially helpful as I struggled with the dense prose's attempts at scene-setting. The illustrations look as though they were created in some kind of graphics rendering software, and consequently have a bit of a Myst-like feel to them, which is a good thing. Also effective is the game's music, a synthesized soundtrack which loops constantly in the background. The music is generally quite effective at enhancing the mood of a particular scene, though some of the musical pieces don't have enough melody or complexity to withstand the constant looping. No matter how good an eight-bar tune is, it's bound to get a little grating on the hundredth repetition. The game itself is quite solid, too -- it's clear that a whole lot of effort went into this project. Aside from the few bugs I mentioned in the first paragraph, I found the code pleasantly error-free, and the same goes for the writing. The puzzles worked well for me, and the game did an excellent job of providing cues to help me know what I ought to try next. One item in particular was not only quite well-implemented, but also provided an excellent emotional through-line for the story. Trading Punches still has a few details to clean up, and the word-mating has to go, but I'd recommend it without hesitation, especially to fans of dramatic fantasy games like Worlds Apart.

Rating: 9.2

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Paul O's 2004 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 3 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2004