2004 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 5

(in the order I played them)

BELLCLAP by Tommy Herbert

When I wrote LASH, I was interested in the concept of separating the player from the PC. Thus, instead of the traditional IF second-person voice, it used first person, and made "me" refer to the player while "you" referred to the PC. Now, Bellclap goes one more step by separating the player, the PC, and the parser. In this game, you (the player) are apparently some sort of god, and you're answering the prayers of a supplicant (the title character and PC.) However, the two of you are working through an intermediary -- it's never made quite clear what or who this is, but there's definitely some kind of third party relaying your commands to the PC and reporting the resulting actions back to you. It's the parser personified, basically, as some kind of angel or holy spirit, though its diction is more that of a bureaucratic functionary. The game speaks mostly in the third person, because it's mostly relaying information about the PC, but the parser speaks in first person when referring to itself, and in the second person when referring to the godlike being at the controls. For example:
   >x me
   He can't see you, sir. You're in light inaccessible, hid from his
   eyes.

   Unless that instruction was intended for me, in which case you're
   looking radiant, sir, radiant.

   >x bellclap
   He is dressed in a tunic, sheepskin coat and sandals, and he has a
   bag in which he carries food and tools for the maintenance of walls,
   fences and thatch.

   >x you
   He can't see me, sir. I'm more a sort of guiding voice.
I thought this was a really fun experiment, and Bellclap carried it off quite well. It seems clear that a fair amount of work and thought went into overhauling the standard Inform libraries to reflect this unique split consciousness, and the result felt seamless to me. Sadly, the game was quite short -- just a few puzzles strung together, really -- and therefore it didn't explore the gimmick nearly as much as it could have. Also, I'm not sure that making the player an omnipotent being was the best course, as the most obvious solution to pretty much all the problems would have been to just exercise some divine power over them. The game declares these sorts of actions verboten for no apparent reason other than that they're not implemented. Consequently, I was left feeling not very godly, even though some of the PC's actions result in supernatural events. Actually, the scenario put me in mind of the M*A*S*H episode where Father Mulcahy is stuck in a remote location with a wounded man and must perform a tracheotomy, while Radar relays Hawkeye's radioed instructions on how to do so. That scenario had a tension that Bellclap lacks, not just because of the urgency and life-or-death nature of the operation, but because the knowledgeable party was powerless to exercise that knowledge directly, and the person who was capable of action was crippled by inexperience, while both had to deal with the comically squeamish middleman. In Bellclap, there's no clear reason why the knowledgeable party should be powerless -- just the opposite, in fact, since the game clearly establishes him as all-powerful. For people exploring this structure for IF in the future, I think a stronger design would exploit rather than undermine the difficulty inherent in the separation of commander, relayer, and actor.

As for the rest of the game, it's pretty good, though as I said, there's really not too much to it. The prose strikes a strange pseudo-Victorian tone that works despite itself, and occasionally gets off some excellent jokes, such as when I tried to make Bellclap go up from a roof:

   >u
   But gravity, sir. Gravity. They're your physical laws, not mine.
I also really enjoyed the response to JUMP: "Bellclap wants to know how high." The writing was blessedly error-free, but the coding was just a little weaker. Most of the game was quite solid, but I encountered a couple of situations that the game mishandles. The worst offender is a puzzle that requires a container to be filled with liquid, but doesn't properly recognize the word FILL. Instead, the game wants a command syntax along the lines of PUT LIQUID IN CONTAINER, which is both anti-intuitive and anti-mimetic. Speaking of puzzles, I thought these were pretty good too -- most of the solutions were quite unexpected, but they made sense in retrospect. Bellclap gave me the strange sensation of solving puzzles even though I had no idea why the solution would work, which I suppose is as close as I'll ever get to omniscience. I was sorry when the game ended so soon, and I'm certainly looking forward to future works by this author.

Rating: 7.8


BLUE CHAIRS by Chris Klimas

Chris Klimas! Now there's a name from out of the mists. Klimas released a game called Mercy in 1997 that garnered rave reviews for its writing and its pre-Photopia puzzleless design. (In fact, it was nominated for that year's Xyzzy awards in both story and setting.) Then, he contributed a little fable called Once to the Textfire hoax, and disappeared shortly thereafter. Now he's returned, and what a welcome return it is -- Blue Chairs is not only his best work, it's the best game I've played so far in this comp. Klimas has a hold of something very powerful -- interactive fiction steeped in surrealism and symbolism. This sort of thing has been tried before, but Blue Chairs is the best realization of it that I've seen. At the beginning of the game, the PC ingests a powerful hallucinogenic drug. True, you have the choice not to do so, but if you make that choice, the story winds up in a dead end, albeit an intriguing and well-executed dead end. This sort of thing always feels a bit like a sucker punch to me, especially when the only real choice is followed up with a "why in the world did you do that?" sort of message as it is here, but the game is so wonderfully crafted that I forgave it immediately. The z-code "special effects" that Blue Chairs uses to represent the drug taking hold are very trippy and extremely effective, and from that point forward the game slides brilliantly between dream and reality. IF is an amazingly powerful vehicle for this kind of writing, because you're not just reading about someone's reality shifting around him -- in a certain sense, those shifts are actually happening to you as you traverse the game's world. Blue Chairs got so deeply into my head that when someone interrupted me while I was playing, I felt as if I was the one dreaming, as if the intrusion of reality into my game session was just as sharp and unexpected a lurch as the sudden hallucinations that happen to the PC. What makes these hallucinations so powerful, I think, is the fact that they're full of compelling symbols and archetypes, mixed with totally ordinary objects. In this way, they really do feel like dreams. Blue Chairs' heady blend of symbol and story got its hooks deep into my psyche. It blew my mind. I love when that happens.

The psychedelic design was my favorite thing about the game, but a close second was the writing. Blue Chairs does an outstanding job of creating an utterly convincing PC, showing us the world as described by that character, then fracturing his world all to hell, capturing the interrelated parts of his personality like collecting hurricane-blown leaves. At the end, I felt like I really knew Dante. (Yeah, the PC's name is Dante Hicks, and not only does he share a first and last name with the lead character in Kevin Smith's CLERKS, he also spends the entire game searching for a girl named Beatrice, a beautiful collision of high and low allusion.) I don't know that I had too much respect for Dante, but more on that a little later. There were so many sublime turns of phrase, so many funny moments, that my game transcript is littered with "ha"s and "whoa"s and "very nice"s. The game's implementation was strong, too. Most actions were reasonably anticipated, often with hilarious or terrifying results. I only found one problem, but unfortunately it was quite a doozy. Late in the game, I was working on a puzzle and had come very close to the solution, but not quite hit it. A look at the in-game hints set me straight, and off I went to solve it. Except... the solution didn't work. Near as I can tell, some kind of bug makes that puzzle unsolvable, which came as a crashing disappointment to me. In a game as strong as this one, a serious bug is all the more unexpected.

Luckily, Blue Chairs' design is open-ended enough that even an unsolvable puzzle didn't prevent me from finishing, though the time limit nearly did. I just barely got done within the two hour window, and towards the end I was opening hints liberally, because I very much wanted to complete the game before rating it. There are multiple endings, too, though they're nowhere near simple enough to be classified as "winning" or "losing." (I'm about to discuss those endings in general terms -- nothing too spoilery, but you might want to skip the rest of this review if you're particularly spoiler-sensitive.) By the time I saw the endings, I was feeling pretty ambivalent about the game's main character. Right after Dante swallows the drug in the game's first scene, here's what it says: It seems like now would be an excellent time to reflect why you, once a consistently above-average student full of ambition and love, just bought an unknown but almost certainly illegal substance from a stranger and drank it without a second thought. A fine question indeed, and the game resists the idea of an answer, insisting that there's nothing in Dante's life to explain his rootlessness and ennui, that it "just happened, one second at a time." That being the case, the sort of slacker malaise that Dante exudes is all the more unsympathetic -- it's tough to feel sorry for somebody who has led an incredibly privileged life, free of hardship, but still manages to be desperately unhappy just because he thought things would be so much more shiny, so much more interesting. Blue Chairs calls itself "a chance to change," but leaves it up to us to decide which ending really constitutes the change. I think it's a pretty sure bet that it's not the one where a soft-focus lens suddenly snaps onto Dante's life, where the whole thing turns into a Thomas Kinkade painting. That one felt like the ending of Rameses to me, an insistently perfect fantasy that fulfills the PC's wishes, wishes that have been unrealistic from the start. I'm not sure the other one is any better, though. There's a kind of letting go to it, but I'm not sure that it's letting go of the right thing. Dante comes to a kind of peace with his inaction, but I'm not convinced he's dropped the binary thinking, the idea that there's something perfect just beyond his grasp, and that without it, everything is worthless. I think he still may be lost, because as long as he's locked in that stark dualism, the next illegal substance from a stranger won't be that far away. Like I said, I rushed through the end -- maybe there are other paths I didn't find. But from what I saw, Dante may not have a chance to change after all. Anyway, that's just what I thought. You should really play Blue Chairs and think about it a while yourself.

Rating: 9.5


MURDER AT THE AERO CLUB by Penny Wyatt

My first clue was a line in the banner: "(With apologies to all real-life characters and Government organisations upon which this is based!)" Do I detect a faint scent of "in-joke game"? Of course, the dead giveaway came when I encountered a character with the same name as the author. So assuming that "Penny Wyatt" isn't a pseudonym, or that it's the pseudonym of somebody who really does belong to an Australian aero club, I'm going to venture the hypothesis that this is one of those games where the author implements some familiar setting and characters, drapes a little concept around them, and then releases it to the world. It's a close cousin of the "implement your house" and "implement your job" games: the "implement your hangout" game. The vast majority of the time, games like this are vastly entertaining to the lucky few who are acquainted with the people and places represented, and irritatingly baffling to the rest of us. Murder At The Aero Club is no exception, though its competent prose and the presence of an actual story (albeit minimal) render it a cut above many. One of the problems with games like this is that they assume too much. Because the setting is so familiar to the author, a kind of unconscious shorthand sets in, a failure to fully describe the world. Perhaps it's difficult to take an authorial approach to things that are right next to you, especially if you're trying to fictionalize them just a little.

Certainly, unconscious assumptions would help clarify why so few first-level nouns are implemented. Take, for instance, the first room description:

   Car park
   You are standing beside your car, parked in a small gravel parking
   area. Light streams onto the ground in patches, mottled by the shade
   of the gum trees high above. Surrounding you is an assortment of
   vehicles. A gravel path leads north to the front door of the
   clubhouse, while to the west stands a large maintenance workshop.
Here are the things I tried to examine: workshop, clubhouse, path, gravel, vehicles, trees, lot, and car. Here's what was implemented: vehicles and car. The rest told me "You can't see any such thing," which seems awfully contradictory to what's just been described to me. It's very difficult to get a great mental picture of my surroundings when they seem so hastily sketched. Still, vehicles and car are at least something. Here's what the game tells me about the vehicles:
   The vehicles appear to belong to the various members of the flying
   club. Among the ones you can see from your position are a gleaming
   green Porsche, a dirty ute, a formidable-looking motorbike, and a
   dust-covered van. Many of the vehicles have "I Love Aircraft Noise"
   stickers attached to their windows. There's also your little car, of
   course. It's looking a little worse for wear after the gruelling
   eight-hour drive to get here.
You know what the game told me when I tried to examine the Porsche, the ute, the motorbike, and the van? Yeah, that's right. I couldn't see any such thing. The premise of the game is that you play a detective sent to investigate a murder at an amateur aviation club deep in the outback, but it's hard to feel like a detective when you can't even see huge objects all around you. Heck, I don't even know what a "ute" is (aside from an Indian tribe and a joke from MY COUSIN VINNY), and I would have really appreciated a little description, but it wasn't to be. See, for this game's real audience -- the people it depicts and the people who know them -- a description of those cars isn't necessary, because those people already know what the cars look like. The PC is an outsider to the situation, and the game's inattention to world-building certainly helped me identify with that excluded feeling, but I wasn't even able to do the basic sorts of examinations a detective would do, which in the end wasn't much fun, and didn't really make much sense.

Plenty of things about the game don't make a lot of sense, actually. The solution requires some pretty non-intuitive actions, though because the game is so sparsely implemented that I was still able to guess what it wanted me to do much of the time. It also introduces random, crazy crap from time to time, like the character who is seemingly able to drink jet fuel. When a game sticks with an otherwise realistic milieu and then throws in something like this, I just roll my eyes and disengage. If the game doesn't care about its own world's consistency, why should I? However, there are things to like about MATAC. The detective PC carries a notebook to which the game automatically appends any relevant information that the PC encounters. This device is both useful and well-implemented. (Shades of Madame L'Estrange And The Troubled Spirit, another game set in Australia with an investigative PC who carries an automagically-growing notebook.) The prose is clean and clear, and the game is free of horrible bugs. Mind you, there are still plenty of run-of-the-mill bugs -- discoveries that can be repeated ad infinitum, dialogue that repeats weirdly, and so forth. I'd guess that MATAC is untested or minimally tested. Still, if you're a member of the club it parodies, you'll probably have a great time with it. If you aren't, I'm afraid I can't recommend it.

Rating: 6.0


CHRONICLE PLAY TORN by Penczer Atilla as "Algol"

The readme for Chronicle Play Torn issues a warning:
   Now a few comments about the dark side of the game: its testing was
   done in a hurry, it is very likely that you will find irritating bugs
   in the prose, and the working of the game.

   I'm somewhat innocent in the former one; I'm from the non english
   speaker part of the world, and thus writing prose for me is like
   walking without light in an Infocom product: I never know, when does
   a grue find me (and if it does, I don't even notice it).
This warning encapsulates both what's good and what's bad about the game. As even the readme demonstrates, the author's English is far from perfect, and can frequently be a major roadblock to understanding. Even the title shows this -- it feels like three words randomly drawn from a magnetic poetry set. In addition, the rushed testing job shows; CPT isn't a relentless bugfest, but its code has some serious issues. However, like the readme, the project as a whole is well-intentioned, good-natured, and more fun than I expected it to be, given its acknowledged flaws.

I do want to talk a little more about the idea expressed above, that authors who don't speak English natively are "innocent" when it comes to problems in their prose. Sorry, but no, they aren't. I grant that English is a difficult language. I grant that the IF audience is tiny already, and that the majority of it communicates in English, making the choice of writing IF in one's native language so audience-limiting as to feel like no choice at all. I grant that the majority of IF tools and parsers are in English. I grant that if I tried to write a game in Hungarian or Russian or Swedish or even Spanish, the language I studied in high school and college, the results would be far worse than even the worst translated game in this comp. I grant all these things. But ultimately, the fact remains that whatever the circumstances, good games have good prose. When you write a story, you are responsible for every word in it. Who would try to write a novel in a language in which they weren't fluent? What publisher would take it? Just because you're writing an IF game doesn't mean that you're any less responsible for your words, no matter how strong the coding is, and no matter how tough you find English. In the end, I want to read good stories, not understandable excuses. Native speaker or not, if the prose in your game is littered with problems, your game will suck. Period. By the way, it did occur to me that the author may not have understood the connotation (or even denotation) of "innocent" when making the claim above. However, if that's true, it only underscores my point, which seems well worth making in a competition where a full 15% of the games I've played thus far suffer from some amount of broken English.

So, that point made, how's the rest of the game? Well, mixed. On the negative side, my game experience was diminished greatly by the presence of a bug so severe that it crashed the entire interpreter, which is an IF experience I haven't had for a while. I checked it out, and the bug is reproducible -- I think the game is trying to dynamically create objects that it hasn't properly set up. There were some other bugs too, though none as bad as that one. In addition, I found the game too long for the competition; by the time my two hours had run out, I'd estimate I was about 75% done. Of course, having to keep restarting my interpreter didn't help matters in that department. In the positive column, CPT features some entertaining imagery, including a few parts that capture the Lovecraft feel quite well. Also, the game's story is fun, kind of a jumped-up version of Uncle Zebulon's Will. The hint system is very helpful, but most of the puzzles are crafted sensibly enough that I didn't need it often, though I did turn to it as I was running out of time, or when I found the game's prose just too impenetrable. Finally, what I appreciated the most about CPT is that its heart really seems to be in the right place. Despite its serious problems, it's written out of a deep affection for both its medium and its themes, and while I can't recommend the game, I applaud the effort, and I hope that the author improves it and continues to write more.

Rating: 4.4


SQUARE CIRCLE by Eric Eve

I've been an IF Comp judge for a long time now, and the autumn events of my last ten years are all tied up with comp games. I'm pretty much always playing an IF game on Halloween -- I particularly remember the supremely un-spooky Mystery Manor. Similarly, I have a strong memory of playing and reviewing Castle Amnos on Election Day 2000. Now it's November 4th, 2004, two days after an election whose results disappointed me very much, and the game that marks the occasion is Square Circle. It's fitting, really, because the game's theme feels both political and timely. The PC awakens in a cell, his memory wiped clean (yes, it's YAPCWA, Yet Another PC With Amnesia), imprisoned for no reason that he can remember. Further exploration reveals that in the PC's world, criminal justice has adopted a Kafkaesque tone: criminals are defined as those people being punished for a crime, and therefore if you are in jail, you are by definition a criminal. With my government using a holding pen on foreign soil to detain alleged "enemy combatants" who have been charged with no crime and who have no access to due process, and with the authority behind this plan having been swept back into office by the popular will, the game feels eerily relevant. The difference, of course, is that the Guantanamo prisoners won't win their release with puzzle solutions, no matter how clever. Then again, the game's "justice" system is meant to be based on pure rationalism (though of course it's a through-the-looking-glass kind of rationalism), and nobody ever accused George Bush of being overly beholden to rationality. In any case, Square Circle ties its themes together quite neatly, with the emphasis on rationalism gone horribly awry reflected both in the PC's imprisonment and in the paradoxical geometry puzzle that holds the key to his escape.

The game's design is similarly good overall. The geometry theme carries over into the design of rooms and objects, with squares and circles repeating all over the place, not to mention cubes and spheres. The rhythmic echoing of these shapes helped me begin to wrap my mind around the game's titular problem, and while I stumbled into the beginning of my solution by dumb luck, I was thrilled to figure the rest of it out by myself. I was even more surprised to discover that I hadn't solved the game's central puzzle, but in fact opened up a much larger vista of puzzle and story. Many of those puzzles had multiple solutions available, all of which made at least some sense. Options like that always make a game more fun. The plot unfolded satisfyingly, teasingly doling out hints about the PC's identity. By now, the amnesiac PC is a hoary cliche, but Square Circle felt a bit fresher than the average YAPCWA game by virtue of a couple of little plot twists. Unfortunately, one weaker puzzle undermined the game's totalitarian feel by enlisting the elements as co-conspirators against the PC. It's one thing when other people create a maddening environment for a character, but unless those people have a weather-control device, bringing something like the wind into the equation is a dirty trick. The other serious issue with the game's design has to do with one of its dead ends. I quite liked the way that Square Circle allows you to do utterly dumb things, and the consequence is generally instant death. However, there's one path that puts you into an unwinnable situation which does not announce itself as unwinnable in any way, and in fact teasingly offers a repetition of the solvable opening scenario. I wasted precious time flailing around here before turning to the hints and finding that I needed to restart. I don't care for this sort of design -- if you're going to end my game, just end it.

Speaking of that hint system, it was generally quite well-done. The hints were menu-based and Invisiclues-style, with enough contextual awareness to only offer hints on the problems currently facing the PC. I certainly leaned on the hints quite a bit, and found them quite adept at providing just enough nudge. Unfortunately, I did run into a problem at the very end of my game session, where I was faced with a roadblock and the game failed to offer me any hints about it. A couple of other glitches afflicted the game, too, including some typos, and a bit of freaky parsing:

   >draw square around circle
   What do you want to draw that on?

   >note
   What do you want to note?

   >get note
   Noted.
What just happened? I still don't know. On the other hand, the game pulls off some amazing parsing tricks when it gives the PC a marking pen and some paper. In his attempt to create a square circle (as demanded by the entity holding him prisoner), the PC can draw a square, and a circle. Even better than that, he can draw whatever he likes. For instance, the game responds to DRAW CARTOON with "You draw a cartoon on the note," and from that point forward, CARTOON becomes a synonym for NOTE. I thought that this was really an amazingly cool bit of parser trickery. Lots of other little conveniences were on hand as well, though I suspect many of the ones that reach for player-friendliness are already built into TADS 3. I particularly liked X WALLS, which provided an actual description for each wall of a room, creating a wonderfully complete feeling for the game's world. In fact, some of the game's description levels go intoxicatingly deep:
   >x guardian
   The guardian is a lithe, athletic-looking man in his mid-thirties,
   with short fair hair and a hard, unsympathetic face.  Heís dressed in
   a pale grey uniform [...]

   >x grey
   Itís a drab, though reasonably smart, uniform consisting of pale grey
   trousers and a tunic of the same colour.  The tunic has a pair of
   breast pockets, with a badge above the left one.

   >x badge
   The badge bears the inscription NEW ENLIGHTENMENT PUNISHMENT SERVICE
   and depicts a set of prison gates and a sword.

   >x sword
   The highly stylized sword is depicted hilt up and to the left, with
   its blade interlacing the prison gates.
Wow. I mean, wow. I just adore that kind of thing. I also love when that kind of largesse is applied to a game's overall design, providing a nice long playing experience... except when the game gets entered in the comp. Square Circle suffers from being oversized for a comp game -- not heinously so, but I think I was only about 75% through when the two-hour bell rang. So that'll hurt its rating with me. Otherwise, though it's a little unpolished in places, this game offers an intriguing scenario and some enjoyable puzzles, and I recommend it, especially if it sees a revised post-comp edition.

Rating: 8.1

Go to the previous page of reviews

Go to the next page of reviews

Return to my IF page

Return to my home page

Paul O's 2004 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 5 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2004