1997 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 3

(in the order I played them)

GLOWGRASS by Nate Cull

Glowgrass is a fine piece of interactive science fiction in the tradition of Planetfall. Once again, you play a character whose ship has failed, touching down amid the well-preserved ruins of an ancient civilization. You explore these ruins, piecing together strange technology and small clues which lead you to the discovery of how a deadly plague wiped out the race which once dominated the planet. Of course, there are differences along with the similarities. Rather than an Ensign Seventh Class, you play a "xenohistorian", and the ruins you are exploring belong to the Ancients, who are apparently (it's a little unclear) not a separate race from your own, but rather your people's ancestors. Also, Glowgrass is a much more serious game, with none of the silliness and whimsy of Planetfall. Finally, it is, as befits a competition game, much shorter, and therefore its ending is rather unsatisfying, leaving off just when it feels like the real game should begin. I won't give away anything about this ending, but it pulls a little surprise which casts the assumptions of the rest of the game into doubt. I'm hopeful that Glowgrass is a preview of a longer adventure, so that the secret revealed at the ending can be explained and explored to its full extent.

Another important way in which Glowgrass distinguishes itself from Planetfall is that its postapocalyptic exploration is clearly focused on our own world. Various clues scattered throughout the game make it clear that the player character is exploring the ruins of old Earth. However, the old Earth explored by the character is not our present-day world, but rather a speculative extrapolation of a future 60 or so years from now. Thus Glowgrass becomes a small puzzle-box of possible futures, one fitting inside the other, and each one interesting in its own way. Cull does a very nice job of extrapolating technologies, both for the "Ancient" future and the far future, using small touches to demonstrate the character's far-future understanding colliding with a researched past (which is our future.) If my description is confusing, it's only because I'm not doing as good a job as Cull does of making the overlapping eras perfectly clear.

Glowgrass also concerns itself with an imagination of virtual reality. The number of IF games which involve some type of VR or simulated reality (Delusions, AMFV, Mind Electric, etc.) leads me to believe that our medium is particularly suited to exploring the possibilities of VR. It makes sense, considering that IF partakes of some element of simulation, that it demonstrates a particular facility for making itself a simulation of a simulation. Glowgrass pushes the envelope a bit by making its only NPC a virtual reality construct, thus neatly avoiding the problems of sentience, competence, and individual action -- the character can't go anywhere or do much of anything except talk, and her knowledge is limited by her programming: a perfect IF character. Glowgrass is a well-written game with a pleasantly creepy aura, a pleasurable way to spend a couple of hours and hopefully a prelude to more quality work.

Prose: The prose in Glowgrass was quite effective. In particular, the author made good use of the opportunities afforded by the player's first entry into a particular location. For example, in one part of the game you find an "Ancient" skycar, and the game effectively capitalizes on the natural first reaction to finding such a vehicle: "Looking at the skycar, you feel a surge of hope. Despite the vehicle's age, it seems intact. Maybe, if you could somehow get it to work..." However, having evoked and emphasized that reaction, the game quickly quashes it: "The thought dies as quickly as it came. Stupid idea. You have no idea how to fly the thing, and who knows what parts are missing?" Prose techniques like his build a very convincing player character, and help the game to succeed in creating an immersive fictional experience.

Plot: I've covered the basics of the plot above, so I'll just use this space to say that the plot is not what it seems, and that I found the ending rather frustrating. In the last few sentences of the game, the author rearranges and twists your perceptions of the setting and the characters, but just as the secret is unfolding, the game ends. I'm hopeful that this game will one day serve as a prologue to a more thorough exploration of Glowgrass' absorbing world. In short: I want more!

Puzzles: According to the author, Glowgrass is "a story, not a puzzle game," so the puzzles are intended to serve as natural propulsion for the storyline. In the main, they work quite well in this regard. Really the only area where I had trouble was in figuring out a piece of technology whose description was (I felt) a little too vague to suggest the use intended by the author. Once I consulted the walkthrough and found my way past this obstacle, the game flowed quite smoothly. Thus, if that part of the game (which I consider more a faltering of the prose than a puzzle) were polished a bit, Glowgrass' narrative flow would be very well served indeed by its puzzles.

writing -- I found no mechanical errors in Glowgrass.
coding -- The game's coding was quite well done, with some very nice touches (I appreciated a response to "Who am I?"). [SPOILERS AHEAD] There were only a few areas where the illusion broke down a bit too far, the main one being the "sculpture" which you can "SIT" on but not "ENTER".


LEAVES by Mikko Vuorinen

You might think that a game called "Leaves" would have something to do with leaves. You'd be wrong. The game's actual theme is escape: you, as the main character, must escape from a heavily guarded complex. Who are you? It's not clear. Where are you? It's not clear. Why are you there? It's not clear. Why do you want to escape? It's not clear. What is clear is that Leaves isn't much concerned with having a story, but rather with setting up a sequence of linear, one-solution puzzles, the completion of which leads to a full score but not much narrative satisfaction.

Now, by the author's own admission, he came up with most of this stuff when he was fourteen, so the immaturity of the work is fairly understandable. In addition, Leaves is better than the only other ALAN game I've played, Greg Ewing's Don't Be Late from last year's competition (though this may be due more to improvements in ALAN rather than any particular ingenuity on the part of the author of Leaves). Finally, since the author is Finnish, it may be that English isn't his first language, which would help to explain the middling quality of the writing. However, all these considerations aside, the fact remains that this is an immature piece. There's no story, the writing is mediocre, and several of the puzzles are based on a crude, adolescent fascination with sexuality.

On the positive side, ALAN was coded well. I found no bugs in the code, and although many synonyms were unusable (including an inability to substitute an adjective for a noun, though that may be the language's design rather than the author's failing) many surprising responses actually were anticipated. I'm hopeful that, since ten years have passed since Vuorinen came up with the design for Leaves, his abilities have grown. It would be wonderful to see him create the first really high-quality adventure in ALAN, since he clearly knows the language well enough to create a bug-free game.

Prose: There's nothing particularly wrong with the prose in Leaves. Overall, it's really quite serviceable. Of course, there's nothing particularly wonderful about it either. Really, the main thing that the prose fails to do is to give a stronger sense of story. Room and object descriptions in IF can be used to create a marvelously vivid narrative which slowly accretes as the story is explored. The prose in Leaves doesn't do this. Rather, it provides brief, functional descriptions which never transcend their basic, practical level.

Plot: Well, there isn't much of a plot to speak of in Leaves. You are imprisoned for some reason, and must escape. Outside of your prison is a forest, inhabited by one poorly drawn character, a cow, and a big rock. Past this, there's the obligatory underground maze, strewn with a couple of artifacts which the game does not bother to attempt explaining. This is less a plot than a string of dimly conceived settings, each serving as nothing more than a stepping-stone to the next.

Puzzles: The puzzles in Leaves range from the nonsensical (directions which can't be taken, no explanation given) to the simple (cut wires with a wire-cutter.) For the nonsensical ones, there's nothing to do but try the limited number of options at hand; pretty soon you'll hit on the right one. For the simple ones, the answer is pretty much the same, except fewer alternatives need be tried.

writing -- Impressively, I found no grammatical or spelling errors in this game. The same can't be said for many competition games penned by native English speakers.
coding -- The game was also bug-free. It would be wonderful to see a well-designed game coded with this much care.



Temple of the Orc Mage does not bring new meaning to the term "dungeon crawl". It's a generic, Dungeons & Dragons style quest for a magical gem. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with this, and Temple doesn't do it exceptionally badly. However, it doesn't do it exceptionally well, either. The game occupies a sort of limbo between a bland interactive story, with little plot (besides "find the treasure") and character development, and a bland RPG, with arbitrary magic items and valuables strewn around a dungeon setting so conventional that anyone who's read a few D&D prefab modules could recite its elements before ever seeing the game (an underground river, a ruined bedchamber, deep pits, tapestries).

This is not to suggest that the game is altogether bad. In fact, it often succeeds at some of the things that an RPG is best at: creating a sense of atmosphere, providing the thrill of vicariously handling fabulous wealth and magic, and giving the feeling that each obstacle overcome simply draws one's character deeper and deeper into the difficulties. However, there are many important things missing as well, not least of which is any sense of logic to the dungeon and the items found within. For example, how is it that you find fresh meat in a kitchen strewn with cobwebs? How is it that you are the first one to seek after this treasure? Or if you're not, what happened to everyone else? The game starts with a strong sense of story, and several nice narrative touches, then rapidly devolves into a sort of "just because" logic that poisons any sense that the eponymous Temple is anything more than an arbitrary collection of rooms and magic items. It's as if the game wants to be a hybrid of IF and RPG, but adopts the least interesting conventions of each category while ignoring the best, making itself a rather dull concoction.

I think that there's a place for such a hybrid. I've always liked Rogue and Rogue-like games, and I think that there's something to be said for the idea that it's much easier to find a computer game to provide an immersive RPG experience than it is to find a lot of like-minded peers to provide it. I can envision an IF/RPG game which combines the best elements of IF, including strong story, interesting puzzles, and the feeling of "being there", with the joys of Rogue -- abundant magic and mystery, a strong sense of score, ever-increasing risk and reward, and the feeling that there's always a possibility of finding some ultra-rare artifact, hidden away in the code for discovery by the lucky and the strong. Recent discussions about RPG-style combat in IF have even tempted me to believe that such a system could exist without being boring or pointless. Now, I admit that I'm much more of an IFer than an RPGer, so there may be such a product out on the market right now which I'm missing simply because I never sought it out. However, one thing is quite clear to me: Temple of the Orc Mage is not it.

Prose: I thought that the prose was actually one of the best features of Temple. More often than not it succeeded in drawing vivid portraits of places and items. The intro is captivating (though it could stand to be broken up a bit), and some of the room descriptions have nice atmospheric touches, bringing in temperature or quality of light to engage the senses. Sometimes the style can become a bit overly utilitarian (listings of exits) or terse ("The ceiling is low and wet. Light filters in from cracks in the wall and ceiling. Water drips slowly from stalactites above. The air is cold."), but overall I didn't find it too jarring.

Plot: There was only the most rudimentary of plots: you have decided to brave the scary dungeon to find big money and become a hero! This is a tried-and-true IF convention, so much so that it has become a bit of a cliche. Sometimes cliches can work to an author's advantage. Not this time.

Puzzles: Too often, the puzzles were either simple (try all your keys until you find the one that opens the locked chest/door) or required just examining the right object. OK, well, maybe those two are the same thing. Still, I generally felt that the puzzles had no rhyme, reason, or thought behind them. They felt generally tacked-on, and on the few times I got stuck, I discovered that the solution to the puzzle is something I would never have guessed, because there were no hints to suggest it. Example: [SPOILERS AHEAD] There's a twenty-foot wide pit blocking your way. The solution? Jump over it, and the game tells you "Propelled by the boots, which you now believe to be magical..."

writing -- There were a number of technical errors in the writing, but many (though not all) of these are attributable to typos rather than actual ignorance.
coding -- I found no serious bugs in the game, but there was a distinct lack of implementation for nouns and synonyms. For example, the game describes water in at least a third of its rooms (in fact, there's a room called the Dry Room, notable simply for its absence of water), but doesn't know the word "water." Also, a number of times in the game "examine" will turn up a hidden artifact while "search" returns "You find nothing of interest."


A NEW DAY by Jonathan Fry

A New Day is an ambitious piece of work which attempts to examine IF metalevels in a fairly original way. Its author bills it as his first real work of interactive fiction (he dismisses Stargazer, his entry in last year's competition, as a kind of instructional prelude to his actual IF writing career); in Fry's words, New Day is the first thing that is "for better or worse, truly a Jonathan Fry game." More often than not, it's better. Although the game certainly packs some frustration and confusion (the unwelcome kind, not the pleasurable kind), it also provides some fresh surprises and a thought-provoking premise.

I found the plot a little difficult to follow, but from what I could piece together, the game opens shortly after its author has died (apparently electrocuted by his laptop), leaving his IF work in progress an incomplete shambles and ruining his plans to enter the competition. In addition, something else has emerged on which the author hasn't planned: an entity who calls himself Winston. Winston claims to have been created as a part of the game, but gained sentience all on his own, along with some measure of control over the game's virtual setting. He further contends that he himself has entered the game in the competition so that you (the player) could help him investigate the author's death. Thus in the first few moves of the game we already have the real author (who appears in the acknowledgments section), a fictional representation of the real author, the game, the game's characteristic representation of itself (or an aspect of itself), the player, the player's murky fictional avatar within the game (just what is the interface simulating?), etc. Things get even more complicated from there.

Clearly, A New Day wants to position itself in the avant-garde of IF and explore fictional levels in the manner of experimental modern fiction. This is certainly a worthwhile project (and one that has been touched upon by many games including A Mind Forever Voyaging, Piece of Mind, and Bureaucracy), and New Day manages to break some intriguing ground along the way. However, the game is by no means an unqualified success. The author overuses one off-the-wall prose technique in one section of the game, a little of which would have gone a long way. Also, I found the puzzles often to be counterintuitive and confusing. Finally, the game gives the impression of having bitten off a bit more than it can chew. I found myself wondering if the author had carefully thought through all the semantics and implications of the levels he imagines -- by the end it all seems a bit of a muddle. Still, A New Day has some shining moments, and the author is right to think that it's a significant step up from "Stargazer." I look forward to the continued maturation of Jonathan Fry's artistic voice.

Prose: The prose is smooth in some areas, faltering in others. On occasion the author still suffers from the awkward phrasing which plagued him in "Stargazer," but it's clear that a significant improvement has been made. The Athens section does a nice job of communicating the feel of the city (or so it seemed to me, but then I've never been to Athens), and other parts of the game neatly sidestep the necessity for strong prose by deliberately excluding description. [SPOILERS AHEAD] In addition, the author pulls a wild prose stunt about 2/3 of the way through the game, breaking down the most basic conventions of words and sentences in order to simulate a software crash. This works wonderfully at first; Fry uses an well-judged combination of sense and nonsense to convey the barest notion of setting. However, it becomes pretty tiresome after a while (and the nature of the puzzles dictated that I would be seeing a lot of that area). Fry finds the right balance of gibberish with text for his experiment, but misses the mark in measuring how much is too much in the larger context of the game.

Plot: I've recounted much of the plot above, so I'll just say here that I found it to be one of the most complicated, but also one of the most predictable, of the competition games I've played so far. The levels of representation certainly do get entangled (perhaps moreso than the author bargained for), [SPOILERS AHEAD] but some elements, such as the "revelation" that Winston was the murderer and the final, climactic scene inside the guts of the computer, were strictly pro forma. The combination makes the game feel rather more gimmicky than it should, as if the stylistic devices haven't been considered beyond their immediate surprise value.

Puzzles: [SPOILERS] I found A New Day's puzzles to be rather difficult and counterintuitive on the whole. The last puzzle was especially tough, but more because I wasn't clear on exactly how the setup of wires and sockets and etc. was arranged. I'm inclined to think that this is more a fault of the prose than necessarily a shortcoming in the puzzle itself --however, in its present form the unclear prose made a difficult puzzle quite impenetrable for me. I also found many of the puzzles to be rather gratuitous, working against rather than with the flow of the story. Examples that come to mind are the tourist's handbag and the password in the garbled section.

writing -- The writing was fine on a technical level.
coding -- The game included some nice coding touches, including an exits list on the status line which was context-sensitive depending on what section the game found itself in. Also, Winston was quite thoroughly programmed, which helped to flesh out his character and deepen his effectiveness. Overall, Fry's coding job was admirable.


SYLENIUS MYSTERIUM by Christopher E. Forman as "whomever wrote it"

[Because of the nature of Sylenius Mysterium, any or all of this review could be considered a spoiler. In addition, spoilers are present for Freefall and Robots. You have been warned.]

There seems to be this strange impulse in the text adventure community to recreate the experience of graphical arcade games using the Z-machine. The first evidence I ever saw of this trend was Andrew Plotkin's "Freefall", a z-machine Tetris implementation using realtime opcodes to reproduce the geometrical game with ASCII graphics. Others have followed, including Torjborn Andersson's "Robots", which recreates one of the earliest video games, and a DOOM implementation which I haven't played. I have to say that this notion baffles me. When I first saw "Freefall", I thought it was good fun. It struck me as a typically amazing Plotkin programming exercise which showcased the versatility of the z-machine. But it didn't become an arcade staple on my machine. As a text adventure, it was pretty wild. As Tetris, it was pretty average. I played it once or twice to see what it could do, then deleted it. "Robots" I kept, but I don't play it.

Now here's Sylenius Mysterium (hereafter called SM), the bulk of which is a textual emulation of a horizontally scrolling run-and-jump game, a la Pitfall or Mario Brothers. This kind of thing used to come up as a joke on the IF newsgroups from time to time, and now here it is, a real game. Unfortunately, SM demonstrates the reason that those games were implemented graphically in the first place. Namely, it's silly to implement an arcade game in descriptive mode. ("You begin walking right." "You execute a running jump." "Beneath you is a low wall.") These types of structures are what graphics are best at doing, and they were being done 15 years ago. It's both more fun and less confusing to see an arcade environment in graphics, and if even ancient computers are capable of doing so, what's the point of making a text adventure which simply produces an inferior copy of the original? Playing SM just made me wish that the author had sacrificed portability and implemented the arcade section in graphics. Hell, even cheesy ASCII graphics would have made for a more fun experience than one long room description reading "A panoramic landscape, parallax layers of empty, ruined buildings, scrolling by with your movements." It seems to me that text is good at certain things and so is graphics, and to make a text version of Pitfall makes about as much sense as a joystick-and-fire-button version of A Mind Forever Voyaging. It's great to know that the z-machine has realtime capabilities to produce a text arcade game, but surely those capabilities can be put to better use.

SM does have a prologue which operates in a traditional text adventure mode, and this section of the game is quite well-done, with the exception of a number of problematic bugs. The game does a very nice job of defining an engaging and convincing setting and characters, as well as creating a sense of nostalgia for the old gaming consoles. The Atari system was my first introduction to videogames that could be played at home, and I have many fond memories of days spent at friends' houses playing Missile Command or Donkey Kong or Pitfall. In fact, the game evoked nostalgia so well that my disappointment was all the sharper when I realized that its "arcade" section was nothing more than realtime text.

Prose: The prose in the IF section of the game was really quite accomplished, so much so in fact that it sent me to the dictionary a couple of times to confirm the meaning of unfamiliar words. All the game's elements, from the sterile quiet of a mall after-hours, to the almost exaggerated "skate punk" main character, to the loving descriptions of the old-time game consoles, were written in a style that I found quite rich and absorbing.

Plot: The plot in SM is mainly a device to whisk the player to the arcade section. The plot of that section is (intentionally, I think) extremely pure and simple: find the bad guy and undo his evil deeds.

Puzzles: Again, the puzzles outside the arcade section were few, and those inside the arcade section can't really be called "puzzles" in the traditional sense, though I would argue that the game does propose an interesting juxtaposition between the challenges of a Mario Brothers-style arcade game and IF puzzles -- the two are closer than they are sometimes thought to be. Those puzzles within the IF section were usually quite simple, though from time to time bugs arose that made the simplest actions seem unintentionally like puzzles themselves.

writing -- The writing was technically excellent.
coding -- Here there were a number of problems. I was keeping a text file of all the major bugs I found until I realized that the author had provided no email address (not even an anonymous remailer for comp97) to which bug reports could be sent. Suffice it to say that there were a number of situations, both inside and outside the arcade section, that needed much improvement. That being said, however, I'm willing to forgive quite a bit from someone who takes on a project as ambitious (even though I personally don't find it to be very interesting) as the arcade section of SM. That section suffers from game-killing bugs of the "FATAL: No such property" variety (or at least it does under WinFrotz), but the working sections of it seemed to work quite well, and I salute the serious effort it must have taken to create them.


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Paul O's 97 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 3 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002