"Yet look, how far The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow In underprizing it, so far this shadow Doth limp behind the substance." -- William Shakespeare The Merchant of Venice III.ii.126-129
The Tempest attempts a great deal, and achieves much of it despite being somewhat flawed. The work presents itself not as a game, but as an "interactive performance" which asks the player to perform as the magical will of Shakespeare's Prospero, guiding the spirit Ariel (a.k.a. the parser) through the plot of The Tempest (the play), though not necessarily in the order in which Shakespeare wrote it. Remarkably, this complicated positioning of subjectivity works quite well (and opens some unexplored territory for the mixing of first, second, and third person forms of address in IF). It is blended with a new approach to dialogue which prevents the player character from speaking at all but presents many screenfuls of dialogue between other characters (and sometimes including Ariel himself), the exchanges broken up by pausing for keystrokes between each character's lines. In a sense, the player's commands to the parser become essentially stage directions issued to an onstage persona via a magical conduit. This idiom also works beautifully, bestowing the game with a powerful aura of theatrical performance. The Tempest is entertaining and innovative; it often feels quite magical to inhabit the Prospero/Ariel connection, and to take part in a groundbreaking interactive experience. I think that the game also has great potential as an educational tool, allowing readers to experience Shakespeare's language in a new and thrilling way.
All this being said, however, the Tempest is not without its problems. Actually, perhaps the game just has one major problem which manifests itself in several ways. Although the author does an excellent (sometimes astonishing) job of rearranging Shakespeare's scenes and lines to fit the interactive mode, the fit is not perfect. Several times during the game I felt faced with responses which, if not complete non sequiturs, were certainly only tenuously connected to the command I had typed. The author wrenches in bits and pieces of dialogue from all over the play for various purposes, pressing them into service as room descriptions, parser rejoinders, and other sundry purposes. Sometimes they are perfectly suited to their purpose and sometimes less so. When I was on the wrong end of this continuum, my relationship with the game became strained -- the parser's responses were beautiful, but didn't make enough sense, and not because of any opacity in the Elizabethan English. This situation creates a problem with the game's puzzles: usually interactive fiction prose can be written in such a way as to suggest subtle hints to the problems facing the player. However, when control of the prose escapes the author, those hints become harder and harder for a player to come by. It is to this difficulty with the prose (and, of course, to the lack of any hint system or walkthrough) that I ascribe the problems I've seen players having, often with the very first puzzle of the game. With a typical piece of IF, the author could simply tailor the game's responses to help the player along -- the Tempest often achieves this goal, but all too often it falls short.
[POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD] Before I played The Tempest, I was unlucky enough to run across a USENET conversation which suggested that Graham Nelson is the game's author. I thought this was a spoiler, and I admit that it did set up a bit of preconception for me before I had even seen the first word of the game. Having said that, several things about the game do have a strong air of Nelson about them. The author's erudition is clear, from the simple choice of subject matter to the deft interweaving of other Shakespearean and Renaissance phrases into the play's text when necessary (for example, to the command "throw x at character" the game responds "I have no aim, no, no chance of a palpable hit.", a phrase echoing Hamlet). Such attention to scholarly detail recalls some of the finer moments of Nelson's epics, especially Jigsaw. Moreover, the game's help menu (which it calls its frontispiece) contains fascinating blurbs on lost islands and the play's history, as well as notes on the game, its creation and characteristics. Such additions are strongly reminiscent of the diplomatic briefings in Nelson's 1996 1st Place game The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet. Finally, the author's technical skill and innovations with Inform are tremendous, and who better to code so well than the language's inventor? It may be that Nelson is in fact not the author of the work (in which case the author should take the comparison as a compliment of the highest order), but even if that is so, the talent behind this game is clearly a major one. The Tempest was Shakespeare's last play, and as such carries a distinct air of finality -- I only hope that whoever authored this work will not allow it to be his or her last as well.
Prose: I suppose this is where I ought to weigh in on the debate over the originality of a work like the IF version of the Tempest. It's my opinion that the IF Tempest is absolutely a different piece of work from the Tempest, the play. Yes, the author uses almost the entire script of the play, but I would argue that such usage is not plagiarism, because whatever Shakespeare's intentions, I think it's safe to say that the play was not written to be adapted into interactive form. Consequently, I don't see the IF Tempest as any less an original work than Emma Thompson's Sense and Sensibility or, for that matter, Shakespeare's MacBeth (whose plot was lifted from Holinshed's histories.) Yes, the seams do sometimes show between the author's additions and Shakespeare's text -- these are the work's weaker moments. However, in judging the Tempest's prose, I judge not the quality of Shakespeare's writing, but the quality of its usage in its new medium -- on that basis, more often than not, it succeeds.
Plot: I predict that a certain contingent of voices will raise the hue and cry over what they perceive to be the Tempest's lack of interactivity. I wasn't able to finish the game in two hours (far from it, in fact -- I got only six points, another example of an excellent competition game which breaks the two-hour rule), but the parts I saw made it pretty clear that the game leads you along rather carefully from one plot point to the next, allowing for very little branching. My own opinion is that this structure is not a problem -- after all, the piece bills itself as "more a 'performance' than a 'game'," and as such it's perfectly appropriate for the Tempest to enforce a certain degree of rigidity to accommodate the exigencies of its plot. In fact, what this achieves is the inclusion of a much more complicated plot than is common in interactive fiction; by limiting the player's ability to affect the narrative stream, the game allows the complexity of Shakespeare's plotting to shine through even in this challenging new form. I'm satisfied with the trade-off.
Puzzles: As noted above, this is where I identify the major weakness of the Tempest. [SPOILERS AHEAD] I cite as an example the first puzzle of the game, where Ariel must blow a storm to upset the boat and set the plot into motion. The reason that players are finding this puzzle so difficult is that it requires rather close knowledge of the play (and not just of the play's first scene), which most players, even very well educated ones, are not likely to have at their fingertips. No hint is given of Ariel's powers or of his purpose in regard to the ship. Now, in a typical IF game, there might be a sentence or two in the introductory paragraph which introduces the idea and sets players on their way. However, because of the constraints imposed by using a collage of prewritten text, these hints are unavailable and thus players flounder in a "read-the-playwright/designer's-mind" sort of puzzle. It won't be the last time.
writing -- The prose did an excellent job with handling a number of difficult technical tasks with regard to writing and using Elizabethan English.
coding -- I found only one bug in Tempest (at least, I think it was a bug), among a thoroughly reworked library of Inform responses and the introduction of a number of excellent devices for the presentation of dialogue and clarification of the plot.
OVERALL: A 9.2
According to its author, "Aunt Nancy's House is actually based on my aunt's (soon-to-be-former) house, and was created as a way of teaching myself Inform. There are no puzzles, the idea is mainly to wander about in an interactive environment and have fun." Well, "wander" was certainly there, but "fun" wasn't, at least not for me. Basically ANH simulates an empty house. That's it. I have no doubt that creating this simulation was pretty exciting for the author, but without that connection to the subject material, other players are going to be bored.
ANH taught its author how to use Inform -- I look forward to when he applies that knowledge to the creation of a game.
Prose: The game's prose wasn't outstanding, but it served its purpose.
Plot: ANH has no plot.
Puzzles: ANH has no puzzles. (Hey, puzzleless IF!)
writing -- I spotted a few grammatical errors in the game, which I've passed along to the author.
coding -- ANH has a number of bugs, which I've also forwarded to the author, but for a first exercise in learning Inform, it was put together pretty well.
OVERALL: A 2.9
As such, VirtuaTech isn't bad. It's short, easy, and inoffensive. There is some entertainment to be had from solving the game's puzzles and exploring its limited geography, but it doesn't deliver much in the way of excitement or thrills. The puzzles are mainly a matter of putting the right key in the right lock, and finding numbers to type on a variety of keypads. The game's one slightly more interesting puzzle (opening the portal) I solved just by noodling rather than through any kind of inductive reasoning, so I wasn't able to experience the pleasure of any great flash of insight.
On the plus side, there isn't much particularly wrong with the game. The writing could be better, but it certainly works. The design is compact and efficient, and the setting as a whole is consistent and makes logical sense. There are very few bugs in the code (I only found one real problem), and the puzzles may be unimaginative, but they're fair. Consequently, VirtuaTech turns out to be a pleasant way to spend 45 minutes or so.
Prose: There's certainly a level of awkwardness to the prose in VirtuaTech. Many of the sentences are rather clunky, and the whole thing could use an edit for elegance and rhythm. However, I only rarely found myself confused by descriptions or situations, so the writing did its most important job: it conveyed the scene with accuracy and clarity.
Plot: The game's plot is very, very simple, which is probably what makes it such a short game to play. [SPOILERS AHEAD] In fact, I was rather surprised that all I needed to do was to get the paper printed and to walk out the door. When the winning message came up, I said "That's it?" It was.
Puzzles: As mentioned above, the puzzles are pretty garden-variety. Lots of typing codes into keyboards or pushing the right button. Still, the puzzles all make sense within the game's world, and there are no "guess-the-verb" or "read-the-designer's-mind" puzzles to be found.
writing -- I found a couple of grammar errors in the game, but nothing too egregious.
coding -- There was only one bug in the game, and its effect on gameplay was negligible. A couple of verbs could have been better implemented, but solutions to these problems were also not hard to find.
OVERALL: An 8.0
One area in which the game does succeed is that of the innovations introduced by its authors, especially in the area of navigation: MmeLTS combines the direction-based locomotion of traditional IF with the more intuitive "go to location x" type of travel used in games like Joe Mason's In The End. The title character (a "spiritualist detective" who is also the player character) can travel to various locations around Sydney with the use of the "travel to" or "go to" verb. However, once she has arrived at a particular location she uses direction-based navigation to walk from place to place (or room to room, as the case may be.) Moreover, the authors often write direction responses as a simple set of actions performed by the title character rather than implementing entire rooms which serve no purpose. These methods of navigation combine the best of both worlds, providing a broad brush for cross-city or cross-country travel but not taking away the finer granularity available to the direction-based system. A related innovation concerns Madame L'Estrange's notebook, in which the game automagically tallies the names of important people and places which come up in her investigations. This notebook (similar to the "concept inventory" used in some graphical IF) provides a handy template for travel and inquiry, and would be welcome inside any game, especially those involving a detective.
One other point: MmeLTS takes the character all over Sydney, and in doing so provides an element of education and travel narrative along with its detective story. The medium's investigations take her from Centennial Park to the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Taronga Zoo to the University of New South Wales. Locations are often well-described, and after playing the game for two hours I felt more knowledgeable about Sydney than when I started (I hope the game's locations weren't fictional!) As an American whose knowledge of Australia is mostly limited to Mad Max movies, I can attest that the travel aspect of the game is a lot of fun.
Prose: It's not that the game's prose was terrible of itself. The game is quite verbose, outputting screenfuls of text as a matter of course, and much of this text is effective and worthwhile. As I mentioned, many of the descriptions worked quite well, and the game does manage to clearly elucidate its plot as events happen. It's just that the mechanics of the prose are so bad (see Technical/writing). When technical problems are so pervasive, they can't help but have a tremendous negative impact on the quality of the prose.
Plot: The game's plot is actually quite interesting. [SLIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD] Mme. L'Estrange is presented with two apparently unrelated mysteries: strange wildlife deaths ascribed to a mysterious beast loose in Centennial Park, and the apparent suicide of a marine biology worker. As one might expect, these two situations eventually turn out to be linked. I wasn't able to finish the game in two hours (in fact, I only scored five points out of 65 in that time, which makes me wonder just how much of the game I haven't yet seen), but what I saw makes it clear that the game is well-plotted. I was interested in seeing its mysteries unfold.
Puzzles: I didn't really find many puzzles as such -- the game is mainly focused on exploration. Those puzzles which I did find were quite soluble as long as enough exploring had been done. What took up most of my time was visiting locations, talking to characters, and "tuning in" to the spirit world to commune with the spirits of the dead or learn more about a place's spiritual aura. This kept me busy enough that I didn't really miss the lack of puzzles.
writing -- The mechanics of the writing are just horrible. Sentences constantly lack periods or initial capital letters. Words are constantly misspelled. Typos are everywhere. The tense shifts back and forth at random between past and present; either one would have been workable and interesting, but the game seems unable to make up its mind. A similar phenomenon occurs with the voice, which vacillates between second and third person address. This avalanche of mechanical problems cripples what could have been an excellent game.
coding -- The jury is still out on how well the game is coded. When I was using WinFrotz to play the game, I encountered Fatal errors repeatedly, but I'm not sure whether they were the fault of the designer or of the interpreter. JZIP presented the game with no problem, but again that could be because the interpreter was ignoring an illegal condition. Several aspects of the coding, such as Madame L's notebook, were quite nifty (unless that's what was causing the problem with WinFrotz crashing), and the implementation was solid overall.
OVERALL: A 7.1
There are some things that PPQP does right. For one thing, it made me laugh out loud several times. [JOKE SPOILERS AHEAD] My favorite has to be when you come upon a butcher who is described thusly: "Gunnar is burly, scary-looking brute. But he has the heart of a lamb. He has the heart of cow, too. He has many hearts in a pile on top of the counter." That was hysterical. [JOKE AND PUZZLE SPOILERS AHEAD!] I also enjoyed killing a vampire by driving a fatty steak into his heart before he arose from his coffin. As he dies, he exclaims "Too much cholesterol. My arteries can't take the torture." In addition, many of the names chosen for places and people strike the right note of humor. In fact, many of them are strongly reminiscent of the Unnkuulia series (for example, "Mizztik Island"), which in my mind is a good thing. These moments of mirth prove that the author is definitely capable of writing funny moments. Unfortunately, the game proves unable to sustain the humor, a task made no easier by its bugs and errors.
I won't go on for too long about these, except to say that the game clearly should have had some intense playtesting before it was released to the public. Playing it reminded me of the old New Zork Times playtesting article with the story of how initially in Dave Lebling's Suspect it was possible to carry Veronica's corpse around the party and not have anyone react to you in any way. In PPQP I was able to solve a puzzle or two without ever having found the items necessary to do so, and to add an unconscious dwarf to my inventory after I tried to take off his vest. These things were funny, but I don't think this was quite the type of absurdity the author was aiming for.
Prose: At times, the prose works beautifully, delivering funny lines with good pacing and diction. Other times, it feels a bit over the top, trying too hard to be funny and falling short. The conclusion I came to after two hours of play is that the author is probably quite funny, and is working on the craft of distilling that humor into written form. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, but I look forward to his future creations if he continues to develop his comic voice.
Plot: Well, play a silly game, find a silly plot. The idea behind PPQP is, quite predictably, a treasure hunt. This particular variety of treasure hunt asks you to chase down all the ingredients necessary to make a pizza as demanded by Phred Phontious (not the main character, surprisingly enough), the court jester who is your boss' boss. You, the lowly peon, must traverse the faux fantasy landscape to come up with the sauce, cheese, mushroom, etc. It's a silly, shopworn device that nonetheless serves its purpose. Of course, I didn't come close to finishing the game in two hours so I don't know whether the pizza ever actually gets made, but that's not the point anyway.
Puzzles: This was one of the weakest areas in PPQP. A number of the puzzles are highly dependent on each other, and a few are not as well clued as they should be. [SPOILERS AHEAD] I found myself completely stuck after exploring for a little while, only to discover that I was supposed to pull a hook in the kitchen. I didn't see anything suggesting that the hook should be pulled, and the prose led me to believe that the hook was in the ceiling and (I reasoned) hard to reach. Turns out the hook was in the wall, and pulling it opened a secret passage to a wine cellar which held a bottle of wine absolutely necessary for any progress in the game. This struck a sour note with me, and I found myself using the walkthrough repeatedly after that. I still didn't come anywhere close to finishing in two hours.
writing -- There were quite a few mechanical errors in the writing.
coding -- As mentioned above, the game was quite buggy. It definitely could have used another round or two of playtesting.
OVERALL: A 4.2
Paul O's 97 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 4 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002