1997 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 6

(in the order I played them)


Sunset Over Savannah (hereafter called Sunset) is one of the most impressive, enjoyable, and successful games of the 1997 competition. Interestingly, it shares a strategy with another very successful game, She's Got a Thing for a Spring: both games present a natural world where fantasy-style magic is subtle to the point of nonexistence, but which nonetheless is suffused with wonder, divulging incredible sights which move the spirit as strongly as ever did any of Gandalf's fireworks. The game takes place on a beach whose implementation is exquisitely complete, a small space which allows a great number of options within it... narrow but very deep. In itself, implementation of this depth carries a kind of magic, the kind of delirious sense of possibility inherent in all the best interactive fiction. The magic goes beyond this, though. The puzzles in the game (at least, the ones I had time to solve) are focused on a single theme: finding magic and wonder in a seemingly mundane world. As you wander the game's beach and find ways to ferret out its secrets, those secrets display themselves in fiery sequences of enchantment and glamour. It's an effect whose emotional impact could not be duplicated in a graphical game, only imitated. The arresting visuals would be there, but they would only carry a pale shadow of the reverential awe conveyed by the author's excellent prose.

In a gutsy choice, Cockrum centers his game around emotional transition, presenting a player character whose inner state is conflicted: you're at the end of your vacation (shades of Trinity), and the experience has made you reassess your life, especially in relation to your mind-numbing job. Is it possible that the best thing you could do is to quit, and try to set your feet on another path? In pursuit of the answer to this question, you wander the beach at Tybrisa Island, near Savannah, Georgia (hence the game's title,) discovering amazing sights in your explorations. Going further than simply making an emotional journey the subplot of his game, Cockrum focuses the action upon it. The game's "scoring" system does keep track of puzzles solved, but does it in emotional rather than numerical terms, starting with "conflicted" and moving through "astonished", "respectful", etc. I thought this innovation worked brilliantly. As someone who is interested in experimenting with the concept of score in IF, I was greatly pleased to see a game whose scoring system fulfilled the basic purpose of a score (keep players posted on their progress) and went beyond it in such a flexible and artistic way. The fact that the "emotion register" on the status bar changed not just in response to progress in puzzle-solving, but also to smaller changes in game state (switching briefly to "refreshed" after a quick dip in the ocean, for example) lent a depth of characterization to the player's avatar which was perfectly suited to the medium of IF. I hope that authors take the lesson from Sunset that score can serve not just as a gaming metafunction, but also as a primary driver for the plot.

The game's design is also first-rate. Following the example set by LucasArts' games, Sunset is impossible to put in an unsolvable state. Impressively, it achieves this degree of closure without ever resorting to arbitrary, contrived, or artificial devices. Instead, the gaps are covered so naturally that they often enhance the game's sense of realism. For example, if you pry a brick from the stony path, then lose that brick beneath the waves, the game says "With the path breached, you could probably excavate another brick." It's simple, it's natural, and it prevents the irrevocable loss of an important item. The game's structure is tight and smart, forgiving and flexible. In addition, there are several touches which reveal significant care and attention on the part of the author. Sunset provides very thorough instructions for players new to IF, a document into which the author clearly put great deal of effort. It also presents a thoroughly implemented hint system, and several sections of documentation, including credits, a list of features, and a listing of the author's design philosophy, in which he acknowledges his debt to LucasArts. The puzzles are difficult, and there are a few bugs in the implementation, which are why this game stopped just short of being a perfect 10 for me. Once those bugs are fixed, Sunset Over Savannah will be one of the best games ever to have emerged from the interactive fiction competitions.

Prose: The game's prose is of a very high quality. Cockrum faultlessly conveys the mood of the beach in Sunset's room description. The prose employed at the magical moments was breathless with a sense of wonder, imparting just the right amount of awe and astonishment without going over the top into cheesiness or melodrama. And as someone who works in a job that I find less than thrilling, I thought that the sections dealing with the emotional turmoil brought be examining such a situation and trying to figure out what to do about it were expertly handled.

Plot: I think the game's plot is a master stroke. Sunset has as much or more thematic unity as any interactive fiction game I can think of, and this unity lends a sense of sweep to the plot which makes the game such a powerful experience. Sunset establishes its focus from its first few sentences, and from that point on every piece of the game is an elaboration or variation on that conflicted, questioning theme. This seamless melding of plot and design made Sunset seem like more a work of art than a computer game.

Puzzles: This is where I stumbled just a bit. However, I'm not yet convinced that my stumbles are entirely the fault of the game. For one thing, the game's environment is so rich that I didn't get around to really focusing on puzzles until I'd played for about an hour, at which point I only had an hour left to concentrate on puzzle-solving before the competition time limit ran out. However, during that time I found it difficult to solve any puzzle, and I finally turned to the hints with about a half-hour left. What I discovered was that often the answers to the problems I was having were things that never occurred to me because of my unconscious, implicit assumptions about the depth of the game's implementation. [SPOILER WARNING] For example, at one point I need a thin line to tether something, and the solution is to take the strap off of the swimming goggles I've found. It simply never occurred to me to take this tack in the game, though it's something I would have come up with pretty quickly in real life. Why? I just assumed that the goggles were implemented to be all of a piece -- I didn't realize that the game designer had put enough care into them to make the strap detachable. I solved two major puzzles in the game, and I look forward to returning to it and solving more. I'll do so with a new paradigm in mind, and the fact that Sunset can make me change my perspective in such a way is a testament to its implementor's prowess.

writing -- I found no technical errors in Sunset's writing.
coding -- There were a few bugs in the game's implementation. I found one action which provokes no response from the game. Another action is supposed to change the setting in a particular way and fails to do so, even though the game tells you it has succeeded. There were one or two "guess-the-word" problems. I don't think any of the game's problems will be too difficult to fix.


FRIDAY AFTERNOON by Mischa Schweitzer

You work in a cubicle. When the printer breaks, you're called upon to fix it. You write programs and then write the documentation for them. But you're not a nerd! This is the premise behind Friday Afternoon (hereafter called Friday), Mischa Schweitzer's game set in corporate cubicle culture. Friday isn't Dilbert by any stretch of the imagination -- it's less a spoof on that culture than it is a puzzle-solving game using the cubicled workspace as its backdrop. It starts with a relatively simple goal (finish the items on your to-do list), throws in a few puzzles to complicate things, and goes from there. These puzzles are well-done -- they don't serve to advance the plot very much (since there is no plot to speak of), but they feel natural to the setting, and their solutions are usually sensible and intuitive. In fact, several puzzles can be solved by relatively mundane actions, but the feeling of putting together the logic to find the right mundane action is quite satisfying.

A less pleasant part of Friday is its construction of yet another annoying player character. This character's main motivation seems to be a desire to prove the fact that he (see below) is not a nerd, by way of going on a date. Now, maybe many people do struggle with this kind of identity crisis, but for the narrative's purposes it makes the main character seem shallow and unappealing. The character's gender is never specified by the game, but one section in particular shows that the character is very probably a male, and very definitely a sexist. The unfortunate thing about this is that none of it is really necessary. The sexism demonstrated by the calendar puzzle could just as easily have been pushed off onto other characters without touching the main character. The date doesn't have to prove that the character isn't a nerd -- it could just be a date, like regular people go on without having to prove something to themselves. As it is, Friday contributes to some rather unattractive stereotypes about the type of person who works in a cubicle.

Of course, this is not to say that the game sets out to make a grand point -- I'm quite sure that it doesn't. According to the author, the game started out as a light satire of his own office. I have no doubt that this early version was a great success, since the core of the game is entertaining and clever. For the competition version, he added a couple of puzzles, and removed all the inside jokes and Dutch words. The result is definitely generic enough to feel like it applies across the board. I work in a financial aid office as a counselor, but several of the puzzles still felt like they could have happened to me. Overall, Friday Afternoon is an enjoyable game and a nice utilization of an underused subgenre in IF. (What happens when the protagonists of college games graduate? They become the protagonists of office games!) It's flawed by some problems with the player character, but is aided by fine characters, very good puzzles, and solid implementation.

Prose: The prose in Friday definitely has an odd feel to it, as if something is just a bit off. I attribute this to the fact that the author is not a native English speaker -- the awkwardness is probably due to a very slight discomfiture with the language. Of course, this is not to say that the prose is bad. It usually does its job quite well, conveying humor and frustration effectively. There's just a slight unnatural feeling to it.

Plot: There isn't much of a plot in Friday. It's basically yet another variation on the "check items off of a list" flavor of IF. Of course, the great thing about Friday is that by placing the to-do list in an office setting, the game gains a very realistic feeling. I really do deal with situations every day where I have a list of things that need to be completed before I can leave work, and so the logic of a game written around such a list feels quite genuine. This device allows the game to escape the aura of contrivance that mars other "recipe" games.

Puzzles: The best feature of Friday is definitely its puzzles. They fit so seamlessly into the setting that I'd be willing to bet that the author has faced several of them in real life. Puzzles like repairing the glasses require several steps, wherein each step is logical and natural but also requires a bit of resourcefulness. Solving puzzles like these provides a feeling of accomplishment that no simple mechanical or lock-and-key puzzle can give.

writing -- There was a slight flavor of awkwardness to the writing, but to the author's credit it didn't often manifest itself in outright errors.
coding -- I found no bugs in Friday.


E-MAILBOX by Jay Goemmer

Well, if there's a prize for shortest competition game, E-MAILBOX will win it hands down. Clocking in at just under ten minutes, it barely gets off the ground before telling you either that you've won or that you've just met your death by having your body's cells torn apart from one another. Not much of a menu, but at least either way the end comes quickly. The game purports to be "A true story based on actual events that occurred to a real individual," but is written in a broad, exaggerated tone that is probably meant to be burlesque. It's funny, in a limited kind of way, but it's hard for the game to do very much when it ends so quickly.

One thing that it does do well is proves that an AGT game can hold its own in a modern competition. E-MAILBOX is short, yes, but it's fun while it lasts. I used Robert Masenten's AGiliTy interpreter for the first time, and found that it produced output that was well-formatted, easy-to-read, and even sometimes (gasp!) aesthetically pleasing. The game achieves a few nice special effects -- nothing that couldn't have been done with Inform or TADS (I don't know enough about Hugo to say one way or the other) but nothing to sneeze at either -- and generally works imaginatively with the text format. Of course, one wonders whether E-MAILBOX was kept so short in order to disguise the limitations of its programming system. There is virtually no navigation within the game, and the very linear design prevents most parser experimentation. Thanks to the handy AGT counter, I know that E-MAILBOX has a grand total of 4 locations, some of which only respond to one command. This game is a brief bit of fun, but the jury's still out on whether AGT can match up to more modern systems when it comes to more substantial works.

There are some interactive fiction games that are epic, and may take even a great player a three-day weekend to complete (without looking at any hints, of course). Then there are those which could take up a day or two, and those (many of the competition games, for instance) which might fill a long lunch break. Play E-MAILBOX over a 15 minute coffee break. You'll have some fun and still have time for a brisk walk.

Prose: I found the prose in E-MAILBOX to be pretty over-the-top. As I say, I think it was intended as burlesque, but its outrageousness seems forced. It comes across as the prose of a voice which is promising, but has not quite fully matured. It's not exactly the sophomoric arrogance of something like Zero Sum Game -- more an overly sincere zaniness.

Plot: The plot is so short and simple that it's hard to tell much without giving away the ending. Basically, it centers around trying to send an email message. (See, I told you: short and simple.)

Puzzles: Well, I never found anything that I thought really qualified as a puzzle. The actions necessary are either entirely obvious, or entirely obscure but well-prompted by the parser.

writing -- I found no errors in E-MAILBOX's writing.
coding -- As I said above, the game does a nice job for something so short. The author makes an AGT game fun to play, which in my experience is no small feat. A well-implemented piece of work, short work though it may be.



Right about the time that Poor Zefron's Almanac (hereafter called PZA) starts feeling like another humdrum sword-and-sorcery game, it executes a nice surprising twist. To say too much more would be to give the game away, but the fact that the author bills PZA as "an interactive cross-genre romp" is a clue toward its direction. This twist made the game refreshing and fun again, especially after the frustration it caused me when I began playing it. More on that later. PZA does several things very well, one of which is its eponymous book, a tome owned by your wizardly master Zefron and left behind after his mysterious disappearance. This almanac contains a feature unique to all the CONSULTable items in IFdom (as far as I know): it can be BROWSEd. Browsing the almanac brings forth a random entry from within its pages; not only is it great fun to read these random entries, it also gives a sense of how thoroughly the almanac has been implemented. This device would be most welcome in other IF... how I'd love to browse the Encyclopedia Frobozzica or the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy! Just having the book at hand lent a sense of scope and excitement to PZA.

Unfortunately, my first 45 minutes or so of playing this game were extremely frustrating. PZA suffers from a couple of serious design flaws, the gravest of which is its repeated violation of the Fifth Right (from Graham Nelson's "Player's Bill of Rights"): not to have the game closed off without warning. Because of a fairly flexible (but extremely temporary) magic spell that becomes available at the very beginning of the game, I found myself repeatedly stranded, unable to proceed and forced to RESTART. This happened again later on in the game -- I committed a perfectly logical action and found out hundreds of turns later that this action had closed off the endgame. This is a frustrating experience, and one that could easily have been avoided with a few minor changes to the game's structure, changes which would not have had any discernible effect on puzzles or plot. In addition, there are a few areas in which the player character can be killed without warning, always an unwelcome design choice. PZA is (as far as I know) Carl Klutzke's first game, so chalk these flaws up to education. I look forward to playing another Klutzke game as well-implemented as PZA, but designed more thoughtfully.

One nice element of PZA was its facility with IF homage. The game's "cluple" spell not only had a name that sounded straight out of Enchanter, it was virtually identical to that series' "snavig" spell. The almanac itself (as well as a number of other features) was a skillful allusion to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Finally, the XYZZY command response is one of the more clever I've seen in a while. Clearly PZA's author is a devotee of the old games, and his devotion shows in his work. I am hopeful that his next piece of IF will live up to his worthy aspirations.

Prose: The prose in PZA is generally very good. Rooms, objects, and random events are described concisely but with attention to detail. Some of the locations are rather sparsely treated (for example, the town consists of one location), but such skimping is always done in service of the plot, and more detail would serve to distract rather than to enrich.

Plot: This is definitely the strongest point of PZA. The game starts out with an engaging hook, and after the twist I was definitely enjoying the direction of the story quite a bit. In addition, the author has manipulated the scoring system in such a way as to give the feeling of multiple endings. Granted, many of those endings amount to one version or another of "*** You have died ***", but not all of them. There are more and less successful solutions to the story, and they are integrated so naturally into the endgame text that they almost escape notice. One of the nicest implementations of multiple endings in the competition.

Puzzles: Here there were problems. What happens to PZA is that its individual problems are well-considered, and their solutions are perfectly logical. However, when the actions that comprise those solutions are attempted in other areas of the game, they all too often drive the narrative into a blind alley from which there is no escape. It's one of the hardest balancing acts in interactive fiction: how to have sensible puzzles logically integrated into the game, without making the narrative too linear, which in their elements create no dead ends for the player. PZA doesn't pull it off.

writing -- I found no technical errors in the writing.
coding -- Once I played PZA on WinTADS, I had no problems with it. I started out trying to use it on my old DOS version of TR, and before I could even get one command out it was giving me TADS "Out of Memory" errors. Whether this is a bug in the program of the interpreter, I don't know enough about TADS to say.


CONGRATULATIONS! by Frederick J. Hirsh

This game started out with such promise. It cleared the screen, then gave a good paragraph outlining the situation: you've just had a baby, and are awed with the responsibility inherent in your new life as a parent. You've brought your baby home, and prepare to face your new challenges. Wow, I thought. What a great setting! The baby can provide realistic character interaction because although IF characters are only capable of very simple responses, that's all a baby is capable of, too! Not only that, there are several natural puzzles inherent in the situation of new parents -- the game can be challenging, fun, and maybe even educational. I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up. The first clue that all was not well in Congratulations! was the first room description: "You are in your comfortable living room. There is a room to the north and stairs to the west." Wow, I feel like I'm there! OK, so there's no need for sarcasm -- it was a disappointment, just like most of the rest of the game. The in-game instruction book felt woefully inadequate (especially since the last game I played was Poor Zefron's Almanac), the puzzles were lame and the implementation was lazy. It was also short, though in this case the brevity was a blessing.

All of the text in the game (with the exception of the opening paragraph) is terse and uninformative. Details are nowhere to be found, and in fact even full sentences seem pretty scarce from time to time. For example, a common distress message is "Baby cries!" Articles, anyone? I'm always a little puzzled when a piece of text IF offers so little in the way of text, but Congratulations! does just this. It almost feels like a skeleton of coding, waiting to be fleshed out by a real game. You know, paragraphs and such. I'm not sure whether this sparseness has to do with lack of effort, inability to write, or what, but it detracts greatly from the game experience.

Unfortunately, the coding seems to adhere to the same standard as the writing. Room headers appear in caps or lower case more or less at random. The response to "examine baby" is "As you gaze into your baby's eyes, it stretches out its arms, opens its mouth, and barfs on you." Mildly funny once, nonsensical and irritating after that. A reasonable command like "put diaper on baby" is met with:

 Baby wails!
Putting things on the baby would achieve nothing.
 Baby cries!
It goes on like this. If having kids was as difficult and tedious as playing Congratulations!, our population problem would be solved.

Prose: I think "minimalist" is the key word here. How about these room descriptions: "bedroom: You are in your nice bedroom."; "cute baby nursery: You are in your cute baby nursery."; "Kitchen: You are in your brand new gourmet kitchen! To the south is your pleasant living room." You get the idea. The same applies to object descriptions, character responses, and pretty much everything else written by the author. The Inform library's stock responses seem florid and baroque by comparison.

Plot: Stop the baby from crying. Yes, that's it. Hope I didn't give away too much.

Puzzles: It's not that the puzzles themselves are all that bad, just that the poor implementation makes a lot of the puzzles into wrestle-the-parser problems. For example, I have a baby and a diaper. What do I do? "Put diaper on baby?" No. "Diaper baby?" No. "Baby, wear diaper?" No. "Give diaper to baby?" No. "Cover baby with diaper?" no. "Wrap diaper around baby?" No. That's how most of it goes.

writing -- Aside from the occasional period missing off the end of a sentence or letter missing a word, the writing was technically fine. What there was of it, anyway.
coding -- As I've outlined above, the coding left quite a bit to be desired. Many synonyms were missing, many illogical situations were allowed, and the commands available were far too restrictive.


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Paul O's 97 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 6 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002