Interestingly, ABNO bills itself as "An Interactive Children's Story." Perhaps this is from some misconception that playing a teddy bear is an activity suitable only for children. Whatever the reason is for the description, I think it's a mistake; the difficulty of its puzzles makes ABNO a mighty tough game for kids. This is not to say that the story's content is unsuitable for children in any way -- it certainly is not. However, several of the puzzles had me stumped, and I suspect the same would be true for the majority of kids who encountered them. Some of these difficulties are due to some missing verbs: [SPOILERS AHEAD] for example, one of the crucial puzzles in the game requires you to ride the cat, but the word "ride" isn't implemented. Other puzzles are difficult, well, just because they're difficult. Many key elements of the game are unreachable without first solving several interrelated puzzles, none of which by themselves are enough to significantly advance the story. The game provides a fine hint system, and its puzzles are logical and fit well into the story. However, the textual clues that surround them still fall a bit short of sufficiency; several of the messages given by the game fail to indicate the significance of the particular actions as well as they should.
This point aside, ABNO is a delightful game. It is well-written and, for the most part, well-coded, including a number of details which serve to enrich the childlike, enchanted game world. For example, the television runs a very funny infomercial for a hardware z-chip, to turn your computer into "the interactive fiction machine of your dreams!" The cat's random event routines create an endearing illusion of feline unpredictability. Judiciously chosen box quotes enhance the game's sense of magic and wonder. Finally, perhaps the best touch of all, all the elements of the full score are written alliteratively: "furry fashion" for wearing your coat, "kindness to kittens" for petting the cat, etc. The combined result of all these details is a world well worth visiting by children and adults alike.
Prose: ABNO's prose is without a doubt its best feature. The writing strikes just the right tone, soft and forgiving, much like the game's protagonist. The author clearly understands how much the game's prose serves to shape the main character. For example, describing the door leading outside as "A tall and forbidding locked door" performs several functions in one concise phrase: "Tall" reminds us that we are playing a short teddy bear, to whom ordinary objects seem quite imposing. "Forbidding" reminds us that our character is used to the home -- the outside world is large and scary. And of course "locked" lets us know that we won't be getting through it without a key. The game's prose is full of this kind of well-crafted prose. Bravo.
Plot: Here the game falters just a tiny bit. The idea of playing a teddy bear is great, but the plot of gathering items for the picnic doesn't lend much of a sense of urgency to the game. It's sweet, and it serves, but it doesn't propel the narrative with much strength. Instead, it seems more of an excuse to take our furry protagonist around the various areas of the house so that we can experience them at a bear's eye view.
Puzzles: [SPOILERS AHEAD] As discussed above, the puzzles aren't terrible or unfair or irrational, but some of them are a bit illogical (an answering machine crashing to the floor fails to wake my owner?), and others are somewhat counterintuitive (a soft little teddy bear can hit a pipe with enough force to dislodge the sludge that gravity isn't affecting?). In addition, as I mentioned some of the puzzles aren't really as well-clued as they should be. At their core, the puzzles are good, but they could use another round of testing to iron out the kinks.
writing -- I found no technical errors in the game's writing.
coding -- Aside from the fact that "ride" should have been implemented as a verb, the game's implementation was quite solid.
OVERALL: An 8.3
I think that part of the reason for this is that Inform's libraries are comprehensive and detailed enough that even the barest shell .z5 game seems rich with possibility -- dozens of verbs are implemented and ready to use, and creating simple rooms and objects is quite easy. The depth to which the Inform libraries are crafted allows even a designer's first efforts to seem, at first blush, on a par with simpler Infocom adventures. Moreover, Inform enjoys a special place in the ftp.gmd.de hierarchy: besides being lumped in with all the good, bad, and indifferent systems in if-archive/programming, it also resides in if-archive/infocom/compilers. Consequently, anyone who came to IF by way of Infocom can stumble upon it in their first visit to the archive, simply through connecting to the most familiar word and then saying "Wow, the Infocom compiler is here?" I know that's how it happened for me. Inform's .z5 format is a nice piece of wish-fulfillment for all of us who wish that we could still get a job at Infocom. So just because Inform is granted this privileged association with Infocom, does that mean that a certain set of its users feel that their first efforts are on Infocom's level, without a substantial amount of effort on the part of the author? Perhaps, but all these pieces combined don't explain the trend I've seen this year. I'm not sure what the rest of the explanation is, but I do know this: I hope the trend won't last. It doesn't add a lot of quality interactive fiction to the archive, just a lot of shoddy Inform examples.
Which brings me up to CASK. The idea here is that you're trapped in the basement of a winery, abducted for no apparent reason by your new employers. You must use your wits and the objects about you to make your escape. However, the real truth is that you're trapped in a below-average interacive fiction game, which was entered in the contest for no apparent reason by its author. You must decipher vague prose, evade coding bugs, and defy logic to escape. Luckily, it doesn't take too much time as long as you have help. Bring your walkthrough! CASK helped its author learn Inform. Let's see that knowledge applied to the creation of a quality IF game.
Prose: There were a number of areas in which the vagueness of the prose contributed rather unfairly to the difficulty of the puzzles. [SPOILERS AHEAD] For example, at one point in the game you find a rusty saw, whose description reads "It is a rusty saw." (Oooh! Now I understand! Glad I examined that!) When you try to cut something with the saw, the game tells you "You cut your fingers on the saw. Ouch!" Now, I'm no genius, but I do know which end of a saw to hold. The handle, right? There's nothing in the description suggesting that this saw doesn't have a handle, so how would I cut my fingers? Is the handle sharp? Turns out you have to wrap a cloth around the saw then cut a hole with it. Though it seems to me a saw with a cloth wrapped around it isn't going to have much cutting power. Dealing with prose like this makes me feel like the character is supposed to be woozy and probably blind and pretty clueless as well. I hope the effect is unintentional.
Plot: Oh, I'm sorry. I gave away the plot earlier. You have to escape from a basement.
Puzzles: There are really only a few puzzles in this very short game, several of which involve having a switch in the right position (though figuring out which position is right is largely a matter of guesswork. Luckily the switch has only two positions, so even the brute-force solution doesn't take long). There's also a bit of outfox-the-parser, some find-the-bug, and a good deal of figure-out-what-the-hell-the-prose-means.
writing -- The writing featured several entertaining errors. In one room (of the three total in the game) you can see that the room "has relatively few noteworthy" aside from "an old heavy machinery".
coding -- This game could definitely have used a great deal more testing. Object descriptions repeat when they shouldn't, and some trapped responses behave in bizarre ways.
OVERALL: A 3.1
Unfortunately, I ran into difficulty right away. [SPOILERS AHEAD] The game presents a puzzle within the first few moves, announcing that the player character's leg is broken, making walking impossible. OK, so what's the logical solution? How about crawling somewhere? Regrettably, "crawl n" brought the response "You're not going to get anywhere on just hands and knees--you'll have to try and figure out some way to walk." OK, shoot. So I can't crawl anywhere either. I spent the next 20 minutes trying to figure out how to leave the initial location. Finally, frustrated to the breaking point, I turned to the walkthrough, only to find out that what I needed to do was "crawl west." Hey, wait a second! I thought I wasn't going to get anywhere on my hands and knees! I guess I can after all. The game has several instances of this kind of problematic prose, making it difficult to progress without a walkthrough.
[THE REST OF THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOLIERS] However, the story is worth experiencing, walkthrough or not. The author presents a very realistic and highly compelling puzzle-solving situation: you are the survivor of a plane crash. You must help your fellow passengers and somehow prevent the plane from killing you all when it explodes, as it inevitably will. This situation is a natural one for interactive fiction: you must traverse a limited area, under pressure from a time limit, solving very real puzzles with dozens of lives in the balance. Even though there are some problems with the prose and puzzles, it's still a memorable feeling to crawl through the wreckage, a situation made even more evocative by the fact that it really could happen to most anyone.
Prose: The prose often does a nice job, especially with broad, sweeping tones such as setting up the feeling of urgency associated with the plane and with rendering the human tragedy caused by the crash. It's in smaller moments that it fails, and the failure is not so much one of tone or voice as it is one of diction. The words chosen are simply not the correct ones to convey what turns out to be the case. For example, a seat is described as "almost against the wall," but when you look behind it you see a small boy. Well, to me when something is almost against the wall, the distance in between is a matter of inches, certainly not something a child could fit into. Down would have benefitted from words more carefully chosen.
Plot: The plane crash is definitely a very strong foundation upon which to build a plot, and Down exploits many things about that situation quite well. Interestingly, however, there are some narrative hooks on which resolution is never delivered. For example, I fully expected to be able to radio for help from the cockpit, so that my fellow survivors and I could get the medical attention that we need. Instead, there wasn't even a radio mentioned. Also, you meet two passengers (husband and wife), one of whom is injured and bleeding badly. I thought perhaps this was a puzzle, and that I needed to help stop the bleeding. Not the case -- apparently they were just there for scenery. The man never gets help from his wound, even at the end. I found this ending unsatisfying, though that's not necessarily a bad thing. It makes sense that even after serious heroics, survivors of a plane crash would still find themselves in a very difficult situation, but it's not the kind of resolution I'm used to.
Puzzles: The puzzles in general didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. I liked the splinting puzzle, since it was logical and fit well into the story's flow. However, other puzzles like that of the tree lodged in the plane didn't ring true to me. Would you really set a huge fire inside something that you thought might explode? Wouldn't you spend your time helping other passengers take sheter in the woods instead?
writing -- I found no errors with the writing.
coding -- The game's implementation was solid as well.
OVERALL: A 6.3
One section of the game in particular I found really remarkable. [PLOT SPOILERS AHEAD] On the second level of the edifice, you find yourself as a very early human, living in a family unit in the woods. Your son has a fever, and to cure him you must find the Feverleaf, which can be made into a healing tea. However, no Feverleaf seems to be available anywhere, until you stumble across a Stranger. Unsurprisingly, however, the Stranger does not speak your language, and so you are faced with a problem of communication. The game does an incredible job with simulating this situation. I was astonished at the level of realism which this character was able to achieve, and at the care that must clearly have gone into fashioning this interaction. I've rarely seen such a thorough and effective establishment of the illusion of interactivity. The Stranger did not of course respond to English words in understandable ways. However, you could point to objects, or speak words in the Stranger's language, and gradually the two of you could arrive at an understanding. It was an amazing feeling to be experiencing this kind of exchange in IF... I really felt like I was learning the Stranger's language. It will always remain one of the most memorable moments of this 1997 competition for me.
I spent a lot of time on this one encounter, but I spent more time on the first level of the edifice, [SPOILERS FOLLOW] where you learn how to fashion a spear, how to hunt, and how to cook your meat over a fire. All of the puzzles in this section were logical, and the implementation was characteristically thorough and rich. However, this level is also where I ran into the game's one major flaw: its scoring system. Upon typing "score", you are told something along the lines of "You have visited two levels of the Edifice and solved none of them. You are amazingly discontent." However, sometimes "amazingly discontent" changes to "very content." for reasons that aren't at all clear. Moreover, I did everything that the etchings indicate on that level, but the game still insisted I had not solved it. I worked on this until I got so frustrated with it that I just went up to the next level. I'm not sure whether these irregularities in the scoring system were intentional or not, but I found that they were the only significant detractions from an otherwise excellent game.
Prose: The author did a superb job with the prose. Objects and rooms were described carefully and concisely, and in fact their descriptions often changed to reflect the character's expanding knowledge. In the beginning, words are simple and their meanings often archetypal: Rock, Enemies, Others, etc. As the game progresses and the character continues to evolve, the diction becomes more complex and the meanings more specific. This is the type of prose effect that a graphical game could never achieve, since it arises from the nature of the prose itself. That the game can achieve this effect shows that it is very well written indeed.
Plot: I didn't finish the game, so I'm not sure whether the mystery behind the edifice is ever revealed. From what I saw, the game's plot was a clever device to put the player into various moments in the history of human development. Its central device is rather clearly lifted from 2001:A Space Odyssey, but other than that it's an excellent frame story around fascinating vignettes.
Puzzles: I think the language puzzle was the best one I've seen in interactive fiction this year. Certainly it was the best in the competition -- it advanced the narrative, developed the character, achieved a new kind of IF character interaction, and packed a powerful Sense of Wonder. The other puzzles I encountered were also very good, arising quite intuitively out of the game's situation and objects. My only frustration was with the elements of the game which suggested I had more to solve but never seemed to indicate what those things were.
writing -- The Edifice's prose was quite error-free.
coding -- Aside from the problems with the scoring system, the coding was outstanding. Synonyms abounded, and almost all logical or intuitively available actions were accounted for.
OVERALL: A 9.2
Paul O's 97 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 7 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002