Yecch. After an hour of playing Chicks Dig Jerks, I feel like I've been swimming in sewage. The PC and his friends are some of the most repulsive human beings I've ever seen described, and spending time looking through their eyes was pretty sickening. Now, it's clear that the author is aware of this fact. The game begins with a big banner reading, in part, "There are absolutely no role models in this game." Fine. But if it was intended to be some sort of satire, it didn't work, at least not for me. Perhaps some reader smarter than I am will explain how in fact the whole game brilliantly skewers the emptiness and horror of its protagonist's life, but for me, that didn't come across. Instead, it just felt like living some stereotyped nightmare for no particular reason. Remember those fratboys at the beginning of Photopia? This is basically an entire game from their viewpoint, with some off-the-wall supernatural stuff thrown in for no readily apparent reason. The fact that the game was loaded with bugs and writing errors didn't give me much confidence that it had some sharp, intelligent viewpoint behind its ugly veneer, but I don't think that's the main reason why I found Chicks Dig Jerks so unpleasant. That reason can be summed up in one word: misogyny. The game's fear and hatred of women starts at the title and just snowballs from there.
The game's basic notion is that women come in two varieties. There's the Dumb Chick, who is prey to the PC's predator. She has no illusions about her status, and apparently likes it, because she's attracted to men who will treat her like dirt. Then there's the Evil Bitch, who hates all men and is out to kill them and/or drain them of their vitality, at least until she can find one strong enough to dominate her and turn her back into a Dumb Chick. The male characters wandering through this world have two basic goals: score with (i.e. fuck) the Dumb Chicks and avoid or kill the Evil Bitches. We see the former in the game's first sequence, in which the goal is to get two phone numbers from a group of women at a bar. The PC does this by approaching them with the dumbest lines imaginable, and guess what? Because they're even dumber then the lines, they think he's cool and give him their numbers. Here's what the PC has to say after accomplishing this goal: "Word up." Then one of the Dumb Chicks takes the PC home and they have "animal sex for the better part of the night." Then the PC bolts, leaving "a little note" and his number. What a guy. Thus ends the Dumb Chicks portion of our show. Moving on, the PC then invades a graveyard (did I mention he makes his living as a grave robber?) where an Evil Bitch tries to kill him. He ends up killing her, which is too bad, because I was really rooting for her. Then he gets real sentimental because his best friend (male, of course) was killed in the battle. Damn those Evil Bitches and their short male accomplices! (The game also seems to have a problem with short men.) Damn them to hell! There are two dreams described in the narrative which illustrate this dichotomy perfectly. In the first, the PC is lured into an unoccupied room by a seductive woman, and in the room he sees the dried, dead husks of all his male friends. Then the succubus drains him too, and sticks his skin to the wall with thumbtacks. You can probably guess which side of the coin she represents. Then, in the second dream, the PC is having a fight with his old girlfriend, who apparently was the one person with whom he didn't act like total scum. She breaks up with him, and in remembering the breakup, he wishes he had given into his impulse to "rock the bitch's world and leave her reeling and bleeding." He also regrets all the time he didn't spend "being an exciting, unavailable, uncontrollable asshole." Hey Avandre, here's a hint: if your girlfriend left you because you weren't enough of a jerk, the answer isn't to be more of a jerk. The answer is to FIND A SMARTER GIRLFRIEND! But that might be too much to ask of this character -- a woman who he sees as a human and who is as smart as or smarter than him would just be way, way too scary.
Speaking of scary, let's talk about this game's code. At one point a character playing a video game exclaims in frustration, "This fucking thing has more bugs than a tropical swamp!" I had to smile at this, since the sentence (with the exception of the expletive) is lifted almost verbatim from a SPAG review of the author's last game, Saied. The description is also apt for Chicks Dig Jerks. Unless you go through the game exactly as described in the walkthrough, you will find bugs. At one point, I was talking to a character, and one of my conversation options actually put me back in a previous scene. That scene went differently, and then I had to sit through the whole "animal sex" thing again. At another point, two characters are described as being disintegrated, then proceed to take some actions in the following paragraphs, then get re- disintegrated. There's an item you can pick up, and no matter where in the game you pick it up, the description always indicates that you find something else under it, even if the thing you supposedly find is already in your inventory. You get the idea -- examples abound. Chicks Dig Jerks is the Cattus Atrox of the 99 competition -- I had a strong reaction to it, and that reaction was: I never want to see this game again.
Compounding this problem is a generous serving of bugs. The game credits no beta testers, and the lack of testing definitely shows. Some locations (restaurants and the like) are described as closed when they definitely (at least, according to the information you get from the doorman) should be open. My first time through the game I failed to find any victims before the sun came up, mostly because I was exploring the gridlike map to see if it was really as empty as it seemed, and as the sunrise approached the game started giving me warnings. This is great, although giving them EVERY SINGLE TURN NO MATTER WHAT I DO might be considered a little excessive. In addition, the warnings describe the sky getting pinker, etc., even when I'm inside locations like a dank night club or my own windowless apartment. Anyway, heeding the warnings I returned to my apartment and got back in bed, but when the sun came up, the game told me I was trapped where I didn't belong. It then helpfully chided me "Pity you never made it home." In addition, there are lots of spots where the game displays the default response abutting a specialized response. If this were an Inform game, I'd say the problem is a lack of "rtrue"s. I don't know what causes it in TADS, but I suspect it's something roughly equivalent. Here's an example:
>ask bouncer about bouncer You have no interest in or use for the bouncerThe bouncer is in a rather public place; that kind of interaction isn't advisable.Surely, you can't think the bouncer knows anything about it!After hitting a long stretch of bugs and writing errors, the novelty of the premise wears off pretty quickly.
It's that much more frustrating, really, because an IF game from the point of view of a vampire is just a really cool idea waiting to be done well. It just seems that nobody quite gets to it. Infocom had one in the planning stages before they folded. (It was to be written by Plundered Hearts author Amy Briggs). A guy named Sam Hulick made a big announcement that he was going to write one -- even got a piece of it included as an example in the Inform manual -- but it never materialized. Now there's Strangers In The Night, which definitely has some nice conceptual elements but whose execution (no pun intended) is sorely lacking. The vampire PC is so rife with possibilities -- it can have unusual goals and vulnerabilities, as demonstrated in this game. It can have unique modes of travel. It can allow the author to play with all sorts of interesting questions of moral ambiguity and complicity within the player/PC relationship. Even better, it gives the writer access to a wealth of popular and canonical allusions, and allows the kind of rich gothic writing practiced by Anne Rice and any number of Victorian writers. Frankly, I think it would be awesome. Hey, all you IF writers out there: write that great vampire game! I know it doesn't exist yet, but I very much want it to, because Strangers In The Night really got me itching to play it.
[I just reread this and something in the back of my mind said "Horror of Rylvania." I haven't played that game yet, and the only review I've ever seen was very brief. Somebody care to review it for SPAG so I know if it's what I'm looking for?]
Puzzle expectations aren't the only IF conventions overturned in SNOSAE. For one thing, it's a DOS-only program, a PC executable with an apparently homemade parser. Now let me be clear that I always believe in giving credit where it is due for these sorts of efforts. I can't imagine wanting to build a parser and game engine from scratch, but I recognize that for some it's a fun exercise, and I certainly understand that writing an IF game from "the ground up" is more work than writing the same game using an established IF language and libraries. On the whole, SNOSAE doesn't do a bad job, but as usual it's not up to the very high standard set by Inform, TADS, Hugo, and their ilk. There's no "SCRIPT" capability, which makes the reviewer's job much tougher. The "OOPS" verb is missing, which is a minor inconvenience. "UNDO" is also missing, which is a major inconvenience, especially considering how thoroughly this game is infested with instant-death puzzles. On the other hand, there are also some cool things about the interface. It uses colors to nice effect, putting room descriptions in light blue, commands in dark blue, inventory listings in white, etc. It also displays the available exit directions as part of the prompt, like this:
INTERSECTION OF FOUR HALLWAYS: You're at the intersection of four hallways. Down each of these hallways you can see a door. There's a ramp going up into the flying saucer. n,s,e,w,u>I liked that, although I found it didn't really add that much to the gameplay experience. There's also a very cool command you discover about 1/3 of the way through the game which speeds navigation significantly. But all these frills didn't make up for the missing "UNDO", especially when the game kept cavalierly killing me off.
The one unblemished positive that SNOSAE has going for it is its sense of humor. This is a game that knows it's a wacky romp and acknowledges it frequently, usually by breaking the fourth wall and displaying awareness of itself as an adventure game. This tendency is evident almost immediately, when the game describes a door thus: "There doesn't seem to be a lock on the door! All adventures should start out so easy." That isn't anywhere close to the funniest example of the game's writing, but I couldn't make a transcript of the thing, and there's no way in hell I'm slogging through 500 commands again just to find a funnier example, so you'll have to just take my word on it. I was laughing for much of the time I played SNOSAE, and only part of the time was it at the ludicrousness of entering this game in a competition for short IF.
Lodge Roof You are on the roof of the lodge. From here you can see most of the village. ... (good view, etc., smokehole (covered by?))Now, to be fair, that's not typical. Most of the descriptions are written, and written well, but there are several occurrences of the "..." symbol, which I'm guessing was the author's Search-and-Replace code for "Elaborate on this later." Incidents like this made me feel like I was playing a game that isn't even ready for beta testing, let alone general release.
I have an opinion on this sort of thing. I've expressed this opinion before, and it hasn't met with general approval. Nor do I expect it to now, although to me it seems like sheerest sense. But I just have to say it: if your competition entry isn't ready by the deadline, and by "ready" I mean fully proofread, beta-tested and (please) played through at least once to ensure that it's finishable, DON'T ENTER IT. Don't even breathe a word of its existence. I adamantly maintain that you gain no appreciable benefit from entering an unfinished game into the IF competition. Instead, it's detrimental to you in several ways. First of all, many people who might have been open to playing your game will write it off as buggy and poorly done, and probably never come back to it again. After all, why should they bother with your rough draft when there are so many pieces of really good IF being published each year, and a wealth of older classics in the archive, all available for free? The audience for IF isn't so large that an author can afford to alienate such a significant portion of it; as the hoary cliche goes, "you never get a second chance to make a first impression." Secondly, releasing an unfinished game tarnishes your reputation as an author, since it implies that you really don't care how good your work is before it's released, that you don't take pride in it. But perhaps most heartbreakingly of all, it's so agonizing for a player to go through a game that has lots of good pieces but is an overall bad game, and bad not because its author can't write, not because there's anything wrong with the concept or the programming or anything, but just because it's NOT FINISHED. It's like biting into a pancake and finding that inside it's still just batter. It's so much more disappointing than going through a game that just plain stinks on ice, because it's so clear how much unrealized potential is present in the unfinished game. I'm an author myself, and I understand how much time and energy goes into the writing of an IF game. Why would you want anybody to see that game before you've honed it and worked out the kinks? Why waste all that good effort? Instead of entering that game, finish it. Do it right. Then release it in the Spring, or the Summer. Or if you really want to be in the competition, enter it in the next year's competition where it has a chance of kicking some serious butt over all the unfinished games in that year's field. Exercise a little patience.
Hmmm, well I seem to have ascended my soapbox and delivered a rant, completely heedless of the fact that I'm supposed to be reviewing The Water Bird. OK, here are some impressions from what I saw of the game. It's obviously quite well-researched, and makes a very smart move by putting most of the author's explication of that research into footnotes, so that a player can choose whether or not to be exposed to it. This is a new approach to footnotes in IF, one that is amusingly enough much closer to how footnotes are used in actual books. The game is well-written, with great puzzles and a really interesting subject, and if it were finished I have no doubt it would make a sterling entry into that fledgling canon of folktale IF currently occupied by games like Firebird and Lesson of the Tortoise. Indeed, it's so good that my disappointment was all the sharper when I realized that I couldn't actually finish it, because by the time I hit that point I very much wanted to see the rest of what The Water Bird had to offer.
>SLEEP You flip your pillow upside down, and hope you can go to sleep. >GET UP Turning to your other side, you give it another try. >GO GET A SANDWICH You kick at the tangled blanket, convinced it's what is preventing your slumber. >IT DOESN'T MATTER WHAT I TYPE, DOES IT? In a valiant attempt to block out the sun, you vainly cover your head with your pillow and try to relax. ...It doesn't work. >BITE ME You finally decide to give in. It's time to get up.This is the most drastically non-interactive section of the game, but every section of it crowds that side of the continuum. There is only one exit from each location -- even if others are described, the game forbids travel in all but one direction. When the game wants you to, for example, read an email, any other command is met with something along the lines of "Not right now, you're busy." Adding to the aggravation, sometimes commands have to be repeated multiple times in order to get the parser to accept them. At one point you have to repeat a command eight times in order for it to actually work.
Let's take a moment to think about this. It seems clear that what the game wants to do is to tell me a specific story. It seems equally clear that the game isn't much interested in what I want to do. Why, then, was this written as interactive fiction and entered into the IF competition? To really delve into the reasons would be an essay in itself, but one that comes to mind is, as I said earlier, Photopia. After all, the big winner from last year was a game that heavily emphasized the "fiction" side of the IF equation, so that must be the way to win competitions, right? Well, not necessarily. Even setting aside the fact that the three previous competitions were won by games with prominent and interesting puzzles (Edifice, Meteor, Weather/Zebulon), there's also the fact that Photopia restricted interactivity strategically rather than just doing it indiscriminately. To take one small example, think about the Red Planet section of Photopia compared to the section of A Moment of Hope I've quoted above. [PHOTOPIA SPOILERS AHEAD] The Red Planet section of Photopia is part of a story being told to a small child. Even though the player may not know it at the time, the responses of the parser are really Alley's responses, and the player's input really Wendy's participation in the story. This fact constitutes a sensible, cogent reason why every direction taken advances that section's plot: Alley is telling a story to a small child, and using a clever technique to move the story along so that Wendy won't find herself pointlessly wandering around the landscape. No such fictional level is present in A Moment of Hope. The game's responses and player's input are no more or less than they seem, and as such, when the game uses Alley's trick on the player it seems rather condescending. After all, we're not small children with five-minute attention spans. A range of choices and a landscape to traverse won't lose us.
The game doesn't take that risk, though, perhaps because its main character is so unsympathetic that it can't afford to allow any player input that might make him less pathetic. The basic plot here is that an incredibly insecure guy has gotten an email from a matchmaking website. The site has matched him up with somebody he really likes, but how serious is she about him? The game is unrelenting with the constant reminders of just how strung out this guy is. Especially in the first section, almost every single turn yields multiple messages about the PC's deep, deep depression. No wonder, then, that the game wants to restrict player action. What if a player came along who wanted to make the choice to just forget about this girl and call a friend instead? What if a player wanted to just turn off the computer (the computer in the game, I mean) and read a good book? Hell, what if a player wanted to at least make the damn bed? Nope, wouldn't fit the story. Wouldn't fit the character. So it's not allowed. But a player can't help wondering: what am I doing in this short story? It's written well, with no mechanical errors (or coding errors), but if A Moment of Hope were straight fiction, I wouldn't much want to read it. But I did read this game. Come to think of it, because it was a competition entry, the whole group of judges was a bit of a captive audience, wasn't it? Hmmm, maybe the choice to write the story as IF rather than straight fiction isn't so mysterious after all...
Paul O's 99 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 3 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised March 2004