A pretty, young woman walks quickly towards the far end of the resteraunt. Soon she dissapears behind two brass elevator doors. Your stare drops downward to the small note you had written for yourself, then back at your own reflection in the elevator doors. People momenteraly chuckle and mutter to eachother, then continue on with another important dinner...That's one sentence out of four without a spelling error. That is not a good ratio. (For those of you keeping score at home: "restaurant", "disappears", "momentarily", "each other".) I just don't understand this sort of thing. It's not as if spell-checkers are hard to find. Compile your game so that Inform outputs the game text, then run it through a spell-checker. Hell, you don't even have to get that high-tech; run a transcript of your game through a spell-checker. This is a text adventure; all we get from the program are words. When the words have basic mistakes in them, those mistakes wreck any chance we have at immersion in your game! Don't you even care about that? Aaargh! [Starting... to... rant. Must... get off... soapbox. Wipe froth from mouth. Continue with review.]
As far as I can determine, Outsided (and no, even after playing the game, I still have no idea what its title means) wants to be sort of a science-fictional high-tech thriller thing about a guy whose memories keep getting downloaded into new bodies, and some shadowy syndicate that wants to kill the bodies off. Or something like that. It wasn't really all that easy to figure out what the hell was going on most of the time. The game's use of these concepts is kind of cool, but it would be a lot cooler if it were more coherent. Many, many things just don't make a lot of sense. For example, early on in the game, the PC is given his briefcase. It's closed and locked. For some inexplicable reason, the PC doesn't know how to unlock his own briefcase. In fact, he never figures it out. The briefcase is never useful for anything. Why does he get it? Who knows? There are lots of little things like this. Save-and-restore puzzles abound. In fact, the game reminded me of many of the more maligned members of the IF Archive, such as Detective and Space Aliens Laughed At My Cardigan. It might make a good candidate for a MiSTing, but it sure isn't a good game on its own.
Aw, here I am being all harsh and I didn't even mention one of the game's main redeeming features: its author apologizes for it right up front. Before the first prompt of the game even arrives, we see this:
A NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR: Hi, first I would like to say 'sorry.' Good! Now that I have gotten that out of the way, Please 'enjoy' the game.I laughed when I saw that, especially following as it did on the heels of the error-riddled opening paragraphs. And I appreciated it too, I really did. But I have to say it confused me a little as well. Obviously the author knows that the game isn't up to par. So instead of releasing it with an apology, why not instead fix it, then release a good version that he wouldn't have to apologize for? I would have appreciated that a lot more.
The beginning of the game is pretty good too. You're "the town hero", and you've set out to capture a ferocious dragon that has been terrorizing your village. However, on the way to the confrontation you were ambushed by a group of orcs who have locked you in a dungeon. Now, with only a blanket and a tin cup, you must find a way to escape. Yes, it's all quite cliche, but the game has two things going for it. One, the writing is strong enough that it manages to evoke the specificity of the setting, and even if each element of that setting is lifted from shopworn genre conventions, the gestalt still feels like it has a little freshness left. Second, the game displays distinct signs of being aware of its own conventions. For example, when conversing with one of your orc captors, this possibility is available:
>TELL ORC ABOUT ME "Yur just one big, stoopid hero cliche, aincha? I 'spect it'll be fun watchin' yu waste away an' die!"Such glimmers of self-awareness bode well for the rest of the game. Unfortunately, it doesn't fully deliver on their promise. There are a number of bugs; they're not glaringly obvious, and it's clear that the game has been tested, but it's equally clear that the game would benefit greatly from being tested some more, even if just to add some responses to common actions which might help steer the player in the right direction. In addition, there are a number of puzzles which, if they don't quite reach the extreme of "guess-what-the-author-is-thinking", are at least very non-intuitive. These puzzles would benefit from just a few tweaks. An alteration of the prose here, an alternate solution there -- just a few changes would make a big difference.
Overall, Bliss is definitely worth playing. Even as I write this review, I'm still having realizations about various elements of the game that continue to revise my perspective, which is a distinct pleasure. Also, its writing is almost completely free of grammar or spelling errors, which is something I've recently stopped taking for granted. I very much hope that the author takes into account the feedback he receives from competition authors and possibly a second round of beta testers, and releases a revised version of the game which stomps the bugs, enriches the puzzles, and cleans up the formatting errors (there are a few, though not many.) Once the polish is on, Bliss will be a very strong piece of short IF.
So yeah, things are spelled right. And probably there will be some people who love this game. But me, I just don't get it. None of it really makes much sense to me, and its hallucinatory qualities only hold my interest for a few minutes. I thought at first I was just stuck on the door puzzle, and I was going to present L.U.D.I.T.E. as Exhibit B for the argument in favor of including walkthroughs or hints with comp games. Then I noticed that Rybread had left the debug feature on, so I just looked at the game's object tree to see if I was missing anything. Turns out I wasn't. I tried jumping to a couple of other objects that looked like they might be rooms, but those objects lacked description properties. So what you see is, more or less, what you get. And what you get is not much, and what there is of it is really weird.
So hats off to Rybread for his persistence. I admire that. A game like this probably doesn't take long to put together, but at least he's still out there trying, and experience has shown that he does have a fan base. As usual, I'm not part of it. Oh well -- there's always next year.
The other way in which the game enforces its plot is to present the player with situations in which there is one correct move, and any other action leads to death. Again, this sort of thing has its place as a technique, and can often be effective when used wisely. However, its vulnerability is that it tempts the designer toward guess-the-verb situations and save-and-restore puzzles -- sometimes even both at once. Just as vexing is the fact that dying over and over again fails to be entertaining rather quickly. Only After Dark, sadly, neither resists the temptation nor finds a way around the boredom. Take the initial puzzle, for example. I won't give away the situation or the solution, but the structure is this: the PC's life is in danger. There's only one thing he can do to save himself. If he doesn't do that one thing he will die. You have one move to make the correct choice. The action is vaguely clued before the choice must be made, but I still ended up with a dozen death messages before I hit on the solution, simply because there is so little time to solve the puzzle. Reading the same death message ten times is pretty dull. Later on, there's a puzzle in which a certain verb must be used, and the only way I could determine to figure out what that verb ought to be was to closely scrutinize the death message that comes from using the wrong verb. This is the worst of both worlds in IF puzzles.
All this bitching probably does very little to explain why I gave Only After Dark a higher rating than some of the other non-interactive entries in this year's comp, so let me try to clear that up. First of all, the writing and coding were error-free, which I am really appreciating recently. Yes, the game may railroad you through the plot, but at least it does so correctly. Also, the subject of the game is lycanthropy, which is a fascination of mine. I really enjoyed the malleable aspect of the PC, and while this isn't the ideal werewolf game, it's a much better werewolf game than, say, Strangers In The Night was a vampire game. I thought the milieu was interesting, if a little confusing, and there were some nice little touches, like the game's occasional use of color. Perhaps the only reason it was so linear was to fit the short format of the competition. If that's so, I dearly hope that an expanded version is forthcoming. I would really like to play a game set in the Only After Dark universe, written and coded as well as the competition entry but offering the player an actual choice once in a while.
There are a couple of clunkers among the puzzles, unfortunately. The game has two sections that aren't exactly mazes, but feel enough like mazes to provoke some annoyance. By the time you figure out how to solve them, you'll have done a fair piece of mapping, and while there are no "trick exits" and everything connects to everything else in a fairly logical way, just the mapping alone is enough to make the whole area seem pretty tedious. In addition, there are a number of misspellings and a few parser problems which detract from the immersiveness of the game. I've emailed the author about these, and I'm optimistic they'll be cleaned up in a future release. Even so, these flaws don't ruin Winter Wonderland, simply because it has so many strong points alongside them. In addition, for each of the mazelike areas the puzzle isn't the maze itself. In other words, the challenge of the area isn't simply to map it and find the other end -- each one contains its own puzzle, and both puzzles are intelligent and fairly well-clued. So for those of you who hate mazes, I recommend playing the game anyway. They aren't all that onerous, and if you start to get frustrated, you can consult the excellent on-line hints.
The other area where the game really shines is in its technical prowess. While it isn't a graphical game, Winter Wonderland does provide some ASCII art, much like last year's Downtown Tokyo did. The art enhances the game's atmosphere, but doesn't conceal any crucial clues. Instead, it feels similar to the pictures shown at the beginning and end of On The Farm -- images that enrich the text but are not necessary for enjoyment of the game. The author thoughtfully provides a "BARE" mode for those whose interpreters don't handle such things well. In addition to its ASCII graphics, Winter Wonderland also uses the status line in innovative ways. It's four lines high and includes score, location, and a compass rose indicating the available exits. We've seen the status line compass rose before, but I found myself using this on-screen mapping feature more than I ever have in any other game which provided it. The landscape is complicated enough that the compass rose feels like a real aid to gameplay rather than just a frivolous but useless feature. It actually reminded me quite a bit of the onscreen mapping in Beyond Zork, and felt about as useful to me. In addition, with an interpreter that handles color correctly the status line changes color subtly to enhance the atmosphere of the area the PC finds herself in. When she's by a roaring fire, the status line is yellow and orange. When she's in a moonlit snowscape, the letters are various shades of lighter and darker blues. What's more, in some snowy scenes we actually see a few snowflakes show up in the status line, another attractive touch to embroider this already charming game. Winter Wonderland feels magical and joyous, and deserves to place highly in this year's competition.
Paul O's 99 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 4 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised September 2000