2000 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1

(in the order I played them)

BEING ANDREW PLOTKIN by J. Robinson Wheeler as Celie Paradis

I was the perfect audience for this game, or near-perfect anyway. I've seen and enjoyed Being John Malkovich, the film by Spike Jonze. I've hung around the IF scene for a long time. I've played every Plotkin game, even Inhumane. I've also played every Infocom game, which turns out to be helpful as well. Even with all that, I'm not sure I caught every reference (especially given the prodigious list of such references provided by the author in the endnotes), but I think I caught a lot of them. Consequently, I'm not sure how somebody who doesn't fulfill some or all of the above criteria would react to BAP, but I can tell you this: I thought it was a delight. In fact, even as I was reflecting on what a rockin' great start to the competition this game gave me, I was also regretting how small its target audience surely must be. No doubt somebody familiar just with the IF newsgroups, or just with Zarf (that's Andrew Plotkin's nickname, for those of you not in the know), or just with Jonze's movie would find some entertainment value here, but how much more they would derive if they were, well, me. And believe me, there is a lot here to be appreciated. The game is gleefully deft at playing with the identity themes so memorably plumbed in the movie, and it does so in ways that are wonderfully appropriate to the medium of IF and to the specific project of exploring Zarf's head. On top of that, it throws in lots of nifty IF references and generally has a hell of a time exploring some dark and unmapped corners of the form. In short, it works as a riff on the movie, as a riff on Zarf, and as a riff on IF itself.

The writing is, at times, a bit wobbly. I admit to being a little worried when I saw the first sentence of the game: "At last, your troubled fortunes seemed to come to an end." The use of the past tense rather than the more traditional IF present tense, as well as the awkward phrase "troubled fortunes", confused me. It felt like there was an initial paragraph missing, or perhaps that the PC had just died (which is how most people's fortunes, troubled or not, tend to come to an end.) I think if the game had started out with "At long last, your troubles seem to have come to an end," I could have swung with it, but as it was, it took me about a hundred moves to turn off the little editor in my head (apparently we all have a cast of characters capering around inside our skulls) and go with the flow. Once the game got rolling, though, there were some fantastic bits of writing. Particularly evocative and exciting were the effects generated by the various shifts in perspective that the game executes.

Those perspective shifts are some of the most intriguing things that happen in this game, or in any comp game I've ever seen, for that matter. I don't want to give away spoilers here, so I'll just say that the game explores some more or less uncharted IF territory by doing quite a bit of "head-hopping", in both the literal and figurative senses. And of course, the fact that it is both literal and figurative is just one of the many fun things about this game. I love it when I'm still thinking about a game long after I've played it, still having little "aha!" moments making connections and grokking references. Yes, it's true that the text probably could have used another round or two of revision. It's also true that there are a few bugs remaining here and there, though there were other moments when I was pleasantly startled by the depth of implementation in some areas. The author confesses at the end of the game that "He began coding it on 2 September 2000 at 7:04am, and raced like the wind to finish it in time," and in places, the rush shows. On the whole, however, the game is a whole lot of fun, and very thought-provoking, too. Being Andrew Plotkin is an experience not to be missed.

Rating: 9.0

AFTERMATH by Graham Somerville

Sometimes a comp game can be summed up in one word. Of course, that never stops me from going ahead and writing three paragraphs about it anyway, explaining why that word fits, but for those with a distaste for verbosity, that one word can be a handy precis. Aftermath is such a game, and the word, I'm sorry to say, is "dismal." The game's topic is war, and not the glory of triumph in battle or the allure of military machinery, but the dismal, dismal existence of lone soldiers on frost-covered battlefields, struggling out from under heaps of bodies and fighting off the human vultures who scavenge through the corpses' belongings. This topic, by itself, is quite a downer, but still could be the basis of an excellent game. Unfortunately, Aftermath's dismal characteristics don't stop there. The writing is dismal, the grammar is dismal, the spelling is dismal, the coding is dismal, and the puzzles are beyond dismal. Run-on sentences and other grammar bungles are everywhere, programming errors are legion, and there are as many spelling mistakes as dead bodies. (And with this game, that's really saying something.) In fact, after I finished the game (with an inexplicable 120 out of 100 points) and received the ending message, I found myself still at the prompt. When I typed "L", the game said "It looks like an ordinary to me." I still had all my possessions (including "a apple"), but was trapped in a bizarre post-game limbo. It was almost as hard to figure out as some of the game's puzzles.

Oy, those puzzles! From the very beginning of the game, I quickly determined that guessing the verb, as well as the noun, was going to be necessary in numerous cases. On top of that, several times very particular objects (or sub-objects) must be examined before the game will reveal things that, by all rights, should be dead obvious (pardon the pun) to the PC. Sadly, that's not even the worst of it. There's one puzzle in particular that made me say to my monitor, "How in the hell was I supposed to know to do that?" My monitor never answers me when I ask it that kind of stuff -- probably for the best, since it's not the kind of question that really has a good answer. I'd be quite surprised to learn of anyone who solved all the puzzles in Aftermath without the walkthrough, because not only do they require reading the author's mind, but they occasionally fly in the face of all logic and sense as well.

The real shame is that an IF game in the war genre could be so good, and Aftermath falls so short of its potential. Heaven knows there's a ton of inherent drama in war, drama that works from Henry V to Platoon have mined to spectacular effect. What's more, it's the kind of genre we don't see very often in IF, which tends to be more or less dominated by science fictional and fantastic themes (a trend to which I've made my share of contributions.) Once and Future starts out in a war, but quickly shifts into Arthurian Fantasy mode. Remembrance delves into WWI, but in a way that could hardly be called interactive. In fact, the only memorable IF game in the war genre I've played is Persistence of Memory, which leaves great swaths of territory still untouched. Aftermath, unhappily, can only manage to come up with gratuitous gore and relentless dreariness, sprinkled throughout with wince-worthy histrionics and unintentionally funny English and TADS errors. It's all the more disappointing, because the game could have been so moving. Aftermath has a very solid theme, and its basic plot engine, the idea of a character who is the sole survivor of a battle and is obsessed with building a monument to the dead, could have made for a dynamite story. Aftermath isn't that story, though. Instead its only success, as well as its disappointing failure, lies in the fact that it is just so dismal.

Rating: 3.1

GUESS THE VERB! by Leonard Richardson

Here's a sentence I never thought I'd write: Guess the Verb is fun. In fact, I'll go even better than that: Guess the Verb is great! I was quite worried when I saw the game's title, fearing that I faced another Annoyotron, or at best a riff on the Textfire game Verb!. What I got instead was a highly enjoyable comp game that I'm eagerly looking forward to revisiting after the judging period is over. What a bargain! For one thing, the game is just screamingly funny. In fact, even the meta-game materials are hilarious. Not two minutes after loading up GTV I was giggling like a loon. My wife walked past and asked, "Good game?" "I haven't even started the game yet!" I replied. "I'm just reading the instructions!" Those instructions are not to be missed, and they set the tone wonderfully for the rest of the game, a riotous spoof on IF that skewers everything from pretentious authors and critics (like myself) to overly literal parsers to shopworn genre conventions.

Here's what's even better: even though GTV is a spoof, it is simultaneously a really fun game. The first puzzle, for example, makes terrific mockery of IF parsers, but it is also at the same time a clever, original, and completely fair puzzle, one which gave me that invaluable "Aha!" feeling once I had figured it out. Examples of this kind of dual excellence abound throughout the game, and there are so many examples I loved that it's hard to pick one, so I'll just select this room description from early on in the game:

   The Midway
   The lights and noise of the midway seem hollow and dull compared to
   the aura of excitement you felt at the verb guessing booth. You
   survey the sights around you as though through different eyes: the
   merry-go-round, the concession stand--they seem so pedestrian now.
   You feel a strange attraction pulling you back towards the southwest,
   as though a ham-handed author were trying to place hints into the
   room description that the game would progress a lot faster if you
   went back to the verb guessing booth already.
This is a lovely parody on the tendency of IF authors to give rather clumsy hints in the midst of otherwise banal descriptions of objects and rooms, in hopes of giving the player a friendly shove in the right direction. But even as GTV lampoons the silliness of that technique, at the same time it enacts that very technique and achieves the hoped-for effect. Stuff like that makes me smile very, very widely.

Another great feature of this game is its impressive replayability. The plot branches randomly into five small scenarios, and I don't think that all five scenarios are reachable in a single play session, at least not without very copious amounts of UNDOing, and perhaps not even then. Each scenario is well worth visiting, even the briefer ones, so there's a reason for replay right there. Not only that, the game is just stuffed full of Easter eggs. I played for two hours, got to the end, and was rewarded with a long list of amusing things to do, things that I'm just itching to go back and try, especially knowing how many of the game's jokes truly were amusing. In fact, even when some of the scenarios get cut off, GTV sometimes compensates you with additional items that can be used in a bunch of entertaining ways. This game wasn't perfect -- mercifully, I found no coding errors, but there were there were a few typos here and there, and the very beginning of the game is lumbered with a misfeature that forces you to enter some very specific information before you can get to a standard prompt that allows you to restore, script, restart, etc. Those quibbles aside, however, I can say without reservation that this is by far the best game of Guess The Verb I have ever played or could ever hope to play.

Rating: 9.7

TRANSFER by Tod Levi

What is it about isolated research complexes? Is it that their combination of solitude and high-tech niftiness is particularly well-suited to IF? Do their deeply buried labs and living quarters provide plenty of fodder for interesting room descriptions while furnishing a very logical justification for a paucity of objects? Does something about all that Big Science that inevitably goes catastrophically awry appeal to writers in a computer game genre that is generally thought to be long since technically outmoded? Whatever the reason behind their mystique, isolated research complexes have appeared in every IF competition since C.E. Forman blazed the trail with his 1996 comp game Delusions, a game so good that perhaps it can take credit on its own for inspiring the trend. From Babel to Unholy Grail to Four Seconds, it's just not an IF competition without a game about an isolated research complex where Dangerous Experiments go Horribly Wrong. Despite its rather pedestrian title, Transfer is a captivating thriller in exactly this mode.

The game's central conceit is a machine that allows "Entity Transfer" -- an exchange of minds between animals and humans. Naturally, the genius Professor who built this machine has been mysteriously put out of commission, and you as the PC can't be sure who to trust among the various colleagues and security agents who roam the complex in the wake of this disaster. The game never makes your quest explicit, but it's clear enough that you are charged with clearing up the mystery and flushing out the culprit behind this obvious Foul Play. The transfer machine allows the author to once again exercise the skills that he demonstrated in last year's cat-perspective game A Day For Soft Food, this time thrusting the PC into a whole menagerie of animal points-of-view -- this device is not only lots of fun, it serves as a vehicle for some very clever and original (if at times somewhat implausible) puzzles. These puzzles are also quite well integrated into the game's plot, a plot which I found quite gripping.

In fact, the strength of the story serves ironically to highlight the game's major flaw, which is the unrealistic behavior of its NPCs. These NPCs are well-characterized, but implemented much too shallowly. I know this because I was so into the story that I found it extremely frustrating when I wasn't able to progress in the plot even after telling an NPC about some stunningly important clue, or showing them some highly significant objects I'd acquired. In fact, there are times in Transfer when something obviously alarming is going on, but the NPCs ignore it completely, going robotically about their daily rounds despite my best efforts to draw their attention. Because the rest of the work was so involving, the characters' unresponsiveness became a real point of frustration for me. Other than this weakness, the game appears to be quite well-tested -- I found only a couple of small, isolated bugs and spelling errors, and on the flip side noticed several spots where the game's code revealed outstanding craftsmanship in its handling of subtle details. I wasn't able to finish the game in the two hours allotted judging time, but assuming I survive the process of grading another 50 games, I eagerly anticipate returning to reach the ending of Transfer -- if the rest of the game is any indication, the payoff should be worthwhile indeed.

Rating: 8.8


When I first opened Dinner With Andre, I was enchanted. The game is real-world IF of a genre I've never quite seen before -- "date IF", I suppose. You play a woman who's offered to buy dinner for a co-worker, hoping to get to know him. The opening scene is of a swank restaurant, where you're just coming to the end of a wonderful dinner with your date and wondering what the rest of the evening has in store. He excuses himself for a moment, and when you reach for the check, you get a very unpleasant surprise: dinner was much, much more expensive than you thought, and your credit card isn't going to cover it. Unfortunately, it's the only form of payment you've got with you. I thought this was a terrific premise, and just a few minutes into the game I was grinning with excitement at the prospect of seeing how the rest of the plot played out.

A half-hour later, I was ready to shove my head through my monitor. I tried everything I could think of to solve that first puzzle, and was rebuffed by the game at every turn. Several of the things I tried (like "call mom on cell phone") were actually implemented, which was a pleasant surprise, but most of my ideas weren't implemented, which was no surprise at all considering how desperate some of them were (like "write IOU"). I'm always reluctant to turn to the hints in a game that's clearly well-written and bug-free, and DWA definitely fits that description. However, I really can't afford to buy a new monitor, so I swallowed my pride and checked the hints. It's rather difficult to discuss without revealing spoilers, but my feeling when I read the solution was, "but I tried that and was told it doesn't work!" Turns out I had already had the right idea, but hadn't expressed it in quite the way the game wanted. This experience of being alternately thrilled and frustrated was emblematic of my entire encounter with the game. DWA has lots of wonderful moments, and several of its responses made me laugh out loud, but I found myself thoroughly stymied in most of my attempts to get through the plot. By the end, I was relying solely on the hints to wade through the game. I don't think the problems are terribly deep-rooted, mainly a lack of gentle nudges in the text and a need for alternate phrasings in several parts. Unfortunately, due to the extreme difficulty I had with the first puzzle, I was much more ready to reach for the hints at each successive stuck point.

Once I lost my inhibitions about using the hints, I found I enjoyed the game quite a bit more. Disaster after disaster happens to the PC, and her reactions force her into several very funny situations, situations which require further wacky contortions to escape. In fact, I'm realizing as I write this that the genre of DWA isn't "date IF" -- it's "situation comedy IF". Now, I mean that in the kindest sense (that is, the "Seinfeld" sense rather than the "Major Dad" sense), but I think that this insight gets to the heart of why I had trouble with the game. Solving the game's puzzles requires coming up with the funny response that the game had in mind, and using a less funny but still sensible response, or even a different funny response that the game hadn't envisioned, puts the player at a rather unhelpful dead end. Thus, in the first puzzle I had figured out what I wanted to do, but hadn't come up with the particular funny way of doing this thing that the game was looking for, and therefore I found myself going in ever more frustrating circles. Therefore, if you're anything like me, you probably shouldn't be afraid to turn to the hints in DWA, but once you do, you'll have a pretty good time. If only we could say that about all our disastrous dates.

Rating: 7.6

THE BIG MAMA by Brendan Barnwell

The Big Mama is an ambitious work with an intriguing structure and a strong sense of place. Somehow, though, it just didn't work for me, and I think there are a few reasons why. For one thing, the protagonist has the same first name as me, which produced a strange experience that I don't think any other piece of IF has given me. It's an odd feeling to have the PC introduce himself as "Paul" and be addressed as such in a game that hasn't asked for my name explicitly. I suppose that I wouldn't find this offputting in and of itself if the PC was a character I could relate to. Unfortunately, he isn't -- I found him pretentious and grandiose. One of the most prominent examples of this pretentiousness is the PC's insistence on constantly referring to the ocean as "the big mama" -- one or two references of this sort would be fine, but when the game hammers at it over and over again, flying into rhapsodic soliloquies about how "It's like some caring, artistic superior being has crafted this little coastline as an experiment in environmental beauty," I start to get the feeling it's trying to impress me with how deep and soulful the PC is, and I wasn't that impressed. Those kinds of details tend to make me roll my eyes a bit, and they're everywhere in the game. Another example is the room description in which the PC reacts to a sign reading "Private beach: next 1.5 miles" by snorting "Stupid imperial measurement!" This is the sort of behavior trait that would annoy me if I found it in a real person -- it strikes me as contrariness for the sake of it rather than for any rational reason, and when it's divorced from any explanatory context, as it is with this PC, my initial response remains as my lasting impression. Meanwhile, the game is not only ascribing all these traits to me in the second person voice, it's actually using my name to do so. Weird.

Oddly, the game's very open-ended structure only served to underscore this feeling for me. At one point (when you type "score"), the author himself intrudes to insist that "it's all up to you." In fact, however, it isn't. If you try to swim in the ocean, for instance, you are told "You're a stand-on-the-shore-and-watch-the-waves-roll-in kind of guy, not a frolic-in-the-crashing-surf kind of guy." When this happens, the game forcefully reminds me that despite its proclamations of freedom, the PC is never going to act like anything but the rather pompous character I was trying to steer away from. I can understand that there need to be some limits on what's implemented in a game, but I'd rather not hear any claims like "it's all up to you" unless those limits are very wide indeed. That complaint aside, however, TBM's structure is absorbing. The game sports at least 39 endings (at every ending you reach, you are told "You have reached ending #[whatever]", though the game rather coyly avers that "The total number of endings is a secret." Anyway, I got to ending number 39, so I know that there are at least that many.) I played through the game about 20 times, and was impressed by the number of possible branches to take, though again I still felt disappointingly straitjacketed by the character's consistency. If I had liked the character, I think would have spent even more time chasing down the various possibilities.

The writing in the game was well proofread -- I think I only found one error (an it's/its mixup) -- and it was very effective at producing a strong sense of place for me. TBM provides quite a few vivid details for its beach setting, and when I closed my eyes after playing the game for an hour or so, I nearly felt transported. The actual style of the prose, on the other hand, felt just a little over-the-top to me at times, but this may have been a further outgrowth of my reaction to the PC's perspective. In addition, TBM suffers unfairly in my mind because I can't help comparing it to Sunset Over Savannah, one of the best-written IF games out there and certainly the best one to be set on a beach. I think another thing that deflated the power of the writing for me was that the game begins with a series of "light-hearted" admonishments by way of introduction, and I found this sequence irritatingly precious. That's pretty much the story with me and TBM -- there's nothing wrong with it, particularly, but it just wasn't my cup of tea.

Rating: 7.2


When I first played Myst, I wasn't so much impressed by its storyline and puzzles as I was by its images. The gorgeously rendered locations, where each object seems freighted with meaning; the arcane and elegantly wrought machinery with its delicate gears and imposing levers; the transformations that could be brought about when various changes were enacted -- I found them all quite arresting. Metamorphoses brought me back to that feeling of pleasure and awe, and it did so without the use of any graphics whatsoever. The game's prose is crisp and powerful, conveying its Myst-like landscape of glass trees, heavy steel cranks, and shimmering water with clean, charged phrases. The game never specifies exactly where it is set, except to make clear that its world is separate from the ordinary one, and that the PC has been sent there through the use of some sort of magic. The objects and locations therein are described economically but evocatively, like so:
   Tower of Stars 
   You stand among cogs and gears, many with teeth longer than your
   forearm; the outer ring of the floor is wholly occupied with these. 

   But above is a spangled darkness full of music. The moon turns slowly
   overhead, and the constellations wheel round the pole-star; off to
   the east is the dimmest hint of warmth, but the sun itself is nowhere
   to be seen.
At its best (and it usually is), Metamorphoses delivers the transcendent grandeur of graphical powerhouses like Myst, and tinges it with an emotional weight that only text can achieve.

As to what is actually happening in this breathtaking landscape, well that isn't so clear, or at least it wasn't to me. You play some kind of servant, a girl apparently (since you're wearing a dress.) Your fealty is to a Master who doesn't appear to treat you well, and it is he who has sent you to this mystical landscape in pursuit of some unspecified magical objects. Even this much is based on some guesses and intuitive leaps -- the game makes little effort to provide clear exposition of character and plot, leaving players to fill in many of the voluminous gaps for themselves. I found the overall effect to be rather emotionally distancing. Perhaps I struggled to connect to the character because the flashbacks and other characterization elements are presented in such an abstract manner, or perhaps it was due to the rather spartan, forbidding images of the landscape itself, some of which contain dark hints of hellish abuse in the PC's past. Perhaps it was even due to the austerity of the prose itself, whose sharp images and clipped diction were magnificent at conveying vivid scenes, but which stumbled rather more when describing the fuzzier and more complex realm of emotions. No doubt the real cause is some combination of these factors, but whatever the reason, I found that I enjoyed the game more when I set aside its plot and focused my attention on its lovely images and excellent design.

That design is perhaps the best thing about Metamorphoses. There are puzzles, yes, but almost every puzzle seems to have alternate solutions, and even better, these alternate solutions make perfect sense within the game's magical logic. Moreover, Metamorphoses provides much space for play and experimentation, especially through the use of a couple of devices that can effect startling and fascinating transformations on most of the objects in the game. The potential of these devices is so vast, and their effects implemented so thoroughly, that I could easily have spent the two hour judging period just playing with them and experimenting with the results. In fact, the game is coded so well that for a moment it gave me a flash of that wonderful sense I used to get when I first started playing interactive fiction, the sense that here is a world where anything can happen, and anything I try can elicit a magical, transformative response. Of course, that feeling breaks down quickly and inevitably when something I attempt isn't accounted for, but just for that moment of wonder it gave me, I won't forget Metamorphoses for a very long time.

Rating: 9.3

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Paul O's 2000 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2000