2000 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 4

(in the order I played them)

STUPID KITTENS by Pollyanna Huffington

Well. OK. Um. What can I say about Stupid Kittens? It lives up to its title, sort of. There's only one kitten, so it doesn't live up to the last "S" of its title. But it is pretty stupid. Either that or brilliant. It's kind of hard to tell the difference with this game.

Here's a definition of dada that I found on the Internet: "Nihilistic movement in the arts that flourished chiefly in France, Switzerland, and Germany from about 1916 to about 1920 [and later -ed.] and that was based on the principles of deliberate irrationality, anarchy, and cynicism and the rejection of laws of beauty and social organization." I think Stupid Kittens might be dada. Or else stupid. It's kind of hard to tell the difference with this game.

This game has God, and Krishna, and Einstein, and Buddha, and a crazy murderous little girl, and weird stuff, and lots of kitty litter, and the disintegration of reality, and Jennifer Love Hewitt encased in carbonite, and angels, and you can take your soul, and wash it, and dice, and more weird stuff, and a little electric chair, and a fish-head, and a crack pipe, and a vet, and a laptop, and Next Tuesday, and a grenade made of vinegar and baking soda, and then a bunch more weird stuff. It doesn't have a plot. It doesn't have puzzles. It doesn't have stupid unintentional errors in spelling, grammar, or coding. Or else it does. It's kind of hard to tell the difference with this game.

Rating: 3.8 (Also, I like cats, so I didn't like this game.)

PUNK POINTS by Jim Munroe

Note: this review has a bit of profanity here and there.

Here's a thesis: the method for making a great punk rock song is antithetical to the method for making a great IF game. See, when you're making punk rock, the main thing is emotion. It doesn't matter if you play the wrong chord, or sing the wrong note, or say the wrong words -- those are details, and they aren't important. The point is that you get the spirit across, that you communicate that great fucking barbaric yawp, as Walt Whitman might have said were he a punk rocker. But great IF doesn't get made like this. The best IF authors are less like Sid Vicious or Jello Biafra and more like Todd Rundgren or (to take a really non-punk example) Mick Jones of Foreigner. That is to say, they are studio wizards who put endless attention into the details. That doesn't mean that they don't communicate emotion, too, but it works differently, because we receive IF differently from the way we experience punk rock. Listening to punk rock is a passive experience, not because you don't get involved emotionally -- you certainly do, or at least I do -- but because the band throws the song at you, and you have to catch it, and you're not doing anything to influence them, at least not anything direct (and if you're listening to a recording rather than a live performance, not anything at all.) Playing IF, on the other hand, is all about shaping the work. In addition, we receive IF one piece at a time, whereas music is more of a gestalt experience. Consequently, IF players spend a ton of time poking into the details, and they can be counted on to stray from the path of the plot. If some studio wizard hasn't made sure that most of those odd steps are accounted for, and removed all the bugs that might trip an unwary player, the game is unlikely to get its yawp across.

By now you probably know where I'm going with this analogy. Punk Points is put together like a great punk rock song, which unfortunately makes it pretty much middling poor IF. The writing is spot-on, doing an excellent job of capturing a Catholic boys' high school in 1985, crystallizing a portrait of the PC as 13-year-old malcontent rebelling against the school's repressive system, and offering convincing characters with great dialogue. The coding, on the other hand, falls down rather badly, which takes pretty much all of the punch away from the writing. See, in IF it's not enough just to have a great song -- you have to play all the notes right, sing on pitch, and remember all the words, too. Otherwise, you end up with players like me wandering around carrying an object that wasn't supposed to be takeable, and banging my head against the wall trying to figure out what to do next, unable to do so because the answer involves a logical impossibility once I'm carrying the object. (Problems like this were intensified by the lack of hints, which the game asserts "are for fucking posers.") The game has tons of errors like this -- most not quite so game-killing, and some quite humorous (try putting your middle finger on something and walking away), but all of which take you right out of the immersive world that the writing has worked so hard to create. There are a ton of cool ideas in Punk Points, but after spending most of my time beating my brains out against its bugs and sparse implementation, I didn't come out remembering any of the cool stuff -- just the frustration.

The other big example of this problem is in the game's characters. In the cut-scenes, these characters positively sparkle with reality. The dialogue in those scenes is crisp and believable, and their actions fit in well with their words. Once we get to the interactive scenes, however, it's another story. These NPCs are just barely implemented. Nobody moves, nobody does too much except two or three random pieces of business, and worst of all, nobody has much of a response to anything, except the one crucial thing you're supposed to ask them about. But see, when 9 out of 10 things get a default response, or no response at all, I'm not likely to get to that 10th question. I just figure that the NPC isn't important, because obviously not much work was put into implementing it. This reasonable but incorrect assumption tripped me up on a number of the game's puzzles, especially those in the second act, several of which hinge on guessing the right noun in "ASK ABOUT ." When they don't answer to pretty much anything else, why should I keep asking them about things? Stuff like that may be details, but lack of attention to the details just kills an IF game. Maybe that kind of meticulousness would make Punk Points less punk, but it sure as hell would make it a better game.

Rating: 5.8

RAMESES by Stephen Bond

I was all set to slag off this game as another totally non-interactive self-pity festival with an insecure, pathetic PC, as kind of an Irish version of "A Moment of Hope." But I finished it sort of quickly, so I decided to play it again, just to see if there were more choices than I found on my first time through. There aren't, but in the process, something strange started happening to me. My first instinct about the game was being stretched, reshaped by things like the long, involved speech that one of the characters makes about free will. I already knew that Rameses was well-written, so I had just assumed that its non-interactivity was an instance of an game that wanted too much control and wasn't willing to create an experience where the player could take the lead. But if this was the case, what are the chances that it would make a point of having one of its characters pontificate on free will, a lecture whose irony is unmistakably manifest in this very constrained game? The more closely I looked, the more strongly I suspected that there is more to Rameses than meets the eye. As my second play-through went on, I again encountered the main character's anguished words at the climax:
   "It's just that... I can't... do anything! I can't do anything!" I
   scream at last. "It's like I'm trapped inside and can't get out and
   can't be myself and... I'm stuck...."
The first time I read these words, I just blew by them. I was too annoyed with the game's steel restraints and its horribly wretched PC. The second time, though. The second time...

The second time I finally twigged to what the game is up to. Rameses uses non-interactivity for the purpose of deepening character rather than, as with most other non-interactive games, for the purpose of furthering the plot. Alex Moran, the PC, is an insecure, depressed college student who can't ever seem to stand up to the bullies in his life, or to comfort their victims. Consequently, his only "friends" are smug, self-important blowhards who only want him along because they know that he'll be a receptive (if resentful) audience for their grandiosities. He spends most of his time nostalgically dreaming about a childhood friend named Daniel, fantasizing about his reunion with that friend, despite the fact that he has totally cut Daniel out of his life due to his own inability to communicate. Playing this character is an exercise in frustration. Every command you enter that might stand up to a bully, or leave a bad situation, or just let the PC take charge of his life in any way is wistfully brushed aside with a message like "Yeah, that'd be great, wouldn't it? But I'll never do it." Annoying, yes, but it's also the very soul of the character, and the very point of the game. In a sense, Rameses turns you into Alex's real self, struggling to get out and be heard, struggling to make a difference, only to be smacked down by fear, insecurity, and sometimes outright paranoia. In his climactic speech, the PC voices the exact torment that the player feels at every prompt -- it's an agonizing experience, and that's the point.

(I'm about to talk about the game's ending -- I don't think I really spoil too much, but be advised that I'll be analyzing how I think the last paragraph worked.) It's pretty depressing stuff, and it's made even more depressing by the fact that I don't think the PC ever gets out of it. Rameses' ending left me a little uncertain, but the more I think about it, the more sure I am that the ending paragraph is a fantasy scenario. For one thing, it comes so abruptly after the PC has fled the scene of what might have been his redemption -- without any transition, it feels more like a wistful reimagining than an actual event. Add to this the fact that the game begins with a fantasy scenario, one which ends with the very same words that end the closing paragraph. No, that final scene doesn't happen -- it's just a way to open the next chapter of Alex's life, another dream to focus on even as he lets it slip away. And as well-done as Rameses was, I hope that next chapter never becomes IF. Once around that track was more than enough for me.

Rating: 8.9

CLOCK by Cleopatra Kozlowski

There's a long tradition in IF of Average-Joe protagonists who are thrown into a world where the normal rules no longer apply. Clock partakes of this tradition. Unfortunately, it also partakes of another, less pleasant IF tradition: the game where nothing really makes any sense. We start out with a fine, if somewhat fuzzy, premise: you've been asked by your friend Kitty to do some house-sitting and cat-sitting for her while she takes care of some urgent business. Being kind-hearted, you agree, but you soon find out that Kitty's house is a strange clock-tower, and her cat is on the unusual side as well. Okay, great. To get much further, though, you'd better hope that your authorial telepathy is working really well. For example (I am now going to spoil a puzzle that I can't imagine anyone guessing for themselves): at one point, you find a "fairy coin", which you'd think you might be able to use to buy something at the fairy shop you find later. Nope. The old woman who runs the shop says (without quotes, so it looks disconcertingly like a parser message) "This isn't enough. I need proper paper money." Alright, fair enough. Sadly, there's no paper money to be found. So what do you do? Well, unexpectedly enough, you plant the coin in soft ground, water it, and a money tree grows! Now, it'd be one thing if there was some clear hint, like a reference to fairy money trees in one of the many reference books you find lying around, or if the old woman said "This is just seed money," or something like that. The only hint we get is that on one of the TV stations (if you were diligent enough to watch every message from every station) an economic adviser says at one point, "Money doesn't grow on trees!" Sorry, but that's just not enough of a hint. The only reason I'd connect this comment with planting the coin is if I was thinking, "Now why would the game include that comment?" When I play IF, though, I'm not thinking like that. I'm trying to put myself in the mind of the character, not stepping outside and thinking about how the game is constructed. If I have to puzzle out apparent non-sequiturs and try to parse them as hints, then the game has failed me, as far as I'm concerned.

So the first thing that Clock needs to be reasonably solvable is much clearer hints. The next thing it needs is a much richer implementation. As with Punk Points, many areas in Clock suffer from the weakness that the only things implemented are the solutions. Look, that's just not enough. For instance, several puzzles in the game depend on the construction "ASK <animal> ABOUT <object>." Now, without a doubt, these solutions suffer from the problem I describe in the first paragraph -- with absolutely no clues about talking animals, why in the world would anyone think to ask an animal about anything? However, let's set that aside for a moment and pretend that you've somehow taken it into your head to ask an animal about something. If you ask about anything but the topics necessary to solve the puzzle, you get a stock response like "The cat meows" or "The frog croaks." When I get a response like this, I take it as a very clear signal from the game that the animal doesn't talk, doesn't understand me, and that trying to have a conversation with it is useless. When just the opposite is true, I can only conclude that the game has no idea how to communicate clearly.

There's another issue at hand. At the very beginning of the game, you find a note from your friend instructing you very strongly not to touch anything. After reading the note, the game tells you "You decide to do pretty much as she says - but surely it couldn't hurt to look around a bit, so long as nobody finds out!" So that's what I tried to do -- look around a bit, but do pretty much as she says and not touch anything. I sort of expected that something would happen where I'd be in danger, or the house would, or the cat, or something, and I'd have to break the rule and start rummaging through my friend's belongings. Nothing happened. The clock stopped, but that's about it. The dilemma I found myself in is whether I should behave like a standard text adventurer (search everything, take anything that isn't nailed down, etc.) or like the character the game was shaping for me. It soon became apparent, however, that the latter choice was pointless, because if I follow it, the game goes nowhere. Consequently, I had to start pillaging. I didn't like it. What Clock didn't seem to grok is that lots of players take their behavioral cues from the character the text suggests. If you have to deliberately break character in order to succeed in the game, then the game has basically shot itself in the foot. For this reason, and the others described above, I turned quickly to the walkthrough, finished the game, and didn't have much fun. But none of those things were the worst part. The worst part is that there were two starvation puzzles (you have to feed yourself and something else) along with a pointless sleep timer. Authors, please. I beg you. I implore you. STOP IT with the starvation puzzles!! Stop it stop it stop it stop it stop it! Thank you.

Rating: 3.4

UNNKULIA X by Valentine Kopteltsev

In the beginning, there was the 1995 IF competition. This competition had but One Rule: all entries must be winnable in two hours or less. The competition has gotten grander and more complex since then, but it has remained a competition for short games, not Curses-length epics. Somewhere along the way, though, the One Rule got mutated a little. I quote from this year's rules: "Judges must base their judgement of each game on at most the first two hours of play... Authors may write a game of any length they desire, but should keep this rule in mind when determining the length of their entry." This rule has been in this form, more or less, since 1998. Still, the competition has remained oriented towards short games. There are some obvious reasons for this. For one thing, it takes less time to write a short game. The more objects, locations, NPCs, plot points, and such you cram into your game, the more work your game will be to produce, at least if you want to maintain a reasonable level of quality. I would argue, however, that there are other reasons to keep long games out of the competition. From a judging standpoint, I don't feel comfortable evaluating a game unless I'm reasonably confident that I've seen most or all of it. If A Mind Forever Voyaging, for instance, were to be entered in an IF competition, I know for certain that I wouldn't have an accurate picture of it after only 2 hours of play. I felt differently about Zork III before and after the Royal Puzzle. I could go on, but you get the idea. Consequently, the ratings given to a large game don't really reflect the game as a whole, just its beginning sections. Also, it's really comparing apples to oranges to put something like Worlds Apart up against something like, say, Winter Wonderland. Even if two games have a similar tone, or similar puzzles, or a whole raft of other similarities, length does matter. Ahem.

Nowadays though, the competition has become, to use a worn-out but apt phrase, a victim of its own success. Authors enter anything they write into the competition just because it's so high-profile and receives so much ink (or electrons, or whatever.) They figure that even in the worst case, they'll get a whole bunch of people playing and writing about their game, so why not enter it? I feel a rant coming on about this. The first part of my rant is directed at authors. Look, people, entering a game that is too long (or too buggy, or too poorly proofread, or otherwise inappropriate for the competition) is an abuse of the judges' time. The feedback and recognition you get this way are ill-gotten. Moreover, I would contend that especially in the case of overlong games, you're not really benefiting that much, because whatever recognition and feedback you get are only based on the first two hours, not your game as a whole. You created an entire game, but if it's just one of fifty entries, and it's quickly apparent that two hours ain't gonna cover it, not by a long stretch, how many of those players do you think will return to your game? How many people will see and give you feedback about the other three-fourths of the game that they didn't get to during the comp? How much are you really benefiting from all that comp attention? And while I'm on the topic, let's move to the second part of my rant, which is directed to the community at large. Listen, I love the competition. It's one of my favorite things about the IF community. But let's face the problems that it has. The magnetism of the competition, the idea that it's the best place for every game, is something we all need to work harder to address. Do your part. Release a long game (or a short one) outside of the competition. Write a review of a non-comp game for SPAG or XYZZYNews. Participate in things like the IF Review Conspiracy and the IF Book Club. Most importantly, post post POST about non-comp games. Make a commitment to post a reaction to any non-comp game you play. It doesn't have to be a review. It doesn't have to be thorough. Hell, it doesn't even have to be smart. It just has to be done, because if it doesn't get done, the authors who don't abuse the competition will end up losing out, and that's not right. So please -- do it. Your efforts will benefit yourself and everybody else in the IF community.

Just to be democratic, the third part of my rant is addressed to myself, and people like me, people who write long, thorough reviews of every comp game. We are part of the problem. I recognize that consistency is important to us, and that's why we devote more or less the same amount of space to each comp game. However, there can and should be limits. Don't even play games that have catastrophic bugs, let alone review them. Any attention those games get contributes to the perception that it's better to release a buggy game in the comp than a polished game in the Spring. We must work to prove that this perception is fallacious and untrue. As for overlong games, review them if you feel you must, but don't feel obligated to spend much of the review talking about the game itself -- spend it instead on some adjacent topic like the problem of inappropriate games in the competition. I mean, for god's sake, Unnkulia X is 865K! The thing is only 45K smaller than Once and Future! It's freaking huge! Yes, it's fairly well done, implemented with care and only a few lapses in English. (There's a lot of unfamiliar diction, which I assume is attributable to the author's first language being something other than English, but most of these alien word choices are rather refreshing instead of jarring.) Of course, I only got 60 points out of 300 after two hours, so these assessments are based on what I have to assume is the first fifth or so of the game. If it were the whole game, I'd probably give it about a 9. Considering it's a fifth of the game, I think that works out to about a...

Rating: 1.8


I'm a big fan of poetry, and I'm (obviously) a big fan of interactive fiction, but it seems to me that interactive poetry is a pretty challenging genre. Andrew Plotkin probably came as close as anybody ever has with his experimental work "The Space Under The Window." That work threw most IF conventions out the window, asking the player instead to "type the names of objects (or attributes or aspects of objects) that you see in the narrative" at the prompt. Some words it wouldn't respond to at all, some words might take you back to a previous node, and some words would reveal new information to you. Threading The Labyrinth takes a similar approach, with two changes: it offers some kind of response for every in-context word you type (in-context meaning words that the game has printed in bold text), but has very few words which open up the context further. For example, you might type the word "and" -- the game will respond, "Both conditions expressed are simultaneously true," but you'll still be at the same game node, since no more bold text has printed. As a result, TTL ends up feeling like more of an interactive close reading. Like a close reading, it can yield interesting insight, though that insight is limited by the fact that it's close reading its own text, and that it offers so little text to examine -- just a few sentences and fragments, really.

For what we do get, I'd venture to say that the primary theme is an interrogation of interactivity. Both in its content and its form, TTL is interested in exploring how we interact with that which is outside of us, and what new dynamics and artifacts get created in the process. This is an intriguing theme in and of itself, and it lends itself readily to TTL's format. The game's use of imagery from Greek myth isn't entirely successful -- its dominant image of the thread, for example, has an obvious connection to the idea of "UNDO" in modern IF, but the game doesn't do anything with this connection. On the other hand, TTL does have some nice moments. I particularly liked its differentiation between mazes and labyrinths, and its revisitation of that image in the "They" section.

Too bad there just isn't that much here. I finished the whole thing and (I think) read all the text available in about 10 minutes. What's there is pretty cool, while it lasts. It doesn't take long to play, so why not check it out? I get the impression that if you leave the game thinking about the nature of interaction, it will have achieved its goal.

Rating: 6.0

Go to the next page of reviews

Go to the previous page of reviews

Return to my IF page

Return to my home page

Paul O's 2000 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 4 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002