2000 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 5

(in the order I played them)


Yet another entry in the category of "cool idea with lame execution" comp games, The Masque Of The Last Fairies is all the more frustrating for the glimpses of quality visible beneath its very rough exterior. At first, the problems appear to be rather superficial: formatting weirdness, grammar blunders, and such. Now don't get me wrong -- these things matter, a lot. It's a source of constant puzzlement to me that games get released to the public while they're still swimming with mechanical errors in their writing. You know, in some kinds of games, English errors wouldn't matter very much, if at all. If you're writing a new version of Quake or Space Invaders, who cares if your code comments are littered with its/it's errors? But these are text adventures. In order for a text adventure to be good, the text has to be good. To me, this seems blatantly self-evident. Apparently, though, it isn't, not when I still end up playing games with sentences like this: "A grand staircase leads up although a row of potted shrubs act as a barrier at it's base." Quick lesson: "it's" is a contraction of "it is," as in "It's alive!" "Its" is the possessive form of "it", as in "a barrier at its base". Like "his", "hers", and "ours", "its" has no apostrophe, and it never will. If it's possessive, don't give it an apostrophe, lest you mangle its meaning. See how easy that is? Similarly, please print a newline before a prompt. Please don't put more than one blank line between pieces of text unless you've got a damn good reason. A mediocre game with correct grammar and correct formatting is still much more immersive than an imaginative, interesting game with really broken grammar and formatting, because every time I have to stop and figure out what a sentence means, or readjust my eyes to figure out what text printed after the prompt because there's no newline between the previous text and the new text, I get thrown out of the story for a moment. Those moments add up.

Still, if cosmetic problems were the extent of this game's flaws, I'd probably still be able to have a fairly good time playing it. And indeed, up through the first three acts, this appears to be the case. However, after that I learned that it's apparently impossible to score all the points, due to the fact that one of the things the hints suggest seems to evoke no response from the game at any point. Moreover, as the game goes on, Masque succumbs to what I'll call "Harvey Syndrome", after Elwood P. Dowd's lapine companion who was inexplicably invisible to the rest of the world. A game suffering from Harvey Syndrome talks about objects which are strangely unavailable for examining, taking, or in fact any kind of interaction at all. I'm not talking about scenery in room descriptions here -- I mean major NPCs and objects ostensibly in your inventory. When somebody hands you something, you ought to be able to examine it rather than being told "You can't see any such thing." If there's a character speechifying next to you, you ought to be able to examine that character. In Masque, these people and objects show up in action descriptions but, Harvey-like, are unavailable in any other way.

It's so sad, too, because there is so much to like in Masque. The plot is composed of a number of intriguing layers -- you're a guest at a masquerade party where you've been asked to take on a specific character and participate in the drama that will be part of the evening's entertainment. However, just as there are community members behind the party masks, there is community turmoil behind the masque itself, and you may find yourself inexorably drawn into that turmoil. The structure and pacing of the game work well, introducing puzzles one at a time (some oriented to the PC's masque character, some to the PC itself), and ushering in a new "Act" when a puzzle is solved. Moreover, the game makes the ambitious choice to have all the masque action (which is considerable) take place in verse. Some of this verse has grave weaknesses in meter and rhyme, but I still salute the game for setting its sights so high. What Masque ends up showing us, though, is that it doesn't matter how high you aim -- if your basic mechanics fail, you'll never hit what you're aiming at.

Rating: 5.9

AD VERBUM by Nick Montfort

Among Infocom enthusiasts, the game Nord and Bert Couldn't Make Heads Or Tails Of It doesn't tend to get singled out for a lot of praise. It has its fans, sure, but rarely receives the hosannas granted to such works as Trinity, A Mind Forever Voyaging, or even Planetfall. Its detractors, on the other hand, can be extremely vocal and emphatic. Ironically, though, the thing its critics decry is in fact the game's greatest strength: it is a near-total break from IF convention, setting aside adventuring and role-playing to focus instead on wordplay, puns, and cliches. A typical Nord and Bert puzzle asks you to type a spoonerism, cliche, or bad old joke into the command line, which the game will then recognize and advance the story for you. Naturally, if you despise puns, or if you don't know a lot of cliches, or if you don't enjoy wordplay, Nord and Bert isn't the game for you. Because I love language and have a pretty firm command of English idioms, I loved Nord and Bert, though I certainly found myself relying on the hints at a few points. Still, it's not surprising that fans of Trinity-style IF find themselves caught short when playing the game -- it's nothing like any other Infocom game, or really any other piece of IF. Until now. Ad Verbum is very much in the spirit of Nord and Bert, but instead of focusing on English idioms, it focuses on the words themselves, having a ball with all manner of challenging restrictions on expression.

For example, there's a room where every single word starts with "S". I'm not kidding -- every single word. Don't believe me? Here's the room description:

   Sloppy Salon
   Simple social space, sadly spoiled. Some skewed situation's sequel,
   surely. Seemingly, slovenly students sojourned -- scraping,
   scratching, scuffing surfaces.

   Stuff: ... stainless steel stapler... sizable sofa.

Now, I've seen some amazing room descriptions in my years of playing IF, but this one just blows my mind. I can't believe the sheer linguistic bravado of it. Not only that, the author performs a similar feat in four other rooms, one for the letter "E", one for "N", one for "W", and another for "S". Not only that, each room has customized library responses consisting of only words beginning with the appropriate letter. In these rooms, as you might gather, the game will only accept input beginning with the appropriate words -- the challenge is to come up with words that tell the parser what you want to do while staying within the linguistic restriction. Keep a thesaurus handy while playing this game. Just for these rooms alone, the game is a towering achievement. To come up with not just a room description, but actual library responses that make sense for all commands, in such a restricted form, is incredible. Beyond this, though, is the achievement in parsing -- I shudder to think what this game's code must look like. And those four rooms are just one part of the whole thing. Ad Verbum overflows with linguistic challenges of this nature, and I had a hell of a lot of fun playing it.

At least, I had fun until the time I typed in an answer that should have worked under the game's rules, but which the game didn't recognize. And there we have the danger of this kind of game. Its wordplay challenges are so mind-wrenching that when I do come up with an answer that works, the game had better accept that answer, or I'll get frustrated very quickly. Up until about halfway through Ad Verbum, I found that it was very well prepared to handle anything I threw at it. However, as I moved to other puzzles, it started to reject perfectly valid commands, which caused me to lose faith in the game with distressing speed, despite how impressed I had been with it up until then. After that frustrating period, I turned to the help and didn't try very hard to solve the rest of the puzzles, which is a shame because some of them were really excellent puzzles. The problem is that because Ad Verbum requires such specific input, when it isn't prepared to handle what little input is valid under its rules, it seems much more broken than does a typical IF puzzle when it rejects alternate solutions. I can't say I blame it -- frankly, I'm astonished by how well coded it is already, even despite what it still lacks -- but that didn't make my experience any more fun when the game was rejecting correct answers. Ad Verbum sets itself a highly bizarre challenge, bravely taking up the mantle of Nord and Bert. When it succeeds, it provides immense intellectual pleasure. When it fails, it generates great frustration, and helps me understand just a little bit more of what those Nord and Bert bashers are on about.

Rating: 8.6


It's the kind of situation that happens all too often in comp games: after a long period of frustration, I finally turn to the walkthrough, only to find that the correct solution was unguessable due to the game's omission of a critical detail. That's just the situation I thought I was in when I finally turned to the walkthrough for Pickpocket and saw that it suggested the manipulation of an item I had never seen at any point in the game. So I marched on over to where the item was supposedly to be found, all set to write a cranky note for this review, and discovered something that surprised me: the item was in the room description. In fact, it had been there all along. It was then that I realized that the game had pulled a rather clever, but completely fair, trick on me. (The rest of this paragraph could be considered a mild spoiler, I suppose, though it really just boils down to the standard admonishment to read carefully.) You see, what Pickpocket did was to announce the presence of an important item, but to announce it in an utterly casual way, burying the sentence in the second line of a rather long-winded room description, a description that is almost identical to eight other room descriptions in the game. What's more, the game ensures that you'll encounter at least three of these near-identical descriptions before you get to the one with the important difference. This devious but totally reasonable trick worked perfectly on me -- by the time I got to the critical room (and I got to it seventh, not fourth), I was blowing past the room descriptions, assuming that they were all pretty much the same. Even better, it's the perfect trick for a comp game by a first-time author, since if most of its players are like me they'll be (A) going quickly, hoping to finish within the two-hour time limit, and (B) not expecting anything quite so devious in what is otherwise a fairly straightforward game. When a game gulls me so completely, I can only salute it.

Then again, there is another, less laudable reason why I turned to the walkthrough: I encountered a bad bug. This bug was of the "Which do you mean, the door or the door?" variety, which is even more disappointing in an Inform game than it is in a TADS game, since Inform's library has never had any particular propensity for creating that kind of error, where TADS' library did (though I don't think it does anymore.) After I encountered this bug at what seemed to be the climactic scene of the game, it was easy to assume that my failure to progress was the game's fault, not mine. Even after I discovered how the game had hoodwinked me, I felt disappointed that it contained such a serious bug, because without the presence of that bug (and a few others, and some few-and-far-between spelling and grammar errors), I might have felt compelled to continue working at the game and had the pleasure of solving that puzzle myself. The whole experience just reminded me again that one of the most important reasons for betatesting is that once players encounter a serious bug, they're unlikely to take the rest of your game very seriously, having lost faith that it knows what it's doing.

The other lesson that Pickpocket underscores is the importance of maintaining some logical consistency in constructing the PC. First of all, the premise of Pickpocket strains credibility considerably: a street urchin has made off with your money pouch, so you decide to wait until nightfall, then prowl into the most dangerous slums in the city to find the urchin and recover your money. Only in a text adventure could a character like this seem like a normal person -- any book, TV, or movie character that made such a choice would come across, at best, like Charles Bronson gone way off his meds, only unarmed and not at all intimidating. Certainly any real person that tried to hunt down a pickpocket just by wandering into the slums, hours after the robbery, would deserve to have her sanity questioned. But even if we grant this premise, the game still demonstrates a puzzling lack of moral consistency. For example, the game's response to OPEN CASH REGISTER is "You're trying to catch a thief, not embark on a life of crime." Yet to recover this money, you'll end up committing theft, assault, menacing, breaking & entering, and vandalism. If that's not a life of crime, I'm not sure what is. Overall, Pickpocket is an enjoyable game with one dynamite ace up its sleeve, but that sleeve is still a bit ragged from logical inconsistency and technical errors.

Rating: 7.8

COMP00TER GAME by Brendan Barnwell as Austin Thorvald

I'm pretty sure that Comp00ter Game wants to be a parody of bad games, or bad authors, or something. At least, let me put it this way: I really really really hope that's what it wants. It is (again, I hope) far too bad not to be intentionally bad. You know, misspelled words, broken code, leaving debug mode on, that kind of thing.

Here's the thing about satire, though: you can't satirize stupidity just by acting stupid yourself. You've got to have something, somewhere, that indicates that you and your target are separate things. Otherwise, it's kind of like the prose equivalent of imitating somebody's words in a high, nasally voice. That's not satire. It's not even funny. It's just sort of irritating. Even if you make a few offhand references to Joyce or something.

That's the deal with Comp00ter Game. It made me laugh a couple of times, but as far as I can tell, it is as awful a game as has ever been produced. Now, this being interactive fiction, it's entirely possible that I missed some proper action or magic word or something that puts the whole terrible part into some clever perspective. The file is 150K, after all, and I spent a fair bit of time trying to figure out what could possibly be taking up all that space. I finally concluded that it must be the Infix stuff, which the author left in -- I haven't started a new Inform project since Infix was introduced, so I'm not sure how much it bloats a file, but it seems logical that it would add a fair amount. I did type "tree", and managed to crash the whole game with a fatal error, so that left me pretty convinced that the game isn't clever, just very very broken. It certainly didn't come with any walkthrough, and I don't have access to the net at the moment (to check Deja for rgif postings), nor to txd, so that's the conclusion I'm resting with. The upside is that I didn't spend much time playing it, nor writing this review, which brings me that much closer to my goal of actually finishing all the games by the deadline. That's worth something, at least.

Rating: 1.1


Graham Nelson once described interactive fiction as "a narrative at war with a crossword." Letters From Home takes a definite side in this battle by being an interactive narrative where the main goal is to complete a crossword, and whose entire purpose is structured around puzzle-solving, the "crossword" part of the metaphor. The explicit connection with that metaphor is just one of the many pieces of Nelsoniana scattered throughout the game. From the introductory text, to the Jigsaw (grandfather clock and Titanic mementos) and Curses (sprawling mansion filled with relics of distinguished ancestors) references, to the somber traces of wartime, the whole thing comes across as a loving tribute to Graham. Being a Nelson admirer myself, I couldn't help but be impressed by the various clever nods to him peppered throughout this game. There's also a hilarious Zork allusion in a throwaway parser response and even a passing reference to the author's own Cloak Of Darkness demonstration page for the various IF languages.

The main attraction in Letters, though, is the puzzles. This is one of those games whose plot is thin to nonexistent, and whose mimesis gets shattered (literally) in the course of puzzle-solving. The game isn't particularly straightforward about announcing what your objective is supposed to be, but it comes clear after a bit. At first, Letters seems to be a standard-issue "collect your inheritance by solving puzzles" game a la Hollywood Hijinx, but the plot and the mimesis both evaporate rather quickly as it becomes clear that the real point of the game is collecting the letters of the alphabet by finding things that represent or resemble them in some way. For example, you find a cup of tea, and sure enough, it represents the letter T. Once you get the hang of it (hint: leave your sense of realism at the door), most of these puzzles are fun, and a few are quite remarkable. Some, though, are marred by ambiguous writing. For example, one of the necessary objects is described as stuck to a skylight. Perhaps because of architectural styles where I live, I don't expect that I'll be able to reach up and touch a skylight -- they tend to be placed in high ceilings. Consequently, I thought that the puzzle was to find a way to reach this object -- I climbed stuff, searched for a ladder, tried to haul furniture into the room, all to no avail. Finally, I turned to the hints, which just said to... take it. I did, and it worked. Now, part of the problem here was no doubt my fault: I should have just tried taking the item. However, I'd submit that if you're writing descriptions (especially terse descriptions like those in this game) where critical puzzle pieces depend on how the player envisions the room, there had better be a lot of clues in place to make sure that you're communicating clearly. Letters From Home sometimes fails to do this.

I didn't finish the game in the two-hour judging period -- no great surprise since I'm guessing there are twenty-six letter puzzles, some of which require multiple steps. In addition, there's a time limit, which I blithely exceeded. So I don't know much about the ending, and probably missed half the puzzles. I doubt the ending has much of a punch -- there's virtually no narrative in this game, and solving the puzzles is its own reward. As for the half I missed, if they're anything like the half I found, I'll bet they're a lot of fun, though occasionally needlessly frustrating. Letters was coded quite well -- I only found one bug, though a rather amusing one. The game's time limit is 12:00 noon, and it creates atmosphere by having the village chimes toll on the hour. However, once it gets past noon, the chimes toll thirteen times, then fourteen times, and so on. The funny thing is, the game is so unrealistic that at first I didn't even notice the oddness of the extra chimes. In a world where everything keeps turning into letters of the alphabet, and abstract concepts like letters can be carried around in your inventory, what's a little extra chiming? Letters From Home is a fun, lexicographically oriented puzzlefest that needs a bit more work on writing and coding before it can reach the Nelsonian level to which it aspires. This review has been brought to you by the letters "G" and "N".

Rating: 8.2

ASENDENT by Sourdoh Farenheit and Kelvin Flatbred

It's the little things in life that help me keep my sense of irony. Like this: right after I finish a game that pays tribute to Graham Nelson, I get this game, which is apparently a tribute to Rybread Celsius. A tribute to Rybread Celsius. The world never ceases to baffle me. As I've written before about Rybread, he seems to have a devoted cult of followers, but I'll never be one of them. I guess I'm just old fashioned enough to like my games with error-free prose and code, and I also sort of like them to, y'know, make some kind of sense. Asendent is, if anything, actually worse than anything Rybread ever produced. Certainly the spelling is worse, especially compared to the later Rybread (see L.U.D.I.T.E.) The code is also quite horribly buggy, though it thankfully leaves the debug verbs available, so players can be sure they're not missing anything.

As with Comp00ter Game, Asendent looks like it might have some point to make, but just like Comp00ter Game, that point was lost on me. To me, it just seemed like a really horrible game. What's the point of producing such a thing, especially on purpose? The intro seems to suggest it's hallucinatory, and Rybread games certainly are that, though they don't tend to trumpet the fact themselves. But it's not the terrible spelling that makes them hallucinatory. It's the imagery. Asendent can't compare to a real Rybread game when it comes to startling images, and its imitation seems pale indeed. The purpose of its imitation is a mystery. A tribute to Rybread Celsius. People are so odd.

Asendent took me about 10 minutes, at the end of which I shook my head and got ready for the next entry. Hey, just like a real Rybread game!

Rating: 0.8

THE BEST MAN by Rob Menke

Marc Blank knew it. A train, with its constraints on movement, its many mechanisms, and the inherent drama of its speed, makes an excellent setting for suspenseful thriller IF. That's why the first chapter of Border Zone takes place on a train. As good as that chapter was, though, this game outdoes it by far. One of the most successful attempts to bring to IF the edge-of-seat thrills packed into films like Die Hard and Speed, The Best Man puts the PC on a train that has recently become a very dangerous place. Through cleverness, skill, and courage, he must find a way to neutralize the danger, rescue the passengers, and stop the train without disaster. The train itself is implemented wonderfully, with details that reveal themselves only upon close inspection, but are perfectly logical once they are clear. In fact, inspection of those details is crucial to winning the game, so be sure to look at things quite closely. Most of the time, the game will reward you, if not with a discovery then at least with one of its many concise, well-written descriptions.

The train isn't the only area that receives a great deal of care in implementation. For one thing, The Best Man comes with the best "feelies" I've seen so far in this year's competition. In PDF format is a copy of "All Aboard!: The Magazine For Kids", which not only gives some info that becomes quite useful in the game, but also provides background for the political situation, adds detail to the game world, and also throws in some stuff just for fun. Within the game, I found lots of areas that demonstrated the same sort of thorough attention. For instance, the game offers the option of navigation by what it calls "technical" directions -- in other words, you can type "fore", "aft", etc. to move about on the train, since of course north, south, and such don't really have much meaning inside a moving vehicle. If you elect to use these directions, the game will describe all exits in those terms. Myself, I'm much more comfortable with the old familiar direction set, so I stuck with it, but I was quite impressed that the game offered the other option and implemented it so thoroughly. The Best Man's context-sensitive hints, its tight, error-free prose, and its skillful building of character via a chilling opening sequence all displayed the same careful craft, and the end result is very worthy indeed.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the number of alternate solutions that the game offers. As the judging period went on, it became more and more clear to me that not only were an array of choices available for most problems, but that the game had painstakingly implemented the consequences of each of those choices, whether they be heroic, fatal, or somewhere in between. But although this plethora of alternatives is one of The Best Man's greatest strengths, for me it also became a significant frustration as well. With so many deadly or successful routes available, I found that I wanted to try lots of things, to play the game through to its conclusion using a variety of methods for achieving the PC's various goals. However, because the game is so rich, there was no way I was able to do this in two hours. In fact, I didn't even finish at all -- by the time I realized that I wanted to turn to the hints to see more of the game, most of my time was already up. In fact, I'm frustrated that I ended up turning to the hints at all, because although some of the puzzles were quite tough, I thought they were all fair, and I really would have enjoyed the intellectual challenge of trying all the various possible routes to the endgame. The Best Man is a game to be savored -- it's the kind of IF that's a pleasure to draw out over a period of days or weeks, trying lots of different things and steadfastly avoiding the hints, since the game shows that it's worthy of such trust. Instead, I felt the comp time limit harried me as much as the game's own internal time limit -- I wanted to enjoy the ride, but found myself instead desperately poking into crannies looking for the next clue. This sense of urgency may have brought me closer to the PC, but it left me feeling that I didn't enjoy the game as much as I could have had it not been entered in the comp.

Rating: 9.3

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 5 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002