2000 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 6

(in the order I played them)

PLANET OF THE INFINITE MINDS by Niall Carey as Alfredo Garcia

Oftentimes, certain words in a work's title can give a pretty clear hint as to that work's genre. For example, if you see the words "dragon", "sword", or "elven" in the title, chances are you're looking at a fantasy work. Similarly, words like "passion", "hearts", and "desire" can clue you in that the work in question is a romance. And of course, words like "space", "star", and "planet" let you know that you've got science fiction on your hands. Right? Wrong. At least, wrong in the case of Planet Of The Infinite Minds. There are a lot of terms that could describe this game, but "science fiction" isn't one of them. Instead, it's sort of a bizarre, abstract, and surreal journey through concepts and places you may never have expected to visit. In the course of the game, the PC may find himself atop Mount Olympus, or watching the beginning of time, or strolling through the brain of Erwin Schrodinger. And these are actually some of the less abstract vistas the game offers. One thing that POTIM does quite often is to take advantage of text's capacity to encapsulate intangible ideas and give them a certain sense of landscape. Certainly, scenes like this could never take place in a graphical game:
   The Realm of Things-in-Themselves
      This is the realm where all things exist as they truly are, and not
   as we perceive them. Since there is no sense-data around to stimulate
   your mind, you find it to be a rather dull place.
I'd like to say that all of this way-out stuff is in service of a brilliantly constructed plot, but I don't think it is. You play a rather stuffy librarian who's trying to lighten up a bit by visiting a carnival. As the carnival winds down, he can either return to the library (and thereby end the game) or follow the gypsy who is urging him to visit her caravan. If he takes the latter course (which pretty much has to happen if you want to see the game), he suddenly finds himself dragged into an increasingly bizarre situation that starts out with a fairly stock setup of mega-psi-powered aliens who walk among us, then spins wildly into scenes like the one excerpted above. The poor librarian no doubt feels rather at sea in these cosmic circumstances, and as a player I felt much the same way. The whole thing seemed to be strung together without much sense of overall structure or meaning. Of course, this may be an intentional comment on the nature of existence, but it didn't come across very clearly if that's the case. On the other hand, it may be that because I didn't finish the game before time ran out, I've missed the masterstroke that pulls the whole thing together. However, based on what I've seen so far, I don't expect that to be the case.

Not that POTIM is a bad game -- far from it. Its concretization of philosophical concepts makes for some pretty thought-provoking IF, and there are also one or two puzzles that I thought were quite clever and original. However, there is also a slew of strange, random things that seem to serve no purpose to the story. Some of them have the feel of in-jokes, like the references to "MacFlecknoe" that pepper the game text. That sort of thing may have been fun for the author, but it does nothing for me. Other things, well, I just don't have an explanation for, unless they somehow all get explained in the endgame. In addition, there are a few bugs here and there, as well as some grammar problems, especially the dreaded its/it's error (see my review of Masque of the Last Faeries). In the end, it may just be another case of a game underserved by the need to play it in two hours. I looked at the hints quite a bit, but still didn't manage to finish it in that amount of time. It may be that I'm wrong about the game's arbitrariness, and that it all comes together in the end. I'll probably never find out, though, due to the circumstances under which I played it. (Gee, can anybody tell that I'm a little grumpy about playing 50 games in 6 weeks when some of those games take way more than two hours to solve?)

Rating: 7.3

JAROD'S JOURNEY by Tim Emmerich

This game has one of the most startling first lines I've ever encountered. The line is this: "Welcome to Jarod's Journey, a TADS-based game that will hopefully get you and Jarod closer to God." This line brought up a couple of questions for me. The first was "Whose God?", and the second was "What gives you the right?" I'm agnostic, but I wouldn't scorn someone simply for their religious beliefs. I respect the desire and necessity of all people to find their own spiritual paths, and I expect to receive the same respect in return. A game that wants to bring me closer to what it calls God is violating what I see as a very personal boundary, the boundary around my soul and my spiritual life. My agnosticism is of the stripe that objects to the notion that any human has privileged access to any sort of Higher Truth. I find it deluded and arrogant when a person claims to have all the answers to the Big Questions, even when they're basing that claim on some kind of intense personal experience, but I respect that person's right to believe whatever feels right to them. However, when they want to proselytize to me (or to anybody else, really), that's when I get offended. I think people have the right to believe whatever they want, but I don't believe they have the right to evangelize others about it -- doing so runs roughshod over those others' right to believe what they want. Consequently, I found the basic goal of Jarod's Journey to be an offensive one.

That being said, I'll try to set aside my fundamental personal objections to the game's announced intent and review it simply as IF. Sadly, it doesn't have much to recommend it, even from a pure gaming standpoint. First of all, it crossed another big bias of mine by having, you guessed it, a starvation puzzle. Actually, two starvation puzzles. Strangely, there doesn't appear to be any actual consequence attached to the starvation. Jarod, the PC, never dies, no matter how long he starves, but the game continues to print annoying messages. It could be argued that these are better than typical starvation puzzles since they don't ever actually enforce a time limit, but I say that they're just as bad, because without the time limit they become entirely pointless instead of just mostly pointless. In addition, there are a disheartening number of spelling and grammar errors in the game's writing, which makes the whole thing seem less than divinely inspired. On top of this, there's the fact that although the game tries to maintain a third-person voice, there are little slips of second-person throughout, as in this scene:

      Jarod is in a dream, or at least he thinks it is a dream. The 
   angel is here and has delivered a map.
      You see a map here.
      There is an angel here who is slightly glowing!
If the player controls Jarod, who is the "you" that sees the map? Perhaps it's the same "you" that the game announces in the first line that it wants to convert -- that is, me? But I don't see a map, just a computer game. Or rather, a digital sermon. (One nice thing about JJ is that next time somebody tells me that LASH is preachy, I can point at this game and say, Crocodile Dundee-style, "That isn't preachy. THIS is preachy!")

Setting aside the game's deficiencies in the areas of design, prose mechanics, and coding, we come at last to the quality of the writing itself. Jarod's Journey is written in a kind of earnest, gee-whiz tone that works best when you imagine it being read aloud by Ned Flanders from the Simpsons. (And by "works best", I mean "is most entertaining.") An example:

   >ask angel about god
   "God is wonderful. He loves you very much and created you just as you

   >ask angel about grace
   Jarod asks the angel about grace. The angel responds saying "Grace is
   truly wonderful! You will not find a better gift!"

   Jarod thinks to himself, "The angel is truly magnificent, glowing
   ever so brightly." 
Okeley-dokeley-do! Don't get the impression that I scowled through this game. On the contrary, I laughed a lot, but only because it was difficult to take this wide-eyed tone seriously. On a more serious level, though, perhaps it's worth thinking about the model of Christianity that this game constructs for us. There's one section that I found quite ironic -- Jarod meets a pharisee who is described as "praying loudly. So loudly that everyone nearby can hear him. Even in the short time that Jarod pauses to listen, it is obvious that the man is repeating himself. Is this what pleases the Lord?" From this description, we're supposed to realize that the pharisee's method of prayer is Not OK. But only one location away is a Christian priest who fits this same exact description. Not only that, the game itself fits this description. The deep irony of the pharisee section made me suspect that not only is the game evangelical, its evangelism isn't even well thought out. Another example: at the end of each section of the game, Jarod is asked to make a spiritual choice between various methods of approaching God. If you pick the right one, you get a point. If not, you get chided with a scripture. Is the sacred realm of faith really so simple as that? Can the intricacies of individual worship really be boiled down to a multiple choice test? According to the game, apparently so. The best religious literature explores the mysteries of faith rather than handing out reductionist platitudes. Dante knew this. Chaucer knew it. Lewis knew it. Jarod... Well, Jarod still has quite a ways to go.

Rating: 3.4

FUTZ MUTZ by Tim Simmons

For my first 45 minutes of playing Futz Mutz, I thought it was delightful. It's got a whimsical premise (you're a 9-year-old who has been inexplicably transformed into a puppy and trapped in a pet store). It's got lots of fun multimedia stuff, like appropriate dog sounds, a little biscuit up by the score on the status line, jazzy background music, a cool title sequence, that kind of thing. The code and the writing, while a bit error-riddled, mostly did their jobs well. It was well on its way to a high rating.

Then something happened that was a bit like a splash of cold water in the face. I looked at a TV in the game and got this description:

   A commercial for some new movie is now showing on the TV.

   "Don't miss 'Curses of the Skcus Mrofni' - starring G. Nelson.
   Tonight at 9 on HDO!"
Oh, ha ha. "Inform Sucks" spelled backwards. Gee, how clever. I though this game was supposed to be about a 9-year-old, not written by one. I was a little disappointed by this, but I shrugged and went on. After all, there had been a few IF references before this, a friendly nod to Mike Roberts and a more-or-less genial poke at Stephen Granade. Then, about five minutes later, something else happened. This was less like a splash of cold water and more like a kick in the teeth. I won't reprint it here -- it was a personal insult to Suzanne Britton, basically calling her a whore in a couple of different ways. Now look, Suzanne is a friend of mine, so I got very, very angry when I saw this. But even if she wasn't a friend, I'd think that this is way, way out of line. I do not understand the point of lashing out at specific members of the IF community like this. To work within the dog metaphor, it seems like biting the hand that feeds you.

I tried to continue playing, but my heart wasn't in it anymore. So I turned to the walkthrough and finished the game. Then it was rating time. I sat there for a minute, trying to figure out what to do. Should I ignore the insults and try to rate FM as a game notwithstanding its snide jabs? I ruled that one out pretty quickly. Should I abstain from rating it at all on the grounds that because I had such a strong emotional response to it, I'm not fit to judge it? Hell no, I decided. I'm going to rate it exactly the same way as I have all the other comp games: based on how much I enjoyed the overall experience. Then I'll write a review telling just what I thought of it, exactly as I have for the other comp games. And that's what I did.

Rating: 2.0

PRODLY THE PUFFIN by Craig Timpany and Jim Crawford

Prodly The Puffin is, according to the authors, "a second-generation parody of a cartoon that has long faded into obscurity." That is to say, it's a parody of a parody of something that no longer exists. Actually, to be precise, it's an IF adaptation of a parody of a parody of something that no longer exists. What this means, as I learned in the course of playing the game, is that unless you have quite a bit of context, the whole thing is going to seem totally incomprehensible. To their credit, the authors seem aware of this, having some fun with players' confusion in the hint system and even quoting the sentiments of a certain Sage of IF about wandering around in somebody's "ill-conceived, cobbled-together, inside-joke universe." They also provide a brief explanation of the game's cast of characters and include a comprehensive menu-based hint system. In addition, the game offers a second, less direct hint system: you can "ASK ME ABOUT" most any subject and receive a response that might be helpful. Of course, Prodly being what it is, the response probably won't be helpful, since chances are it won't make any more sense than anything else does.

After the game is over, the authors reveal not only their actual names, but also the URLs for their web comic Prodly the Puffin, and for Pokey The Penguin, the web comic that theirs spoofs. Curious, I visited the Pokey site, and actually thought it was hilarious, in a very bizarre kind of way. The Pokey comic is one of those strange web artifacts that is unbelievably bad that it's actually really funny. It looks like it was done by a third grader using Microsoft Paint, and is littered with scribbles, crossed out words, and weird unidentifiable things. Its plots (such as they are) tend to veer in bizarre, arbitrary directions and end quite abruptly. Its dialogue is written in all caps, and sometimes uses point sizes (or strikethrough) for emphasis. Nonetheless, I found its unexpectedness was excellent humor fodder, and some of the dialogue was so random that it actually made me laugh out loud. (Little Girl: "POKEY THESE ARE PLUMS! I WANTED ORANGES!" Pokey: "THAT IS THE PRICE OF LOVE".) Prodly the Puffin, the web comic, is the authors' parody of Pokey, and I found it less interesting, mainly because Pokey itself is so off-the-wall that it's difficult to parody. Prodly ends up being less funny because it's more polished and self-aware. However, I feel quite sure that I would have enjoyed the game quite a bit more if I had seen both Pokey and Prodly before I started playing. When I encountered Prodly and the other cast members of the IF game, they just seemed totally baffling and in-jokey to me. Now that I have the context of the web comics... well, ok, they still seem totally baffling and in-jokey, but at least now I have visuals to go along with them.

Consequently, I'd urge anyone who wants to play this game but hasn't done so yet to check out the web sites I mention above before playing. It's not that they'll give you a fighting chance of understanding what's going on, because understanding what's going on is not what Prodly (the game) is about. It's more of an attempt to capture the completely bizarre style of Pokey, its careening plots and desperate lack of quality. How successful it is I'm not sure, because I played the game before I knew anything about the web comic, and therefore experienced it all without being able to understand its point. Because of this circumstance, I didn't have much fun. The whole thing just kind of went past me, capital letters, outrageous violence, and all. Since I rate the games based on how much fun I had experiencing them, Prodly unfortunately can't rate very highly. However, I am grateful to it. It pointed me to Pokey, and Pokey has been cracking me up all day.

Rating: 2.8


ATWCTW is, as far as I can remember, the first competition game that shares its fictional "universe" with a previous competition game. Last year's Only After Dark featured the same protagonist, namely one Ranil Kuami, dreadlocked seventeenth-century sailor and ex-slave, a man who has the misfortune to run into one horrific situation after another. When I reviewed OAD I said, in the course of lamenting what I saw as the game's excessive linearity, "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." This year, I got my wish. Well, sort of. Apparently, the version of ATWCTW that was entered in the comp this year, despite the fact that it's 173K and in .z8 format (a combination I confess I don't quite understand), is actually only a preview of the real ATWCTW, which I assume is forthcoming sometime. Still, even though it ends rather abruptly, as many adventure game demos do, this version is a substantial chunk of adventuring all on its own. For one thing, it has clearly been coded with a great deal of care. ATWCTW feels almost like a commercial graphic adventure game in terms of the number of features it offers for players. In fact, I rather got the feeling that in some spots it wished it was a commercial graphic adventure game. For instance, the game features cutscenes in several spots, all of which are nicely formatted and can be replayed at any point. It calls these cutscenes "movies", which of course they aren't -- they're all text. The choice of words made me wonder if ATWCTW wished it had the resources to become a graphical adventure game.

I'm glad it isn't. Although the game might gain something from a transition into graphical mode, I think it would lose some things as well, such as the excellent options it offers at the text prompt. ATWCTW gathers nifty features from lots of previous IF games and offers them all. NOTE displays the game's occasional footnotes. HINT offers context- sensitive hints. (Well actually, it doesn't, apparently because this is just a preview. The game promises that this command will be available in the full version.) MOVIES brings up a list of cutscenes shown already, any of which can be replayed on command. WHAT IS and WHO IS are available, though they generally don't offer much (with some important exceptions.) EXITS prints a list of exits from the current location. Sure, all of these could be worked into a graphical game, but even beyond this, there's that great sense of openness that a text parser offers. Granted, there are plenty of verbs the game doesn't recognize, but there are lots that it does recognize, and I found, especially in the first puzzle, that most of the things I thought of doing, the game was equipped to handle. That first scene is right out of a pulp adventure, and I had a great time solving the puzzle just the same way as any swashbuckling hero would have. Moreover, because of the particular genre of the game (the ever-popular Lovecraftian horror), text has some important advantages over graphics. A good description of horrific sights that defy the laws of nature will always be more powerful than a good movie of the same thing, both because good descriptions can involve all the senses, and because the imagination can encapsulate the idea of a sanity-shattering thing without having to constrain it to any specific visual image.

With all this going for it, I'm sorry to say that ATWCTW doesn't quite reach its full potential. My experience may have been worse than many others', because I played the game on my creaky old 386 laptop using DOS Frotz in monochrome mode (the machine doesn't have a color screen.) About two-thirds of the way through the game, the entire thing apparently broke -- I could see the bold header for the room description, but all other text was invisible. Experimentation demonstrated that the prompt was still there, so I restored and tried a different route into the scene, with the same result. Finally, I quit the game and looked at the transcript I had made, learning that text had in fact printed, but I couldn't see it. Playing a hunch, I started up the game in color mode, and discovered that not only was I now able to see the broken scene (albeit faintly), there were lots of other things I had missed in monochrome mode as well, because the game presents them in color. However, unlike other color games (such as Varicella), ATWCTW failed to test for color usage or even to warn me that it planned to use color. This failure was disappointing, especially given the level of quality attained by the rest of the game. There were a few other flaws, such as the occasional awkwardness of the game's prose: "And suddenly, as if a fog lifted from your eyes, you are totally clear." The word "clear" here might be trying to convey alertness, wakefulness, visibility, invisibility, sobriety, comprehension, or a number of other things. As it is, however, the meaning is (pardon the pun) unclear. In addition, the plot up to this point still doesn't offer that many options, its geography quite linear and many of its events quite unavoidable. Still, the preview of ATWCTW is an enticing peek at a game that shows every indication of being a major work. If its main objective was to get me interested in the full version, mission accomplished.

Rating: 8.5

A CRIMSON SPRING by Robb Sherwin

One thing that can fairly be said about A Crimson Spring is that it is one dark piece of work. It starts out with a funeral, and in the course of its plot will describe twisted psychotics, brutal beatings, murder, and rape, along with a generous helping of menacing, intimidation, and vile ideas. It's about superheroes, but not your Saturday morning SuperFriends kind of superheroes, nor even your angsty Stan Lee/Chris Claremont kind of superheroes. No, these are superheroes in more of a Frank Miller vein, tortured vigilantes who stalk through horrific corridors of urban decay, beating the living crap out of evildoers and anybody who looks at them funny. Though Miller is clearly their main predecessor, they're also a bit reminiscent of the out-of-control metahumans in Mark Waid's Kingdom Come, with elements of the anger and psychoses that bubble under Alan Moore's Watchmen. They even bear a passing resemblance to the characters from Sherwin's own Chicks Dig Jerks, at least in the way that they tend to investigate crimes by cruising bars looking for trouble. In addition, they're also likely to have somewhat more disturbing powers, especially the villains, such as AIDS Archer, who shoots disease-tipped arrows at the good guys, and Mucous Man, who suffocates his victims under lots and lots of snot.

As I've said in the past, I love superheroes, but this particular subgenre of them is not my favorite. The whole grim-and-gritty trend in superhero comics, which probably reached its peak towards the end of the Reagan years, was always rather unappealing to me. I found its insistence on the world's rottenness to be just as monotonous and unrealistic as the post-Code, whitewashed Batman and Robin's world of silly villains and cardboard heroes. Miller's Daredevil and Punisher, and Claremont/Goodwin's Wolverine were fine when they were the darker exceptions to the nobler rule of costumed crusaders, but when nearly every superhero suddenly became a clench-jawed desperado struggling against a poisoned culture by any means necessary, the whole thing started to seem more and more silly. [Pssst! Paul! Stop lecturing about comics and get back to the game! (The what? Oh yes, that.)] Ahem. As I was saying, A Crimson Spring is one dark piece of work. It even displays its text as faded letters on a pitch black background. In addition, even besides the fact that its particular flavor of superherodom is not to my taste, it misses some pretty important opportunities. For instance, although the PC wears a mask and has a code name (Holy Avenger), he doesn't have any superpowers. What does he have? A lead pipe. He's surrounded by people who can fly, or are super-strong, or have unbreakable skin, or can morph themselves into other stuff, but his main skills are talking smack and whacking people with a big metal club. Oh, he's got a perfect immune system, too, which doesn't seem to me like a great superpower ("I'm Never-Get-Sick Man!"), though I have to admit it does come in handy against guys like AIDS Archer. I found myself wishing that I could play one of the real superheroes instead of this smart-aleck "detective" with the pipe in his hand. Hell, even Batman had a utility belt.

On the other hand, perhaps playing a character I liked more would have made it even more frustrating when I encountered one of the game's many bugs. The bugs in ACS come in two varieties. One of these is the "huh?" bug, which happens when the game makes a reference to somebody or something you've never heard of before, and acts as if you of course know what it's talking about. For instance, at one point the PC is asked (in reference to a villain), "Have you seen him since the incident on the bridge?" I read this and thought, "incident on the bridge?" The game had described no such incident. Perhaps things like this were its way of building character by mentioning past "offstage" events (though some of the "huh?" references seemed clearly oriented towards things that were supposed to have happened in the plot, but didn't, at least not to me), but even if this is the case, the game should throw in a sentence or two explaining the reference. I suspect that this kind of bug emerges when a game is written around a walkthrough and fails to account for the many paths that can be taken through the plot. Granted, this is one of the more difficult challenges in writing IF, but it is a challenge that must be met, or else the story deflates very rapidly. The other type of bug is of the more traditional variety, the inability to refer to an important object or the nonsensical response to a reasonable command. Both types of bugs appear with depressing regularity in ACS, and they utterly defeat any sense of immersion that the game's other nifty features strive to create. Among these features were a cool soundtrack of gritty indie rock and hand-drawn illustrations of various scenes and characters. The latter, while not exactly George Perez, were obviously the product of quite a bit of labor, and managed to give a nice visual sense to the colorful characters. I wish, though, that the time had instead gone into debugging -- I would have enjoyed the game lots more had it been bug-free, even without its illustrations. A Crimson Spring puts you behind the mask of a dark superhero on a mission of justice, but in the end, it only defeats itself.

Rating: 6.1


Thank god for Stephen Granade. Without him, not only would I think that Cracking the Code is completely pointless, I'd also be totally confused as to what it's even about. However, thanks to a handy post he wrote on his About.com IF site, I've been educated on the controversy surrounding the DeCSS code for decrypting DVD output. For those of you not in the know, apparently eight big movie studios won a lawsuit against a hacker newsletter for posting code known as DeCSS, code that allows you to decrypt the data on a DVD. This code allows you to write your own DVD player without paying royalties, and to copy the information on a DVD. The law that supported the suit is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which forbids dissemination of information about how to bypass copyright security. According to the judge, you can't post the code or even link to the code. Lots of people are up in arms about this perceived restriction of free speech. Somebody even wrote a very funny song about it, with the code in the lyrics -- the argument goes like this: if the US First Amendment protects freedom of expression, doesn't that take precedence over the courts' suggestion that the code is illegal under the DMCA? And if so, isn't it legal to spread the decryption code via a legally protected form, such as songwriting?

I suppose the argument goes the same way for this "game". Really, though, this piece of work does virtually nothing to wrap any kind of creative content around the DeCSS code. It's more or less an unadorned room with a stub description, containing two pieces of paper that have the code written on them. That's it. Other than what I just mentioned, it's an Inform shell game. Minimalist, yes. Entertaining, no.

It's hard to even call CTC subversive, as it is so clearly uninterested in IF and therefore fails to subvert IF in any interesting way. In my opinion, it also doesn't do much for making the First Amendment case. I mean, at least the song had a tune, and some lyrics outside the code, and whatnot. CTC, on the other hand, offers nothing at all in the way of IF. It'll come in handy, though, when I decide to write my own DVD player. That's on my list right behind sewing my own clothes and authoring an IF game with a homebrew parser.

Rating: 1.2

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Paul O's 2000 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 6 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002