2001 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 3

(in the order I played them)


Note: This review contains one exasperated, Dennis-Miller-channeling expletive.

One of the first things that happens when Invasion (this year's entrant in the traditional comp sub-contest of "I-have-a-longer-sillier-name-than-you") begins is that it plays a song with a creeping bass line and a Shirley-Manson-like female vocalist. "Hey," I thought, pleased, "that sounds a lot like Garbage!" Little did I suspect how closely that comment would come to resemble my assessment of the game as a whole. Invasion claims to be "an interactive tribute to everything Ed Wood", the famously awful director of such cinematic nadirs as Plan 9 From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda. This, you might think, would give it some wiggle room in the quality arena. It turns out, though, that there's "entertainingly bad" and then there's just "bad", and sad to say, Invasion falls into the latter category. I played it for about 45 spleen-piercing minutes before finally giving up in a raging tide of annoyance, frustration, and sheer exhaustion. With my last shred of curiosity, I glanced at the walkthrough and discovered -- Good Lord! -- that the game is huge, and that there are tons of things I didn't even find. I can't imagine the sort of person it would take to find all these things and play this game through to completion.

Whoa there, Paul. Aren't you being a little harsh? Well, in a sense, yes. This game obviously wasn't put together overnight. For one thing, it's a Windows executable, and anybody who's tried an MS visual language knows that those forms are fiddly to arrange. It's got its own parser (of sorts), a hit points system, timekeeping, and lots of other stuff. So it clearly was the product of some effort. In another sense, though, I don't think my view is that harsh at all. This game is loaded with bad, irritating, horrible factors, things that you can't help but suspect were put in there on purpose to annoy you. Little details like, oh, capitalization, punctuation, putting spaces between words, blank lines between text blocks, printing the contents of a room with the room description, and other such niceties are handled... shall we say... capriciously. I'd give an example but, unsurprisingly, the game provides no scripting function, and randomly clears the output window every so often, making even my Isolato Incident method quite impossible to carry out. More aggravation: image windows pop up every so often, which can't be controlled from the keyboard -- a special trip to the mouse is required to shut these down.

But this is all cosmetic, right? Sure, so far. Oh but don't worry, there's lots more. The game occurs in real time, and NPCs flit in and out of rooms like angry insects, sometimes changing locations as much as, oh I don't know, once every two to three seconds, which makes it darn tough to actually interact with them, since by the time you're finished typing the command, they're gone. Not that they're worth much when they stick around, as they tend to spit out uninformative, unpunctuated, and often just plain uninteresting phrases, on the rare occasion that they have any responses implemented at all. The game also throws random information at you without explaining it in the slightest. For example, at some point, you'll see a flash of light in the sky and the game will print "** Quest : killer on the loose **". Huh? Whaddaya mean, "Quest"? What am I supposed to be doing? How do quests work in this game? Who's giving me a quest, and how does a flash of light tell me that there's a killer on the loose anyway? Should you fail to figure it out within some set amount of time or moves, the game abruptly ends. Sometimes the parser ignores input altogether; a command like "drop all but nutribar" will drop everything... including the nutribar. And there's only one savegame allowed. And there's a money system that is seriously whacked. And... ah, fuck it. Who wants pie?

Rating: 1.8

PRIZED POSSESSION by Kathleen M. Fischer

"Show, don't tell" is a piece of advice often given to beginning writers. The basic gist of this advice is that authors should endeavor to let us observe the action and draw our own conclusions, rather than just flatly announcing the state of things -- it's far more effective to show a character fidgeting, biting her nails, and stammering than to just say, "Marcy was nervous." The danger of this advice is that it is so easy to misinterpret. After all, if you think about it, even the showing is telling, because you have to write something -- you can't spell "storytelling" without "telling". (Hey, my own bumper-sticker ready piece of writing advice!) Consequently, some writers hear "show, don't tell" and take it to an extreme, thereby leaving out important swaths of the story on the assumption that readers will be able to connect the dots. Well, maybe some readers can, but the more transitions, background detail, and other such connecting stuff gets omitted, the higher the number of readers who will stumble through the story in a state of perpetual confusion. It's a difficult balance to achieve, and I fear that Prized Possession finds itself on the confusing end of the spectrum. For instance, at the end of the first scene, the PC has just effected a daring rescue but paid a heavy price. That first scene omits a lot of detail about who the PC is, why she finds herself in such dramatic circumstances, and what caused the tragic end event, but these omissions aren't too bothersome, as we trust that the story will get filled in. Instead, none of this information ever comes to light; the game careens into its next scene, which takes place ten years later, and provides no explanation whatsoever of what has happened during the intervening period. The PC is in entirely different circumstances, but these are, again, unexplained. This sort of phenomenon happens over and over throughout the story, and my notes are filled with bewildered complaints like "wait -- when did I get untied?" and "I am so lost."

I readily admit the possibility that I just wasn't bright enough to follow the plot. If this is the case, then no doubt other reviewers will provide the perspective I lack. Until then, I can only report my own experience, which was that although I was able to tentatively piece some things together as the tale moved inexorably along, I found myself having reached the end without much more understanding of the story or characters than I'd had before I read the first screen. Moreover, during most of the points inbetween, I really wasn't offered many choices. The story moves along relentlessly, a series of rigid set-pieces. These set- pieces came mostly in two varieties. The first type requires nothing but repeated "WAIT" commands, until its final move, at which some set of circumstances appears that demands a particular command -- if any other command is entered, the game ends. The other type is all a tightly-timed puzzle consisting of anywhere from 5 to 10 moves. There's seldom a moment to spare, and should the player deviate from the prescribed path, a quick (and usually nasty) end awaits. Both of these sorts of scenes are fine in small doses, but an entire game of them isn't much fun, at least not for me. The opening puzzle is a good one, and in fact the entire opening sequence is taut and promising, but the game falls down by making its entire contents very much like an ongoing series of opening sequences. Each time one of these set-pieces ended, I waited for the game to open out into greater interactivity and to provide me with more information, but instead I was just thrust into yet another set- piece. Adding to the frustration was the fact that the parser tended to be maddeningly selective about what input it would take. Getting out of things tended to be a particular problem, and my word of advice to players of this game is to try "get up" when it seems that more sensible commands aren't working. In addition, the game's conversation system sometimes intrudes where it isn't necessary. This system (which works quite neatly when it's introduced at appropriate times) requires the command "TALK TO <npc>" and then may offer a list of topics to discuss. However, there are times when it shouldn't be necessary, or in fact may not even make sense, to type "TALK TO":

   As your foot hits the floor, someone grabs you from behind, clamping
   a callused hand over your mouth.

   "Scream, and you are dead," rasps a man's voice in your ear. [...]

   "Do you understand me?" the man asks, his arms tightening around you,
   crushing you against his chest.

   You mutter something incomprehensible. 

   >talk to man
   ... nod your head yes or shake your head no?

   You nod your head yes.
The game should have accepted the first response, especially given that this response was exactly what it was looking for.

Hm. Reading over this review, I realize I've been focusing on the negative, perhaps unfairly. There's a great deal to like about Prized Possession, which perhaps is why its restraints and its lapses chafed at me so much. I'm not sure the game could even be fixed without a major redesign, but I do think that in many ways, the author is on the right track. A game with this kind of genre, plot, characters, setting, and writing, with more information and freedom provided, would make for a very memorable IF experience indeed.

Rating: 6.9


Okay, I'm an idiot. I don't get it. I must confess, playing this game directly after Prized Possession is making me begin to doubt my own brain. I mean, on the last game I was pretty well able to feel like my confusion was due to the game's shortcomings. This time, though... I have the sense that if somebody sat down with me and explained the rules behind the environment in Schroedinger's Cat, there's about an equal chance that I would either think "Of course! Brilliant!" or "I still don't get it." Either way, it doesn't do much for my ego at the moment.

So maybe I'm not that bright. But what's also true is that games like this just really aren't my cup of tea. I'm not a great puzzle solver, being more attracted to IF for its ability to immerse me in a setting and a story. Consequently, when a game pretty much consists of one (pretty tough) puzzle, devoid of any particular narrative or character, and then doesn't provide the solution to the puzzle... well, I'm sure some people would find it a pleasure and a delight, but I'm not one of them. To me, puzzles in IF are a lot more fun if they advance a story rather than just existing for their own sake. This game is utterly uninterested in portraying anything beyond the bounds of its own puzzle. For instance, there are two cats in the game, each of which is described with "A cute little [white/black] cat", sans full stop. Not exactly a description to stir the soul. A similar game from 1998, In The Spotlight, at least gave some reprieve from its starkness by providing cute and funny responses for various commands. Schroedinger's Cat doesn't even provide an in-game reward for solving the puzzle -- in the words of the author, "Success is measured in understanding. Once you know how the world works, you can consider yourself the victor."

Which I guess would make me the loser. You win, tough game. But the experience wasn't much fun for me.

Rating: 3.8

STRANDED by Rich Cummings

The opening screen of Stranded bears the legend "A game written and designed by Rich Cummings, 1988/2001." I didn't pay much attention to these numbers when I started the game, but when I looked back at the transcripts to write this review, they started to make a lot of sense. The idea that this game was begun in 1988 would explain many of its more aggravating features. Take, for instance, the sudden death rooms. I found numerous spots where just entering the room would kill the PC. To make matters even more irritating, these deaths don't happen as soon as the room is entered, because that could be remedied with a simple UNDO. Instead, the death occurs upon exiting. It's a bit like those nasty jungle traps that catch your foot in a circle of downward-angled spikes -- it's not the stepping in that hurts you, but the extrication. Back in 1988, freeware IF was still in its infancy, and in those ancient days, sudden death traps like these weren't so terribly uncommon. Nowadays, we like to think that the art of IF game design has evolved, and traps like these are frowned upon as unfair and annoying. The same can be said for strict inventory limits and the inventory management problems that accompany them. Does Stranded have these? Yep, sure does. Let's see, what else? Maze? Check. Near as I could tell, solving it doesn't even yield anything good, either. Starvation time limit? Check, and several puzzles must be solved before the game even makes any food available. Size way too large for the comp? Check.

In fact, this game even somehow managed to break some aspects of the standard TADS parser so that it behaved more primitively, like so:

   > shoot alligator
   What do you want to shoot it with?

   > gun
   There's no verb in that sentence!
I doubt this feature was disabled on purpose, but its absence just makes the game feel like that much more of a throwback. About the only old-school feature I couldn't find was a light source puzzle, and given that I couldn't finish the game in two hours (could anybody?), for all I know there may have been one of those too. The IF competition has now been in existence for seven years, and yet we're still seeing games designed before the advent of TADS, Inform, and the new wave of freeware IF. When will it end? Nobody can say, I suppose, but it can't come too soon for me. It's not that I object to old fashioned puzzlefests, or that I need every game to be Photopia, but darn it, we have learned some things in the past 13 years. Sudden death rooms are not challenging, not fair, and not fun. Mazes are dull. The idea that a PC could starve to death within a few hours, or even a few days, is silly.

More's the pity, because Stranded has some strong features. It provides photos with every location and many of its objects, and some of this photography is really lovely. Of course, some of it is a little suspect -- the photo of a large insect appears actually to be an electron microscope magnification of a very small insect. Still, even if one can't help but wonder whether some of the game was built around what photographs the author was able to find, they still do an excellent job at enhancing the setting. What's more, this setting -- a marshy, swampy island -- is one we haven't seen much of in IF, and I was intrigued by its possibilities, many of which the game included. As is typical of games designed before the competition existed, this one is way too large to be completed in 2 hours, even with help from the walkthrough. Consequently, I didn't see the whole thing, but I didn't need to. Stranded has lots of pretty pictures, some of which are even worth the effort to see. Its writing, while fairly bad in some places, does have its moments. But at bottom, it's a game from 1988, gussied up and presented as new, but still unable to disguise its decaying roots.

Rating: 5.0

THE GOSTAK by Carl Muckenhoupt

In the proud tradition of Bad Machine, this game broke my brain. If you've played it, you'll know why. If not, maybe this will give you an idea:
   Finally, here you are. At the delcot of tondam, where doshes deave.
   But the doshery lutt is crenned with glauds. 

   Glauds! How rorm it would be to pell back to the bewl and distunk
   them, distunk the whole delcot, let the drokes discren them. 

   But you are the gostak. The gostak distims the doshes. And no glaud
   will vorl them from you. 
That's the game's introductory text, and it pretty much goes on like that the whole time. At first I thought it would be kind of a fun, Lewis Carroll-ish diversion, full of nonsense words but still easily understandable. I was wrong -- the game is much more insidious than that. The linguistic displacement is deep, and it infects the game on every level, up to and including its help text and hints. In fact, I paid closer attention to this game's help text than I probably have to any other piece of IF's instructions, ever, since it used so many unfamiliar words, and since these words were absolutely necessary as levers to begin cracking the game's code.

Not that I ever completely succeeded in figuring out every aspect of the game's environment. I ended up with three pages of words, each of which held a column of nouns and a column of verbs. I didn't even attempt the adjectives. At the end of two hours, I was pretty impressed by the amount I'd been able to grok of the game's language, and in fact I had wrenched my head far enough into this new linguistic space that I'm having to be careful to make sure I'm writing English as I type out this review, so as to avoid louking "rask" instead of "take". Oh, sorry. [Don't worry, this is no more a spoiler than the little starter hints telling you that Z=E in today's Cryptoquip.] Putting my head into the game's space was critical to getting anywhere at all in it -- I found that to play The Gostak successfully, some significant immersion is required. The game upends IF convention so thoroughly that all the directions have different names (and abbreviations), as does almost every verb. Consequently, once I had figured out many of the fundamentals, I was able to navigate through the game with relative ease, but only during that game session. After I saved my game, ate dinner, and returned to it, my old IF habits were obstructing me again, resulting in the game rejecting or disastrously misunderstanding much of my input. Since I only had about 15 minutes left on my two hours at that point, I was unable to fully recapture all those tenuous understandings I was holding in my head during the first session, and consequently couldn't quite finish.

I get the feeling that this game wanted to be a comp-length exercise in the kind of mental mechanisms that made The Edifice's celebrated language puzzle so much fun. To some degree, it succeeds. I was able to enter this game's foreign world much more easily than that of, say, Schroedinger's Cat, and I found the process much more enjoyable. I was shocked at how quickly and easily I found myself typing commands like "doatch at droke about calbice". However, the whole experience was completely cerebral, with little of the emotional catharsis I associate with successful storytelling. I felt this effect when I played Dan Schmidt's For A Change, but it's ten times stronger in this game, where words aren't simply rearranged but actually replaced wholesale. Consequently, while playing The Gostak was a strange and memorable experience, one which will surely elevate the game to the rarefied level of For A Change, Bad Machine, and Lighan ses Lion, I found it a somewhat strained sort of fun. Great for a puzzle-solving mood, and certainly worth trying if you're a cryptography buff, but not terribly involving as a story. If it sounds like your cup of tea, make sure you set aside a few hours -- it's not something you want to leave and come back to.

Rating: 8.1


Note: If you're offended by obscenity, profanity, depravity, and what have you, please don't read this review. In fact, if you are such a person, please avoid any further encounters with anything that has the word "Stiffy" in the title, up to and including this review and (for God's sake) this game.

The original Stiffy Makane, a game authored by Mark Ryan and occasionally known by its full title, "The Incredible Erotic Adventures of Stiffy Makane", earned its place in the annals of... er, in the history of IF by being fairly vile in subject, extremely terrible in execution, and very (unintentionally) funny. It became the standard by which all other awful, poorly implemented, ridiculously puerile "adult" IF is measured. It even inspired a MSTing co-authored by one "Drunken Bastard" who, one gathers, may go by a number of other aliases as well. In short, this was not a game crying out for a sequel. Yet, here we have it. SMTUC is extremely vile in subject, fairly good in execution, and very (intentionally) funny, which makes it a real treat for anybody who can stomach an extremely vile game for the sake of humor. For those of you in this category, I'm loathe to spoil any of the game's wonderful, awful surprises, and I encourage you to heartily ignore any whispers of "moose cock" and suchlike that you may hear around the less reputable corners of the newsgroups. At least, ignore them until you play the game, and then don't hesitate to join in. For those of you not in this category: listen, I already warned you once, so just stop reading already!

SMTUC opened my eyes to several things that I could have happily lived my entire life without seeing, and put several images in my head that will no doubt haunt me to my grave, but it was a good time for all that. For one thing, it lovingly parodies not only the original Stiffy (not a tough target), but also an entire subgenre of games, the redheaded stepchild of IF: "X Trek" (also not a tough target, but what the hey.) These would be pornographic pieces of IF, mostly written in AGT, devoted to detailing the sexual adventures of Star Trek characters. Such things, I'm told, exist -- I've never sought or played one, due no doubt to my timid and puritan spirit. In fact, there's even an entire newsgroup devoted to them, alt.games.xtrek. I've never visited (see above for reasons), but rumors have filtered down to me that it's become a hotbed... er, a haven for attempts to write legitimate IF erotica, a form of which I have never seen a successful example, though I'll grant I haven't looked very... er, searched with much diligence. SMTUC is not an attempt at erotica, but rather a gleeful poke (okay, I can't keep avoiding it -- double entendres ahoy from this point forward) at "adult" IF as it stands. There's the requisite Horny Chick, whose uniform is just ever so "hot and chafey", and who, when coaxed out of it, is more than happy to perform the most obliging acts on the PC. One of my favorite lines of hers:

   >feed rohypnol to terri
   "No thanks, I already took some."
There's the aptly named Hot Chick, whose function the game makes clear:
   The Hot Chick here is, as you have come to realize after innumerable
   runs through the holodeck, the reward for your puzzle. The logic is
   simple and always the same: jump through some hoops, get to fuck the
   girl. If only real life were so easy!
Indeed. Up to this point, the game is a standard, serviceable parody of AIF, with a few gleeful jabs at people on the periphery of the r*if community, such as Espen Aarseth, Chris Crawford, and Brandon Van Every. I'm not sure which I liked more, the IF-related parodies or the AIF-related ones.

However. The game does continue beyond this point, and it's here where we really cross the boundary into "the undiscovered" (at least by Stiffy, anyway.) I hate to spoil anything (and the following will be a medium-level plot spoiler, for those of you who care), but it's essential to the point I want to make that following these two fairly standard AIF bangs, Stiffy fucks (and is fucked by) a giant, hairy, male Space Moose. This Moose is Stiffy's mentor in the brave new world of homoeroticism, and thanks to the adroit manipulations of a not-at-all- neutral author, Stiffy has no choice but to enjoy it. And so we come to the thing I liked best about SMTUC: the game's (brace yourself) feminism. Yes, we get two scenes of the standard AIF objectification of female sexuality, though even these are subverted somewhat, given that one of the "women" is actually a rather unenthusiastic robotic hologram, and the other expresses strong dissatisfaction with the experience ("Barcelona sighs deeply, pushes you out into the hallway and snarls, ''Scuse me. I gotta go tickle the Elmo. Bye now.'") After this, though, the Moose makes Stiffy his bitch, and suddenly the predatory PC gets scored upon rather than scoring. (Well, he still scores -- one point, to be precise -- but you know what I mean.) By upending the traditionally male exercise of porno IF and making its PC the object as well as the subject of penetration (and penetration by a moose, no less), SMTUC takes a sly swipe at what's really offensive about most AIF: the fact that it takes one of our most intimate, personal human behaviors, and reduces it to an exercise in hoop-jumping, involving thoroughly dehumanized players. Honestly, I have no idea whether this was at all Adam's (oh sorry, "Bruce's") intention, but that's how it struck me. Is it some kind of revolution or great step forward? Nah, but it was fun to see (and hear, and read about) Stiffy hoisted, as the saying goes, by his own petard.

[Oh, I'm out of paragraphs and forgot to mention the music and graphics. So: Yay music! Yay graphics! (Well, except for one particular graphic that, however appropriate it may have been, I just can't say yay to. You know the one.)]

Rating: 9.2

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Paul O's 2001 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 3 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002