2001 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 4

(in the order I played them)

KALLISTI by James Mitchelhill

The universe has a hell of a sense of humor. How else to explain the fact that right after I finish IF's broadest sex parody, Comp01 feeds me this game, the centerpiece of which is a serious attempt at explicit IF erotica? I can't say what the experience would have been like had I not just played Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country, but I've no doubt it would have felt at least a little different. Then again, the game's own warning signals were enough to notify me that I wouldn't necessarily be emotionally invested in the seduction it describes. Kallisti introduces us to Katie, elaborately and repeatedly making the point that she's a virgin -- "the flower of her youth, her purity, remained unbroken." Then we meet Gustav, who takes one look at Katie and decides "I will have you." This charming fellow is the PC, and it doesn't say much for Katie's good sense that she's (apparently) immediately attracted to him. I was creeped out before the first move, very scared that I was about to find myself in an interactive rape fantasy. It didn't turn out to be that, not exactly, but I had a hard time swallowing the idea that any moderately intelligent woman could be seduced by lines like these:
   "...I came to this gray city around a month ago. There really was
   nowhere else to go. All roads lead here. All roads led to this
   moment, here with you. I do not usually work as a printer, but there
   was little else I could find at short notice and besides, my funds
   are limited presently. I'm talking to you because you interest me."
Yet, we are told, Katie is interested... very interested. We know this not so much from observing her actions, but from being flat-out told by the narrative voice: "She had been ready to leave before she found Gustav here and now her heart beat faster than she would admit."

The term I know for this type of writing is "head-hopping", and it's not generally spoken in complimentary tones. What happens is that the narrative voice appears, for the majority of the game, to be a tight third-person rendition of Gustav's point-of-view. However, every so often, we find it disconcertingly reporting on something happening inside Katie's head, yanking us out of the POV we thought we were inhabiting. This sort of problem is why the omniscient third-person voice is so hard to write. In interactive fiction, the problem is seriously compounded by the fact that as readers, we can't help but inhabit the viewpoint character. If Gustav is the PC, I expect the game's voice, be it in first, second, or third person, to report on the information available to Gustav. When it steps outside Gustav's experience, especially if it doesn't signal in any way that a transition is occurring, I feel like the storytelling voice is cheating, feeding me information I have no legitimate way of knowing. It pulls me out of whatever character identification I might have been experiencing, and thereby distances me from the story. I can accept this sort of thing in an introduction, before the story has really started, but once I start typing in commands, I am that character, more or less. Of course, in cases where the character is repugnant, I've already distanced myself anyway, and I found Gustav repugnant from the get-go. The head-hopping destroyed any remaining link between me and the PC.

Of course, as the game progressed, it became clear to me that I didn't mind being unlinked from the PC. But when an interactive story reaches this point, it's hard for me not to ask myself why I'm still playing. I don't like the character, I don't care about the story, so what's keeping me here? Sometimes, really well-done writing, puzzles, or programming will do it. This game, unfortunately, had a number of bugs (though they weren't of the catastrophic variety -- mostly just input that the game failed to process in any way, even to give an error message), and I found myself unable to connect with its prose most of the time. There were some fine images (I particularly liked the moment when Katie's smile is described as "brittle as leaves"), but too much of it felt self-consciously poetic, reaching for profundity it didn't quite grasp. What kept me in the game instead were glimpses. At times during the conversation scene, I felt a flash of really deep immersion, that feeling that the game will understand anything I type, where the interface melted away and it felt like a conversation. Even during the sex scene, there were a couple of points where the implementation was deep enough that even though I never lost awareness that I was just typing commands into a keyboard, I felt like the PC would understand most any instruction I gave him. The feelings never lasted long, always shattering at the next error message (or even worse, absence of any message at all), but they were thrilling when they happened. There's been a good start towards something here, and I hope to see it built upon in the future.

Rating: 6.7

THE LAST JUST CAUSE by Jeremy Carey-Dressler as Noob

Hoo boy. I'm not sure how to approach this one. OK, let me start here. If I had downloaded this game by itself from, I don't know, download.com or something, I think I would have approached it differently. I might have taken, for example, its more or less complete lack of a parser more in stride. However, this is my 20th text adventure in 17 days, and all the others -- even the homebrewed Windows ones -- at least made some pretense at approaching the ability to understand basic language input. Consequently, I approached TLJC like another text adventure. It isn't. This game doesn't even come close to the level of understanding displayed by even something like Angora Fetish. I typed "x lantern", and here's what happened:
   You have used 0 turns...  What do you want to do next? x lantern

   That might be foolish, try something else...

   Your HP is 104 percent.  You're in  room 1. Your MP is 44.
   You have used 1 turns...  What do you want to do next?

   That might be foolish, try something else...

   Your HP is 104 percent.  You're in  room 1. Your MP is 44.
   You have used 2 turns...  What do you want to do next?
What I determined, after a bit more confused thrashing about, is that the game only understands one word at a time, and that its vocabulary is limited to a couple dozen words. After being immersed in modern, sophisticated text adventures, this game suddenly made me feel like I had time-warped back to 1982, and that one of my 12-year-old colleagues had just unveiled their rockin' new game to me.

I just keep coming back to it: programming an IF game from scratch may make for a better (or at least more educational) experience for the programmer, but it almost always provides a much worse experience for the player. Not that this game would necessarily have benefited greatly from being written in an advanced IF language. Its shape is extremely simplistic, it has very little story, its writing lacks coherency (as well as a number of other virtues), and... well, I could go on, but what's the point? TLJC (which, by the way, never mentions causes of any kind, be they just or unjust) has the feel of a bad early-eighties console game, with very primitive action, only a few items, and rooms that vary for appearances' sake only, with no regard whatsoever to creating a believable or even consistent gameworld. It also falls into what I'm beginning to recognize as a standard trap of beginning IF authors: mocking the player for no good reason. The very first room gives us this:

   You are in a cave... Now that you have light, you see there is a
   spider on your leg you go screaming like a little child!
Okay, setting aside the egregious punctuation problems for just a second, I still have to ask just what this wants to accomplish. Is the game giving me some bit of characterization about the PC? Is it trying to establish that the narrative voice will be a harsh, unfriendly Hans-and-Franz kind of presence, mocking the little girlyman throughout the game? Nah, it's just there -- it seems to be little more than free association.

TLJC is one of those games that it's hard to imagine anyone enjoying who isn't the author. It doesn't offer good writing. It doesn't offer interesting technical achievements. Lord knows it doesn't offer fun gameplay, instead serving up mind-numbing tedium of battle after battle with one (undescribed and made-up) monster, all of which feel like waiting around while various dicerolls happen without you. (Although I did greatly enjoy when the game asked if I wanted to use the "lighting" spell, and upon my assent cried "I call upon the Power of lighting!" That'll make an excellent line for turning on lamps.) Its puzzles (such as they are) make very little sense. Oh, there is an implementation of blackjack that felt like it had received the most care and interest of any feature in the game. I guess that goes to show that as sheer programming exercises go, it's probably better to make card games than interactive fiction. It's hard enough to make good IF even when you have every advanced tool in the world on your side. It's a problem that encompasses design ability, writing ability, and programming ability too. With a card game, the first is taken care of, and the second is irrelevant, so it's only the third that gets challenged. I think I'd have a lot more fun playing a first-time programmer's version of blackjack than I would playing their homebrewed IF. That was certainly the case this time.

Rating: 2.4

BEST OF THREE by Emily Short

It's a common conceit in romance novels: Girl meets Boy; Girl takes an Immediate Dislike to Boy because he's aggressive, arrogant, insufferable, etc.; under Girl's influence, Boy sheds his Gruff Exterior; Girl falls for Boy and they end up Happy Together. I love Pride and Prejudice as much as the next Jane Austen fan, but I've always had a few problems with this structure, since it seems to reinforce the idea that jerky guys are really sweethearts underneath, so long as they meet a sufficiently [sweet/nurturing/independent/fiery] woman -- these fantasies rarely come true in real life, despite the people who go through their lives trying to make that story happen to them. Maybe having the Girl fall for somebody who was kind from the beginning might make for a duller story, but it'd be a less pernicious story, too. No doubt these objections all arise from my own High School Issues, but this is the mindset I brought to Best Of Three. In this case, we see the Boy being an ass at the very beginning of the story, only to learn later that he was the Girl's High School crush, both of them now having graduated and, theoretically, put the past behind them. The game consists mostly of an extended conversation between these two, with the Girl as the PC, and although the text kept prompting me to feel charitable and affectionate feelings towards the Boy, it was a hard role to step into. It probably didn't help that I found the Boy himself to be a rather pretentious, pompous git, and I distrusted him, even after he apologized, even after he revealed his own demons to me, and even after his Gruff Exterior was history. What the experience reminded me is that in IF, things the player actually experiences happening to the PC are orders of magnitude more powerful then things the player is told that the PC is feeling.

Of course, the beauty of IF, especially that written by Emily Short, is that there really are choices available. In a romance novel, the Girl has no choice but to tread the path that has been prescribed for her by the author, but IF offers the dizzying freedom to say exactly what we wish we could say to the story's haughty twit, or at least to find a closer approximation to it. The first time I played through this game, I meekly obeyed its prodding, making nice with the Boy and moving to rekindle the romance between the characters. Even then, I found myself having the PC speak much more bluntly and honestly than she was comfortable with, and the Boy reacted with predictable standoffishness. Still, at the end, the spark had been fanned, but the result felt strangely hollow to me. So I restarted the game -- it doesn't take long, perhaps 45 minutes at most -- this time ignoring its tenderhearted hints and pulling out the reactions I had wanted to take the first time around. In a testament to Emily Short's formidable skills as a designer, the game handled this direction with considerable grace and flexibility, despite its being against the fairly obvious grain of the text. I arrived at an ending that the game clearly didn't view as optimal, but that, thanks to some exquisite writing, felt far more satisfying to me, and even let the PC off the hook somewhat in its final words.

Having had both of these experiences made me appreciate the game much more than I would have had I not replayed, and there is much to appreciate here. The game's goal -- to create a conversation that feels authentic, and that moves the player, the PC, and the NPC to new emotional states -- is an ambitious one, but one well worth chasing. On several levels, the game succeeds. At many points, the conversation does indeed feel authentic, and it's clear that the underlying code is quite sophisticated; I noticed, for example, that the NPC would observe and comment when I'd change the subject, or be taken aback if I said something he wasn't expecting. There are still a few bugs in the system. Some of the same problems I noticed in Pytho's Mask were present here as well: there were times when the conversational options didn't seem to fit the situation, for example replies offered when no question had been asked; there were times when the game didn't respond to a command at all, just printing a blank line; there were times when the NPC responded to my change of subject, then brought the conversation back to his own interests, resulting in a seeming non sequitur (well okay, maybe that's a good simulation of real life. :) Still, glitches aside, the conversation felt real more often than it felt artificial, and that is a significant achievement. The writing is superior throughout, and achieves pure brilliance on occasion. I may have had some issues with the storyline, and I may have encountered some bugs, but I enjoyed Best of Three very much nonetheless.

Rating: 8.8

COLOURS by J. Robinson Wheeler as Anonymous

Colours comes out of an IF impulse I'm starting to recognize. The game has no interest whatsoever in story or characters, and instead uses the tools of IF to build a large, complicated, inhabitable puzzle. If Games Magazine had an interactive edition, this game might be included. I think it shares a kinship with games like Ad Verbum, or the less satisfying Schroedinger's Cat, but I'm not sure what to call games like these -- perhaps "plotless IF", since they're so unconcerned with telling a story. I don't think that quite covers it, though. Even the venerable Zork series could be considered plotless IF, given that its PC is a complete cipher, and that the game's skeleton mainly exists to support a variety of clever puzzles, but I don't think it's in quite the same species as something like Colours. For one thing, one of the pleasures of Zork (and its imitators) is the wonderful landscape descriptions provided throughout. That's in stark contrast to this game, where most of the rooms (at one point or another), are described along these lines:
   Clear Room
   The walls of this room are made of a sheer, shiny substance that is
   neither wood nor metal nor plaster nor plastic. They have become
   completely transparent. Exits lead north, east, south and west. 
There's a kind of purity to this aesthetic that Zork doesn't even approach. It's as if the game wants to provide the barest possible structure on which to hang its puzzles, and the puzzles themselves tend to be rather abstract exercises in pattern-matching. There's another difference too: Colours (and games of its ilk) offer a cohesiveness that's absent from more freewheeling games like Zork. The entire gameworld hews to a unified set of rules, and the puzzles tend to be variations on a theme -- in the case of this game, that theme is (you guessed it) colors. (Well, there's also a word theme, but that's subservient.) This is the sort of genre to which Colours belongs, but I really need to come up with a name for it so that I don't have to spend a paragraph each time I find one. Suggestions welcome.

Because I come to IF looking to be immersed in a story and a setting, These Sorts Of Games aren't exactly my cup of tea, but I can still enjoy them when they're done well. Once I recognize that the crossword has utterly defeated the narrative (in Graham Nelson's terms) and adjust my expectations accordingly, I'm ready to indulge in the pleasure of pure puzzle-solving. Of course, what that means is that an entirely different set of expectations falls into place. Games whose sole purpose is their puzzles had better provide interesting challenges, problem-free implementation, and clear solutions in case I get badly stuck. On many counts, Colours doesn't disappoint. I found its puzzles entertaining for the most part, and found no errors in its prose. On the other hand, I also encountered one serious flaw that drastically reduced my enjoyment of the game. Without giving too much away, the problem is that there are some game states where crucial items appear to have vanished, when in fact they are present but totally undescribed. This sort of environment manipulation is a big no-no in IF -- I'm relying on the text to present an accurate picture of the world, especially in pure puzzle games (hmmm, "pure puzzle games"... might work.) When it doesn't, an element critical to pleasure in puzzling has disappeared. I went through Colours twice, because due to the apparent absence of vital items, I thought the game had closed itself off without warning. When I encountered the same problem a second time, I trundled desperately over to ifMUD, where someone kindly told me that the items really are there, contrary to what the descriptions might have me believe. As a result of these travails, my experience in playing the game went from being a fun cerebral exercise to being an exercise in frustration.

The other area in which Colours didn't quite come up to snuff was in the solutions it provided. Two bits of help accompanied the game: some vague hints appear when the player types HELP, and then a complete walkthrough exists as a separate text file. The problem is that the HELP text gives suggestions that are just flat wrong. In fact, for those who haven't yet played the game, here's my advice: ignore what the help text tells you to start with. You don't yet have to tools to deal with that. Instead, start with exploration, and with a close look at the text on the game's accompanying jpg image. Then there's the walkthrough, which is very helpful on some points, and not at all helpful on others. The walkthrough's approach is to explicate the concepts behind the game, and to tell how to accomplish the puzzle goals, but not to provide a step- by-step solution. Consequently, due to the "hidden items" problem described above, I found myself staring at the walkthrough and thinking, "but how am I supposed to do that?" I certainly understand the impulse not to just lay everything flat in the walkthrough -- I didn't even provide a walkthrough with my own comp entry, a decision I'm beginning to fret about now -- but the danger in not laying out a stepwise answer is that if there are problems in the game itself, the walkthrough becomes pretty useless. Luckily, this problem probably won't be very hard to fix, and if Colours sees a post-comp release, it will probably end up as an enjoyable puzzle-box for those who like that kind of thing. In its present incarnation, however, I found that its charm faded quickly into confusion.

Rating: 6.5


It's a little ominous when a game has multiple errors in its first paragraph, and that's exactly what happens in The Evil Sorcerer:
   Well George, you've finally done it. You've drank so much you have no
   idea where you are. It doesn't take much of a survey to realize you
   are lying in some else's bed, in someone else's home.
"You've drank"? "Some else's bed"? Obviously not the product of solid proofreading, these paragraphs warned me to be ready for the worst. What I found sometimes confirmed those expectations, but happily, sometimes fell short of them. (Or exceeded them, depending on how you look at it.) The Evil Sorcerer is a fairly routine adventure, in which the PC gets transported to a Magical Land, recruited to fight a Malign Presence, dispatched to collect a bunch of Enchanted Ingredients for an Occult Recipe, and finally finds himself in a Climactic Battle (which, in my play session anyway, turned out to be rather anticlimactic.) Really, there's nothing wrong with any of these elements, but without some freshening influence, a game composed of them can start to feel a little humdrum. There were hints here and there that things might turn out to be not quite what they seem, or that there might be a compelling twist or two in the plot, but as it turns out... nope. After my first 15 minutes with the game, I felt like I could already see the ending coming up Fifth Avenue, and when it arrived, it brought no surprise and little joy.

Compounding the game's predictability was its bugginess. Mind you, compared to some comp games I've played, Evil Sorcerer's implementation was rather solid, but there were definitely areas where it stumbled. For one thing, the first paragraph wasn't the only place where the prose was error-prone. Many of the writing errors were simply typos, but grammar problems were present too, including the NASTY FOUL IT'S/ITS ERROR. That last one always gets my inner grammarian up in arms. Mistakes weren't everywhere, but they were still far too common. Alongside the hampered prose were a few of programming problems, including one doozy of a crash, which brought down the whole interpreter. Besides these categories, there were a number of outright logic errors, resulting in nonsensical output. For example, the PC would suddenly gain a piece of knowledge with no apparent explanation for having acquired it. Sometimes object descriptions would offer information that the PC couldn't possibly have (like what's on each side of a coin, even though the coin has never been picked up). And perhaps my favorite one of all, the PC finds a coin and when he asks an NPC about it, she replies:

   "My people's currency. One marc is worth 216 arc. One armarc is worth
   about 216 marc. The arc is worth about $3.33 US."
So... there's an exchange rate? You had to use a special potion and cast a little spell to take just one person to this wacky homeland, and yet you're still able to take your arcs to the bank and change them for dollars?

Somehow, the whole thing seemed to be the product of some fairly surface thinking. As a result, I never felt particularly immersed in the game. It's not that it was terribly offensive or outright bad, but its various problems and its by-the-numbers nature kept me at arm's length. Given that these were more or less the exact criticisms leveled at my first game, I understand very well how they can happen, and I'm optimistic that the author's next work can build on this game's strengths while addressing its weaknesses.

Rating: 5.3

FILM AT ELEVEN by Bowen Greenwood

Like a miniature version of Dangerous Curves, this game takes us into a town where trouble's brewing at City Hall, NPCs abound, and it'll take a little trickery to crack the case before time runs out. Of course, there are significant differences. Instead of a downtrodden private eye, the PC here is the rather incongruously named Betty Byline, a television reporter on her first big assignment. The character's name is strange, not just because television reporters don't really have bylines, but because it signals a sort of cartoony, Archie-comics wholesomeness that's notably missing from the rest of the game. It's not as if the mayor is named Vinnie Veto and the bartender Sammy Scotchensoda. Thus, Betty finds herself a silly-name character somewhat misplaced in a more realistic world. Another difference from Dangerous Curves is that the setting isn't 1940s Los Angeles but rather a tiny little burg with the ill-chosen name of Pleasantville. The name will inevitably conjure up images of the 1998 Tobey Maguire/Reese Witherspoon movie, but it's unrelated -- pretty much everything's already in color, making those images an unwelcome distraction. The game tells us that Pleasantville is a small town, and it ain't kidding; pretty much everything significant in the town gets encompassed in a little over a dozen locations. This is appropriate, though, given that FAE is a competition game. In fact, the similarity to Dangerous Curves had me worried for a minute there, given that you could spend two hours in that game and not even come close to seeing all the locations. Instead, the smalltown setting makes the game's scope perfect for the 2-hour rule of the competition.

Something else that helped me reach a solution in under two hours was the game's generosity of design. There's a time limit, but it's not terribly tight -- I had no trouble getting to the solution well before time ran out. Of course, this may be due to the fact that the puzzles weren't terribly difficult, being mostly of the "give x to y" or "show x to y" variety. I don't say this as a criticism -- I'm all for easy puzzles. They keep me moving through the story while providing reasonable pacing, and help me to feel that I'm letting the PC be moderately clever without my having to be Sherlock Holmes (or Peter Wimsey, to reflect my current reading jag). They especially help in competition games, where I don't really have the luxury of spending a week letting the puzzles percolate. I didn't have to refer to the walkthrough in order to complete this game, and that's a refreshing change. However, I did look at the walkthrough after I'd finished, and discovered that to its credit, Film At Eleven provides multiple solutions to several of its problems. Such flexible design does quite a bit to enhance the pleasure of the IF experience.

That pleasure wasn't completely unmitigated, sad to say. Aside from the poor naming choices I discussed above, the game is also lightly laced with misspellings and formatting errors. Quotes occasionally appear without quotation marks, linebreaks sometimes went missing, and spaces between words are MIA once in a while as well. Moreover, several of the puzzles turned on the fact that the NPCs were unrealistically unobservant. For instance, I found myself able to smuggle rather large items through rooms occupied by people who might reasonably have had something to say about the theft. Even when a puzzle wasn't at stake, I found it rather frustrating when I'd show an important item to someone who should have been surprised to see it, and they'd nonchalantly shrug their shoulders. Still, these quibbles aside, this was a solid game, and I enjoyed it very much. Betty Byline's adventures gave me a pleasant evening's diversion, and I felt a rush of vicarious triumph when I'd finally helped her reach that first big scoop of her career.

Rating: 8.9

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 2001 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 4 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002