2001 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 5

(in the order I played them)

TIMEOUT by Stephen Hilderbrand

I'm in a dilemma about this game. I played through once, found some things to enjoy about it, and reached an ending that was pretty clearly not optimal. Not having a clear idea about how to reach the optimal ending, and running short on time, I pulled out the walkthrough, and it showed me something about a particular item that I hadn't really understood (due to the game's vague description of that item): it had a subcomponent that could be examined to yield more information. However, when I did so, the interpreter crashed with a fatal text buffer overflow error. Now, I've developed a pretty strict rule about unfinishable games -- I give them a 1, write a short review explaining the problem, and move on. The question is: does Timeout fit that category or not? I did finish it, so in a sense it's not really unfinishable, but on the other hand, it seems impossible to reach a more optimal ending. What to do?

Here's what I'm deciding. I won't give the game a 1. I was able to play through successfully (well, for one value of the word "successfully", anyway), and that's worth something. That first experience had some good points -- there were some funny spots in the writing, and some sort of fun cut scenes. On the other hand, it was mostly a negative experience. Timeout's implementation is maddeningly shallow, leading to lots of encounters like this:

   You can see a trash can (which is closed) here.

   >open can
   That's not something you can open.
Or this:
   A steel door is set in the north wall, and a passageway heads west,
   back to the hallway.

   >x steel door
   You can't see any such thing.

   The door is locked.

   >unlock door
   You can't see any such thing.
Trying to get immersed in such a world is like trying to scuba dive in a puddle.

There were other problems too, including a NASTY FOUL IT'S/ITS ERROR, which is becoming my version of the Olympics' "mandatory deduction" items. And then the fatal crash. All this comes together to make a game that's not really worth my time in its competition version.

Rating: 3.0

THE COAST HOUSE by Stephen Newton and Dan Newton

As if to taunt me, here comes a game with a NASTY FOUL IT'S/ITS ERROR in its Comp01 blurb, before I've even started the game. Then I fire up the game, and there's one in the first room description! NFIEs are as numerous as cockroaches in this game, and just about as welcome. Am I more sensitive to this now than I was in previous years? Well, maybe, but only in the same way that being kicked repeatedly in the head makes one more sensitive to pain. I refuse to teach the lesson over and over, though, so if you're not sure when to use the apostrophe and when not to, direct your attention here: The first is my most recent explanation of the subject, and the others were found by taking 5 seconds to type "its/it's" into a search engine. There are a bunch more where those came from. Print them out. Post them at your desk. Tattoo them on your body. Rid the world of this horrible curse.

Thank you for allowing me that rant. Moving on. NFIEs weren't the only area in which this game's proofreading was overly careless. Punctuation was a particular weakness. My current theory is that the keyboard on which The Coast House was typed had a sticky period key, because the game is littered with text like this: "Grandma's headstone.. chipped with age..." There are multiple periods at the ends of sentences. There are multiple periods in room names. Ellipsises range anywhere from two to four dots (though some of the two-dot ones may have been intended as periods -- rather difficult to tell.) There are also a number of typos and grammar errors strewn throughout the game, and one very strange bug, in which looking under a particular item yields this: "You find !" Well, okay. There's that exclamation point I've been searching for everywhere. Maybe I can use it to knock out some of these extra periods! Sadly, the exclamation point never made it into my inventory, so I was unable to wield it after all.

Okay, now that I've spent two paragraphs moaning about The Coast House's cosmetic errors, allow me to remedy things somewhat by talking about the ways in which I really liked the game. The setting is a tiny South Texas town in the sweltering summer heat, and the game brings this setting to life marvelously. Room and object descriptions utilize all the senses, and appeal to memory as well, since the PC spent his childhood summers in this town. Many first-level nouns are described, and with similar skill. In addition, most of the game's puzzles emerge organically from the setting, thus enhancing the game's world even as they moderate the story's pace. All these factors worked together to produce a marvelously rich, immersive gameworld, which made the story-jarring grammar errors all the more frustrating. (Oh right, I was going to stop complaining about that. Ahem.) There was also a healthy dose of humor in the game. Many responses to nonsensical or useless actions were implemented as enjoyable wisecracks. For example, at the northern edge of town, the room description tells us:

   The road travels off some distance to the north, with not a whole lot
   between where you stand and Houston some 300 miles away.
The response to "N" from here is, "Houston is a pretty far walk. Probably better to stay in town." Hee hee. The plot itself begins as a standard inheritance narrative and then deepens a bit, to the benefit of the game. All in all, a fairly solid piece of work if not for the simple lack of basic proofreading. Somebody needs to pick this game up and beat the errors out of it like dust out of an old rug. Once this happens, The Coast House will become a nicely atmospheric piece of IF.

Rating: 7.2

THE CRUISE by Norman Perlmutter

The Cruise is, by all appearances, its author's first game. Everybody's a rookie once, and the slack that people are inclined to give to somebody's debut outing can cover a multitude of sins. Alas, however: not this many. Let me quickly cover what was good about the game. Its cruise-ship setting made for a fun exploration of an environment I'm not likely to inhabit anytime soon, thus utilizing one of the great strengths of IF. It had some funny moments. In one of my favorites, the humor was mixed with pain, like so: there was a starvation time limit. That's bad. The food is in a dining room, which isn't too hard to find. That's good. I wasn't interested in finding the food my first time out, and I died before I came across the dining room. That's bad. However, I got lots of lighthearted warnings before I died, and when I died, it wasn't of starvation, but of a giant, suddenly-appearing sign reading YOU LOSE. That's good, or at least, it's funny. The toppings contain Potassium Benzoate. That's bad. (Sorry... Simpsons reflex.) Finally, the puzzles were relatively easy, which reduced the impact of the game's other annoyances. Well, I should say that the majority of the puzzles were easy, and the Last Lousy Eleven Points puzzle would have been easy were it not so horribly bugged.

And that brings us to the rest of the review. The following is intended in the spirit of constructive criticism -- all the game's problems are quite fixable, and should be fixed. This experience can be an educational one. Now then. There were major formatting problems. For instance, about 10 or 20 commands in, I did something that caused the game to print in italics. Fair enough. Except it then printed everything in italics FOR THE ENTIRE REST OF THE GAME SESSION. Not even restarting or restoring fixed this problem -- it took actually shutting down and relaunching the interpreter. Bad, bad, bad -- I'm sure it was just a missing </i> tag somewhere, but it drastically affected my play experience. The lesson: details count. Another problem, which I'm not sure whether to classify as a formatting error or an outright bug, is that about two-thirds of the way through, the game started printing a lowercase "x" after nearly everything it did. For instance:

   >wear detector
   (First taking the evil detector)
   Taken.  Okay, you're now wearing the evil detector.

   It's time for dinner.  You should go to the dining room soon.  x

   South Residential Hallway
      The hall continues to the east and west.  To the south is the
   door to your room.  The stairway area is to the north.

   >close door
   Closed.  x
That is bad. Annoying, distracting, inexplicable -- bad. It should have been caught in playtesting. I note that 75% of the playtesters share a last name with the author. Nothing wrong with that -- my sister helped me test my game too. But perhaps they were inclined to be a little more lenient in the interest of familial affection or something? Something good to keep in mind when collecting beta-testers is to try to assemble a team that contains both IF novices and IF veterans. The former can bring a fresh approach to conventions you might take for granted, while the latter can bring a greater rigor to their testing regime, because they know what can go wrong.

An IF veteran would certainly have caught the game's most egregious guess-the-verb problem: at a climactic point, you must go up. I tried it in good faith. I typed "U". Repeatedly. The only response I ever got was "You can't go that way.x". The hints were no help, since all they said to do was go up. Ah, but wait. I tried "GO UP" and guess what? It worked. Of course, it should have worked. But "U" also should have worked. Alongside guess-the-verb, there were bizarre and arbitrary limits ingrained into the game's structure. I've already mentioned the starvation problem. There was also a pointless, irritating inventory limit. Give me a knapsack or something, for god's sake. Worst of all, the game precludes you from reaching your final goal until you have spent two days (game-time) on the ship. Thus, if you solve the main puzzles within the space of a game-time afternoon (as I did), you end up wandering around aimlessly for a long time, unable to obtain crucial items and completely unaware that the game is planning to give you the vital tidbit in another day and a half. This is completely arbitrary, and very, very bad. So one final lesson before I call it quits: don't built arbitrary waiting periods into your game unless they're very short and the player has plenty to do in the meantime. If players are wandering aimlessly, or performing dull, repetitive actions in order to progress the plot, the game has failed them. I'm realizing that my own games (especially my competition entry from this year) are not blameless in this arena; that's why it's so useful to write reviews. Authors, especially the author of the game in question, can learn a lot from critical analysis of a misguided game. For the game's players, on the other hand, the fun is rather more scarce.

Rating: 3.8

MOMENTS OUT OF TIME by L. Ross Raszewski

I found myself both rationally and irrationally annoyed with this game. Let me start with the irrational, since it's least defensible. Near as I can tell, there is no interpreter that can utilize all the effects of which the game is capable. As an author and a member of the IF community, I understand the reason for this perfectly. The way that things seem to go is that specifications get created for interpreters, zcode formats, multimedia package formats, and suchlike, but they don't ever tend to get implemented. Why? Because there are no games that use these extended capabilities, so what's the rush? But of course there are no games, because why produce games with unusable features? These gears turn each other forever, getting nowhere, and Moments Out Of Time is intended as a crowbar stuck between the gears; from that perspective I applaud it. Hopefully this game will act as a prod (well, maybe a shove) to interpreter authors, and someday there will be an interpreter that can play it. In the meantime, though, from a player's perspective, it's a little irritating. It's rather like being handed a book and told "Oh, some of the pages have illustrations, but you won't be able to see them without some special perspect-o-vision glasses. But, uh, those glasses don't currently exist. They might someday, though!" Sure, I'll still read the book, but it's a drag to feel like I'm missing the full experience. I understand the reasoning, but still feel irrationally annoyed at being presented with a thing that doesn't completely work, and that irritation probably colored my experience with the rest of the game.

Of course, there were a number of completely legitimate reasons to be annoyed with this game. For one thing, it is that judges' bane, the Way-Too-Big Comp Game. Two hours is a completely inappropriate amount of time for evaluating this game. It took me 45 minutes just to read the various manuals and introductory materials, for heaven's sake. Before I'd even started the game proper, I'd already used up about a third of my judging time. Then there's the fact that the game offers a zillion different tools, but only allows a few per game session -- sure, it's great for replay value, but how much replaying am I going to do in two hours? Oh, and how about this: even after reading the massive manuals, there were still parts of the interface that were totally unexplained. Here's a hint for anyone struggling with the conversation portion: don't use ASK, TELL, or NPC, <answer>. Instead, just type the answer at the command line. If you don't know the answer, type DONE. I figured this out by pure guessing, thereby using more precious time. Also aggravating was that the game implements the square bracket ("[") for making notes at the prompt. Okay, that's not aggravating, that's cool. What's aggravating is that 1) You have to type a space after the bracket in order for the game to handle it properly, and 2) Making bracketed notes takes game time, one turn per note! This wouldn't be so bad, except that there are a number of time limits worked into the game, so making the comment command non-meta effectively penalizes the player for using the game's built-in notation system. Finally, despite the fact that Moments boasts an amazing amount of technical polish, it suffers in several places from what I can only call lazy implementation. You may find a book which can't be referred to as "book". You may be told something by the narrative voice that you couldn't possibly know, given that it's happening hundreds of miles away. You may find (details changed to prevent spoilage) a hidden cache in the floorboards, but when you "examine cache", you will be told "You can't, because the floorboards is closed." Oh they is, is they?

Okay, enough spleen-venting. It's just too bad, because there are the bones of an amazing game here. The plot revolves around a future time-travel agency, and the world-building evident in the details of this is just wonderful. Also, some of the things that make it inappropriate for the competition don't necessarily make it a bad game. Quite the contrary, in fact -- the number of options available makes for an incredibly rich gameworld. I kept wondering what would have happened had I chosen a different array of technology at the beginning, while still quite awed by the capabilities of what I had chosen. I feel I barely scratched the surface of the story, and the scenario was interesting enough that I'm quite curious to see all the things I missed. The writing did a nice job at establishing a consistent tone, and provided plenty of amusing juxtapositions as the future character examines technology that is primitive to him/her. I saw the beginnings of a number of intriguing puzzles, though there's an overwhelming array of keys and locked doors, and the game's auto-unlock feature appeared to me to be broken. All in all, a very worthy effort, but I wish it wasn't a competition game. Releasing this game outside the competition would have accrued several benefits. It would have allowed more time to fix those nasty details of implementation and documentation. Players could have approached it as something they could spend a significant amount of time on, rather than having to rush through it to see as much as possible while not giving short shrift to the other 51 games awaiting their attention. And it wouldn't have been presented for formal judging in a not-completely-functional state. Would have, would have, would have. If only real time travel were possible.

Rating: 5.6

THE NEWCOMER by Jason Love

This is a joke game, right? Please say it's a joke game. I mean, just add a few misspellings, subtract the setting, shake well, and you've got Comp00ter Game. I'm not kidding. Look, here's one of the room descriptions: "$$$". Or how about this dazzling piece of interaction:
   You can't, since the iron door is in the way.

   >x iron door
   You can't see any such thing.
I think that was in "Comp00ter Game."

Oh, but the game isn't unwinnable. As I found out from the newsgroup, there's a Rybread-style solution available if one performs actions that make pretty much no sense in the context of what story there is.

The sad thing is, I don't think it's a joke. Or if it is a joke, it's subtler and even less funny than Comp00ter Game and Asendent. But if it's not a joke, how could anybody think this game is ready to be played? No, it has to be a joke. A lame, unfunny joke, but a joke nonetheless. It is a joke. Isn't it?

Rating: 1.4

JUMP by Chris Mudd

Jump puts me in mind of something Orson Scott Card said in a 1997 interview. In talking about how he started as a playwright before becoming a novelist, Card says, "By the time I turned to fiction, I had already cleared many of the first hurdles (I had written my suicide story, my perversion story, etc., and had moved beyond them, as every good writer eventually must)." What we don't know from this quote is just what happened to that suicide story. Given that he was writing plays for BYU at the time, it's not such a stretch to imagine that Card's suicide story was enacted onstage for whatever audience might show up to student productions. After playing this game, I have a notion of how that audience might have felt. Jump is a suicide story. To me, this was clear just from the title and blurb in Comp01, but no matter who you are, you'll know it's a suicide story before game's first prompt, given that it opens with a suicide scene. Suicide stories in IF are an even trickier proposition than in static fiction (a term I dislike, by the way, but can't think of a better alternative at the moment), because it's one thing to watch someone kill themselves, and quite another to direct their actions towards that goal. Jump stops just short of In The End, since it doesn't actually demand that the player type KILL MYSELF at the prompt, but it's just as obvious that's what's going to happen, and the inevitable is just as... inevitable.

There's a bit of window dressing that attempts to explain the suicide, but really, it's just that: window dressing. They're all the sort of movie-of-the-week elements you'd expect: adolescent protagonist; a suicide pact at school; dialogue that's waaay over the top; alcoholism, battering, and probably child molestation in the protagonist's home. These things feel pasted on -- I never had the sense at any point that any of the characters were anything but cardboard cutouts. Details, characterization, and plot are so sparsely provided that it's very difficult to really care about who these people are and what happens to them. It's all overwith rather quickly anyway, so we barely get a chance to meet the characters, much less identify with them.

There are also religious overtones that ring false. Part of this is because of the general shallowness of the piece -- it's hard to get into the protagonist's mindset when we get so little insight into her. Reading Christian scripture as advocating suicide is so far from typical that it really demands some explanation, and the game provides very little. The other part of the problem is implementation, as seen here:

   >x picture
   His eyes look skyward. His arms are spread. His legs are together.
   Blood oozes from his feet and hands.

   >x jesus
   You can't see any such thing.
Well now, wait a sec. If that isn't Jesus, then just who is it in the picture with the bloody hands and feet? I'm reminded of another quote, this time from Homer Simpson, after being called "wicked" for skipping church:
   Kids, let me tell you about another so-called [makes quotation marks
   with fingers] "wicked" guy. He had long hair and some wild ideas. He
   didn't always do what other people thought was right. And that man's
   name was... I forget. But the point is... I forget that, too. Marge,
   you know what I'm talking about. He used to drive that blue car?
Anyway, my point is... wait, what was my point? Oh, right: the story begins, there's a suicide, the story ends. Doesn't take too long. Doesn't accomplish too much. But if, as Card implies, the suicide story is a hurdle, consider it cleared.

Rating: 3.1

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Paul O's 2001 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 5 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002