2002 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2

(in the order I played them)

PHOTOGRAPH by Steve Evans

If "Steve Evans" isn't a pseudonym, then what we have here is quite an auspicious debut indeed. Photograph is a carefully crafted tale, executed in prose that is both transparent and strong. Well-chosen symbols underpin the game's unfolding story of a man obsessed with what he perceives to be the big mistake in his past. Normally, this sort of thing isn't really my cup of tea -- I have a pretty low tolerance threshold for characters maundering over their memories or floundering in bad relationships. I get impatient for them to just take some action, move on and claim the present day, and I certainly felt some of those twinges of annoyance as I tried to guide the PC of Photograph into a less passive approach to life. However, the game made two choices that helped considerably to redeem these problems. First, although the PC is certainly stuck in his mental processes, the writing introduces some blessed complexity into its depiction of his life, making it clear that his obsessed interpretation of events isn't the only available point of view on them. There are some really beautiful details in this game, and their shine helps to illuminate the PC as a passionate but fallible character rather than some objectively correct observer. The game's other saving grace is in its choice to cast this story as interactive fiction. Something really appealed to me about an IF character who wishes for nothing more fervently than a SAVE and RESTORE function for his own life. Choices, and how we are shaped by them, really works for me as a theme in IF.

Photograph also uses some rather clever narrative techniques, though I don't think they quite lived up to their potential in practice. The first of these is the addition of a CONSIDER verb (conveniently abbreviatable to "C"). Objects, and even concepts, can be CONSIDERed, and doing so may yield anything from a stock response, to some additional information, to a major advancement in the plot. I thought this was an interesting idea, but too often in Photograph, the CONSIDER verb became just another, more superfluous version of EXAMINE. I ended up CONSIDERing almost everything I could think of, on the off chance that it might yield something, but most of the time it didn't. In fact, I soon discovered that "CONSDIDER <any old gibberish>" would still yield the stock response, which encourages rather than discourages flailing at nothing with this verb. Moreover, it seems to me that examining things and considering them aren't exactly mutually exclusive processes; in my own experience, anyway, when I'm examining something I'm almost always considering it simultaneously. Still, despite the simultaneity, I agree that there is a qualitative difference between physically looking at something and thinking about it -- for one thing, the latter can be done even when the object isn't available, and it also applies to abstract concepts in a way that EXAMINE just can't. Consequently, I think that the CONSIDER verb does have potential in games that want to preserve this difference. Perhaps one way to better integrate it, and to reduce lots of useless CONSIDERing, is to print the CONSIDER text (if any) the first time an object is examined, making that text repeatable by using the CONSIDER verb on its own. Then CONSIDER could be better devoted to its more appropriate uses (out of scope items and abstract concepts), since players could be certain that they're not missing out on anything by not CONSIDERing everything in sight.

Photograph's other major deviation from standard IF is in its addition of further conversation verbs beyond ASK ABOUT and TALK ABOUT, such as MENTION X TO Y or DISCUSS X WITH Y. In the words of its help text, "if you think something should provide a sensible response even though the verb is not standard issue, then try it. If it doesn't work, then please send me a bug report." This is an extremely ambitious approach, and unsurprisingly, it fails. That isn't necessarily cause for shame -- I don't know that I've ever seen an IF game that really succeeded at providing reasonable coverage for all the various ways in which conversational impulses can be expressed. When a game presents itself in such an open-ended way, it's just waiting for players to trip it up with phrases like REMIND X OF Y or ASK X WHAT'S ON HER MIND. I'm all for expanding the palette of conversational verbs available, but in my opinion, it's far better to just lay out what verbs are implemented and then to make sure that those are implemented quite thoroughly. This approach helps the player avoid seeing a lot of unhelpful responses from a game that isn't equipped to handle the full range of human articulation. Still, these blemishes aside, Photograph is a fine game -- I hope it heralds the beginning of a bright career from an excellent new author.

Rating: 9.2

COLOR AND NUMBER by Steven Kollmansberger

Color And Number belongs to that genre of IF I've begun to call "pure puzzle games" -- oh sure, it's got a shred of plot, something about investigating a cult that worships colors or something, but that's more or less overwith before the first move, and from that point forward, you're pretty much in a pure puzzle landscape. And yes, those puzzles are keyed to a particular theme -- you guessed it: colors and numbers. True to the precedent established in Comp01 games like Elements and Colours, the game even names itself after its puzzle theme. About twenty minutes into this thing, I knew I didn't have a prayer of finishing it in two hours, so I played until I hit the time limit and then stopped. Thus, in fairness, I don't know whether the story makes a strong resurgence towards the end or anything, but even if it does, this game clearly belongs to the puzzles. Those puzzles are of the sort that prompts lots of note-taking, charting the correspondences between the various pieces the game teasingly doles out. I enjoyed several of these brain-twisters -- they have a mathematical elegance, and some of the best ones suggest their solutions quite organically, which is a pleasure.

Others, though, are a little more imperfect. One puzzle in particular stumped me even though I had looked at all the hints for it, and I think there are several reasons for this. First, the feedback level was too low. The puzzle involved performing a string of actions, but without close investigation, the environment betrayed no particular indication about which actions were successful or useful. It's not that this feedback was entirely absent, but it wasn't prominent enough for me to even notice until long after I had looked at the answers. Secondly, the sequence has a bug in it. It's just a TADS error (one which oddly didn't show up in my game transcripts, so I can't quote it) -- not enough to prevent the solution from working properly, but more than enough to drain my confidence in the puzzle's correct implementation. Between that and the lack of feedback, it's pretty clear how I ended up looking at hints, but even after I had seen them all, and ostensibly solved the puzzle, nothing happened. I found out, through trawling Google for hint requests, that this was because I needed to do some other actions in an entirely unrelated area. This is not good puzzle design -- at the very least, solving that portion should have yielded some noticeable change so that I could understand that my attempt had in fact worked, even if it wasn't producing any useful revelations until its counterpart pieces were in place.

Critics like me talk a lot about how difficult it is to pull off combining an arresting story with interesting puzzles, but what's becoming clearer is that even when IF eschews story altogether and focuses solely on puzzles, it presents considerable challenges to its creator. Little prose errors and formatting issues aren't so noticeable in a work like this (unless they severely cloud meaning), but even tiny feedback or implementation errors can be devastating. Because there's no story to distract us from game bugs, they loom very large indeed, and as soon as one crops up, it drastically affects the dynamic between player and game. Suddenly, a struggling player ceases to believe that he's stuck because of his own inability to solve the puzzle, and starts to suspect that game defects are making the puzzle unsolvable, because after all, if bugs crop up in one place, they can be elsewhere too. Infocom and its contemporaries had a big advantage in this area -- if you bought a game off the shelf, knowing that the resources of a full-fledged company had been used to quality test it and that it had been reviewed by major publications, you could be relatively confident that whatever bugs still might lurk within it wouldn't be enough to prevent you from solving its puzzles. No such assurances exist for an amateur, freeware IF comp game, and consequently pure puzzle games must be fanatically assiduous about debugging and testing. That's not an easy mark to hit.

Rating: 6.7

SUN AND MOON by David Brain

Sun And Moon is a strange beast. It certainly isn't a text adventure, not even one of those multiple-choice web text adventures we've seen in previous competitions. Instead, it's something altogether more interesting. After the manner of the ingenious online promotional campaign for Steven Spielberg's movie A.I., Sun And Moon draws us into its story through a conglomeration of web sites -- diaries by fictional characters, press releases by fictional companies, and so on. To a degree, this works pretty well. The weblog really looks like a weblog (it's even on angelfire.com, pop-up ads and all), and the personal websites of the other characters are convincing too. They all mix links to actual sites with links that extend the fiction, thereby significantly blurring the boundary between the story and the world. The game even provides email addresses for the characters. I tried writing to these to see if I'd at least get an autoresponse, but alas, it wasn't to be. The company web site stretches credulity a bit, especially the "here's where I'll bitch about the boss, because I'm sure he'll never read it" section -- only the very confrontational or the very stupid would actually do such a thing on their own company's website. Still, the overall effect of these narrative elements is absorbing; the fictional pieces of Sun And Moon are strong.

The interactivity is another matter. Certainly, there's a degree of interactivity to following links from one web site to the next, but given that pretty much all the fictional content of those sites is just static text, that interactivity is only a shade greater than turning the pages of a book. Instead, Sun And Moon provides the vast majority of its interactivity in puzzles that bear almost no direct relationship to the story itself. It seems that several of the characters in the story are puzzle enthusiasts (mazes and cryptic crosswords), and offer puzzles of their own creation via their web sites. Oh sure, some small element of the solution to these puzzles relates back to the story, but for the most part they are puzzles for their own sake. One could certainly argue that there are plenty of text adventures for which the same is true, and it's interesting to think about where this game sits on the interactivity spectrum when compared to pure puzzle games like Color And Number. Nevertheless, it was my experience that the story and the interactivity in Sun And Moon sat alongside each other in ungainly halves, a narrative quite literally alongside a crossword, joined by tendrils that were tenuous at best.

Centaur works like this certainly add spice to in the ongoing debate about defining the term "interactive fiction." In fact, I'm inclined to predict that Sun And Moon will spark a bit of a debate over just what sort of works belong in the competition. Personally, I wouldn't bar works like this one from the comp -- I'd rather have a wide definition of IF than a narrow one, and at several points in the game I was excited not just by its content but by the possibilities its form suggests. Then again, it doesn't have all that much in common with a regular text adventure, and it almost seems unfair to rate it alongside TADS and Inform games. So I'm in a quandary. On the one hand, my ratings tend to be based on how much I enjoyed the experience of a particular game, and I enjoyed the experience of Sun And Moon a fair amount. On the other hand, much of that pleasure wasn't due to Sun And Moon itself, but rather because it introduced me to the fascinating form of cryptic crossword puzzles, and because it inspired me to think about what sort of stories might be created using these media. In addition, for me there is no way this game could have fit into two hours (though some portion of my time was devoted to teaching myself about cryptic crosswords), and consequently there's a great deal of it I haven't seen or solved. What I did see provided an interesting story and some neat puzzles, but not what I would call an immersive fictional experience. Rather than being a fully realized piece of web IF itself, Sun And Moon feels more like a signpost to some very interesting territory ahead.

Rating: 7.3

RENT-A-SPY by John Eriksson

Actually, in terms of design, Rent-A-Spy is pretty good. If you think I sound surprised, you're right, because in plenty of other areas, this game seems thrown together rather carelessly. For instance, it leaves the Inform debugging verbs turned on. Now, granted, ever since Inform started keeping them on by default, it takes a more conscious effort to avoid this problem, but on the other hand, Stephen Granade did send an email to all authors reminding them to turn these off, and explaining exactly how to do it. As he said in his message, "there's nothing quite as fun as being able to purloin like a madman in a competition game." Consequently, seeing those verbs left on is usually a telltale sign of a bad game. There were other portents, too. The introduction is lumbered by some awkward writing, and the whole "rent-a-spy" premise feels shaky, an uneasy mix between the espionage and private eye genres. Also, the game is compiled to .z8, even though it's only 140k (and that's with strict mode left on!), which is really rather odd.

Having seen these signs at the beginning, my expectations for the rest of the game were rather low. Perhaps that's why I felt so pleasantly surprised by the first puzzle, an interesting, realistic bit of infiltration, broken up into several believable steps. Several of the other puzzles felt pretty fresh to me, too. I especially enjoyed the way the PC must cover her tracks as she progresses in order to achieve the best ending. Opened doors must be closed, keys stolen must be returned to their original spot, documents are duplicated rather than filched, and so on. I thought this was a fun twist on the usual adventurer tendency to rummage through the landscape looking for treasure, leaving everything a shambles behind him. Of course, many of these puzzles were quite thinly implemented. There were some extremely severe guess-the-verb problems, and plenty of other areas where clues were minimal or absent, and the environment too sparsely described.

Consequently, lots of Rent-A-Spy's good ideas are badly obscured by its lack of polish. I can't help but wonder if this was a situation where the oncoming deadline prevented the game from being as complete as it could be. This is the very situation that Adam Cadre's Spring Thing is meant to address, and I hope that for every unfinished game I'm seeing in this comp, there are two more whose authors are holding back in order to make sure that the games are as good as they can be before releasing them. For this game, it's too late to enter any more comps, but I still hope it sees a subsequent release. With some editing, further testing, and some premise doctoring (perhaps making the PC something like a reporter, which would be quite a bit more believable than a spy you can look up in the phone book), this could be a pretty enjoyable piece of IF. For now, it's more an example of unfulfilled potential.

Rating: 6.1


So here we have the Fine-Tuned of Comp02. That is to say: Hell starts out with a great premise -- you're a newly-created demon, and your business is to go about torturing souls and extracting the maximum possible penance from them. There are some fun role-playing elements to choosing your form, your wings, your color, and so on. In fact, much of the game's setup is RPGish in a good way -- you can purchase various implements of torture (all rather lighthearted, e.g. "documentary crew" or "lizards with pointy sticks") and carve out your own personal infernal landscape of punishment rooms. Getting penance from damned souls results in further credits for further purchases, and opens possibilities of further demonic avenues such as helpers and peddlers.

Hell then completely squanders the promise of this great setup by being so very incomplete. The documentation suggests that some souls give up more penance depending on their particular characteristics, but damned if pretty much every soul in the game doesn't look exactly identical. So, inevitably, you run out of money and then wander around wondering what to do next. I get the sense that in the finished version, each soul will have its own personality, and the puzzle will be to match it up with the environments and tortures that best suit it. In the current version, it's pretty much a crapshoot.

Of course, there's always the possibility that I'm wrong about this. Maybe I'm missing some critical clue that would make it clear how to proceed. Given that the game provides neither hints nor walkthrough, it's impossible to be sure that this isn't the case. Nevertheless, what seems quite clear is that Hell doesn't do what it says it will, and consequently I have no choice but to regard it as an unfinished game. Please don't submit these to the comp.

Rating: 1.0

KOAN by Esa Peuha as Anonymous

In 1998, there was In The Spotlight, a tiny but enjoyable game whose entire purpose was to embody one clever puzzle. Then, last year, there was Schroedinger's Cat, a less enjoyable (though competently produced) game whose sole reason for existence was to embody a completely baffling puzzle. Now we have Koan, a fairly irritating and badly programmed game that embodies one more-or-less nonsensical puzzle. Clearly, we're on a downward slope here.

I don't have any particular objection to the genre of one-puzzle games; as I said, I liked In The Spotlight well enough. However, when the entire game is a tiny environment based around one puzzle, that puzzle had better be well-implemented. As you might have guessed, this is not the case in Koan. Even setting aside the fact that most of the writing is nothing but placeholders (like the room whose description consists only of "This is the middle location in this game."), there are several fundamental problems with the puzzle as it is coded. Example: you have to retrieve a clay pot from a high place, and there are several objects in the game that may help you retrieve it without damaging it. However, before I even saw any of those objects, the first thing I did was this:

   >x pot
   This clay pot has a severe fracture. Other than that, the only
   noticable feature is the writing that says, "When intact, this pot
   will break the stone slab."
So the pot already has a severe fracture? Kind of takes away my motivation to try not to damage it. There's nothing around to fix it with, either, which really makes me wonder how I'm supposed to make it intact. This is not the way to do a one-puzzle game. Also: noticeable.

As for the solution, I can't say it really made much sense to me. From the game's title, I take it that this puzzle and its answer are supposed to represent some kind of deep spiritual truth. Now granted, I'm not a Buddhist, but I failed to find any meaning in this game beyond "Well, that was surreal." I dunno, maybe somebody else found it profound. To paraphrase Dennis Miller: of course, that's just my opinion -- I could be unenlightened.

Rating: 3.0

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Paul O's 2002 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002