2002 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 3

(in the order I played them)

EVACUATE by Jeff Rissman

I wanted to love this game. Oh man, did I want to love this game. And there's really a lot to love, too. It's got a classic storyline: you're a passenger on a luxury starship which has been attacked, and having just returned to consciousness after everyone else has evacuated, you must find your way to safety. There's also a great feel to Evacuate, a combination of writing and implementation that evoked Infocom for me more than any game since Comp2000's YAGWAD. Room and object descriptions are very nicely judged, and some of the puzzle clueing is just superb. In the course of my two hours with the game, I had several moments where I would look more closely at an object, or really notice a particular word for the first time, and a crucial piece of information would click into place. That feeling is such a pleasure, on a par with those times where inspiration would hit in a flash, I would try my idea, and it would work. Evacuate provided me with both those experiences, and although there are a few spelling mistakes here and there, after my first hour with the game I was feeling buoyant, sure I would finally be able to give a game in this comp a score in the high 9s.

Then came the second hour. Early in the second hour, I discovered the starvation timer. The game kills you after 400 moves if the PC hasn't eaten yet. I hate this. It's pointless, unrealistic, and really adds no challenge. But if food is readily available, or if the time limit is generous enough, a starvation puzzle alone isn't enough to kill the fun of a good game. In Evacuate, the time limit was much too short, and food isn't available until after you've done a bunch of stuff, most notably navigate the maze. Yes, the maze. As mazes were falling out of fashion in adventure games, the genre went through a period where games would still include a maze, but there would be some special gimmick that would make the maze solvable outside the normal, painstaking methods. This wasn't a bad compromise, since it retained the nostalgia appeal of an adventure game maze, but allowed an escape from the tedium of drop-and-map maze navigation. After a while, though, even gimmicked mazes became a cliché, and they fell out of fashion too. Evacuate goes the opposite direction, adding a gimmick to its maze that actually makes the maze harder rather than easier. Yes, there's a way around this gimmick, but even when you've found that, you're still in a maze puzzle. I didn't enjoy this, and I especially didn't enjoy it when there are several things to accomplish in the maze, none of which involved any food. I'd be very impressed if anyone got past the hunger timer without hints or restoring/restarting at least a half-dozen times. When I finally looked at the walkthrough, I was gobsmacked at how much of the game I still needed to get through before I could get anywhere near the food, and that brings up another problem, which isn't really a problem with Evacuate itself but did affect my experience: for me, this just was not a two-hour game. Even without the incessant restores and restarts brought about by the hunger puzzle, there's just too much here to squeeze into a two-hour space.

The really amazing thing is that even after Evacuate squarely hit three of my biggest comp game peeves (starvation timer, maze, too big for 2 hours), I still want to give it something around an 8. That's a testament to how much is outstanding in this game, how many wonderful moments it offers up in exchange for its annoying characteristics. It's so close to greatness. Just add a few more custom responses for sensible actions (prying something with a screwdriver, using a scarf as a rope.) Just remove the hunger puzzle (it's entirely non-essential anyway). Just, at the very least, tone down the maze to eliminate the constant randomizing elements. Just release it outside the bounds of a structure that dictates a limit on playing time. If these things happened, Evacuate could be a cracking good piece of IF. Right now, for all its wonderful qualities, it falls tantalizingly, achingly short of the mark.

Rating: 7.9

AUGUSTINE by Terrence V. Koch

Augustine is clearly a well-intentioned, sincere work of IF, and it's clearly the product of a substantial amount of work. Just as obviously, it is the work of a novice author, and its flaws are hard to ignore. Consequently, my reactions to it were mixed. On the one hand, it's got a fun story, interestingly grounded in the actual history of St. Augustine, Florida. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to reveal that the PC is an immortal from the 15th century, whose fate has been tied up with the city over the centuries. Unfolding through a combination of flashback and present-day narration, the plot describes the culmination of the PC's eon-long quest to defeat his eternal nemesis and end the curse of his immortality. Okay, so it's a little derivative. But I liked it anyway, especially the connections between the walking tour of St. Augustine's ghosts and the PC's actual history. What in another work would feel like eye-rolling coincidences felt rather natural in this one -- the PC is the one supernatural element in an otherwise mundane world, and it makes perfect sense that the superstitious stories of that world would accrue around his otherwise inexplicable activities. There were moments when it was quite fun to inhabit this character, and to traverse the city's history through his eyes.

Unfortunately, there were a number of reasons why it was only moments of fun rather than fun the whole time. In the spirit of constructive criticism, I want to look at some of those problems. First, there are the simple mechanics of the prose. The text is infested with spelling errors, typos, grammar errors, and even the dreaded its/it's error. Every time one of these came up, it took me out of the story -- instead of feeling transported into history, I was thinking, "it's the 'distant past', not the 'distance past.'" Proofreading is more than a formality; it's an essential element in making sure that your writing draws readers in rather than pushing them away. The same can be said of bugfixing. Sequences like this thoroughly deflate a story:

      You block Kasil's blade. However, his attack stops your progress
   and you must defend against Kasil strikes. Kasil backs you up against
   the railing.

   >thrust at kasil
      You thrust at Kasil as he steps aside. When he charges at you
   again you step aside and he misses you. This gives you the
   opportunity to slip away from the railing and maneuver behind Kasil.
   You swing, but he whips around and deflects your sword. The two of
   you continue to battle as Kasil backs away from you to the north.

   >slash at kasil
   Kasil isn't important.
Isn't important? The guy I'm currently swordfighting with, who is currently trying to kill me with his "Kasil strikes", isn't important? Not to you, maybe. A minute after I got that response, I figured out that Kasil had actually moved to the north, and therefore was no longer in that location to be slashed at. But in that case, the response should be "Kasil isn't here." He's certainly still important.

This is standard stuff; you could find it in a hundred different reviews of IF games. That's because it matters -- it's often the difference between games that work and games that don't. However, there's a more subtle flaw at work in Augustine, one I'm not even sure I can articulate. It's a sort of awkwardness to the storytelling. First, we get a prelude set in 1403, where a small boy (after some insta-death dead ends) evades brutal soldiers on a slash-and-burn raid. Then the scene shifts to a businessman in 2002, on a business trip to St. Augustine and strolling around the city's attractions. Then, at what is more or less the end of the game's first act, we learn that these two are the same person. The reason this feels wrong, unfair, is that the prose in the 2002 section betrays almost no indication that this PC has known the city for three hundred years. Yes, upon close inspection, there are a couple of weirdnesses to be found, but mostly he seems to be just another tourist, seeing locales and objects in flat, untextured terms. Consequently, when the revelations came, I was left wondering whether the PC was having flashbacks of past lives, or had amnesia of his history, or something. Nope. It's just that the writing unreasonably obscures what his historically informed responses to the landscape and people should be. It's the lesson I wrote about in my article for the IF theory book: landscape creates character, whether you want it to or not. Rather than harnessing this effect, as the best IF games do, Augustine suffers by it.

Rating: 7.4

THE GRANITE BOOK by James Mitchelhill

Sometimes, rarely, I'll read something, or see something, or hear something that is so foreign to me, so alien, that it's hard to say whether I like it or not. It's almost as if the question doesn't pertain; the piece seems to come from another dimension altogether, and I'm hard-pressed to apply human rules of quality to it. However, if I have to form an opinion, that opinion will be a negative one -- when I can't relate to something in the slightest, that thing fails to appeal to me. Case in point: The Granite Book. At no time during this game did I have any clear conception of what was supposed to be going on. At various points, I thought that the PC might be a king, a transient, a guy on a date, a psychopath, a spirit, or a troll. Perhaps he's the itinerant ghost of an insane troll king, looking for love. I really have no idea.

Some of this confusion and dislocation comes from the game's choice of voice: the entire thing is written in the first person plural, like so:

   We weren't sure, but jagged rocks emerging, staring into our face,
   alone as we were in that obscure and emptied world, looked familiar,
   greeted us again with laughter and the scrape of gravel inside
I've only seen this verb tense used successfully in one place: the "royal we", where kings and queens speak of themselves in the plural, because they are the living embodiments of their countries -- hence my guess that perhaps the PC of this game is a king. It was the royal we that was used (although not in any simple way) in last year's game The Isolato Incident, and in my review of that game I mentioned how I found it similar to Comp99's For A Change, because both took ordinary descriptions and substituted out words, requiring the player to filter through strange language in order to make sense of the action. The Granite Book, though, takes things one step further: not only are strange words in place of ordinary ones, but even the concepts those words represent seem to have no analogue in the real world, or even any fantasy world I've ever encountered. It's not the royal we that's at work in this game, but rather something much stranger.

For me, this was one remove too far. If nothing ever makes any sense, than I really don't care about any of it -- it just seems like a bunch of gibberish to me. As is probably apparent from the passage I quote above, verb tense is only the beginning of what makes this game opaque. From its tangled sentence structure to its nonsensical landscape and its thoroughly baffling end, the game's perfect impenetrability never seems to crack. This sort of thing is bad enough in other kinds of art, but in IF the frustration it triggers is even more intense, because we're supposed to take these frictionless descriptions and actually grasp them, put them to use. I found I could make a little progress by examining second and third level nouns, but even then it was just a parroting trick, spitting back the words used by the game whenever they seemed important, not because I understood what they meant. I can imagine solving the game without the hints, if I was lucky enough to guess at the right interpretation of its descriptions, but I can't imagine understanding it. I can't exactly say that's a defect in the game -- who knows, maybe I'm just not bright enough to get it? But I can authoritatively say that I didn't enjoy it.

Rating: 4.8

NOT MUCH TIME by Tyson Ibele

Not Much Time falls into a familiar chasm, the chasm between what a game tells us we are and what it asks us to be. Ostensibly, you're a dutiful niece or nephew who receives a distressing phone call from your aunt, implying that she is hurt or in some sort of danger. Filled with concern, you rush out to her farm to search for her, and it is there that the game begins. In the course of the search, you'll come across many items with an air of privacy, including her mail, her journal, and her diary. (It's unclear just what the difference is between these last two items.) The personal items are generally hidden, though not always, and even their descriptions tend to be admonishments about privacy:
   >x journal
   This is your Auntie's journal. But you probably shouldn't read it
   because it's rude to read other people's things.
Heeding this advice, I went through the game trying to respect those boundaries as much as I could. Of course, it was impossible to be too respectful, since she isn't to be found in any terribly obvious place, but I didn't feel too bad about things like borrowing a flashlight to explore a dark place or grabbing possibly-useful items like a spade or a pocketknife. The game's landscape is fairly large, and by the time I figured out I was stuck, I had forgotten about my decision not to invade Auntie's privacy, turned to the hints, and discovered that invading her privacy was exactly what I needed to do. What's worse, there's nothing in the game that particularly indicates which inappropriate action is the crucial one to advance the game state.

This is fiction and interactivity at each other's throats. As a player, I tend to be drawn more to story than puzzles, and consequently I was trying to cooperate with the demands of the story, but the interactivity roadblocked me from proceeding through the story until I had broken character rather thoroughly. Of course, it could be argued that in my desperation to find my aunt, I could reasonably be driven to tearing open her belongings, but really, I think I'd just call the police first. If only her house had a phone -- so few IF houses do. That fundamental disconnect between story and game is only one of Not Much Time's problems. There's another disconnect, too. It's less important, and it's understandably common in IF, but I'd like to see it become less so, which is why I bring it up; besides, this game has such a classic example of it:

   >x grandfather clock
   This clock is a masterpiece. It suffered top quality craftmanship and
   it is a beautiful piece of work. The wood is stained the perfect
   color and its giant mechanism is a wonder to look at. You can't
   reason why the clock is in the kitchen and not the living room. There
   is a door on the front of the clock which is closed.

   >open clock
   I don't know how to open the grandfather clock.

   >open door
   It's locked.

   >unlock clock
   I don't know how to unlock the grandfather clock.
Here's the thing: in language, there's a metonymic connection between something like a grandfather clock and its door. When we say "open the clock", what we mean on a more literal level is "open the door in the clock." This sort of connection isn't hard to implement in IF, it's just hard to remember to implement. When it doesn't work, though, the game's momentum screeches to a stop as we figure out how to get the parser to understand what we mean. Another big speed bump is bizarre diction like "suffered top quality craftmanship." Suffered? Also: craftsmanship.

I've spilled a lot of (metaphorical) ink on this game already, not because it's a lot of fun, but because its flaws can illuminate some larger trends in IF overall. In point of fact, the game isn't much fun, though it certainly isn't as offputting as the author's other entry, Concrete Paradise. There are numerous prose errors, some threadbare implementation, and many, many bucketsful of red herrings. The puzzles, while mostly logical, feel rather arbitrary, and (as discussed above) sometimes clash rather harshly with the story. In addition, part of the game's solution involves killing an animal -- not in a good, Trinity-like, making-a-larger-point way, but in a rather pointless, unpleasant way. This game illustrates some of what not to do in IF, and while it has its good points, it was the negatives that stayed with me.

Rating: 5.6


I already knew that J.D. Berry is funny. Even setting aside his sardonic posts to the IF newsgroups, who could forget The IF Chive? For those of you who have, in fact, forgotten (or never knew), the Chive was an IF-themed version of satirical newspaper The Onion, full of wacky features like an editorial by an impassable steel door, and headlines like "IF-Comp author feels own work should have finished several places higher." (It's currently archived at http://www.igs.net/~tril/if/humor/chive/, and is worth checking out.) I also knew, from games like The Djinni Chronicles and Sparrow's Song, that Berry is a skilled game author, too. What I hadn't yet seen was a really funny Berry game. Oh sure, there are some humorous bits in all his games, and no, I'm not forgetting Chico And I Ran -- it's just that the humor in that game was specifically targeted to song and TV show parodies, and much of it fell rather flat for me. So I hadn't yet seen the game where I felt Berry unleashed his full comic powers... until now. When Help Collides is a strange, exuberant, wildly funny piece of work that hits the ground running and then sprints into some places that are very weird indeed. Actually, that's not quite accurate -- it's pretty weird from the beginning.

It seems you're the consciousness of a hint system, or something like that. People come to you for hints with various games, and you use some very simple technology at your disposal (like pressing a button labeled (H)ELP, which broadcasts the hint) to aid them. However, your easy job has recently been made less easy by the fact that your Help Ship (yeah, I'm not sure I understand either) has recently collided with a Self-Help Ship, resulting in exchanges like this:

   A beautiful woman looks up and asks, "Is there a better ending that
   the one I achieved?"

   "Another idiotic thing women do is questioning if they could have
   done better. Hello? Where were you before you got married? Did you
   not ask yourself such questions? You've made your ending, and now you
   have to lie in it."
or this:
   A man in a 19th century suit looks up and asks, "How do I get past
   the prospector?"

   "Early in my career, I spent much of my time getting past people who
   want to talk your ear off and waste your time. I call such people
   prospectors. They have tunnel vision. They have an axe to grind. They
   know exactly what they want, but they don't know exactly where to
   find it, so they'll dig wherever's closest.

   It was a tiring game, going out of my way to avoid these people.
   Usually, my ten-mile bypass left me worse off than if I had just
   talked with them.

   I complained about this to my mentor.

   He said, "there are going to be prospectors in everyone's life. The
   trick is to make them realize early that there's no gold inside you.
   Once they realize you have nothing to offer, they'll ignore you."

   And then it hit me. My mentor was mocking me."
Each terrible hint is followed by the asker reacting in disgust, and leaving negative feedback for the hint system. Too much of this negative feedback can result in the hint system's immediate demise, which lends a strong sense of urgency to the sequence. I cannot express how much I loved these bad hints. Some of them parody adventure game hints. Some of them parody self-help books, and self-help culture. Taken together, they deliciously skewer not only those two things, but IF conventions as well. Even facing the destruction of the PC, I had a difficult time actually getting motivated to fix the problem, because I found the results so extremely funny.

I'm glad I did fix it, though, because after this sequence the game becomes something entirely else. It's rather difficult to talk about, because When Help Collides turns out to be several games in one, of which I only played one-and-a-half (in addition to the starting game puzzles). Those separate games are worthy of their own reviews, and I can't help wondering how they would have done had they been released separately. Still, from what I saw they were thematically tied, if rather loosely so. There is a problem, though, with the structure that presents these interconnected games. They're quite sealed off from the initial game, so much so that in fact it isn't obvious at all that other games even exist until the initial game ends. The feelies suggest the presence of multiple scenarios, but the method for accessing these is obscure enough that I ended up having to go to the walkthrough for it. I find it easy to imagine someone missing the boat entirely, and therefore missing out on a great deal of the fun. Something a bit more straightforward to introduce these other scenarios would have been welcome. The subgame that I finished, a parody of a Dungeons And Dragons tournament, was also very funny, and an interesting game in its own right. Like the initial game, it has some problems here and there, but is overall a lot of fun. I seem to have written quite a bit already, and I need to wrap it up, so: lest I forget, I do have some complaints about When Help Collides. First, as I mentioned above, the method for accessing the subgames is too obscure. Second, it does that thing where it pauses waiting for a keystroke, but doesn't tell you it's doing so, and consequently I ended up missing a bunch of text several times because I was already typing my next command. I don't like when games do that. Finally, it's too big for the comp. Sort of. It's like three or four smallish comp-sized games in one. I got a little more than halfway through in two hours. Individually, the games are an appropriate size, but together, they're far too much for the judging time. Those quibbles aside, When Help Collides is a clever, innovative, and fiercely funny joyride.

Rating: 9.4

THE CASE OF SAMUEL GREGOR by Stephen Hildebrand

I think I can see what this game tries and fails to do. Of course, I may be totally mistaken about this, but I think what's happening here is that TCOSG is trying to show us something like an insane PC, an unreliable narrator whose version of reality shifts as the game progresses. Unfortunately, what it ends up with is an incomprehensible PC whose descriptions, reactions, and actions make less and less sense as the game progresses. The unreliable narrator is an extremely tricky gimmick, and would be hard for anybody to pull off successfully; for a host of reasons, this game is not up to the task. For one thing, the writing is frequently unclear. For instance, take a look at the following:
   Samuel Gregor's Kitchen
   Apparently Mr. Gregor does not prepare food at home very often, for
   the kitchen is in immaculate condition. That is, if the appliances
   weren't showing signs of being thirty years old. And it's no wonder,
   since the room is only eight feet across, and there are no windows.
   You can understand why he is not presently at home.
Okay, first sentence, so far so good. Second sentence: all right, I'm thinking this means that the kitchen would look more immaculate if the appliances didn't look old. I'm still understanding. Then the third sentence comes along and everything goes haywire. What's no wonder? That the appliances look old? The appliances look old because the room is small and has no windows? Surely not. Reaching further back, perhaps it's no wonder the kitchen is immaculate, because it's small. Because... small kitchens stay cleaner? They take less time to clean? Maybe it's no wonder Mr. Gregor doesn't use the kitchen, because it's small. This makes the most sense of all, though it's a big stretch from the actual words. So okay, let's provisionally go with that, and on to the fourth sentence. I can understand why he is not presently at home. Um, I can? Is my understanding that he's not home because he has a small, clean kitchen with old appliances? If so, I don't really understand my understanding. Do people avoid their own homes because they wish the kitchen were bigger? Not anybody I know.

There's a lot of this sort of unclear writing throughout the game. At one point, it told me, "You are becoming increasingly aware that the whole of this story is being foisted upon you." I thought, "well, yes, and not very well at that. But what does this mean to the PC?" Apparently it means a great deal, because there was a huge, otherwise unannounced shift in the game at that point, which pretty much left me behind, never to catch up, even after throwing up my hands and going straight from the walkthrough. Once I did go to the walkthrough, I discovered that not only is this game plagued by unclear writing, its puzzles are hopelessly obscure as well. There's one puzzle that involves getting through a locked door, which of course is nothing strange. What makes it unique, though, is that the actions required to get through the door have absolutely nothing to do with the door itself, and there's no reasonable way to expect that those actions would have any effect on the door at all. The only reason to do them is because they're implemented, not because they make any kind of story sense. Apparently, there was an alternate solution that involves giving food to someone who's carrying massive amounts of food already and shows no sign of being hungry, but I could never get this to work. It's just as well, because the working solution had all the illogic I could stomach at that moment anyway.

TCOSG calls itself "An Existential Adventure" and throws in a Kafka quote at the end, but I have to say I didn't see the existentialism in it. I've read Kafka, Camus, Dostoyevsky, and Sartre, and enjoyed them all -- this game doesn't have much in common with them. It certainly brings forth a certain meaninglessness, but not in a good way. It does seem to attempt to take us into the subjective world of one individual, but the execution is so muddled and confusing that instead of inhabiting a point-of-view, I ended up on the outside of both the fiction and the interactivity, poking the game as if it were an anthill. In the general sparseness of its implementation and the linearity of its plot, TCOSG leaves virtually no room for freedom of choice, and so another existentialist tenet goes out the window. In fact, between its writing, its coding, and its puzzles, the experience of playing this game is less existential than it is absurd. Absurdist IF can be great if it's done intentionally. That's not what happened here.

Rating: 3.7

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