2002 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 4

(in the order I played them)

SCREEN by Edward Floren

For a rookie outing, Screen really isn't too bad. That is, of course, if it's really a rookie outing. In the comp you can never really be sure that anything is what it appears to be, and for all I know "Edward Floren" is a pseudonym for somebody who's released a half-dozen games. But I don't think so. There are a number of errors that experienced Inform coders are less likely to make, such as "You have so far scored 0 out of a possible 0, in 36 turns" in response to SCORE. The more familiar you are with Inform, the more likely you have encountered Andrew Plotkin's web page of tips and tricks that gives the solution to eliminating this untidy message, or for that matter figured out how to eliminate it yourself. For another thing, there's the fact that although there are plenty of scenery objects (and I know this because typing GET ALL listed them out -- another rookie mistake), many of them aren't implemented at all. It doesn't take very many "You see nothing special about the <whatever>" messages for immersion to fall by the wayside. On the other hand, some other aspects of the game are coded rather nicely, such as the custom cant_go messages and the room descriptions that change depending on whether you're seeing the room for the first time or not.

The prose quality is a similarly mixed bag. Much of the writing successfully evokes a sweet nostalgia as it depicts Jordan the PC's return to the scene of his childhood games. Riffs on Baby Boomer pop culture are handled lovingly, with a light enough touch to let them feel touching without being cloying. On the down side, this game would definitely have benefited from another round of proofreading. Consider the flashback to Jordan's first kiss, where he stares at the girl he likes and the narrator tells us, "She looked so sweat." This is one of the worst sorts of English errors to have in the public release of your game -- not only does it miss its intended meaning, but in fact it squarely hits another meaning entirely, and a rather comical one at that. Certainly it's an understandable error -- it's only one letter off the correct spelling, and could even be a typo, and for that matter "neat" and "beat" have the intended phoneme. Then again, the word "sweating" is used only three sentences later, which makes the error a little less understandable. In any case, it's a bad, bad mistake that entirely punctures the otherwise poignant scene. And lest it seem that I'm pouncing on the whole game for one little mistake, I hasten to add that little errors like this (though none worse than that) are present throughout the game, and should have been eliminated before its release.

The prose errors didn't stop me from enjoying the game overall, though. For the most part, it's a short and sweet little romp through childhood memories and favorite TV shows. The puzzles, too, are mostly straightforward, though I was unfortunate enough to trip repeatedly on a rather tightly timed puzzle towards the game's end. The problem there was that although I had figured out the elements of the puzzle, the solution required an extra step that, as near as I can tell, was completely unclued. Dear me, every time I start to praise this game I end up criticizing it. Overall, Screen is a nicely sketched vignette. Even if it feels rather aimless and disjointed at times (man, there I go again!), I didn't want my 45 minutes back after I finished it. It's a nice start at the IF craft, and I look forward to the author's next work.

Rating: 8.0


I will say this for it: A Party To Murder is the best ADRIFT game I've ever played. Unfortunately, that's not saying much. Even if it were written in a first-tier IF language, APTM would have some problems to overcome, but as it is, it's hopelessly lumbered by the terrible, terrible ADRIFT parser. We're talking about a mystery game here, reminiscent of Suspect -- you play a guest at a party where a murder is discovered, and you must extricate yourself from suspicion. A mystery game, okay? You might think that, in a mystery game, you'd be able to SEARCH things. Not this one -- it doesn't recognize SEARCH, LOOK IN, or LOOK THROUGH. Worse, with the latter two it parses them as LOOK rather than just admitting that it doesn't recognize them. Same with LOOK UNDER and LOOK BEHIND. Hint: ignoring prepositions doesn't make them go away, it just makes your response more likely to be wrong. Perhaps, in a mystery game, you might want to SHOW things to NPCs. You can't here. Even if you hold a completely damning piece of evidence and want to show it to the person whom it damns, all you get from the ADRIFT parser is "I don't understand what you want me to do with the letter." Maybe, in a mystery game, you might even want to TELL someone about something. In this game, you can't. All these very basic verbs, absolutely standard with any first-tier system, are unavailable in ADRIFT, and their absence absolutely slaughters this game. In fact, from a very early stage, whenever I encountered one of the game's many containers, I got in the habit of trying to GET ALL FROM it, because that was the only reliable way I could get the game to tell me whether there was anything inside. Needless to say, I wasn't exactly feeling immersed in the story while doing so.

As I said above, even if all these problems were resolved, APTM still wouldn't be a great game. Part of the reason for this is the fact that the game seems to operate on its own inscrutable logic rather than any sort of recognizable sense of cause-and-effect. For instance, there's a portion of the game where access to a useful item is being controlled by one of the NPCs. The only way to persuade this NPC to let you have the object is to perform a long series of apparently arbitrary tasks, and the NPC doesn't really indicate that it wants these tasks performed. The only way I found out was via the walkthrough, and I'd be surprised if anybody figured it out any other way. Of course, by that time I was going straight from the walkthrough anyway, because in my initial playthrough of the game, I never found that NPC at all -- it seems she only appears after a particular item has been discovered, even though that item is more or less unrelated to her absence. Oh, and that item is only accessible by using an object whose primary logical use is unimplemented in the game. For the sake of spoilers, I won't name what that object is, but just for example, if you found a knife, and the game didn't understand the word CUT, you might think that knife was a red herring (and that the game was lazily implemented). Wouldn't you be surprised to find out from the walkthrough that even though CUT isn't implemented, you still need the knife to, oh I don't know, scrape the mud off a stone tablet or something? Something analogous occurs in this game. See what I mean about inscrutable logic? In addition to logic problems, there are certain implementation errors as well. For example, most of the game consists of a flashback, but typing X ME while still in the frame story depicts the PC as if the flashback was already happening.

So after all this, what makes APTM the best ADRIFT game I've ever played? Well, for one thing, despite the occasional glitch, it does have a decent depth of implementation. Most first-level nouns are described, and the setting is rather richly detailed. I spent an inordinate number of hours with Suspect when I was younger, and at times this game brought back pleasant memories of that experience. The writing gets its job done with a minimum of errors, and the NPCs are coded to handle a reasonable number of inquiries. In fact, a couple of times during the game I asked an NPC about a somewhat extraneous topic, and was happily surprised to discover that the response had been implemented. Another point in favor of the NPCs is that they will sometimes react sensibly to strange actions on the player's part; for instance, walking into the teenage daughter's bedroom while she's making out with the neighbor elicits angry responses from both of them, escalating in intensity the longer the PC hangs around. Snooping around the objects in the house, though it's necessary, also provokes suspicion from some of the NPCs. Then again, nobody gives you a second glance when you walk through the house carrying an 8-foot ladder, so this realistic implementation is really rather patchy. Overall, APTM would be a seaworthy craft, but between the logic holes in its hull and the tsunamis of ADRIFT inadequacy, it sinks dismally fast.

Rating: 4.6

RAMON AND JONATHAN by Daniele A. Gewurz

Since classical times, stories have opened "in medias res." This phrase, Latin for "in the middle of things", refers to a narrative that begins during some crucial piece of action, filling in the background and the preceding events sometime later. Ramon and Jonathan fulfills the former part of this bargain, but never the latter. The game drops us into some sort of science-fictional scenario where some (maybe) criminals are being exonerated, or extradited, or something, and suggests that we're not happy with the situation. Then there's an unintuitive door-opening puzzle, a bit of quick noun-guessing with an NPC, and then it's over. We never learn the backstory behind who did what to whom and why, who lives on what planet and how they got there, or who any of these characters even are. Because the first (and really only) puzzle didn't make any sense to me, I turned to the walkthrough in record time, but even after I had walked through the game, I still didn't really get it. As I always say in these situations, that may be because I'm dense, but egomaniac that I am, I'm more inclined to believe that the game did an insufficient job of explaining itself.

Not helping matters was the fact that the prose is written in not-quite-fluent English. It's not terrible, mind you -- many of the sentences pass muster without a problem, but those that don't are really jarring. For instance:

   >x people
   The audience has been waiting for years this moment, and is mostly
   greatly disappointed for the two "hangmen" to have been virtually
   cleared. Everybody rumble and yell.
The first sentence is almost up to snuff, if only "years" and "for" exchanged places -- it would still sound awkward and clunky after that, but would at least be grammatically correct. The second sentence sounds stereotypically, almost laughably wrong, as if it were written for a Bronson Pinchot character. You know, I've said this before: I don't care whether English is your first language or not, but I do care about fluency and readability. If you can't write fluent English, either don't write a text adventure in English or make sure to have your text adventure thoroughly proofed and corrected before inflicting it on the world. I don't mean to sound harsh, but if you want to produce something good, you simply must make sure the writing works.

It's also a good idea to fully implement everything you put in your game. Ramon And Jonathan, short though it is, is poorly equipped to handle any deviation from its plotline. Anything outside the bounds of the walkthrough is handled in one of two ways. The first method is simply to end the game. This happened to me on my first half-dozen playthroughs -- either because I walked in a disallowed direction or because I failed to solve the timed puzzle, the game abruptly kicked me to the curb and told me to restore or restart. Restarting wasn't terrible, because I'd invariably just played a few moves anyway, but the frequency of the situation made it clear that there wasn't much room to wander. The other, much worse method that the game uses to handle players that leave the path is to simply do nothing. At one point, I wandered into a room with no less than five NPCs, all of whom may as well have been statues for all that they responded to me. Eventually I figured out I must be doing something wrong because my current situation was so amazingly dull. This does not make for a fun game -- utter boredom shouldn't be the tool that forces players to comply with the plot. So finally, I restarted, hit the walkthrough, made the required twenty moves, and the game ended. Or rather, if an ending implies that everything has been tied up and some sort of dramatic conclusion has been reached, it's probably more accurate to say the game stopped.

Rating: 4.3

ERIC'S GIFT by Joao Mendes

In the "about" text for Eric's Gift, the author mentions that much of the inspiration for the story came from a dream. Somehow, this seems appropriate, because the experience of playing the game was quite reminiscent of a recurring dream of mine: the one where I find myself in a play, but I don't know my character or any of my lines. The other actors look at me expectantly, waiting for me to say the words that will advance the plot, and all I can do is madly improvise in a futile attempt to hit on the right topic. Eric's Gift is one of those games that runs on triggers -- examining a particular thing, or asking about a particular subject, or performing some other action triggers a non-interactive cutscene, which changes the PC's location and moves the plot along. When games like this work, they give the feeling of a story advancing smoothly, right in sync with the player's actions. When one breaks down, though, it's hell -- players flounder about looking for the right action as the plot's momentum evaporates, along with the fun of the game. Rather than guess-the-verb or guess-the-noun, the whole thing becomes a game of guess-the-trigger, which is worse than either one, since it encompasses both verbs and nouns, but you can never be sure which you're trying to guess at any given moment. That's just what happened to me in Eric's Gift. I was in a conversation scene where, unbeknownst to me, I needed to examine a sub-object of an object (that is to say, a second-level noun) in order to trigger the next scene. Thinking I'd examined everything, and having tried to leave, or do various other more or less appropriate actions, I kept fishing for new things to ask about, feeling like one of those characters in Sartre's No Exit, doomed to spend all eternity trapped with the same annoying person.

In a situation like this, it really helps a lot if the game is thoroughly implemented, and in part, Eric's Gift accomplishes this. All available scenery objects are described, and a few off-the-beaten-path conversation topics are implemented, too. However, as time wore on and I kept not guessing the trigger, the NPC began to feel more and more threadbare, always failing to respond to my increasingly desperate topic choices. Perhaps part of my problem was that I was a bit distracted by the game's insistent use of the same metaphor over and over and OVER again. Saying that a woman has a "light in her eyes" is already a bit of a cliché, but quite tolerable if said once, maybe even twice. This game hits it so often that it becomes comical. My breaking point was when I encountered this description: "Her eyes shine with a light of their own, with an intensity that almost blinds you." Mind you, there had already been many repetitions of the "light in the eyes" theme, but this one was way, way over the top. How could the light in someone's eyes, which I take to mean an animated, vivacious expression, almost blind me? I couldn't help but picture the NPC with high-beam headlights for eyes, the PC shielding his face from the glare. The lesson here is that any given metaphor is best used sparingly -- the more often we see it, the less effective it becomes.

My other issue with Eric's Gift is that it is pointlessly science-fictional. What I mean by that is that although the story is set in the future, it gains virtually nothing thereby. A few details are changed here and there -- people drink "synthcaf" instead of coffee, the TV is called a "tri-di", and so forth -- but otherwise the story might just as well be set in 2002. Not one significant point of plot or character derives from the futuristic setting, and consequently that setting is little more than a distraction. Adding a science-fictional sheen to an otherwise mundane story doesn't somehow make that story cooler. Quite the contrary, in fact -- it drains the story of mainstream appeal while gaining nothing in sf credibility. Oh, and one more thing: there are serious logical holes in the plot, especially in the defining element of the plot. Although its writing and coding was competent, the logical flaws, awkward emotion, and frustrating design make Eric's Gift one that I won't be keeping.

Rating: 5.4

JANE by Joseph Grzesiak

Note: Because strong language and themes of domestic abuse appear in this game, they will also appear in this review.

A couple of years ago, I released a game with some pretty intense themes, including rape, murder, and slavery. Aside from whatever other ways my game succeeded or failed, people's reactions to encountering this sort of thing in a work of IF varied a lot. Some people really appreciated it, others... not so much. One player rather memorably described it this way: "After playing, my head felt like someone had been hitting it very hard with a solid metal thing." After playing this game, I understand a little more where that guy was coming from. Jane takes on the topic of wife-beating, portraying it from the perspective of the victim, the abuser, and a few others besides. The experience of playing through a story in IF form, as opposed to reading it on the page, really intensifies my identification with the characters, and there were moments during my time with Jane that I started feeling physically ill, and dirty, involved in something I did not wish to be a part of. I don't mean to sound disapproving -- those moments were quite powerful and dramatic, and the game did give a clear warning about its subject matter before it began. Indeed, the times when I was feeling the most upset were when I was admiring Jane the most; its writing and its implementation occasionally managed to affect me quite strongly.

On the other hand, that effect was only occasional, for several reasons. First of all, though I applaud it for its ambition in getting inside the heads of abuser, victim, and onlookers, the characterization frequently fell a bit flat for me. The dialogue and actions of the characters sometimes rang quite true, but other times felt fairly stock, as if pulled from one of those movies that always seem to be running on the Lifetime channel. Another, more severe issue is that presenting a story like this interactively is a major challenge, and the game wasn't always prepared to meet that challenge. At its worst moments, the clash between the intense action of the story and the standard Inform library responses evoked by my actions was outright comical, completely defeating the drama:

   "You'd have nothing!" he shouts, continuing his rant. "No one would
   ever want you. You're of no use to anyone. You'd be nothing."

   >get vase
   That's hardly portable.

   John's lost in his mind again. "You ARE nothing!" he shouts again. He
   steps forward quickly and shoves you back, causing you to stumble to
   keep your balance. "You're useless! You're so fucking useless!"

   >push john
   That would be less than courteous.
Those library messages, quite suitable in the majority of IF situations, are laughably inappropriate here, and either the author or the testers should have caught them. The debugging verbs should also have been turned off -- the effect of these things together was that Jane had a fairly rushed feel. Even more damaging, by failing to account for fairly reasonable actions, the game makes itself too vulnerable to ridiculousness, which is poison to the kind of tragic storytelling it attempts.

Even when it does properly account for the player's input, though, Jane usually feels quite straitjacketed. In fact, although the game borrows heavily from Photopia by using multiple perspectives (albeit a chronologically intact story) and a virtually identical approach to conversation, it reminded me less of Photopia than of Rameses. Unfortunately, it wasn't the brilliant subversion of IF and storytelling that Rameses was, both because that game arrived first and because in its very use of multiple viewpoints and linear chronology, Jane dilutes the best rationale for its linearity. I can see a viable argument that Jane (the NPC, not the game), and perhaps even her abusive husband, should present few real options to the player. They're locked into the cycle of abuse, and the player's frustration could mirror that of the characters as they try and fail to break out of their long-established patterns. However, that's far less true for other characters, who lack such a reason for being bound to any particular course of action. In addition, as the intensity of the rising action builds, the characters should have more freedom available, as desperate measures become more and more plausible. Since I experienced the story in accurate chronological order, I expected that at some point I'd be able to find my own way out of the ugly tangle of that relationship. Instead, what I found was that I had to follow the game's singular path through it, and that meant enduring just as much abuse as the game decided it ought to commit. In my own way, I felt a little battered by the time I finished. I did finish, though. I didn't quit. I guess I was asking for it.

Rating: 6.5

CONSTRAINTS by Martin Bays

I'm far from the first person to make this claim, but I think every piece of art is, to some greater or lesser degree, about the art form itself. Every novel is at least a little bit about the novel, every film is at least a little bit about the cinema. And every text game is at least a little bit about IF itself. Then there are those that are very much about the form. Constraints is one of these. It disarmed me by admitting upfront, in fact brandishing, the fact that it was going to consist of constrained interactions. It then sets out to explore not only the idea of constraint, and the ways that interaction in a text game can be constrained, but how to make those constrained interactions effective, and even fun. Of course, it's not the first game to tread this ground -- Photopia and Rameses have famously drawn from the same well -- but it's the first one I've seen that devotes itself so purely to the concept, free of any particular narrative or character. However, because of the way it's structured, it's rather difficult to talk about without giving too much away. What I can say, though, is that although at one point it enumerates the types of constraints it claims to employ, there is one that it doesn't include in its list but which features prominently throughout the game.

I'm referring to the fact that although you have the opportunity to play several characters in Constraints (all of whom are in some restricted situation, natch), they all share a common trait: the desire not to be constrained. In each scenario, I struggled for a bit against the circumstances, but then tried doing things that would indicate a certain peace with the situation. Each time, I was rebuffed, instructed that the character's desire outweighed whatever notions I might have about graceful acceptance. I'm not complaining about this. It's quite legitimate to instruct a player about how to behave in character when a character is specified, and in a game this skillfully done, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the additional level of constraint was quite intentional. The idea intrigues me, though. How much of what we call constraints in our lives are simply produced by our own desires, more or less independent of our circumstances? When we feel held down, held back, would the feeling disappear if we decided that we no longer wanted whatever lay on the other side of the barrier? For that matter, can a constraint even exist without a corresponding desire to define it as such? In this game, the question is moot -- there's no way of changing the characters' desires -- but I really like it that the experience of playing made me think about such a philosophical issue in my own life.

It helps a lot that Constraints is quite exquisitely implemented. It's clear that this game has been tested thoroughly -- not only did I find no bugs, but several times throughout the game, I had the exciting experience of trying a fairly unusual action, and seeing that the game anticipated it and handled it expertly. The game uses the z-machine's color capabilities quite nicely (thereby giving me another reason to be thankful to David Kinder for the new WinFrotz 2002 interpreter), and in another section commits an impressive (though not quite unprecedented) z-machine abuse. For the most part, the writing hews to the same high standard, though there are several instances of rather strange word choices. I'm not sure whether these were simply typos, or whether they indicate that perhaps English isn't the author's first language. If the latter is true, then Constraints is to be commended all the more for the level of mastery it does attain. Despite all this, I can't quite bring myself to rate the game a 10. Even though it was thought-provoking and nicely crafted, in the end I didn't find it terribly enjoyable; I don't really like being constrained. Nevertheless, this is an excellent work of IF, and a fascinating metatreatise on "puzzleless" IF in general.

Rating: 9.3

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