"I love that game," says Fred. "I can't wait for the third installment!"Thanks, Mike! Er... Fred! I'm working on it! Anyway, I suppose that to avoid the illusion that sucking up to the judge gets you a good review and score, I should say here that I thought Recruit stank, but I just can't do that. It was a fun game, if slight, whose puzzles are the star attraction. In fact, more than anything, it feels like a love letter to IF.
The premise, such as it is, is that you've been recruited (with the offer of a $50 reward) as a tester for "Real Life Interactive Gaming Simulacra" -- in other words, IF puzzles constructed and brought to life. That puts Recruit in the unique position of being an IF game pretending to be reality pretending to be an IF game. In any case, the whole thing is more or less a hook on which to hang a series of puzzles, each of which has its theme: light source, NPC, attention to detail, and so forth. The game is much more imaginative than this thumbnail description makes it sound. Each of the puzzles felt fresh to me, and the fact that they were explicitly molded around familiar IF concepts made their uniqueness stand out all the more. They also felt pitched at just the right level of difficulty -- enough to make me think creatively, but not so hard as to send me running in circles and finally running to the hints, at least not for long. More importantly, each of the puzzles has fun with the concept it embodies, which makes the game a particular pleasure for those of us who have endured many far drearier versions of the same things. I'm not sure how well the game would work for somebody who was new to IF -- it might make a fine learning tool, but I have a feeling it would feel more frustrating than educational to somebody who didn't share its frame of reference -- but for me it was a kick.
A great deal of the fun comes from the game's writing, and I noted with admiration as I played through the game just how much Sousa's writing has improved since his debut game Above And Beyond. [I'm about to spoil something, though I have no idea why it's a secret to begin with.] Then I found out in the afterword that in fact, much of the writing wasn't his, but was in fact done by collaborators like Robb Sherwin, Jon Ingold, and J.D. Berry. Why Sousa doesn't simply acknowledge these co-authors upfront is a bit of a mystery to me -- maybe he just doesn't want players distracted by going through the game trying to figure out who wrote what. Anyway, like every Sousa game, Recruit is coded very well, though not as exquisitely deeply as some of his past works have been. It was certainly bug-free, in any case, and quite responsive to most of the things I wanted to try. It also provides a fun list of AMUSING things to try after you've finished the game, which is a touch I always appreciate. After finishing The Recruit, I found myself just smiling, and thinking, "Cool!" Like several of the other games in this comp, it was IF about IF, but this time about just how much fun IF can be. It doesn't provide much in the way of atmosphere or emotion, but it does pack the pleasures of good writing and interesting, interconnected puzzles, and that's enough for me.
As for what the game does provide, I think it's pretty good overall. Shadows (sorry, for a Stevie Nicks fan like me, SOTM always means "Sisters Of The Moon") is more or less a one-room game, but unlike most one-room games, the focus here is on character and conversation. The game uses an abridged version of a conversation approach pioneered by Emily Short: ASK and TELL abbreviated to "a" and "t", with a special "topics" command that can provide a nudge to players who've run out of things to talk about. However, it makes what I consider to be a tactical error, in that it keeps many topics locked until a leading topic has been broached, or perhaps until a particular item has been examined. There are a few problems I can think of with this strategy. First, when I attempt a topic and get one of the game's default "no answer" messages, I take that response as a signal that the topic has not been implemented. I don't expect it to be successful later on, so I probably won't try it. Second, closing off some topics is particularly misguided in an extremely small game like this one. When I'm restarting often, I'm not really keeping track of which session has revealed which tidbits, and more than once I was flummoxed by getting a default response to a topic I knew I'd seen implemented. Finally, even if this were a larger game and even if I were able to constantly keep in mind that failure didn't necessarily mean non-implementation, the "explicit branching" model used in Shadows forecloses the player's ability to make intuitive connections. To use an analogous example not from the game, say the NPC has a picture of apples on his wall, I ask him about apples, and he says, "Apples remind me of home." My next thought might be to ask him about an orchard, but in this game's model, he would just look away, not answer, or shrug. That doesn't mean he can't talk about orchards, but rather that the game wants me first to ask him about home, to which he'll reply, "I spent lots of happy times climbing the trees in my Dad's orchard," and then it'll let me ask about orchards. That's wrong -- give me the chance to make the leap myself.
I see I just said the game was pretty good, then went on a long discourse about one of its flaws, so let me turn now and praise Shadows for a moment. The game's writing really worked for me -- it described the scene vividly and with judicious use of metaphors. The NPC's diction felt appropriately mysterious and foreboding, and I thought that many of the details were well-chosen to paint a picture of a PC whose life combines the ordinary and the extraordinary in a plausible way. The implementation was reasonably deep, though it could have been deeper for such a small environment. The same goes for the NPC; he seemed to have some very basic emotional modeling, but the game didn't provide verbs like THANK or APOLOGIZE to let me interact enough with that emotional state. Still, he was able to answer a generous set of topics, and I felt intrigued and tantalized by the answers he gave. At the end, though, I felt like I still hadn't really gotten the point, which I suppose is another way of reiterating that the game just didn't provide enough to feel satisfying. I guess the fact that I wanted a lot more of Shadows proves that what was there was a very good start.
>x altar Like your heart, it is made of stone.Huh? There isn't anything in particular in the game that shows the character as cruel or heartless -- instead, it's apparently an attempt to be funny. The attempt fails. Another problem in this game is that both the writing and the coding, while not outright bad, are unpardonably sloppy. Things are coded to a reasonable depth, which is great, but bugs are all over the place, including some that seem to make puzzles unintentionally easy. Similarly, the writing does a basically acceptable job of describing everything important, and even pulls off a couple of good jokes, but punctuation is haphazard, especially when it comes to quotation marks, and there's the occasional utter howler:
>think Your thinking is attrocious.Yeah, well, so is your spelling. These problems are aspects of a larger issue, probably the biggest flaw in the game, which is that the whole thing -- story, puzzles, prose, and everything -- feels fairly half-assed. Disparate elements and genres are thrown together (like, say, a cave with a McDonald's play area inside) with no attention whatsoever to consistency of plot or tone. Right down to the end, it feels like a story that's being made up as it goes along.
Problems aside, one worthwhile thing that Paper Moon attempts is to tie most of its puzzles together with the theme of origami -- most solutions require some sort of folded paper creation at one point or another. This connection provides a nice unifying thread for the game, but what's more interesting to me is the fact that although the game provides an endless supply of folding paper, what it does not provide is any sort of list of the shapes into which it can be folded. Instead, it relies on "common knowledge" (which gets the scare quotes because, as various culturally specific puzzles have shown us, whether knowledge is common depends entirely on where and when you come from.) I've never been an origami buff, and consequently have only the most basic information about it in my brain, but surprisingly enough, I didn't have to turn to the hints for a single origami puzzle. Sure, a lot of the things I tried didn't work, but enough of my ideas were implemented that I was able to feel quite clever about my solutions. This is a risky game design decision, because it's almost inevitably destined to fail miserably for some considerable number of people, but when it does succeed, it provides great satisfaction, much better than the average IF inventory or mechanical puzzle. It's a different level of accomplishment to craft a solution from your own knowledge rather than putting one together by combining or manipulating the obviously implemented elements in the game. Paper Moon employs that strategy multiple times, and for me each one paid off.
The other noteworthy, albeit less effective, feature of the game is its occasional use of unmentioned but implied scenery items as important puzzle components. The first time I can remember seeing this technique used is in Adam Cadre's I-0, where a car is a major game object, and even though things like the tires, trunk, seatbelts, and glovebox aren't explicitly mentioned in the car's description, they're implemented and often important. Similarly, Paper Moon sometimes relies on our mental picture of things for some crucial items that need to be examined, even though those items may not be mentioned in the room or item description. I think the reason that this method didn't work very well in Paper Moon is that it was done only inconsistently. I-0 was reasonably careful to implement implied items throughout the game, but Paper Moon expects us to look for implied things when it's chosen to include them, but doesn't provide the solid coding and consistency of depth that would lead us to expect those implied items always to be there. Consequently, when I first looked at the walkthrough to figure out what I was missing, I was fairly indignant that the item hadn't been mentioned, and only later on changed my mind and decided that the game was playing fair after all. A Paper Moon isn't a game I'd really recommend to anyone, but for its brighter moments it makes an excellent example of some underexplored aspects of interactive fiction.
Let's tackle the nonsensical part first. In the ABOUT text, the author states that part of his intention with the game is to "interfere, out of sheer mischief, with some of the normal perceptions / causal relationships of IF space-time." Mission accomplished, and in some parts of the game, the technique works well. The first section in particular contains a puzzle which utterly confounds standard expectations of how the world ought to work, but it's possible to figure out the alternate system of reality at work in the puzzle, and thereby defeat it. The process of doing so is really fun, reminiscent of the flavor of The Gostak or For A Change. More specifically, the reason the puzzle works is that even though the PC's actions don't produce the expected results, they do produce some results, and from these results it's possible to deduce what's really going on. The same can't be said of most of the other puzzles in the game. Even for IF set in a much more mundane universe, feedback design is one of the toughest parts of puzzle creation -- you don't want to be so obvious that the puzzle becomes a non-puzzle, but your feedback also mustn't be so obscure (or nonexistent) as to leave the player shaking her head in confusion even when the solution is revealed. Most of the puzzles in TOK err on the latter side of this line. I think that for every puzzle after the first one, I looked at the hints, and for most of them even the hints were insufficient. (Thankfully, the author provided a walkthrough.) For some puzzles, the solution made a tortured kind of sense once I'd looked it up, but for many, I found myself just following the walkthrough's instructions with a shrug. Sufficient feedback is very important in any IF puzzle, but in a world where the normal rules don't apply, feedback becomes utterly crucial -- how are we supposed to figure out the rules without the ability to gather any evidence about them? TOK usually (though not always) fails to provide enough feedback to make its puzzles solvable, which takes a lot of the fun out of playing.
What does provide some fun is the game's tendency to present its room and object descriptions in a shaky kind of poetry. For instance, the first room description:
In the North Chamber Chamber of the north, so empty, still, all noise grates Black as night the chest your thought awaits. The other chamber southward lies Cloaked in mystery's disguise.Most, but not all, of the game's verse rhymes like this -- sometimes the lines lack rhyme or even consistent meter. Moreover, there's a fair bit of prose mixed in, as conversation, library responses, or descriptions of action, and the presence of these rather ordinary bits of writing juxtaposed with the more elevated verses tends to drain the effectiveness of each. The other problem with the poetry is reminiscent of what happened in Graham Nelson's final game, The Tempest. That is, it's tough enough to craft IF prose that communicates clearly and concisely, and that also provides enough information to the player, but to do so in verse is much, much harder. TOK's poetry isn't at as great a disadvantage as The Tempest, which forced itself to use prewritten lines as room and object descriptions, but it can still be rather opaque. Usually the lines aren't pure gibberish, and they sometimes even manage to pack a few clues in, but nevertheless it does take some time to translate, for instance, "Black as night the chest your thought awaits" into "There's a black chest here." The poetry technique is ill-chosen in combination with the game's nonsensical laws of time, space, and causality, since either one by itself is confusing enough but together they can be utterly impenetrable. However, TOK does give some glimpses of how compelling an IF game in pure verse could be, and of how fascinating it might be to play in a universe with a completely different set of basic rules. Play it for these glimpses, but don't be afraid to reach for the walkthrough.
The text it generates, in mock-medieval style, is one account after another of the adventures of "Sir Algebrah", who wanders around killing some things and having sex with other things. That's why the two commands RPG responds to are SLAY and LAY. If you enter any other command, or indeed no command at all, the program interprets your input as a "battle-cry" and then proceeds to print whatever it wants to.
It's a reasonable, though wafer-thin, parody of fantasy CRPGs, and as such it's entertaining for about 60 to 90 seconds. After that, it's dull, and at no point is it any sort of interactive fiction.
Even from a coding viewpoint, the StoryFactory parser and world model has lots of serious problems, or perhaps just blatant deficiencies compared to established first-tier systems. It's got a leg up on many homemade games in that its error messages are not snide, but they are sometimes unhelpful. For instance:
> get key [ I will get the rusty key ] That didn't work."That didn't work" doesn't really tell me enough of what I need to know, and it's the game's standard failure message. The text in brackets at least signals that my command was understood, but I need much more specific feedback when a command fails. Happily, the parser politely and willingly admits when it doesn't understand something, and doesn't ask any questions it isn't prepared to answer (it doesn't ask any questions at all), but its ability to understand input is quite minimal, it usually chokes on commands of three words or more, and it doesn't seem to have any concept of pronouns at all. Oh, and there's no SAVE or RESTORE functionality, which is a minor drag in this game and would be a major problem in a larger one. As for the world model, a couple of its most serious flaws are its lack of basic IF concepts, such as inventory, and its irritating habit of only printing the room description after a LOOK command. Even at the very beginning of the game, or when the PC moves into new territory, StoryFactory doesn't care to tell the player anything about the location. Add to these issues the fact that the prose is hampered by a considerable number of spelling and grammar problems (English isn't the author's first language, so it's understandable but no less unsatisfactory) and you have a game whose implementation is seriously troubled.
LGITBW does have one interesting aspect, which is the fact that it has a strange sort of split PC. You play, apparently, a rat who is living with a little girl named Alice. However, most of the time Alice is with you, the parser will interpret your commands as orders to her, which she will usually carry out. You can specify the actor before the command in order to remove any ambiguity -- I EAT THE CHEESE or ALICE EAT THE CHEESE. Now, because it's a rat and a little girl, my personal inclination is to find this somewhat creepy, especially since Alice is so lifeless an NPC that she seems to behave as some sort of Stepford automaton, eerily under the sway of her pet rat's will. I dunno, maybe it's just too close to Halloween. Anyway, creepiness aside, it's a noble attempt to provide a team PC. Alice can do things the rat cannot, though the reverse isn't true (not when it comes to anything useful, anyway.) There's more ground to be broken in this area, and indeed I hope to break some of it, but LGITBW at least provides a signpost. Pity it does so ensconced in such a poor parser and inconsequential game.
Paul O's 2003 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 4 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2003