2004 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1

(in the order I played them)

BLUE SKY by Hans Fugal

At this point in the development of interactive fiction, we've seen a lot of genres tried. However, there's one kind of writing for which this medium is very well suited, but which has been attempted very seldom: travel writing. In many ways, it's a natural fit -- IF can't help but put a great deal of emphasis on setting, and one of the best parts of a deep, detailed, and well-written text game is the strong feeling of location it provides. The best travel writing gives us a sense of having visited a place unfamiliar to us, and done properly, interactive travel writing could intensify this feeling even further. I think that this is the sort of game that Blue Sky wants to be -- it casts the player as a tourist in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the majority of the action consists of wandering around a replica of that city's plaza, searching for a moving target. It seems to me that the point of the game is to be a virtual visit to that site, and that we're supposed to come away from it enchanted with what a lovely place Santa Fe is. Unfortunately, Blue Sky is both too poorly written and too sparsely implemented to accomplish this goal. I've actually been to Santa Fe, and liked it very much, but instead of bringing back good memories of visits I've made, Blue Sky brought back bad memories of past IF games.

At times, the game reminded me of The Big Mama in its rapturous insistence on how beautiful everything is:

   The St. Francis Cathedral was designed by Archbishop Jean Baptiste
   Lamy in the Romanesque style. The cathedral, which was dedicated in
   1884, took fifteen years to complete. It stands majestically against
   the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, and you almost
   feel like you can see the twin steeples that were never completed in
   the clouds set in the deep blue sky.
In fact, though it's quite a small game, the word "beautiful" shows up in no less than seven different places. Instead of describing just what's so beautiful about them, the game flatly labels its items as such and expects that to be sufficient, which it isn't. Then again, sometimes the writing is so perfunctory that it can't even be bothered to try communicating anything special about the setting:
   Cathedral Place and East Water Street
   East Water Street ends here from the west and Cathedral place
   continues southeast into the business district of Santa Fe. La Fonda
   occupies the block to the west on the north side of the street.
Setting aside the fact that much of this prose is in dire need of commas, it also doesn't do a whole lot to conjure anything specific about Santa Fe. Instead, it feels just one step above the bare grid of a city presented by Strangers In The Night. The plot, such as it is, involves trying to catch up with your tour group as you glimpse them traveling from one landmark to the next, but the majority of the game involves wandering around and around a dozen or so of these underdescribed locations. Most of these locations not only offer very little in the way of writing, there's not much to do in them either. After a while, I felt like I was playing Aunt Nancy's House, except that instead of a house, there was a town.

Blue Sky compounds this problem with implementation that's far too sparse. Take this interaction, for instance:

   Inside the Loretto Chapel
   The inside of this chapel is indeed beautiful. Your eyes scan over
   the altar, the wooden benches, and then fall upon the miraculous

   >x altar
   That's not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.

   >x benches
   That's not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.

   >x staircase
   This 'miraculous' staircase leads to the choir loft. Legend has it
   that the staircase, built without nails or support beams, was
   constructed by a carpenter who mysteriously appeared, completed the
   job then disappeared without pay or leaving his name.
There are three items mentioned. Two are unimplemented. The third has a description that reappears verbatim in the description of the chapel's exterior. Can you blame me if I'm not feeling transported? Over and over, the game missed opportunities to provide immersion, instead providing descriptions that were sketchy when they weren't absent entirely. For instance, the initial room description mentions how the PC's inn has a "beautiful wood facade", but the inn itself is described thus: "This is your hotel." One of the keys to immersion in IF is detail, and Blue Sky falls well short of the mark. I don't mean to be too harsh -- the game is obviously well-intentioned, and with a substantial overhaul of its writing and a considerably increased depth of implementation, it could become a lovely evocation of Santa Fe. Until then, if you're looking for travel IF that really works, go back and play She's Got A Thing For A Spring.

Rating: 4.1

TYPO by Peter Seebach and Kevin Lynn

The heart of Typo is the Frobozz Magic-- er, Flavorplex Psychic Typo Error Correction System, which in turn is apparently a jazzed-up name for Cedric Knight's mistype.h library extension. This innovation provides an extra level of player-friendliness by trying to catch unparseable misspellings and typographical errors and making a reasonable guess as to what the player intended, like so:
   >push apadiing
   [Flavorplex Psychic Typo Correction has divined that you want to
   "push padding"].
   Your entire hand disappears momentarily into the padding. Now THAT'S
This works, I'm guessing, by comparing the player's input to a list of dictionary words, then using some set of algorithms to decide what in its list is the closest match to whatever the player typed. This is a cool idea, and frequently it works very well indeed. However, a utility like this is only as good as the dictionary it's using, and if the game is underimplemented, typo correction can suddenly start wildly misinterpreting commands. Pushed further, its responses veer into the comical:
   >x skyline
   As you look out at the cityscape, your attention is drawn to a funny
   little pizza delivery car as it cruises slowly along the street.

   >x car
   [Flavorplex Psychic Typo Correction has divined that you want to "x
   You can't see any such thing.

   >[boy that can get irritating fast]
   [Flavorplex Psychic Typo Correction has divined that you want to "buy
   that an get irritating east"].
   You can't see any such thing.
The goofier moments reminded me of that Simpsons episode where Dolph makes a note on his Apple Newton to beat up Martin, which the PDA translates as "eat up Martha." More seriously, the whole enterprise reminded me that everyone who writes software, including IF, must make decisions about interface. There's been a trend in the last ten years or so, particularly noticeable (to me) in Microsoft products, towards interfaces that take a paternalistic attitude towards the user. "Don't you worry your pretty little head about anything complicated," they say, "I know what you really meant to do." The problem, of course, is that at least half the time the "friendly" interface guesses wrong about what the user wants, and thus ends up thwarting good work rather than facilitating it. I've no doubt that these sorts of interfaces arise due to a great deal of feedback from people who want their computers to be simpler to operate. However, for both naive and sophisticated users, it's very frustrating when the computer thinks it knows better than you do. That's why it's critical that when you introduce a feature that overrides or embellishes literal user input, you provide a way to turn it off. In addition, such features are usually much better if they are customizable. A perfect example is the spell-checker whose dictionary can be expanded by the user -- if I can teach the software more about what I want to do with it, I can better enable it to help correct only actual errors. So if anybody is thinking of using this system in another game, remember to implement every noun you mention and to give me some control over how and whether the typo system operates.

As for the game itself, it's nothing too remarkable. Typo deploys the old reliable IF trick of literalizing some aspect of the medium, in this case the typo correction system. The PC is cast as a tester working for Flavorplex to iron out the bugs in its typo corrector. There's one substantial puzzle, a Rube Goldberg device for which the PC receives a set of instructions, but which is constructed so straightforwardly that I never needed to consult them. There's also one big plot twist, which in a more substantial game would move the action from prologue into the story proper, but which in this game serves only as an odd, abrupt, and unsatisfying ending. But Typo isn't too interested in telling a story -- instead, it just wants us to think about the implications of machines that make decisions on behalf of their users. For me, the game accomplished that goal.

Rating: 7.2

STING OF THE WASP by Jason Devlin

Assuming that "Jason Devlin" isn't a pseudonym for an experienced author, we have a very satisfactory debut on our hands. Sting Of The Wasp brings one of the year's nastier PCs in the person of wealthy socialite Julia Hawthorne. In the grand tradition of Primo Varicella, Julia is a vain, preening snob who looks with utter disdain at almost everything around her, including the country club in which the game is set. However, unlike Primo, her schemes don't run to power grabs -- instead, she just wants to find out who took a photo of her in a compromising position with the local golf pro. It seems that Julia's wealth comes by virtue (a term probably misapplied here) of her marriage, and because wealth is the most important thing to her, she must guard that marriage zealously. Such guardianship doesn't appear to include the actual avoidance of adultery, but it certainly encompasses heroic efforts to destroy any evidence of those indiscretions. SOTW is one of those games that let you gleefully and maliciously wreak havoc on a wide variety of places and characters, all in the service of advancing a thoroughly rotten character. As I said, the most prominent example of this sort of game is Varicella, but this game is Varicella played purely for laughs -- very few darker undertones burden the spree of unrestrained villainy.

There are a few things that SOTW does particularly well. One is dialogue; the country club is populated with a wide variety of rivals who come in various shades of shrewish and desperate, and Julia's exchanges with these characters often made me laugh out loud. Many of their remarks come at Julia's expense -- her affairs are an open secret at the club, and they provide the perfect fodder for nasty remarks, such as when Julia happens upon an NPC in the garden:

   As she sees you enter, she looks up and grins impishly. "Oh, Julia,"
   she says, closing her book for a moment. "I'm surprised to see you
   here. I thought you preferred to do your hoeing in the basement."
In addition, the NPCs have some great incidental business, and provide the game lots of opportunities to replace standard library responses with something more fun. One of my favorites was this replacement for "You can't go that way.":
   "Oh dear," Cissy says as you bump into a low wall. "Julia, you really
   should try some Ginkgo biloba. I've been taken it for months now and
   I hardly ever crash into walls anymore."
Okay, so it has a pretty egregious grammar error. I still laughed. The parser, too, gets off plenty of zingers:
   >search beverly
   You're not a lady cop, and this isn't Cinemax After Dark.
Okay, enough quoting. My point is that SOTW is a funny game, and it's worth playing just for the humor. Moreover, many of its puzzles are logical and seamlessly blended with the game-world, and its story moves smoothly and sensibly to a dynamic climax. The game makes especially good use of triggers to move the action along. Unfortunately, there are some flaws to contend with as well. For one thing, while the humor is marvelous, there are a number of places where the prose stumbles due to awkwardness or simple mechanical errors. For example:
   >read board
   Although seemingly impossible, somehow this cork bulletin board, with
   its oak border and brass inlay, manages to appear elegant. I guess
   all it takes to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear is money. A fact
   illustrated by many of Pine Meadows's patrons. On the bulletin board
   is an announcement.

First there's a misplaced modifier, attaching impossibility to the cork bulletin board itself rather than its elegance. Next, there's a voice mixup, as the parser suddenly takes on an identity and asserts itself with "I guess." If Julia is "you", who is the "I" speaking in this scenario? Finally, a sentence fragment brings up the rear. A significant number of these problems mark Sting Of The Wasp as the work of a beginning writer. In addition, while the game is clearly tested and for the most part bug-free, there are still some glitches in implementation. A waiter hands you a glass that never appears. A description mentions exits southeast and south, when in fact they're south and southwest, respectively. The game would benefit vastly from the attention of a skilled editor and from one more round of testing. These things aren't too hard to do, and once they're done, SOTW's nasty pleasures will be even sharper than they are now.

Rating: 8.5

THE GREAT XAVIO by Reese Warner

I had a lovely time during my first half-hour with The Great Xavio. Similar to Infocom's Sherlock, you play the "man of action" assistant to a prodigious but inscrutable thinker. In this case, you're a graduate student named Hagerston, in unending thrall (the way only a graduate student can be) to your adviser, an odd duck named Dr. Rex Excalibur Todd. Dr. Todd is a logician, obsessed with debunking anyone who challenges the reign of empiricism, and that's why he's dragged you out of bed at 3 AM, to the hotel housing sensational magician The Great Xavio -- your job is to prove that Xavio is a fraud. These characters apparently feature in some short stories and a novel penned by this game's author, and Dr. Todd in particular is obviously the product of tremendous affection. The premise provides plenty of room for exploration, and Dr. Todd's constant presence at the PC's elbow gives the game many opportunities for humorous metacommentary and the occasional helpful hint. There were a few irritating defects here and there, but after the first 30 minutes, I was enthusiastically looking forward to the rest of my time with Xavio.

Unfortunately, after that things began to unravel a bit, and oddly enough the unraveling started with a key and a locked door, a situation that replicated exactly what I'd discussed in my editorial for SPAG #34. It occurs as the PC is trying to get into a hotel room, a room to which he holds the key. I'd like to quote the exchange exactly, but it would be too much of a spoiler to do so, so here's a slightly altered version of it:

   You can't, since the room door is in the way.

   >open door
   (the room door)
   The door is locked. However, next to it there is a slot for your room
   key that might do something.

   The elevator doors close

   >unlock door
   (the elevator door)
   Unlocking generally requires a key of some sort.

   >unlock door with key
   (the elevator door with the room key)
   That doesn't seem to be something you can unlock.

   >put key in slot
   The light above the slot flashes green, and you hear the door's lock

   You can't, since the room door is in the way.

   >open door
   (the room door)
   You open the room door.

   Inside The Hotel Room
This was an incredibly aggravating interaction, made more so by the game's sudden substitution of the elevator door as the default object for "door", and because I kept needing to visit the room, it kept happening until I trained myself to behave as the game wanted me to. In my editorial, I argued that things like opening and unlocking a door to which you have the key should be handled automatically by the game, rather than forcing the player to manually go through all the fiddly steps of door and lock management. This argument brought several responses, which rightly pointed out that if that strategy is carried to its logical extreme, the game could just automatically do everything for the player -- a game like this is more properly called a "book." Instead, the game should keep an internal model of the PC's knowledge and intentions; it should automate fiddly steps only when they match the set of actions that the player knows how to do and clearly intends to do. Within that structure, I'd like to offer a further refinement to my argument: IF games should automate actions which require little to no thought on the part of the PC. Any of us who have spent time using hotel keys as described above know that it quickly becomes second nature. We don't need to think through every step -- rather, we form the intention of entering the room and habit takes care of the rest. I would so much rather have seen this:
   You swipe the room key through the slot; its light flashes green and
   you hear the door's lock click. Opening the door, you step inside.

   Inside The Hotel Room
See, there's nothing fun about typing out PUT KEY IN SLOT and OPEN DOOR a bunch of times, and it actually weakens mimesis to force players through such menial moves, especially after the first time. I still grant that there can be plenty of good reasons to break this rule -- in fact, I force a very similar card-swipe at the beginning of the first Earth And Sky episode. In that instance, I chose to do so for purposes of pacing and dramatic tension, but if the PC had to go through the door more than once, automating that passage would be the right thing to do.

I seem to have spent a lot of time discussing a small piece of this game, but that piece was emblematic of my experience with Xavio. Despite all the game's appealing traits -- its engaging characters, its friendly design, its entertaining story -- I didn't enjoy it as much as I wanted to. I ended up feeling like I'd played the beta version of something with great potential rather than something that was already great on its own. Erratic newlines and shaky punctuation contributed to my impression that the game wasn't well tested, and so did basic mistakes like embedding dialogue into room descriptions so that it repeats every time you look at the room. In addition, there were some issues that may have been intentional, but were functionally bugs. For example, inside that hotel room with the difficult door, there's a window on the north wall (again slightly altered to avoid spoilers):

   >x window
   The hotel's old enough that it's a window you can actually open.

   >look through window
   You look out the window. There's a thin ledge, just barely possible
   as a space to stand if what you saw wasn't a mirage. Looking out
   further to the northwest you can see a few cars crossing the Golden
   Gate bridge.

   >x ledge
   You can't see any such thing.

   >open window
   Nothing like a breath of fresh air.

   You can't go that way.

   >enter window
   That's not something you can enter.

   >go out the window
   You can't see any such thing.
So you tell me there's a window, and that I can open it. You tell me there's a ledge outside the window. Then you let me open the window... but don't implement actually going out the window? What was the point of describing the ledge and making the window openable in the first place? Even worse, just typing OUT puts me back out in the hallway, where once again I have to go through that exasperating rigmarole with the key. Whether or not that was the intended implementation, I call it a big fat bug. The game credits testers, but I can't tell whether any of them are members of the IF community. If not, that may be part of the problem -- it's important to have at least one person in your pool of testers who is conversant with the basic standards of modern IF. They'll notice things that novice testers will miss. To sum up in one word what this game lacks: polish. It just needs to be tightened up -- formatting errors fixed, typos eliminated, underimplemented areas enhanced. Once that happens, the peculiar charm of Hagerston and Todd will be able to shine through unimpeded.

Rating: 6.7

GETTING BACK TO SLEEP by Patrick Evans as "IceDragon"

Oh boy. Its time for one of my least favorite comp traditions: the homebrewed game. Traditionally, these games have parsers which lack the amenities provided by any major IF development system, and Getting Back To Sleep is no exception. What does it lack? Well, SAVE and RESTORE, for starters. Oh, and SCRIPT, which means that you'll be seeing no quotes from the game in this review. Rather than making notes at the prompt as I usually do, I had to keep switching to a separate file to keep my notes, and felt slightly annoyed each time. Let's see, what else? UNDO, OOPS, and lots of other modern features, and by "modern" I mean "standard as of 1985 or so." Those weren't there. Nor was VERBOSE mode, which sucked for me, since I always play in VERBOSE mode. Instead, I had to keep typing L every time I wanted to look at the room description. Except that L doesn't work either! Yeah, you have to type out LOOK each time. You also can't abbreviate INVENTORY to I, though at least you can abbreviate to INV. Why one abbreviation is present and not the other continues to mystify me. Here's a good one: the parser is case-sensitive. It understands "look" but not "Look." For a long, scary moment, I thought there was no way to see room descriptions a second time. The parser also breaks my Third Law of Parsing, which is "Parsers must not ask questions without being prepared to receive an answer." GBTS is guilty of asking questions that look like disambiguation ("What do you want to get?") without being able to handle a one-word answer at the next prompt.

It's not that I think creating a homebrewed system would be easy. I'm sure it's a hell of a lot of work. But why you'd put in all that work, coding (according to the readme) over 10,000 lines of C# in a state-of-the-art programming environment, to create something that wouldn't have even passed muster as a text adventure twenty years ago... that escapes me. I could see trying it if that was your only choice, but there are multiple very good IF development environments, all of which produce output that's playable on way more platforms than GBTS is, all of which offer all the features I described in my first paragraph "right out of the box", and all of which are completely FREE! It kind of feels like building your own piano while Steinways are being given away around the corner. It'd be one thing if your piano was going to be just as good as the free ones, but when yours has only 20 keys, no pedals, no black keys, and is wildly out of tune, how can you expect your performances to be any good? One of the sadder parts is that the readme proudly states that this homebrewed system has "the flexibility and freedom to accomplish what no other interactive fiction system can do: the game lives in real time." Well, I can't speak for TADS or Hugo, but Inform most certainly can do that. Hell, ZIL could do it. Border Zone had it in 1987.

Of course, GBTS would have its problems even if it were created with an IF development tool. It's one of those games where you might see shelves full of stuff, and X SHELVES would give you a dull description about the stuff being a lot of supplies and junk. X SUPPLIES gives you the same description and X JUNK isn't even implemented, so you move on, only to find out later (from the walkthrough) that SEARCH SHELVES would give you a special key for one of the game's many locked doors. Many many first-level objects are unimplemented. Its/it's errors infest the prose. There's a sorta-maze, with a randomly appearing object that is vital for solving a puzzle. There's tons of stuff like that. The story itself is fine, though highly derivative of Planetfall. But the game is an experience to be missed.

Rating: 3.2

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Paul O's 2004 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2004