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 staircase. >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.
>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 soft!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 cart"]. 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.
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.
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:
>e 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 click. >e You can't, since the room door is in the way. >open door (the room door) You open the room door. >e Inside The Hotel RoomThis 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:
>e 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 RoomSee, 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. >n 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.
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.
Paul O's 2004 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2004