2004 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 4

(in the order I played them)

THE BIG SCOOP by Johan Berntsson

And so the Great Conversation System Experiments continue. The Big Scoop has found a way to combine the open-ended ASK X ABOUT Y system with the focus of Emily Short's topic-based systems -- the game still uses the ASK ABOUT command diction, but there's also a TOPICS verb available, which tells you most of the topics you can plug into the formula. As a bonus, it also tells you what you can plug into TELL ABOUT. This system intrigued me, but I ended up feeling a little disappointed with it. At first, I was excited by the prospect of not having to play hunt-the-noun, but my reaction upon seeing a list of nouns to try was that I needed to try them all. Immersion drained quickly as an exchange between two characters turned into an administrative task, and not a very rewarding one at that, since the NPC generally only had a line or two at most about any given topic. Moreover, Scoop was implemented deeply enough that the list included most of the verbs I would have thought of, but I never needed to try to think of them, which lessened my engagement with the game. In a way, Scoop's system is the worst of both worlds. It retains the cumbersome ASK ABOUT form but removes all of the feeling of mystery and possibility that comes along with thinking of new things to ask about; it provides Short's unwieldy TOPICS list, but loses all her handy abbreviations and her menu options for conversational gambits. In addition, the list sometimes shows topics that the PC has no way of knowing about yet, which effectively constitute plot spoilers. So in the end, I found Scoop's conversation system to be a failed experiment, albeit a noble one.

Happily, there's better news about the rest of the game. The Big Scoop has an engaging story that starts off with a dramatic situation that could have come right from a Hollywood thriller. The PC awakens, disheveled and disoriented, in a friend's apartment. Stumbling into the kitchen, she finds her friend's dead body, and a voice on her cellphone says that the police are on their way; she's about to be framed for murder. It's not easy to escape from this grim situation, but when she does, the perspective shifts: now the PC is a reporter investigating the murder, and it becomes clear that the first scene was simply a swollen prologue. This structure worked well for me -- the urgency of the initial scene carried over nicely into the rest of the game, and having played the victim of the framing, I never had any doubts that she was innocent, which helped me buy into the reporter's quest to clear the victim's name. In addition to a good story and an inventive structure, Scoop also sports some wonderfully deep implementation. It provides descriptions for most all first-level objects, and it frequently surprised me with what verbs those objects could handle. For instance, when the PC awakens in room with a red stain on the carpet, I tried something a little unusual:

   >smell stain
   The sweet smell makes you feel sick.
The game was completely prepared for that command, and used the results to further the prologue's ominous mood. Bravo. Finally, Scoop does some nice work with NPC interaction. This is perhaps no surprise from the author of The Temple, a Comp02 game whose best feature was its main NPC, who behaved like an actual person and worked as a team with the PC. The NPC in this game fills a similar role, and the added bonus is that since she serves as the PC in the prologue, her character comes that much more alive.

Sadly, there are a few things that mar the experience, the first of which is Scoop's sometimes wobbly English. This game was apparently simultaneously developed in Swedish, and there are some rough patches in the translation:

   >ask cop about blood
   "He bleed over the whole place," the policeman says grumpily.
Like most of the English errors in Scoop, this one could be down to a simple typo, which makes it much stronger than The Temple was, not to mention far better than some of the translated games I've already played in this comp. However, the accumulation of these blunders, along with telltale missteps like calling an office break room a "breakout area," make the writing feel just a bit off-kilter. Similarly, though the game has clearly been extensively tested, I still found a few bugs and missing verbs. The worst one, unsurprisingly, involves an object that functions as a rope -- the game has difficulty keeping track of just where this object resides once it's been tied to one thing. Finally, Scoop suffers from an occasional lack of clarity. The most glaring example is in the game's climactic scene, in which something critical happens that is never actually described, and must instead be inferred from subsequent events. It seems clear that this lacuna isn't part of some artistic effect, but is rather just an oversight, and quite a severe one at that. Still, the good far outweighs the bad in this game -- it tried something new in its conversation system, and it kept me interested with a compelling story and canny puzzles. I enjoyed my time with it.

Rating: 8.7

BLINK by Ian Waddell

Blink claims to have multiple paths. According to its ABOUT text, there are "several instances throughout the game where you can quickly switch to a different path by saying something different or doing something else." This is simply not true, at least not as I understand and define the idea of multiple paths. Yes, there are a couple of conversations whose outcomes can be altered by various menu choices. However, none of these alterations have any impact whatsoever on the story, which is quite linear. There aren't even any points where the game offers more than one goal at a time -- everything is very much on rails, and any deviations from the path result in either gentle rebukes from the parser or a little bit of scenery description. I know this, because after one trip through the game, I went through it five more times looking for the alleged paths, only to find myself always in the same sequence of scenes, each of which has only one exit. Finally I ran it through TXD and looked at all the game text, and sure enough, I'd pretty much seen the whole thing. The experience led me to think about what we mean by "multiple paths." In a sense, there are multiple paths through even the tiniest IF game. Even in an Inform shell game, you can, say, SING and then PRAY, or PRAY and then SING. Strictly speaking, these are two different paths. However, since both of them simply result in default parser responses, neither of which affect the game world or the PC, they are functionally equivalent. That's the way Blink is -- sure, there are different ways to go through it, but none of those differences are significant. The game's story, and its ending, are identical no matter what you do, and thus I would contend that it only has one meaningful path.

Even that path is a short one -- Blink is a small game, and that's another one of its problems. Not that smallness is a problem in IF per se, of course, but Blink's main project seems to be to provoke an emotional response in the player, and it's just too bare to provide the necessary connection. The specifics are too spoilery, but at its base, the game presents a PC who is confronted with the specter of loss, and thus must reevaluate some of his past decisions. However, when we barely know any of these characters, all they can be is unadorned archetypes, and those aren't enough to create character identification. Plenty of affecting stories boil down to something like "boy meets girl, boy loses girl", but if the actual story is just those six words, then it's not going to affect anyone. Of course, Blink isn't this extreme, but it's still insufficient in the end, and consequently its methods feel hamfisted and overbearing. Additionally, there are a few places in the game that are hampered by awkward diction or bad coding, and in a game this size, those problems loom large. For instance, there's a conversation that starts with a question, and then when you try to TALK TO the character, the parser tells you that you have nothing to say, even as the conversation continues. An example of the diction problems is the creek is described as the "epicentre of the entire forest." Aside from the peculiarly British spelling from what is clearly an American PC, "epicenter" is a term that refers specifically to the center of an earthquake's shock waves -- it's not just a synonym for "center."

Still, there are things to like about Blink. The implementation is thorough, with all first-level verbs implemented carefully. The plot's rails are constructed well -- that is, whenever the game prevents the PC from taking a divergent path, it generally provides a pretty good reason. The story coheres well enough, and I liked the fact that the PC begins geriatric, and then progresses backwards through his life via flashback. In fact, there are the seeds of an excellent game in Blink. If it really had offered multiple paths, it could have been a compelling presentation of difficult choices, a la Tapestry. Even if it had remained on rails but its story and characters had been better fleshed out, it might have made a pretty moving character study. In its current state, though it's nicely implemented and it hangs together okay, it feels falsely advertised, and there's just not enough meat on its bones.

Rating: 5.5

MAGOCRACY by A. Joseph Rheaume

I don't struggle with drugs, alcohol, overeating, gambling, or any of the other myriad addictions that flesh is heir to, except one: computer games. Specifically, computerized role-playing games, or CRPGs. Other kinds of games, IF included, don't have this effect on me, but when it comes to CRPGs, something in my brain just craves more, more, more. I have to keep it in check, and when I notice myself playing to the exclusion of anything productive, I have to stop for a while. Even two years after buying the superhero CRPG Freedom Force, the desire to play it still gnaws at me all the time, though of course I'm now playing a heavily modded version, so it hasn't been the exact same thing over and over again. In recognition of this addiction, I've steered well clear of massively multiplayer online role-playing games, or MMORPGs. In fact, I'm aware of the existence of an excellent superhero MMORPG (City of Heroes) in the same way that an alcoholic is aware of an open bottle of gin across the room. I'm not alone in my predicament -- there's a good reason why EverQuest was quickly nicknamed EverCrack. But what is that reason? Why do CRPGs have such a potent effect on me when things like IF, Minesweeper, and arcade games don't? For me, I think the answer boils down to infinite variety, gradual advancement, and creative outlet. When an IF game is over, it's over -- some games have limited replayability value, but for the most part, the story is the story. CRPGs, on the other hand, introduce a sufficient number of random and strategic elements that even within the broad outlines of a plot, I can have a very different experience each time through the game. That variety encourages repetition, because I never get to feel "finished." Secondly, CRPGs allow the PC to grow in power and prestige, with more and more options available as the game goes on, and I think this feature taps into something deep in the wiring of my brain. Maybe it's just the human drive to accumulate power, or maybe it's the little charge of victory, similar to what a gambling addict feels after a win. There's something overwhelmingly seductive about the feeling of progress, especially when that progress is clearly marked with symbols like "level." The feeling of "leveling up" feeds an ancient part of my nature, which is no doubt why levels are designed into many arcade games. Finally, unlike many other kinds of games, CRPGs offer a great deal of creative outlet, from the makeup of your character to the way you handle the game world's obstacles. In a CRPG with a sufficient degree of simulationism, there can be dozens or even hundreds of ways to address any given threat or roadblock, and it's hard (for me) to be satisfied with trying just one, even after I'm successful. With these three features, CRPGs have sunk their hooks into me quite deeply.

Which brings me, finally, to Magocracy. The readme for this game states upfront that it "is not like most Interactive Fiction games," and that's true -- it's really more CRPG than IF, and it deploys some of the aspects of the CRPG pretty effectively. It provides quite a bit of variety, though it's not quite infinite, and some of the typical CRPG elements are missing. There are no randomly generated monsters, for instance -- just predetermined monsters and adversaries who wander randomly around the map and engage the PC in combat. However, even this amount of randomness is sufficient to vary the experience of Magocracy significantly from one session to the next, and the variety works in its favor. Secondly, though the game doesn't use traditional levels, it definitely provides powerful markers of advancement. Upon conquering an enemy, the PC usually stands to gain better protection, increased abilities, new attacks, and sometimes even a superpower or two. Every time I upgraded my weapon or learned a new spell, the addict part of my brain was panting, "yeah, yeah." As for creative outlet, that's probably where Magocracy is weakest. Many aspects of the experience are predetermined, including the PC's character and initial abilities, and consequently, the game won't stand up to all that many replays. However, there is some room for cleverness when it comes to the fighting, particularly once the PC has gained some power.

Perhaps luckily for me, Magocracy also contains some flaws. The worst of these is a design that sometimes drains all the fun out of the game. There are a number of situations that put the PC into an inescapable bind, and most of these aren't immediately obvious as dead ends. Consequently, I was several times forced to restore back to an earlier point, even after having achieved some key victories. The frustration of these setbacks well outweighs the buzz of gradual advancement, and in fact makes me want to quit playing rather than try to get all my victories back. I would have greatly appreciated a more IF-like way to get out of the traps through nothing but my own cleverness. Instead, I finally had to break out the hints, only to learn that the game had screwed me and I needed to restore. There's at least one sudden-death ending, too, though this isn't nearly as bad since I could just UNDO. In fact, the turn-based nature of IF and the availability of UNDO made combat cheats too easy, though after a number of random deaths I felt a lot more justified. There are also a number of minor bugs and mechanical errors in the game -- nothing show-stopping, but always distracting. Along the same lines, Magocracy sometimes fails to properly account for some of the secondary properties of its various items and spells. For instance, at one point I was protected with a shield of light, but when I found myself in a dark place, I still couldn't see. Last of all, the game doesn't seem to have a proper ending. After I gained all the points, it printed out some denouement text and THE END, after which it displayed "[TADS-1003: numeric value required]" and went back to the prompt, leaving me to wander around the castle as if I'd just finished Myst. Overall, Magocracy is a pretty fair text CRPG, and I had a good time with it, but I don't see myself becoming addicted to it anytime soon. Which reminds me, I was going to customize a Freedom Force mission to pit the X-Men against the Brood...

Rating: 8.3

THE ORION AGENDA by Ryan Weisenberger

I'm greatly heartened to see how many games in this comp have done a thorough job of implementing all first-level nouns (that is, all the nouns found in object and room descriptions.) This sort of thing was pretty much absent in the Infocom era, and now it's practically de rigueur, which I think is definitely a change for the better. It's much easier to get immersed in a world where the objects are solid and observable rather than just a two-dimensional mirage. By that measure, The Orion Agenda is implemented quite well. All nouns are well-covered, sometimes to a surprising degree. For instance, the intro uses a typically offhand-sounding SF metaphor when it says, "the fog comes rolling over my memory like a morning on Tantus 7." Later on in the game, you find a reference source in which you can look up further information on Tantus 7 and its famous fogs, even though the planet plays no other role in the game beyond that initial metaphor. I love this kind of thing. A virtual world just feels so much more real when such care has been put into connecting its people, places, and things, and I'm thrilled to see that comprehensive coverage of the nouns is turning into an IF standard. Now, it's time to move on to the next level: verbs. Here, I'm sorry to say, TOA fares less well. Several times throughout the game, I was stymied by actions whose concepts had only been implemented in one way, even though there were other equally reasonable ways to express them. For example:
   >thank rebecca
   [That's not a verb I recognise.]

   >rebecca, thanks
   "You're welcome!" she says.
This is shallow implementation. Too shallow. Even more vexing, these problems were generally connected to puzzles, which made for problems that were maybe not quite guess-the-verb, but at least guess-the-syntax. The particular danger about this kind of shallowness is that when the first construction I use gets rejected, I tend to decide that the concept isn't useful within the game (since it apparently hasn't been implemented, see), and my chances of solving the puzzle on my own drop precipitously. The worst instance of this in TOA was in the climactic scene, which calls for a particular command construction that, for whatever reason, is counter to the standard established by Infocom. Because I was using that old syntax, and because the game failed to recognize that the problem was with syntax rather than with content, I was actually typing the correct solution and was told that it was wrong. I hate that.

These kinds of verb and syntax problems are easily remedied with a round or two of testing and careful attention to the various ways people try to express what they want to do, and I'm hopeful that TOA undergoes this treatment, because the game is well worth experiencing. It's got a fun potboiler story, though its plot twist is heavily clued and rather predictable to begin with, so I was a little chagrined when the game pretended that I hadn't put the pieces together until the climactic scene. The writing is mostly strong, transparent prose, with only the occasional gaffe drawing attention. Probably the main quibble I have with it is that it chooses to call natives of Orion "Orionions", which to my ear is an exceedingly awkward construction. "Orionese", "Orionites", or even "Orioners" would have been much better. I also enjoyed the flashback structure of the narrative -- it did an excellent job of bringing a lot of emphasis and drama to the endgame. However, one way that the structure worked at cross purposes to the game is that there's a set of optional... not puzzles, exactly, but story enhancement challenges. Basically, if you're particularly nice to a certain NPC, you might get a slightly better winning ending. However, the initial scene gave me reason to distrust that NPC, and consequently I was only as friendly to her as seemed appropriate for the PC's professional demeanor. When the game later upbraided me for not being nice enough, I felt a little jerked around.

Shoot. This is turning out to be one of those reviews where I genuinely enjoy the game, but I can't stop pointing out things that bugged me. So let me list a couple more and then I'm done, I promise. First, I'm not sure that it served any useful purpose to tell the story in a first-person voice. It seems to me that there are plenty of good reasons to break from the traditional IF convention of second-person voice, but this game didn't have any of them. The PC was pretty conventional, with nothing unusual about his point of view, and the game itself didn't use the distancing effect of first-person to any interesting purpose, so in the end it was just jarring. Secondly, some parts of the milieu seemed a bit derivative or lazily imagined to me. For instance, the game describes the PC's employer thus: SciCorps: The galaxy-spanning mega-corporation that is in charge of secretly monitoring promising new alien species that dot our corner of the universe, all in the hopes of one day inviting them to join the League of Sentient Systems. So wait, I'm confused. SciCorps is a "mega-corporation," yet its interest in alien species is not as markets, product producers, or servicers, but rather to act on behalf of some governmental-sounding body? So is it a corporation or an extension of some kind of galaxy government? If it isn't seeking profit, what does the word "corporation" even mean in this context? Maybe they're fulfilling a government contract or something, but that's far from clear, especially when this "first contact" stuff sounds like their main function. Another example is the translator earpiece that somehow also translates the things you speak as well. Even the main philosophy of SciCorps seems like a warmed-over version of Star Trek's Prime Directive. Okay, I promised I'd stop and now I'm stopping. Despite my litany of complaints, I had a good time playing The Orion Agenda. Many of its problems are easily fixable, and I really hope that the game sees a post-competition edition. I recommend the game, but I'd recommend waiting a while for that post-comp release first.

Rating: 8.4

MINGSHENG by Deane Saunders

Less than plot or character, Mingsheng is about a place and a mood. The mood-setting begins before the game even starts, with the inclusion of a nicely-formatted PDF feelie, replete with Chinese characters and martial arts diagrams. This document explains that the game is based on a myth about the origins of Taiji, or as I've always known it, T'ai Chi -- thus all the Chinese martial arts stuff. I appreciated the care that was put into this accessory, and I also liked the fact that the same information was available in a PDF, as a text file, and within the game. It made me grin when I realized that somebody had trumped me in the "ABOUT text in multiple spots" department. The Chinese feel continues in the formatting of the game, which includes the option of Unicode Chinese characters as "flavor text". These characters appear mostly in room titles, and apparently just repeat the room name in Chinese, so if you miss them, all you're missing is a mood enhancer. And a lucky thing, too, because they require a font that supports Chinese characters. The author suggests a font called Simsun, which I don't have installed on my PC. I would have appreciated a pointer to where I could download a compatible font; instead, I floundered for a while, combing the unhelpful results of googling on "simsun font" and finally giving up. [Note: After the comp, the author provided a link.] The game gives the option of transliterating the Chinese characters (complete with numerical tone markers), but it's really not the same. Past the meta-game stuff, the game sets a lovely tone with its room and object descriptions. Mingsheng calls on some lovely imagery -- the tableau of perfectly still lake and crane, the worn-down pagoda, the six-thousand-step staircase carved into mountain rock. A particular favorite of mine is the path flanked by animal statues, statues that are implemented several levels deep. The game did an excellent job of making me feel like I was wandering through an Asian painting, enmeshed within a mythical realm.

As I said, tone is the game's emphasis, and there's not much of a story to go along with it. A plot summary would be something like "guy solves a bunch of puzzles and along the way attains enlightenment." Many of those puzzles are pretty straightforward. That's not a criticism -- I'm a fan of straightforward puzzles. Struggling too long at any particular obstacle would likely break the mood that Mingsheng works so hard to set. There was one puzzle, though, that annoyed me in a way I don't remember having seen before in IF. Actually, it wasn't so much the puzzle that bothered me as the implementation of the solution. The conceit is that the PC must learn something by observation before being allowed to pass a particular barrier. Several puzzles must be solved in order to set up the situation where the PC is able to observe and learn. However, once I'd accomplished this, I figured I'd learned what I needed to know, and headed straight to the barrier, which was only two moves away. However, when I tried to pass it, I couldn't. I was flummoxed, feeling sure that I'd seen what I needed to see. However, as I wandered around trying to figure out what I'd missed, the game kept popping up messages every turn or two along the lines of "Now that you think of it, you realize X." After no less than four of these messages, they finally stopped, and when I went back to the barrier, I was able to cross it. I found this technique irritating. Not only would an "all-at-once" realization be a bit more dramatic, it would also be a major improvement from a gameplay standpoint. I don't want to have to wait for the PC to catch up with me when I figure something out, and wandering around or typing "Z.Z.Z.Z." while I'm waiting is mighty dull. Another puzzle quibble: there's an object that requires "a great deal of force" to be applied to it. The solution to this puzzle is cool, and I liked it very much. However, there's an alternate solution which the game actually implements, but doesn't seem to want to count as enough force, when it should be easily the match of the working solution. This alternate path should either be included fully or not at all.

Small criticisms aside, I thought Mingsheng was well worth my time, especially for what time it took -- the game is pretty short, and when I finished, I felt like I hadn't actually done that much. Alongside the brevity, though, there's something else that made it feel not quite complete. Actually, though I rarely say this, I think this is a game that could be greatly improved with the inclusion of some quality graphics. Certainly some visual depictions of key locations, a la Trading Punches, could have helped deepen the mood and setting even further. However, the place they'd really be useful is when the game gets to describing actual martial arts poses. For instance, after a certain point in the game the PC gains the ability to practice stances (which are named after elements) by typing the name of the stance, like so:

   You are not in combat at the moment, but you rehearse the stance

   You quickly get into the earth stance:

   You balance your weight evenly upon both legs, both slightly bent to
   keep your stance grounded. Your right hand is held out in front of
   you, fingers open, palm facing directly forward. Your left hand is
   also held palm open, but at your side - facing forwards at a slight
   downward angle.
Now, I can carefully read through this description, act it out a little bit, and get a pretty clear mental picture, but I have to really stop and work at it. However, if a diagram of the stance had been included, I'd understand it much more quickly, and the flow of the game would continue far more smoothly. This isn't a complaint, but rather a hopeful suggestion. Even without graphics, Mingsheng draws some lovely pictures.

Rating: 8.3

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Paul O's 2004 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 4 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2004