1998 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1

(in the order I played them)

I DIDN'T KNOW YOU COULD YODEL by Michael R. Eisenman and Andrew J. Indovina

If you enjoyed Dan McPherson's My First Stupid Game, you're sure to love I Didn't Know You Could Yodel. Yodel is much larger and better programmed than My First Stupid Game, but the writing and the puzzles are at about the same level. For example, McPherson's game featured a time limit imposed by the need to pee -- in Yodel, unhappy bowels are the feature attraction. However, where the former ended once you had relieved yourself (onto a picture of Barney the dinosaur, no less), the latter is just beginning. Flushing a toilet is the gateway to sprawling vistas of strange riddles, terse descriptions (interspersed with broad cut-scenes), and mostly-nonsensical plot developments. I'm generally not a big fan of the kind of "Dumb and Dumber" humor with which Yodel is permeated. In addition, I found the first puzzle both irritating and illogical. (A key falls off a bookshelf, but it's not on the floor! Where is it? In the next room! Why? Who knows?) Consequently, I gave up and started using the walkthrough about 15 minutes into the game. I'm happy to say, however, that I'm not altogether sorry that I did.

For one thing, let's give credit where it's due: the authors have programmed a text-adventure engine in (according to them) a combination of Modula-2, C, C++, Garbano, and (Intel x86) Assembler, and their simulation of the Infocom interface is not half bad; they even included a free implementation of Hangman. Unfortunately, in the era of Inform, TADS, and Hugo, "not half bad" is really not that great. The engine is missing a number of conveniences, among them the "X" abbreviation for "EXAMINE", a "VERBOSE" mode, and the "OOPS" verb; I think these conveniences should basically be considered de rigueur for any modern text game. Moreover, while the game was relatively bug-free, the ones I did encounter were doozies: at one point the game crashed completely when attempting to go into Hangman mode, and at another point the "key found" flag was apparently not reset on a restore, making the game unsolvable. Still, despite these flaws, I salute anyone with the energy and the skills to code, from scratch, an Infocom-clone with Yodel's level of sophistication. Also, the program had a couple of touches that I thought were pretty cool -- at several points during the game, an inset sub-window popped up which presented a parallel narrative thread ("Meanwhile, back at the ranch..."). This technique worked quite well, and I think it has a lot of potential for expanding the narrative range, and breaking the limitations of the second-person POV, to which IF usually limits itself. The gimmick was also used at the end of the game to provide a fairly enjoyable epilogue describing the eventual fate of every character you met along the way, a la Animal House. Finally, I did enjoy the free Hangman game, though its puzzles and its insertion into the game were just about as illogical as everything else in Yodel.

Which brings us to the plot. I won't give away too much about the plot in Yodel, mainly because I didn't really understand what little plot there was. All I'll say is this: don't expect anything to make any sense. There are several moments in the game that I found quite funny, but they are swamped by long stretches of bizarre, inexplicable, or adolescent japes. I would be very surprised if anyone (outside, perhaps, of the authors' circle of friends) is able to solve the game without a walkthrough. Many of the riddles (and yes, there are many many of them) left me baffled, even after I knew the solution. Moreover, the abrupt, patchwork nature of the game gave me the impression that in several situations only one action would do, and how anyone would guess that action is beyond me. By the way, if you're offended by descriptions of "swimsuit babes acting out your wildest fantasy" or borderline-racist, stereotypical depictions of Indians (Native Americans, not Bengalis), then Yodel is probably not the game for you. If, on the other hand, you're in the mood for something lowbrow, then grab a walkthrough -- Yodel is not entirely without its rewards.

Rating: 4.0

ACID WHIPLASH by Anonymous (a.k.a. RYBREAD CELSIUS CAN'T FIND A DICTIONARY by Rybread Celsius and Cody Sandifer)

	"This is terribly, terribly unfair. I'm really sorry. But I just 
	started laughing hysterically, and it's not what the author intended. 
	In the middle of an intense ending sequence, I read the line:

	'My blood pumper is wronged!'

	I just lost it. It's a very 'Eye of Argon' sort of line."
				-- Andrew Plotkin, reviewing "Symetry", 1/1/98

	"It takes guts to do *anything* wearing a silver jumpsuit.
		My point:
	I bet Rybread wears *two* silver jumpsuits while he writes IF."
				-- Brad O'Donnell, 1/6/98

I hope my title line isn't too big a spoiler. I guess I can't feel too guilty about giving away something that's revealed in the first 3 seconds of the game. Anyway, it would be impossible to talk about this game without talking about Rybread Celsius. Yes, Rybread Celsius. The man, the myth, the legend. There are those who have called him "A BONA FIDE CERTIFIED GENIUS" [1]. There are those who have called him "the worst writer in interactive fiction today" [2]. There are even those who have called him "an adaptive-learning AI" [3]. Whatever the truth behind the smokescreen, opinion is clearly divided on the Celsius oeuvre. He appears to have an enthusiastic cult following who look at his works and see the stamp of genius, paralleled by another group who look at those selfsame works and see only barely coherent English and buggy code. I have always counted myself among the latter. Works like Symetry and Punkirita Quest set my English-major teeth on edge. I have never met a Rybread game that I've liked, or even halfway understood. But Acid Whiplash is different.

First of all, I need to say that I'm going to call it Acid Whiplash, for several reasons:

  1. I'm not sure what the game's real name is supposed to be.
  2. The other name, while it may be (is!) perfectly true, is just too long to write out.
  3. Acid Whiplash is just such a perfect name for this game.
I've never dropped acid myself, but I'm guessing that this game is about the closest text game equivalent I will ever play, at least until my next Rybread game. The world spins crazily about, featuring (among other settings) a room shaped like a burning credit card (???), nightmarish recastings of Curses and Jigsaw, and your own transformation into a car dashboard. Scene changes happen with absolutely no warning, and any sense of emerging narrative is dashed and jolted about, hard enough and abruptly enough to, well, to give you a severe case of mental whiplash. Sounds like a typical Celsius game so far, right? But here's the best part: stumbling through these hallucinogenic sequences leads you through a multi-part interview between Cody Sandifer and Celsius himself, an interview which had me laughing out loud over and over. Sandifer is hilarious, striking the pose of the intensely sincere reviewer, taking each deranged Celsius word as gospel, and in the process manages actually to illuminate some of the interesting corners of his subject, and subject matter. And Rybread is... Rybread, no more or less than ever. Perhaps being changed into a dashboard while listening makes the whole thing funnier -- I'm not sure.

As usual, my regular categories don't apply. Plot, puzzles, writing -- forget about it. Acid Whiplash has no real interaction or story in any meaningful sense. (There is, however, one very funny scene where we learn that Rybread is in fact the evil twin of a well-known IF author). If you're looking for a plot, or even something vaguely coherent, you ought to know that you're looking in the wrong place. But if you aren't familiar with the Way of the Rybread, or even if you are, I recommend giving Acid Whiplash a look. It might shed some light on what all these crazy people are talking about... but don't expect to understand the next Celsius game.

[1] Brock Kevin Nambo

[2] Me. (Nothing personal.)

[3] Adam Thornton

Rating: 5.2 (This is by far the highest rating I've ever given to Rybread. In fact, I think it beats his past 3 ratings from me put together!)


Well, this one certainly didn't break the two-hour rule. In fact, I finished it in around eight minutes. The game consists of one puzzle, and that's all. The puzzle is clever, and relatively well-clued, and maybe I just got lucky in figuring it out as quickly as I did. Still, I can't imagine spending more than a half hour at this game -- there just aren't that many objects, so the number of combinations is similarly small. The author tells us that the puzzle is one he read about in Science magazine in the early 80's. That makes sense, since the answer relies on some intuitive physics knowledge, and the puzzle is fairly satisfying to solve. I'm not sure if the red herrings were included in the magazine version, but even if they were they didn't distract me too much from doing the right thing.

In The Spotlight is sort of the opposite of the famous (or infamous) "puzzleless IF" -- it's nothing but a puzzle. "Storyless IF." Actually, I could see a game like this being pretty entertaining, even educational, if it strung several of these sort of situations together. Gareth Rees' The Magic Toyshop from the 1995 competition was a bit like this, though it was more oriented towards games than puzzles, and its solutions often involved "thinking outside the box" of the game (also known as cheating in some circles.) What I'm envisioning is somewhat different. I know that there's a tradition of "thought puzzles" like the one in Spotlight, a tradition that's been around since before the advent of IF. I remember reading them as a kid, or working through them in various classes as mental exercises. Perhaps IF authors would do well to look to this tradition for innovative puzzles which break the usual "lock-and-key" mold. Of course, a great many of those puzzle situations (including the one in this game) are somewhat contrived, but the same thing could be said about a large percentage of IF puzzles, including many of the best. I think I'd really enjoy a game like that -- sort of an interactive version of the "Fun and Games" column in the old print version of Omni magazine (I think that was the column's name. Someone will correct me if I'm wrong, no doubt.)

In the Spotlight isn't that game, though. It's one lone puzzle, and thus a little difficult to rate. On the one hand, the writing and coding are both quite good; I found neither bugs nor English errors anywhere in the game. Then again, this level of excellence was sustained for a remarkably short time. Consequently, I can't rate the game very highly -- there's just not enough there. (On the plus side, if all the rest of the competition games are this length, I just might finish them all before the deadline!)

Rating: 5.1

FIFTEEN by Ricardo Dague

Is there a genie at work? No sooner did I wish (in my review of In the Spotlight) for a "storyless" game which strung together a number of logic puzzles, than along comes Fifteen. Fifteen takes its name from the traditional slide puzzle, with fifteen tiles arranged in a 4 x 4 grid, with the sixteenth spot left empty for tiles to move into. Fifteen also includes an odd-even puzzle (similar to the sentient stones in Spellbreaker) and a more traditional IF puzzle of rescuing a cat from a tree. All the puzzles are quite well-implemented, and the slide puzzle is done especially well; its interface allows for commands which string a number of moves together quickly and easily. This was much appreciated. In fact, Fifteen is almost the sort of thing I was musing about enjoying in my previous review.

Still, I finished the game feeling like I ought to be more careful what I wish for. See, Spotlight was "storyless IF" in the sense that there was really no plot, just a puzzle. However, what little prose there was in the game was richly written, and often funny. Contrast this with Fifteen, which (according to its author) takes its cue from Scott Adams' Adventureland. Adams' games are models of brevity, and Fifteen is just as terse, if not more. Here's a typical room description: "Kitchen: Exits are south, east and north." Now that's brief. Don't get me wrong -- I recognize the nostalgia value of such an atmosphere, especially if you were raised on Scott Adams adventures, but it's just not my cup of tea. I like to have at least a little feeling of immersion in my IF rather than unadorned puzzles. I find it very telling that even though Fifteen includes many more rooms and several more puzzles than Spotlight, the Inform file for Fifteen is actually 8K smaller than the Inform file for Spotlight. Fifteen is basically raw puzzles; it's all the way over at the extreme end of the puzzle to story spectrum, and that's too far for my taste.

Nonetheless, Fifteen is clearly quite well-done, for what it is. I found no bugs in the code, and what little prose there is is error-free. The puzzles, as I said, are implemented well, and the author's ability to make me feel like I'm playing a Scott Adams game is nothing short of remarkable. But Fifteen is still not that all-puzzle game that I'm looking for -- it's too spare and empty, and because of this it fails to create the interest needed to sustain its intense puzzle-orientation.

Rating: 6.2

DOWNTOWN TOKYO. PRESENT DAY. by John Kean as Digby McWiggle

Another very short (TextFire-length) game, Tokyo was originally intended for submission to Adam Cadre's Chicken-Comp, but the author didn't finish it in time. All the better for us, because the game is funny and entertaining, and still finds a little time to be innovative as well. With a game this short, it's hard not to give away plot spoilers in any extended discussion, but I'll try to be as discreet as I can. I'll only say as much as this: Tokyo is a very funny spoof on a beloved Japanese film genre (and it's not martial arts movies), one which often features the city of Tokyo (or the rubble thereof) as a setting. Considering this was originally intended to be a Chicken-Comp game, you can probably imagine how it works. There are several reasons why Tokyo is fun, not the least of which is the writing. Random description "events", while having no effect on the main storyline, give the chaotic scenes an antic charm, and the depictions of movie cliches should bring a knowing smile to the face of any film buff.

One interesting experiment in Tokyo is its use of a split PC. In other words, the player actually controls the actions of two characters, both a rather anonymous individual watching a movie and the hero of that movie. This is an imaginative idea, and it sometimes works very well. At its best, Tokyo evokes the kind of split consciousness that actually happens while watching a movie. We are present, in the theater, there with the plush seats, the popcorn, and the people around us. But once we become immersed in the movie, we are inside of it as well. We forget about the theater and become part of the story, at least until the baby behind us starts crying, or the teenagers in the front make a wisecrack. However, the game is not always at its best. The split focus creates some confusion as to how commands will be interpreted -- you can never be sure whether your command will be executed by the viewer or the hero. This generally doesn't cause a problem, but it might have worked better if the transitions were smooth and complete, and the only interruptions happened outside of the player's control. In addition, the standard library has been mostly unmodified, so that its messages remain mostly in the second person voice. When that's the voice of the entire game, this is not a problem, but Tokyo asks second person POV to take on the special duty of signaling that the viewer, rather than the hero, is reacting. Consequently, messages like "You can't see any such thing" (rather than "Our hero can't see any such thing") can create a little confusion.

Finally, I can't review Tokyo without mentioning its graphics. No, it's not a z6 game, but Tokyo has some surprises up its sleeve. Finding them provides some of the funniest moments of the game. Tokyo does a great many things well, and is one of the better short-short games I've played. Again, it's a bit disappointing when a game this enjoyable ends so soon -- I think this concept had quite a bit more mileage in it than was used by the author. Still, I enjoyed it while it lasted -- it won't entertain you as long as the average summer blockbuster movie, but it will probably entertain you more.

Rating: 7.9

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Paul O's 98 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002