1998 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2

(in the order I played them)

WHERE EVIL DWELLS by Paul Johnson and Steve Owens

Where Evil Dwells is subtitled "A Creative Differences Production", and the billing is apt. This is a story that doesn't know what it wants to be. It starts out in Gritty Detective mode: you're a grizzled private eye, brought to a creepy house by the tale of distressed young girl. However, once you get into the house and roll up one of the rugs, you are confronted by dust bunnies who "glare accusingly at you." Say what? This is not a metaphor. The dust bunnies are implemented as actual, animate creatures. Oh, OK, so this will be a supernatural twist on detective adventures. But wait. In another room, you find a series of collector's plates depicting "scenes from Samuel Beckett's lesser known children's play 'Waiting for Godot to Finish Up in the Bathroom So I Can Go.'" Well, that's just plain silly. When this picture is combined with the article you find on "getting ectoplasmic residue stains out of linen", Evil starts to look like a Ghostbusters-style comedy with, uh, detective influence and, er, maybe a strong inclination towards silliness. But perhaps not, because once you get into the forest, you might find yourself in a "broken and bloodied heap" facing an "impossibly large behemoth", shivering while "true horror sets in as it leands [sic] its malefic head through the gap, its eyes fixed intently on you." Wow, horror. You don't expect broken and bloodied heaps in Ghostbusters-style comedies. That's what the whole game is like. Its tone staggers drunkenly from one room to the next, sometimes from one response to the next. Some rare works can actually pull this off, bringing all the disparity together into a harmonious whole. Where Evil Dwells is not one of those works. Instead, the differences undermine each other, and every time a solid tone gets established for the story it is promptly squashed by whatever comes next.

There are other inconsistencies in the game as well. Some parts of the prose are quite good, bringing across the tone of the moment with well-chosen diction and rhythm. Others fail to even follow the basic rules of spelling and grammar. Some parts of the game were marred by repetition; I read the phrase "none-too-comfortable, circa 1970 sedan" so many times I've been able to recite it from memory since the first five minutes of the game. Other parts combined evocative description with unintentionally funny misplaced modifiers: "Too emotionally broken up, and half in shock, you were able to get little else from the girl..." Pull yourself together, detective-man! The coding was the same. Some aspects of it were quite strong. For example, I'm not positive but I think that pronouns were redirected in a fairly complex way, so that the last noun mentioned in your inventory would be "it" after an "inventory" command, and a similar effect was achieved in room descriptions. On the other hand, basic attribute omission on some items allowed me to do things like carry a canopy bed around. Yes, I am a strong detective.

Dissonances aside, Where Evil Dwells has several things to recommend. I could just say "the good parts are good," but that's not specific enough. The game is just the right size for a competition game -- I finished it in almost exactly two hours. One or two of the puzzles are pretty far-fetched, and I'm certain I never would have solved one in particular without consulting the walkthrough, but some of the puzzles are creative and well-clued. Some good design choices were made, though again, some bad ones as well. For instance, there is a highly annoying random event that sometimes steals things from you, but finding out that those things are recoverable took much of the sting out of this problem. Overall I'd say that Where Evil Dwells is a pretty muddled piece of work, but in its best moments it shows great promise of what it could have been. I look forward to the future productions of these authors, once they improve their proofreading skills and get their "creative differences" resolved.

Rating: 7.4

FOUR IN ONE by J. Robinson Wheeler

Playing Four In One, I was in an unusual, unprecedented (for me) situation: I was playing a game of which I had already read a complete, winning transcript. Not a walkthrough, but a transcript of commands and game responses. It seems that the author submitted this transcript to Stephen Granade's IF Fan Fest, an informal quasi-competition held at Granade's Mining Company web page. If I had known this transcript was also going to be a competition game, I wouldn't have read it, because I hate spoilers. But I didn't know that, so I read it, and it made playing the game a very strange experience -- the whole thing gave me a very strong sense of deja vu. Now, granted, the transcript isn't an exact one. You can't follow that transcript and hope to win the game, because the commands are not all perfectly duplicated, and there are some other differences between the two as well. However, they have a lot in common. Now, the funny thing about this is that when I initially read the Four in One transcript, my thought was "It's a funny idea, but it would be far too difficult to actually turn into a game." Well, I have been proved wrong.

The idea behind the game is that you're a film director in the heyday of the Marx brothers, and you're directing them in their first picture for MGM. Or at least, you're trying to direct them. Apparently, keeping all the Marxes in one room, getting along, and working productively is somewhat akin to herding cats. Consequently, you're forced into the position of chasing after them, collecting them one by one, and forcing them to follow you around to their (and your) considerable annoyance. Even once you've got them all on the set and rehearsed, there's no guarantee that one or more of them won't go bolting off to make a phone call, hang out at the catering table, or read a book. What's worse, you have only two hours to get a good take on a crucial scene, or you and the picture will both be canned. The transcript makes this into a hilarious situation, showing the Marx brothers at their zaniest even when the cameras aren't rolling. In fact, all the comedy takes place when the cameras aren't rolling. This is the kind of thing that I didn't think an IF game would be able to pull off, but Four in One is the living proof. It's not as funny as the transcript, but it works, especially in places like Chico's dressing room, where more and more people keep entering, pushing you inexorably to the back wall like the first entrant in a phone-booth-stuffing competition. Scenes like this can be irritating as well, and the game sometimes steps across the fine line between funny aggravation and just plain aggravating aggravation. However, with the exception of one internal TADS error that I found, the technical details of the writing and coding are executed superbly, and this goes a long way towards smoothing out any annoyances.

The place where the game's technical proficiency shines the most is in its characters. Four In One is a the most character-intensive piece of IF I've ever played. Almost every location has one or more characters in it at all times, and these characters are as fully implemented as they need to be. The gaffer, for example, is not terribly talkative -- ask him about the movie and he'll say "A job's a job," but ask him about the lights and he has an opinion, as he should. Every character has responses about the things they should know about, though if you spend much time in conversations with them you will run afoul of the game's time limit. The Marx brothers can tell you about each other, the movie, MGM (Groucho says, "MGM stands for 'more godless movies.'"), and anything else they ought to know about. Four in One does an outstanding job juggling all these characters, giving them just the appropriate depth of implementation so that the game really rewards replay. After I had solved the game, I went back and just chatted with the various characters, and was delighted with the extent to which they are implemented. The author's research is quite apparent in these moments, and it makes a big difference. Four In One taught me things about the Marx Brothers that I had never known before, and made me want to go out and rent A Night at the Opera again. That's entertainment.

Rating: 8.7

INFORMATORY by William J. Shlaer

Every year I've been writing reviews for the IF competition, I've seen several games which are their authors' first attempt at learning Inform. These usually aren't the better games -- I find that most of the really good Inform games in the competition are not the first pieces of code ever hacked together by their authors. Informatory, however, gives a twist to this tendency -- it is the author's first attempt to teach Inform. Rather than replicating its author's apartment or dorm room, Informatory instead replicates a number of familiar scenes and objects from various canonical IF games, and allows its player to peek at their source code in order to give some insight as to how Inform could be used to create them. It does this through a handy device known as the "Codex Helmet" -- whenever the player character wears this helmet, source code for all objects becomes visible. Of course, a couple of elementary puzzles must be overcome in order to gain access to this miracle of technology, but hints are provided for those puzzles. Once the Helmet is acquired, Informatory presents a new kind of puzzle: to progress in the game, you must decipher the Inform source code of its objects so that you may use their special properties to your advantage.

For me, this kind of puzzle worked well, because it relied on information I had already acquired through working on my own Inform creations. However, for someone who did not know Inform and wasn't particularly interested in investing much time to learn it, I think those puzzles would be a major nuisance. In fact, if you're not interested in learning Inform, my advice would be to give this game a pass. Its interests are much more in helping novices to learn Inform in a fairly fun and ingenious way than to provide a fun gaming experience for everyone. This is a perfectly acceptable goal, but it makes Informatory more educational software than entertainment software. The game invokes the genie from Andrew Plotkin's Lists and Lists, and the reference is quite apt -- that game also didn't much care about entertaining, instead giving the focus to its own (remarkable) z-machine implementation of Scheme. Informatory didn't feel quite as oppressive as Lists to me, probably because I'm already familiar with Inform, an advantage I sadly lacked when it came to Scheme. However, the two share a common theme: they are not so much games as teaching tools, and if you're not interested in learning, the tool isn't for you.

Having thus limited its audience, Informatory does its task rather well, I think. The author bills it a "not-very-interactive tutorial," and I think he's only half-right on both counts. Depending on how you define the term "interactive", I think Informatory is quite interactive indeed. It's probably the only game I've ever seen that actually assigns outside reading to its players so that they have a better chance at the puzzles. This obviously doesn't work in the competition context, but someone might find it a little useful when used as a tool in its own right, especially if that person is already in the process of learning Inform. Furthermore, Informatory's source-code-oriented puzzles are much more interactive than the typical tutorial style of "announce the concept, show the concept, now you try it." Now, this is a double-edged sword too: sometimes the lack of guidance can really be rather frustrating. I sometimes found myself wishing for the genie from Lists to keep hanging around, giving me clues when I needed them. Consequently, I didn't find Informatory to be "not-very-interactive", but I didn't really find it to be a "tutorial" either. Instead of teaching Inform piece-by-piece, it assigns reading in the Designer's Manual, and in fact those assignments are only reachable after solving a number of source code puzzles. Informatory therefore isn't much of a teacher, but it's a good quiz for those who are already learning. As a competition game, it's no great shakes: at its best, it's about as much fun as taking a really interesting test. However, I can see it becoming one useful tool for people who are beginning to get their feet wet in the sea of Inform.

Rating: 6.8

THE COMMUTE by Kevin Copeland

Imagine if this was your day: You start out in your kitchen, where you drink your coffee and eat your toast. Then you try to figure out the layout of your two-room house (the two rooms are a kitchen and a hallway). All the while you're experiencing one epiphany after another about how much you love your life, except for having to go to work. Then you get your motorcycle helmet (which you think of as a "helmut") and your keys and head off to your important meeting on your motorcycle. Unfortunately, you get a flat tire almost immediately. Then you wait around while your hands get busy and fix the flat, a process which takes 30 seconds (I think you worked in an Indy 500 pit crew before you got your office job.) Then you get another flat tire, which you fix in an amazing 14 seconds. You get 8 more flat tires in the space of 6 minutes. Then you decide to make up for lost time by driving "just above the speed limit," and wouldn't you know, you get pulled over. The cop notices that you don't have your wallet, and kindly sends you home to fetch it. The drive home takes 7 seconds, and you drive your motorcycle through the house, because you have no idea how to get off of it. You haven't a clue where your wallet is, and when you try to get it, you think to yourself "I may not need that. I may, in fact, have it already." So you drive back out of the house and onto the road, but the same cop finds you, and sends you back home again, because you of course do need your wallet and don't have it already. But something about your hallway just makes you think otherwise. So back you go, and the cop pulls you over 5 more times before you decide to point your bike at an embankment and end your "leisurely drive" by smashing into the concrete at 98 miles an hour. OK, so maybe that last part doesn't happen, but you sure wish it could.

This is the experience simulated by The Commute, an incredibly frustrating DOS game. The first difficulty I had was with the interface, which looks like a traditional parser, but isn't. A typical interaction with it goes something like this:

 What shall I do? > GET ALL

 I'm sorry, I don't quite understand (my mind is elsewhere).

 What shall I do? > X FLOWERS

 I'm sorry, I don't quite understand (my mind is elsewhere).

 What shall I do? > EAT

 I'm sorry, I don't quite understand (my mind is elsewhere).
It goes on, but you get the idea. Traditional commands, abbreviations, and disambiguation are replaced by the same markedly unhelpful error message. What's worse, sometimes it pretends to understand things it doesn't. For example, in the Hall you can say "GET KEYS AND HELMUT" (yes, the game forces you to misspell the word "helmet",) and the parser will respond "Yes, I'll need these." Fair enough. But when you get out to your bike and try to "WEAR HELMUT", it says "I'm sorry, I don't have that here." Turns out the parser only pretended to put it in your inventory -- all you really picked up were the keys. Other times, it seems to willfully misunderstand you. My favorite example is when I typed "GET OFF BIKE" and Commute responded "I'm assuming you want me to get on the bike. OK, I'm on!" The game is full to brimming with this kind of frustrating stuff -- it's clear that the lack of an interactive fiction tool like Inform or TADS really hurt this game, much more than it hurt the other DOS game in the competition, I Didn't Know You Could Yodel.

OK, so it had a lousy parser. This can be overcome, right? What I couldn't overcome, at least without a walkthrough, was the "road from hell", where every few seconds you either get pulled over or get a flat tire. At first, this was very frustrating. Then it just became funny. The point of the game seems to be that going to work sucks. This is a point on which I didn't need much convincing, but if I got pulled over 6 times and got 8 flat tires on the way to work, I would be thinking that LIFE sucks, work or no work. Especially since all I get at home is a partner who keeps urging me to get out of the house, which I don't mind doing since I can't even go back to bed, seeing as how I don't have one. Finally I consulted the walkthrough and found out how to get past the road from hell. Turns out some rather non-intuitive commands are necessary. For example, not to spoil it or anything, but the command to find your wallet is "HUG DAUGHTER." Why didn't I think of that? Unfortunately, even with those gentle nudges (OK, violent shoves), I got to work and couldn't open the gate because I didn't have a parking pass, even though the pass was in the wallet I had with me. Once I figured out that I just couldn't see the pass because the only place I know how to look in a wallet is in a hallway, I deleted the game. My life has sucked much less ever since.

Rating: 2.0


NOTE: Because of the nature of Persistence of Memory, it's difficult to talk about it without revealing a key secret. Therefore, be warned that any and all of the following review could be considered a spoiler.

Memory is a new twist on the one-room game. The setting is war; could be Korea, could be Vietnam, but it's never really specified, and it doesn't really matter. It's a war in a foreign land, with villages, dense foliage, helicopters, rifles, and land mines. Especially land mines. In the first move of the game, you step on one, and realize that if you remove your weight from it, it will explode. Thus the potential paths which the game appears to have at its outset are reduced to one: wait. This restriction of freedom is a recurring theme in Memory. In incident after incident, the scope of action contracts until it becomes clear that there is only one action which will lead to your survival. Sometimes these actions are rather horrifying, but the game demands them if you wish to finish. I have mixed feelings about this kind of forcible plotting. On the one hand, it makes for an extremely linear game, and it curtails interactivity quite dramatically. This obstruction seems to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom about IF -- it violates one of the Players' Rights in Graham Nelson's Craft of Adventure: "To have reasonable freedom of action." In Nelson's words, "After a while the player begins to feel that the designer has tied him to a chair in order to shout the plot at him." On the other hand, I also think that interactive fiction can be a very good medium for conveying a sense of futility or entrapment. Because IF by its nature seems to require at least to a certain degree freedom of movement and action, and because it also creates a sense of immersion in the story's world, when a piece of IF chooses to violate that perceived requirement the player's sense of identification with the trapped character can be very strong indeed. Something about the frustration of having so few actions available to me which would not result in death made the equation of my situation with the character's feel more intense than it would have were I just reading a story about this character.

Because of the game's premise, you don't seek out the puzzles; the puzzles come to you. And each puzzle must be solved if the character is to survive. Luckily, all of the puzzles make sense and have intuitive solutions, though in some of them it's not clear what the deadly moment is until it arrives, and sometimes I found myself resorting to a save-and-restore strategy in order to defeat a puzzle's time limit. I don't think I could have solved the game straight through, because some puzzles had rather unexpected and uncomfortable solutions. This is where I found myself ill at ease with the game's lack of interactivity -- there's a fine line between identifying with a trapped character versus simply feeling trapped into an action because the designer allows you no other choice, even though more options might have been available in reality. It's hard to explain without revealing more spoilers than I already have, but some pieces of the plot felt rather forced, as though only one solution was provided because only that solution would create the game scenario desired by the designer. However, the choices worked in the end, and I found I only needed to look at the hints once, and in retrospect I think I probably could have avoided that had I spent more time on the puzzle that was stumping me.

The writing could get a little histrionic at times. Some descriptions tiptoed along the line between what works and what doesn't. For example, the mud around your feet is described as "torpid", a word which usually refers to a sluggish mental state. I suppose the mud's thickness and viscosity could be compared to slow mental processes, but it's a stretch. There weren't too many moments like this -- for the most part the prose did a fine job of conveying the situation, and in fact sometimes was quite good indeed. The description of the hairs rising on the back of your neck as you try to conceal yourself from enemy soldiers was chilling and engrossing. I found no technical errors in the writing, nor in the code. Overall, Memory does a very good job with an unusual choice of subject matter, and when it was over I felt not triumph, but relief. I suspect this is what the game intended.

Rating: 8.3

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Paul O's 98 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 3 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002