Therefore, I tread lightly. But some reviews are harder than others to write. This is one of the tough ones. Lightiania is a very deeply troubled game, which will take a lot of work before I can really consider it a quality piece of interactive fiction. Therefore, in the spirit of constructive criticism, here are some of the things that would really improve Lightiania. First on the list has to be correct English spelling and grammar. The mechanics of the writing in this game are just abysmal -- the nature of the errors lead me to suspect that perhaps English isn't the writer's first language, which would certainly make the problems understandable. I've taken some Spanish classes, but if I tried to write a text adventure in Spanish, you can be certain that the result would be nigh-unintelligible to a native speaker. However, due to my lack of ability I would recognize the need for a proofreader. This is the step that hasn't been taken in Lightiania. As a result, the language is so mangled that it sometimes doesn't even make sense. A sample sentence: "You get VERY supprised [sic] when you, after a smaller blackout, [no mention of blackouts before this point. Is this electricity, or drinking, or what?] realises [sic] that is [sic] is in fact a quite big space craft that has crashed in the middle of the meadow." The first step to take, and one that would improve the game a lot, is major, major proofreading.
The next thing that needs to happen is that some very basic design points need to be changed. Right now, Lightiania is a very simple game, with really only one puzzle, and virtually no plot. The plot (such as it is) is this: You are an inventor, and a flying saucer has crashed a few miles away from your house. You try to get this ship flying again. Why does it matter that you're an inventor? Where are the aliens? Why would you try to get the ship flying before finding the aliens? What does "Lightiania" mean in the first place? These questions, and many others, go unanswered in the game. What's worse, the game's one puzzle is virtually unsolvable without a walkthrough. It requires you to find a piece of a lock-and-key mechanism by LOOKing UNDER a piece of scenery. No problem, right? Well, the problem is this: that piece of scenery is never mentioned in the game. Until the walkthrough told me to "LOOK UNDER WARDROBE" (not the real solution, but analogous), I had no idea there was a wardrobe in the room. These are very serious problems. Many would be fixed by a good proofreader, or beta tester, or (dare I dream it?) both. I'm not saying these things to be harsh, and I definitely believe that someone with the imagination and enthusiasm displayed in this game should write again. But please, please: don't release it until it's in English and it makes sense.
Now, it may well be that there are people with a taste for such things. I don't really know who these people are, but I've been on the Internet long enough to know that it's a big, wide, crazy world out there. But I'm not one of those people. I really hated the experience of playing Cattus Atrox, which, by the way, is another game whose title makes no sense even after you've completed a winning session. I'm not saying that means it shouldn't have been written, but I am saying that when I rate a game on how much I enjoyed playing it, this game will not score highly. Here's the situation: you play a regular person who, for no apparent reason, is suddenly pursued by a psycho. Then you find out your friends are all in league with the psycho, and also want to kill you. If this feels like a spoiler, don't worry -- you won't solve the game without knowing this fact in advance. Now, this is a scary situation, right? One of the game's goals had to be to create a feeling of suspense, dread, and horror, and it succeeds on all counts. While being chased by the psycho, I felt suspense. While running around a maze (yes, maze) of fog-shrouded streets, never knowing when the psycho would loom from the mists, I felt dread. When I was injured by the psycho, I felt horror. All this lasted for about 15 minutes. Then I began to feel annoyance. The questions in my mind were: "What is the point of all this?" and "Is this all happening for no reason?" The answers are: I don't think there is one, and yes. That's all the story there is to the game. It's like one of those nightmares where everyone is out to get you and your actions don't make much difference. If you've had a nightmare like this, you know how this feels. Maybe it's a feeling you'd like to have while you're awake as well. Not me.
Now, don't get me wrong. It is possible to win the game, though not without doing and experiencing some really awful things, including one that is a part of the winning message. I don't know how this game could be won on the first time through, since several situations require knowledge you can only get after you've lost, but it can be won. It is also, as far as I could determine, fairly free of writing and coding errors. But there are a number of problems with the game that don't have anything to do with mechanics, or with violence, sex, and cursing. I think I've already mentioned that the plot doesn't make much sense. Also, there's this: lots of things aren't implemented, simply because there is only ever one solution available to any given problem. The street is covered with cars, but you can't set off any alarms on them because the game doesn't recognize the word "car". The streets are full of houses, but you can't go into any of them, because the game tells you that you can't see any such thing. There's one particular location in which you need to examine the street, but in all the other locations the street is "not something you need to refer to in the course of this game." The story is so bare that the player character doesn't know basic things, like where his house is or how to find a store, police station, or any sort of help. The PC has no other friends to call for help besides the psychos. There is no explanation as to who the PC's psycho friends are, why he trusted them, or why he's in the situation in the first place. There is no explanation as to why the psychos choose the PC to kill. The game is good at one thing, and that is producing fear and disgust. Unfortunately, unrelieved fear and disgust, without any reason behind them, aren't my idea of fun.
The good news is that from this imaginative premise, Purple takes several very creative steps. The flora and fauna of the post-apocalyptic world are pleasingly exotic and interesting. The landscape is convincingly changed, and the language used to describe the new reality can be quite vivid. The bad news is that these good ideas are very poorly implemented. Let's start with the writing. Purple isn't exactly riddled with errors in the same way that, say, Lightiania was. However, there are enough mechanical (spelling & grammar) problems to be a serious irritant. Many of these problems aren't exactly errors, but rather awkward turns of phrase that make the game harder to read. Purple's descriptions often sound as if they were translated from another language into English, by a somewhat inexpert translator. The awkwardness throws off the rhythm of the game's prose, and I found myself frequently reading text more than once in order to figure out what it was saying. Then there are those sentences that really don't make sense, like this one: "Urging to cover your eyes from the bright light, you still can't move a finger." I think that what this means is that you have the urge to cover your eyes, but you can't because you're paralyzed. I figured this out, but it took a minute, and for that minute I was thrown out of the story; in a text adventure, where prose is all there is, being thrown out of the narrative like this is problematic. Add a few outright spelling and grammar errors, and the game starts to feel more like work than fun.
Compounding this problem are some trouble spots in the code. There were several instances of disambiguation troubles, almost enough to make me feel like I was playing a TADS game. Scenes like this were not uncommon:
>X CEILING Which do you mean, the up, the ceiling or the hole? >HOLE Which do you mean, the ceiling or the hole? >CEILING Which do you mean, the ceiling or the hole?To make matters worse, I also came across several run-time errors of the flavor
** Run-time error: [Name of object] (object number 211) has no propertyand in fact once crashed WinFrotz altogether with a "No Such Property" error. Besides these basic errors in the code, there were also a number of problems with the way objects were implemented. For instance, you have half of a tool that you have to complete by improvising the other half, and putting one piece into the other. Unfortunately, unless you choose the right piece to insert, you are told that the other half "can't contain things." I also had trouble with a number of the puzzles, and was unable to figure them out without a walkthrough, but I can't tell if that's because of the stumbling English and buggy code, or the difficulty of the puzzles, or just my own denseness. On balance, I'd say that Purple is a very rough version of what could become a good IF vignette. After it's undergone a few vigorous rounds of beta-testing, you might want to give it a try.
to read **,
If only you hadn't used your Frobozz Magic Napalm on that ice wall... If only you hadn't used your TrolKil (*Tm) to map that maze... If only you hadn't sold your Frobozz Magic Tinning Kit. If only you hadn't cooked and eaten those three Billy Goats Gruff... ... or that bear ... If ONLY you'd checked the bloody bridge on your way in.This brief excerpt is representative of the writing in the game: it is both a very funny parody of the Zork tradition as well as an enthusiastic participation in that tradition. In fact, as you can see from the above quote, the game actually features some familiar parts of the Zork universe, such as Frobozz Magic products, rat-ants, and even certain slavering lurkers in dark corners. Activision apparently granted permission for this usage, as they did for David Ledgard in his adaptation of the Planetfall sample transcript for his game Space Station. Activision's willingness to grant permissions for such usage, as well as their donation of prizes to the competition and their sometime inclusion of hobbyist IF on commercial products, is great news for a fan community like ours -- their support of IF means that more people will devote their time to it, resulting (hopefully) in more and more good games. Enlightenment is one of the good ones, and one of its best features is its writing. Another way in which it is unlike Zero Sum Game is that it doesn't take an extreme or harsh tone. Instead, the writing is almost always quite funny in both its comments on text adventure cliches (the FULL score listing is a scream) and its usage of them. The game is littered with footnotes, which themselves are often littered with footnotes. Sly allusions and in-jokes abound, but they're never what the game depends on, so if you don't catch them, you're not missing anything important. Of all the one-room games I've seen this year, Enlightenment is definitely the best-written.
It even includes some fun outside documentation in the form of the HTML edition of the latest issue of Spelunker Today: "The magazine for explorers and adventurers." This kind of mood-building file has been included with a few competition games this year, and Enlightenment's extras are definitely the best of the bunch. The writing in the faux magazine is just as good as the writing in the game, and the graphics look sharp and professional. I like these little extras -- they really do help set the mood of a game -- and they definitely add to the fun of Enlightenment. The one problem I had with this game was that, although the writing is funny and clever, it is sometimes not precise enough to convey the exact nature of a puzzle or its solution. In a heavily puzzle-oriented game like Enlightenment, this can be a major setback. For example, at one point in the game you're called upon to cut something, but it won't work to use your sword on it. You must find something else to cut with. Well, there is something else, but that object is never described as having a sharp edge. This is one of those puzzles that made me glad I looked at the hints -- the only way I would have ever gotten it is by brute force, and that's no fun anyway. In another instance, a part of the setting is described in such a confusing way that I still don't quite understand what it is supposed to look like. Part of the difficulty, I think, is that the game features a gate, with metal spikes at its bottom set into the stone floor. Now, this made me think of bars, like you might see on a portcullis. However, as far as I can determine the game actually means a solid wall, with spikes at the bottom, which I wouldn't describe as a gate. This kind of imprecision is a real problem when the objects so imprecisely described have to be acted upon in precise ways in order to solve puzzles. So I used the hints for a number of the puzzles, and I don't mind that I did, because I wouldn't have solved them on my own anyway. But imprecision aside, I'm still glad I used them, because it enabled me to play all the way through Enlightenment, and the trip out of that one room was well worth taking.
Now, this is not to say that the entire game was derivative. The plot certainly didn't break any new ground, but certain aspects of the interface were imaginative and innovative. The City does away with status line and score, not to mention save and restore. Abandoning the first two precepts did lend the game a greater sense of rawness, of the interactive experience being immediate and unmediated by any artificial tracking devices. The absence of save and restore, on the other hand, was a pain in the neck. See, as much as IF might want to emulate real life, it's never really going to be real life. Consequently, there will be times when I only have 15 minutes to play a game and want to at least get a start into it. Or when a fire alarm goes off and I have to shut things down. Or when my wife wants to go to sleep, and I need to turn off my computer (which is in our bedroom.) You get the idea. At those times, I want to preserve the progress I've made. I don't want to have to start from scratch, and I don't care how short the game is, I don't want to waste my time typing in a rapid series of commands to get to where I was when I had to leave the game last time. Especially since with my memory, I'm likely to forget one or two crucial actions which will then oblige me to start over again. Here is the lesson for game authors: please do not disable interface conveniences in the name of realism. It will not win admiration from your players, at least not from this one.
One innovation I did like in The City was its expansion of the typical IF question format. The game allowed not only the typical ASK and SHOW constructions, but also questions (both to the parser and to other players) like "Why am I here?", "Where am I?", or "Who are you?" Now, it didn't allow question marks, which made the whole thing look a bit strange syntactically, but I found it did have a pretty good record of responding realistically to reasonable questions. I can imagine how much work must have gone into this feature, and I think it really made a difference -- I felt much freer to question NPCs in a much more lifelike way. Even when I bumped into the limits of this realism (with questions like "what is going on here?") I still felt outside of the bounds of traditional IF. Unfortunately, the energy that went into this innovative question system must have been leached out of other technical parts of the game. There were a number of bugs in the game, including one that rendered the game completely unwinnable, forcing me to, you guessed it: restart. Since I couldn't save, and since the bug happened about 2/3 of the way through the game, I had to completely restart and type in all the commands that had brought me to that point -- you can be certain I was grinding my teeth the whole time. In a non-competition game I almost certainly would not have bothered, choosing not to finish rather than to waste my time in such a manner. If anybody needs another reason not to disable save and restore, it's this: when bugs in your code force the player to go backwards, that player will not appreciate having to back all the way up to the beginning. In addition to the bugs in the game's coding, there were also a number of mechanical errors with its writing as well. These were not egregious, but they were there, and wore on what little patience remained after the bugs, the disabled conveniences, and the ultimately frustrating nature of the plot itself. I think the question system from The City is a valuable tool that could be well-used elsewhere (though I'd appreciate the ability to punctuate my questions with question marks). I would be very happy to see that system integrated into a game with an original plot, working code, and error-free English.
Probably the thing I liked the most about The Plant was its puzzles. I know there were several other games this year that were focused on puzzles, and some of the puzzles in those games were excellent. However, I liked The Plant's puzzles better precisely because the game wasn't focused on puzzles. Instead, its puzzles were very well integrated into its story, so solving the puzzles really propelled the narrative. It's much more interesting to solve a puzzle when it opens the door to the next piece of the story, rather than being just one of a roomful of puzzles that you have to solve to escape that room. The Plant was probably the only game in this year's competition to give me a feeling similar to what I have when I play Infocom games. I love that feeling of uncovering an exciting story by cleverly putting pieces together, using items in unexpected ways, or doing the right thing at just the right time. And the game's story is definitely an exciting one. It begins as you are stranded on an abandoned side-road with your boss, marooned by his unreliable car. It's up to you to find a phone or a service station and get moving again, but when you go looking you may find more than you bargained for. I won't give too much away about the secrets that are eventually revealed, but the game definitely packs plenty of surprises. The pacing is excellent -- I only felt completely stuck once. I turned to the walkthrough to solve the problem, just because I wanted to finish as much of the game as I could in the two-hour time limit, but if you're playing The Plant for the first time, let me urge you not to check the walkthrough unless you're completely stuck. All the puzzles are completely logical, none of them require reading the designer's mind, and many of them are quite satisfying to solve, requiring several steps or clever combinations of objects, or both.
Now, the story itself does have some flaws. There are some parts that felt quite implausible to me, and from time to time the fact that your boss follows you around in your travels doing the same two or three things all the time starts to feel a little artificial. In addition, there are one or two minor spelling errors in the game. Outside of this, the plotting and writing are quite good. The Plant's prose often conveyed a very vivid sense of the visual. I drive by a plant like this about twice a month, and the game's descriptions of it, how its completely industrial and utilitarian networks of pipes and lights can seem almost like an abstract fairyland when glimpsed from afar, are right on the mark. I could really visualize most of the places in the game, and the mental pictures the game's text creates are quite dramatic and compelling. In addition, the game uses a few small touches here and there which utilize the power of HTML TADS. No pictures or sound, but a few well-placed hyperlinks in the help text and one or two spots with specially formatted text really make the game look sharp, and add to the very visual quality of the prose. If you sometimes start to feel a little impatient with all the growing that the medium of interactive fiction is doing, and long for a good old-fashioned Infocom-style thrill ride, check out The Plant. I think it may be just what you're looking for.
Paul O's 98 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 5 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002