In the Shade The land increases towards your head to the south, and decreases away from your feet to the north. Mobiles lead accordingly in both directions. The High Wall may also be approached to the east. A long walk to the west is a tower, dwarfing your form, and dwarfed in turn by the wall.Out of context, it seems almost incomprehensible, but once you've been playing the game for a while, you realize that all it means is that you're standing on sloping ground which rises to the south, alongside a north-south road. At first, I found this linguistic displacement affected and annoying, but as it became more transparent to me, it acquired an intoxicatingly immersive effect. It was like watching a foreign film with subtitles -- by about halfway through, the mechanical nature of the device was submerged and I felt fully involved in the milieu.
For me though, there was a downside to this approach. After I had finished the game, I marveled at the cleverness of its linguistic contrivance, and the consistency with which it was implemented, but the pleasure was solely on a cerebral level. Even though the experience of playing the game was interesting, I never cared very much about the story, I think because I found it too difficult to make an emotional commitment to a setting and character that were so completely alien. Consequently, I ended up observing myself a lot, which is a very distanced, passive way to go through something like interactive fiction. Then again, I'm not a person who gets passionate about abstract painting or experimental fiction like that of William Burroughs, so my lack of reaction to the game may be due more to my own idiosyncrasies than any particular flaw in the work.
The other thing I found interesting about For A Change is that it is the product of Dan Schmidt, who, though he doesn't tend to shout about it, was a member of the team that produced Ultima Underworld I and II. To the best of my knowledge, this marks the first time that a competition entry has been authored by someone from the professional computer game designing community. Well, actually I suppose that's not quite true -- I know Andrew Plotkin contributed to at least one professional game for the Mac. Still, I found it fascinating, and very encouraging, that a writer of such high-profile games entered the competition, and that he did it with a game that is so thoroughly uncommercial. What's more, the things that make For A Change special are only possible because it is a text game; even if by some bizarre circumstance a software company wanted to put out a graphical version of the game, that version simply could not capture the very specific flavor that For A Change achieved with its distinctive use of words. How fascinating it might be, then, to see the IF competition become a place where game-writing pros came to fulfill their most unrestrained artistic ambitions, creating pieces of text which would never see the light of their day jobs.
The game certainly does have its funny moments. Its introduction effectively parodies the genre of Enchanter, Beyond Zork, and Path to Fortune with lines like this: "Another champion must be sought; an idiot unskilled in anything but adventuring..." The title page pulled off a good joke by presenting the game with a dramatic flourish, crowned with a grand-looking box quote from Shakespeare, a quote which turned out to have no relevance at all to the game, and very little meaning in general. ("It is an old coat.") Finally, typing "Zork" leads to one of the best easter eggs I've ever found in a competition game. Go on, try it -- I won't spoil it by trying to describe it. But for every funny moment, there were several more that just fell flat. The "full" score listing might have been funnier if not for the fact that last year's Enlightenment did the same thing with much more panache. Several allusions to various sources (the Zork games, Indiana Jones) were so obvious as to belie any cleverness. Lots of other attempted jokes were just, well, not that funny, and little is more tedious than unsuccessful attempts at humor (as anybody who has watched a lame sitcom can tell you.)
Adding to this tedium is the fact that the game is plagued with a number of errors, both in writing and coding. Now, the writing errors were much less frequent, and many had to do with formatting -- strange line breaks, random strings of spaces and the like. Misspellings and grammar errors were relatively few, though at one point the game does manage to misspell the name of its own main character. Coding errors, however, were abundant. For example, every time you climb a particular object the game dutifully reports that you clamber onto it, reprints the room description with additional information now available to you, then inexplicably protests that you're already on the object. At another time, the ceiling falls in, but this cataclysmic event has absolutely no effect on anything sitting on the ground. "Drop all" just doesn't seem to work. Most egregious, though, is the fact that the final puzzle hinges on an item which, as far as I can determine, is never mentioned in any description. I only found it accidentally, through the fact that the parser includes scenery objects in its response to commands like "get all". I felt clever for solving the puzzle by tricking the parser, but it didn't make me any more impressed with the game. What's more, I spent the half-hour before that floundering around in circles, trying to figure out what in the hell I could possibly be missing. Normally I ascribe this sort of thing to lack of beta-testing, but the credits indicate that no less than seven people tested the game, so I don't know. Perhaps the time it took them to read the title preempted their ability to test the whole game?
The game's greatest asset is that all of the paragraphs in the various sets are written very well indeed. The author does an excellent job of capturing that feeling of reverie, of walking down a street while thinking intensely about one's own life, the very features of the street triggering and shaping the direction of the thoughts. The descriptions of the characters on whom the protagonist ruminates, and what those descriptions imply about the PC itself, are evocative and well-judged. Moreover, the delicate balancing act of providing an ungendered PC, onto which the player can project his or her own gender and sexual orientation, is done very well here, especially considering the fact that the game deals directly with interpersonal and even sexual subject matter. At its best, Life on Beal Street provides a sort of kaleidoscopic effect after a few playings, giving us a glimpse of the myriad ways in which we might understand our own lives, ourselves, and our relationships with others. There are some flaws, of course. I wish the game hadn't chosen "Beal" as the name of its street, as it is distractingly reminiscent of the famous Beale Street in Memphis. I would have had similar problems with "Life on Rudeo Drive" or "Life on Madeson Avenue". Also, there is one point where the computer unexpectedly says "* NO CHOICES DEFINED *", though as far as I could tell there were as many (or as few) choices defined as ever.
And in fact, that brings up the game's largest flaw of all. It isn't, in any meaningful sense, interactive fiction. Yes, the author works hard to emphasize that the choice between continuing to walk the street and turning back is a real one, just like those we make in everyday life. This is true enough in itself, but as a claim for interactivity, it's a crock. What it amounts to, more or less, is a choice between reading the next paragraph and quitting the game. These limited options make Life on Beal Street no more interactive than a book. There is one more possibility, which is the opportunity to say "no" to a chosen paragraph and have the computer spit out a new one, but that turns to be the equivalent of continuing to draw paragraphs from a hat until you realize that the hat is empty. Thus, in the final analysis the appeal of Life on Beal Street is quite fleeting. There's a wonderful sense of openness and excitement in the first few plays, one which quickly contracts as paragraphs start to repeat, and finally shuts down entirely as you search through the whole thing brute-force to find any text you haven't yet seen. Once you've done this, the game becomes just an interesting novelty whose possibilities have been exhausted. It's definitely worth the download, but don't expect to keep it long.
I'm sorry to say that the coding is not quite so strong. I stumbled across a number of outright bugs in my two hours with the game. For example, you can get inside an open cupboard, and when you try to close it, the game responds "You lack the dexterity." Fair enough, but when you try to leave, the game protests "You can't get out of the closed cupboard." Look around, and the room description has somehow evaporated, leaving just "The cupboard." Another problem occurs with a pile of similar objects, from which you may take one and drop it anywhere in the game. However, if you return to the pile and take another, you'll find that the one you dropped has disappeared, which stretches the bounds of plausibility. Moreover, there are a number of commands in the game (for example, "examine me") to which the parser does not respond at all.
These are all fairly basic errors, nothing fatal, and I expect that they will be cleaned up in the next release of "Soft Food." However, the problem that will be more difficult to fix is that of the puzzles. My Lord, these puzzles are difficult. They're not so much "guess-the-verb" -- I rarely found myself in a situation where I knew what to do but just couldn't figure out how to phrase it. Instead, I found that most of the time I hadn't the faintest idea of what to do, and the game kept ending in unpleasant ways as I stumbled about trying to figure out the solution. One puzzle in particular rivaled the Babel fish in complexity, but where the latter puzzle was enjoyable because of the absurdity of necessary actions piling atop one another, this game's equivalent seemed frustratingly arbitrary, and the game's serious tone did little to make the puzzle's fiendishness more bearable. A disturbingly high percentage of the puzzles felt like members of the "guess-what-I'm-thinking" genre. I'm willing to concede that perhaps I wasn't in a properly feline state of mind for them, and certainly I'll admit that I'm not the world's greatest puzzle solver, but I don't think that's sufficient to explain the problem. I think they're just way too hard, and that the writing isn't specific enough to give the player all the nudges necessary to solve them. It's a good lesson in puzzle design though -- if lots of players experience the same frustration I did, Soft Food will give designers an example of what to avoid in gonzo puzzle-crafting. I may even be able to use the lesson myself. See, I have a great idea for the 2000 comp: you play this pet goldfish...
The game, for what it is, is well-implemented. There are a number of funny responses which require no inside knowledge to enjoy. For example, the room description mentions that seating is plentiful, but when you try to sit down, the game tells you "It may be plentiful, but it's also only scenery." Once the bananas get going, there are a myriad of random responses for each character, including an array of each for passing, receiving, and attempting to eat bananas, as well as whiling away the time. I found no bugs, at least not as far as I could tell, though in a situation like this it's difficult to tell what a bug is. For example, this sentence kept popping up: "The giant flaming head 712 looks bored." Now, that looks to me like some garbage numbers in the middle of the sentence, but then again the whole scenario is pretty meaningless to me, so for all I know 712 could be a reference to yet another ifMUD joke. Ho ho ho. I can say for certain that I saw no grammar or spelling errors in the game.
I did my riff on in-jokes when I wrote my review of Sins Against Mimesis in '97, so I won't revisit it in depth now. Basically, the good thing about in-jokes is that they strengthen the sense of community that comes from shared reference points. The bad thing is that, to an outsider to that community, the in-jokes feel like closed gates, whose guards snicker, "We know something you don't know!" It was interesting to experience an in-jokey IF game from the perspective of the outsider, especially since I'm someone who considers myself a member of the IF community. The experience underscored my growing understanding of the effects that the ifMUD has had. The MUD has done a lot to bring the community together, including providing realtime hosting for the XYZZY awards and the Implementor's Lunches. However, it has also attracted a subgroup of IF devotees, people who apparently hang out on the MUD for great swaths of time and discuss whatever comes to mind. This group has developed its own dynamic, its own references, and in some cases even its own cant. It's not a group I ever see myself being a part of, since I don't have a great deal of spare time as it is, and that which I devote to IF goes to SPAG or my own work in progress (or to writing long, boring reviews of tiny little comp games). Plus, the lure of hanging out on the MUD is so seductive that I know I can't let myself get hooked, lest it become a huge suckhole of my time. So I guess I'm not going to get those in-jokes anytime soon. Perhaps someone could offer translation services, or provide a key with the explanations (such as they are) behind ifMUD in-jokes? If this doesn't happen, I guess I'm doomed to further confusion, as mysterious missives continue to emanate from the Adventurer's Lounge.
Paul O's 99 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 1 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002