1999 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2

(in the order I played them)

CALLIOPE by Jason McIntosh

I had a sinking feeling when I read the "info" text for Calliope. Some dreaded phrases were dropped: "My prime goal in writing Calliope was to get comfortable with the Inform language...", "...autobiographical portrait of myself confusedly hacking away at a going-nowhere Inform program..." The whole thing sounded uncomfortably like it was describing a combination of my two least favorite competition entry genres, the "I wrote this game to learn Inform" game and the "this is an IF version of my house" game. Previous entries of this nature have, on the whole, not been stellar, so after I read the description of Calliope, my expectations were decidedly low. But I guess that's the beauty of the Low Expectation Theory, isn't it? Because once I expected Calliope to stink, I discovered that it's not such a bad little game after all. Sure, it's a trifle, but that's OK. It's done reasonably well, is not redolent with references only the author could understand, and its idea is (I can't believe I'm saying this) actually pretty clever. Yes, despite the fact that you begin the game sitting at your desk, in your apartment, on your chair, staring at your computer and your proposed competition entry therein, Calliope turns out to be pretty fun rather than really boring. It seems that exhaustion is approaching for you, the prospective author, and that your previous efforts whacking away at that competition entry have been rather uninspired. But the Muse (the game's title is a whopping hint) can strike at unexpected times...

One of the things that makes the game an unexpected pleasure to play is that unlike most of its learning Inform/house simulation brethren, it is relatively free of errors in both coding and writing. The prose is nothing special, but it did give me a vivid picture of the setting, through little details like your desk showing its age "by the camouflage patterns of divers dark beverage stains covering... its cheap white Formica surface..." "Divers" looked like a typo to me, but something in the dim recesses of my brain is suggesting that it may just be a culturally specific spelling of "diverse." Actually, what it really looks like is a Renaissance spelling, but since my wife is a grad student in Renaissance lit., the boundaries tend to blur for me. The game's one puzzle makes sense and is well-clued, and its multiple endings are enough fun that I went back and played through all of them. Many first games feel like prologue, and Calliope is no exception. Where it differs from the pack, though, is that the prologue it provides is promising and exciting. I'd be very interested in seeing a full-length game (or even a full-length competition entry) by the author based on the ideas presented in Calliope. Heck, I wouldn't mind seeing three such games. Jason McIntosh shows enough promise in Calliope that his next release should be highly anticipated.

Of course, none of this means that the game is worth keeping long. You'll probably spend a few minutes noodling around, a few more solving the puzzle, and the rest of your time will go to replaying through to see the various endings. Perhaps if you're really dedicated, you'll try out the author's suggestions (provided in the walkthrough) for all the various ways to lose the game. The whole thing shouldn't take much more than a half-hour, after which Calliope goes into the recycle bin. These "short-short" games are becoming a more and more prominent competition trend. They make sure to meet the "two-hour" rule by ducking far under it -- so far, in fact, that you can exhaust most of their options in a quarter of that time. The first time I remember seeing a comp entry of this ilk was Jay Goemmer's "E-MAILBOX" in 1997, which consisted of about four moves and no puzzles. The trend continued in '98 with games like "In the Spotlight" and "Downtown Tokyo. Present Day."Now it's so prevalent that out of the six comp games I've played so far, three are of the "short-short" variety. Of course, this may just be the vagaries of Comp99's randomizer, but I suspect it goes a little deeper than that. Tiny games like this allow an author to get exposure and experience without making a huge time investment. They create an evolving example which pushes the author's developing knowledge in an IF language, both by providing a space to try out examples and by nudging research into the manual to implement that latest and greatest idea. Perhaps most important of all, tiny IF makes for one more line in that all-important "Things I've finished" list. Thankfully for its audience, Calliope does it right.

Rating: 6.8

SIX STORIES by Neil K. Guy

Six Stories bills itself as "multimedia interactive fiction", and the billing is no exaggeration. Last year's Arrival began to take advantage of the graphics and sound capabilities of HTML TADS, and Six Stories takes that development the next step. The game includes photographs (both of scenery and objects), graphical backgrounds, and voice-over narration. Inclusion of multimedia elements always makes me a little nervous, because it's an ambitious decision that, it seems to me, takes a great risk of making the work look amateurish. Nonetheless, Six Stories' multimedia components combine to fashion an IF experience that is atmospheric and powerful in ways heretofore untouched by text adventures. Particularly impressive is the introduction, which is a knockout. The game begins as you are driving your small car over treacherous roads through the mountains of southern British Columbia. Without warning, a blizzard overtakes you. The blinding headlights of an oncoming truck stab through the darkness, and you dim your brights in courtesy. The truck roars by, and when you pull the lever to turn the brights back on, the lever comes off in your hand, extinguishing all light. Your car veers out of control and plows into the snowbank by the side of the road. You turn the key to restart the stalled engine -- no response. Even all by itself, this is a terrifically arresting concept with which to begin a story. When the game delivers it on a dark background, a voice-over narrating as the screen displays slides of the car, the road, and the crash, the experience feels like it could be part of any commercial adventure game released today.

It's not perfect, of course. The voice-over feels a little rushed, and the narrator's Canadian accent is sometimes a bit distracting. In general, it's clear that the voice-over portions of the game, while quite good for amateur work, were clearly done by amateurs rather than professional actors. On the other hand, the photography (at least to my untrained eye) looked quite accomplished, and the other graphical elements, such as the backgrounds and the status line, were very well chosen. For a game that isn't a product of a mainstream company, Six Stories' graphics and sound maintain a remarkably high level of quality. In particular, some of the photos accompanying the game's eponymous "stories" were just gorgeous. Multimedia represents a daunting challenge to the prospective IF developer, because it adds whole new layers of artistic forms, each of which could sink the game if it's not up to snuff. IF writers already face the difficult demands of combining quality writing and design with good programming; as difficult as it is to both write well and program well, how much more difficult then to be also a good photographer, a good actor, a good sound technician, and to be skilled with all the software necessary to get these things in digital forms? I can't imagine we'll see too many multimedia text games that approach the level of Six Stories, simply because not only must it have been a hell of a lot of work to take all the pictures, record all the sounds, do the appropriate tweaking with Photoshop, SoundEdit, etc., and write the code that gets all these things going together, but I can't see many developers doing all these things as well as Guy manages to do them.

All this fulminating about the multimedia aspects of the game probably makes it sound like I'm trying to avoid talking about the writing. Rest assured I'm not. Six Stories is a rather brief piece of work, but it is very well-written. The descriptions are moody and memorable, and the stories it tells create a wonderful air of folk tale while at the same time maintaining a refreshing originality. The game's one puzzle is very clever, though one part of it did feel like a bit of a "guess-the-verb" to me. Here's a hint: if you're stuck, you're probably not being specific enough about a particular action. The whole thing feels more or less like an excuse to put together some impressive visuals and oral storytelling, but the result is no less moving for all that it seems rather arbitrary. Six Stories is one of the biggest downloads of the competition (it may be the biggest -- I haven't checked), but it's worth every second.

Rating: 9.3

HALOTHANE by Ravi P. Rajkumar, as Quentin.D.Thompson

Halothane is an intriguing, ambitious mess. First of all, it's way too big for the competition. I spent two hours with the game and didn't even score half the points. This review is based on those two hours. Maybe the game pulls everything together at the end -- I'll never know, because what I saw in the first two hours didn't interest me enough to make me keep playing. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of good things about the game. It reveals glimpses of an interesting premise: when an author abandons a work in progress, the characters live on. They must try to continue their lives without the structure of a planned story to support them; they sometimes even drift into works by other authors, still carrying the burden of their former backstory. Some of the settings are interesting, and there are some devices here and there that are fun to play with. The problem is that all these interesting snippets are just fragments, floating free in search of a consistent plot. The game moves you from location to location as if you were on rails -- in fact at one point the PC is literally bound and gagged to have the plot shouted at him. Unfortunately, the rails don't seem to go in any particular direction, and Halothane starts to feel like a story that can't make up its mind what it wants to be about. Adding to the disarray are an unedifying prologue and a few "interpositions" which seem altogether orthogonal to the main story, such as it is. Oh yes, there are also a few in-jokey text adventure allusions, though they seem to have little impact on the plot. Then again, most things seem to have little impact on the plot -- it just rolls along, whisking you to the next chapter when you simply move a certain direction, or sometimes even when you just sit around doing nothing.

Player freedom of action is unreasonably constricted in Halothane. The game is constantly giving available directions in room descriptions, then preventing travel in those directions with one of a hundred variations on "You don't really want to go that way." Moreover, the game logic is inconsistent. For example, I got in the habit of looking under every single stick of furniture, because about 15% of the time I'd find something and score points for having done it. But some of the other times the parser sniped at me. We actually had this exchange at one point:

   Suspicious bloke, aren't you?

   That was a rhetorical question.
   That's not a verb I recognise.
As Groundskeeper Willie on the Simpsons might say, "Ach! Good comeback!" Anyway, the writing is similarly uneven. One significant flaw is that every character seems to talk as if they have an M.D. A portion of a letter that you find reads thus:
   The doctor came and gave me three hundred minims of pyrazinamide,
   and I was sick the whole day. Beastly, unfeeling physician! The
   haemoptysis seems to have cleared up, but the laboratory pathology
   report says that my sputum smear is still ++++, which I assume is
   good. They're considering a repeat biopsy, because they didn't find
   any Langhans giant cells the first time.
I found the "which I assume is good" particularly funny. First of all, it's set in opposition to saying that something "cleared up", despite the fact that (I would think) the "clearing up" is good too. That's just bad sentence structure, but also I found it very difficult to believe that somebody who casually refers to "minims of pyrazinamide" and "Langhans giant cells" would be in the dark about the meaning of test results. For all I know, that may happen in real life, but it certainly didn't feel real to me, which after all is what fiction aims for. In addition, one character thinking or speaking this way is fine, but even the PC does it! At one point, the parser tells you, "If this heat continues any longer, you'll soon have first-person knowledge of what the proteins in a boiled egg actually undergo." Really, doctor? Even the game's title and opening screen are guilty of this fault. On the other hand, when the plot pauses a moment to take a breath, the writing can manage to set an effective scene. One good sequence occurs when the PC (after a POV shift... don't ask) comes upon her house, dark and empty. The game creates an effective atmosphere of mystery, so that when surprises jump out they're good for a little thrill.

Oh, hell. This review probably makes it sound like I thought Halothane was just abysmal, and I didn't, really. The overall impression that I got was that the game is just sort of... half-baked. I don't mean this in an offhand sense, nor is it intended to be derogatory. I just felt like I was playing a game that was not suited for the competition, nor fully realized by the time the deadline arrived, but was entered in the competition anyway, for who knows what reason. Lord knows I've played a lot of games that are worse, even in this year's comp entries. But it's a pity to see the potential in a game like Halothane squandered so. Put that sucker back in the oven and wait for it to rise.

Rating: 4.6

ON THE FARM by Lenny Pitts

Like last year's Arrival, On The Farm casts the PC as a small child. You've just been dropped off to spend two interminably boring hours on your grandparents' farm. (No, the game isn't interminably boring. That's just a bit of characterization.) What's worse, Grandma and Grandpa are in the middle of a fight with each other, and you have to try to find some way to help them make up. When so many IF games take place in science- fictional or fantastic settings, it's quite refreshing to play a game that is firmly grounded in the real world. Even better than that, the setting is fully realized, to an impressive level of detail. Most all of what I call the first-level nouns (that is, nouns that are mentioned in room descriptions) are implemented with descriptions. The writing is crisp, conveying an excellent sense of place. Lots of details are present, not because they somehow serve the game's plot, but simply because they bring the farm and its environs to life more vividly. Yes, there are some problems in the writing as well. There's the occasional comma splice or punctuation stumble, and from time to time the sentences seem to lose their rhythm, foundering like a lame horse. In addition, the prose sometimes descends into a sort of juvenile, scatological humor that works against the sincere tone of the rest of the game. Despite these few flaws, in general the game's prose achieves a satisfying clarity. I grew up in suburbia, and my ancestry is decidedly urban, so I've never experienced firsthand most of the game's referents. Nonetheless, after playing On The Farm I really have a sense that I've been there.

The puzzles, too, are mostly rather clever, and feel quite original. In particular, there is one multi-step puzzle which is integrated seamlessly into the game's setting, so that it feels organic rather than tacked-on. Each component of this puzzle makes sense, and the feeling of solving it is quite satisfying. This is the main puzzle of the game, and it makes a very good linchpin. There are also a number of optional puzzles, which do little or nothing to advance the plot, but which deepen the characterization of the PC or enrich the setting. These are optional puzzles done right -- they don't feel like padding, but rather like fruitful avenues which branch off the main drag, rewarding exploration with further knowledge. There was a moment where I found myself quite skeptical (in the rope-cutting puzzle), and another where the default messages for some objects misled me into thinking that certain things weren't important when they actually were (the levers puzzle.) However, such breaks of mimesis in the puzzles were the exception rather than the rule in On The Farm.

The other thing that interested me about On The Farm is the way it chose to characterize the grandparents. First of all, depiction of elderly people in IF as anything other than drunkards, lunatics, or the butts of jokes is noteworthy in itself. But let's think a little more about these grandparents. They obviously have been married for a great many years, and yet they still bicker and argue with a great deal of intensity. Their age might suggest that they'd be rather conservative and prim, but instead they seem, if anything, rather earthy. The area around Grandpa's chair is covered with tobacco juice stains because he "no longer has the range to clear the edge of the porch." When the PC sees his grandmother after having entered a manure pit, she exclaims "you're covered in shit!" They are by turns affectionate, nagging, and abstracted. In fact, they act a lot like real people. I guess what I'm driving at here is that the game does an effective job of giving depth and life to its NPCs by making choices that go against stereotypes. Because the grandparents in On The Farm don't always do what we might expect, they seem just a little more real. In fact, the same might be said for the game itself.

Rating: 8.4


Unlike all the other entries in this year's IF competition, Remembrance isn't a story file or program. Rather than the product of an IF language, or even a standalone executable written from scratch, the game is a collection of web pages, each one leading to the next. At the bottom of each web page is a little piece of JavaScript, sometimes just a button reading "Continue", other times a pull-down combo box with a list of possible actions (never any more than three) and a "Try Action" button. Many attempted actions bring up input boxes, asking for further clarification (e.g. "What would you like me to get?"). Once the command has been fully entered, the page will do one of two things. One possibility is that the browser will display a JavaScript message box indicating the results of the command, either the generic failure message "Your action has no effect" or some longer response which advances the plot. The other option is that the browser will simply bring up the next web page in the sequence. This web implementation has some advantages. Guess-the-verb problems are entirely eliminated, and for one particular puzzle in the game that is a distinct benefit. The web-based approach also allows the author all the traditional advantages of a web page -- colors, pictures, fonts, etc -- though I can't say that the game did much with the possibilities. The plot concerns World War I, and the pages do have a color scheme which matches (black on olive drab), but that's about as fancy as it gets, aside from the JavaScript parts. In addition, there were some serious problems with the web-based approach. For one thing, I found that the chosen color scheme made the text pretty difficult to read. Also, the pages are hosted by tripod.com, which generated an inexpressibly irritating pop-up window every time the game moved to a new page. On top of that, whenever the JavaScript message boxes would appear, my browser would sound a chord; this is the same chord that Windows 95 sounds for urgent warnings and notifications that the hard drive is about to melt, so hearing it over and over was a pretty unpleasant experience.

But the biggest problem with the web approach is that the interface itself dramatically curtails interactivity. At its worst, the interactivity is limited to a "continue" button, which is about as interactive as turning the page in a book. At its best, the interface is reminiscent of the "command menu" interface of some point-and-click commercial adventures, only with a drastically limited menu. Compounding this problem is the highly linear design of the game itself. Not only is there just one path through the game, but there is really only one path through each substep of the game as well. For example, in the opening sequence there are three commands which must be entered in order. It isn't tough to guess which three, because the combo box at the bottom of the screen only contains three options. Nonetheless, choosing the wrong command to start with, no matter what further explanation you put in the input box, just gives one response: "Your action has no effect." Choosing the right command, but putting the wrong thing in the subsequent input box just gives the same terse (and improperly punctuated) hint line every time. Once you get the first command right, the process starts again for the next command. After a few iterations of this process, it becomes eminently clear that Remembrance is less interactive fiction than it is forced-participation fiction. That is, to see the next page of the story, you have to enter the magic word. There is no possibility of exploring the landscape, no opportunity to attempt other routes, and very few things to even try along the way. To further enforce its boundaries, the game uses the technique of regularly shifting viewpoints and settings, a la Photopia.

In fact, the comparison between Remembrance and Photopia is a fruitful one. Remembrance feels very much like it wants to emulate Photopia, changing Alley to Alex and the dangers of irresponsible driving to the dangers of trench warfare. You might even say that it starts down the trail blazed by Photopia and walks it all the way to its logical conclusion: highest level of tragedy, lowest level of interactivity. However, there are some important differences between the two as well. Foremost among these is the writing. Where Photopia maintained a consistently excellent level of prose, Remembrance is more uneven. The bulk of the writing is clean and well-done, but there are also a number of misspellings, punctuation errors, and awkward phrases. In addition, where Photopia's scenes are non-sequential both chronologically and in terms of point-of-view, in Remembrance it is only POV that shifts, with the exception of a short prologue. This difference probably contributed to the fact that the twist in Photopia is quite surprising the first time through, whereas in Remembrance the climactic event is visible several miles off. However, all that aside, I still found Remembrance touching. Perhaps I just have a soft spot for World War I stories ever since I saw Gallipoli, and certainly the type of tragedy depicted in Remembrance is an easy target for a tearjerker, but the interplay of letters and scenes, encompassing the trenches, the planning rooms, and the homelands, made for a nicely affecting overall presentation. It's not the sort of thing I'd want to see very much of, but it was definitely worth my time once through.

Rating: 6.7

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Paul O's 99 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 2 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002