Waterfall This area seems to be filled with abrupt ends. To the east, the mountain ends abruptly at the forest you came from, and vice versa. The forest also ends abruptly at the cliff which you are standing on. It's about ten feet wide and ends abruptly in midair. Far above, a riverbed abruptly ends at the abrupt end of the mountain, generating an incredibly long but relatively narrow waterfall. From the roar that emanates from below, you presume that this waterfall ends abruptly at some flat surface, creating high-intensity sound waves which end abruptly at your ears, which end abruptly at the side of your head, which ends abrutply at your shoulders, and so on and so forth.By the time I got to the end of this passage, I almost fell out of my chair I was laughing so hard. The problem is, I'm not at all certain it was meant to be funny. The contrast suggests to me that the game's prose has escaped its control -- the same word is repeated 10 times in 6 sentences, sounding sillier each time (it doesn't help that the final occurrence is misspelled) and jarring badly with the overall tone of the story.
The mounting ridiculousness of the repetition in the above passage is echoed by the repetitive nature of the game itself. Lomalow is designed so that the only way to win is to ask the two characters the same questions over and over and over again. A typical interaction might be to type "ASK WOMAN ABOUT BOOK." She will give a very short answer, trailing off with an ellipsis. Then, the player must type "G" again and again until the old woman starts to repeat herself. After that, the player must repeat the process with a different noun substituted in place of "book." Then, repeat all of the above with the game's other character, an old man. After going through the cycles a few dozen times, the whole thing starts to seem really funny. I kept imagining what life would be like if all conversations had to be carried out this way. I'd have to ask my wife about the store 29 times to get the entire shopping list down. You'd have to ask the cop about the ticket 8 times before finally receiving it. When the final climactic scene came, my main emotion was relief that the characters could bring themselves to utter more than a few sentences at a time without being prompted. Relief was followed closely by amusement when the old man screamed at me, "We're magic BIRDS, aren't we? What do BIRDS do, guy?" Of course, it took me a while to get to this scene, because I kept running out of nouns to substitute in the conversations. I turned to the hint system for help, but all it tended to give me were cryptic suggestions along the lines of "Don't be dense. You've already seen 14220. Why haven't you talked to the old woman about it?" My suspicion is that these odd messages are the result of a bug in the hint system caused by having Inform print an object's number rather than its name. The numbers may have been intentional, but if so, the decision to use them makes the hint system pretty useless.
So Lomalow is a very flawed game, hampered by its overblown prose and its numbingly iterative design. That's what I have to say as a critic. Now, here's what I have to say as an author. The thing I liked about Lomalow, and the thing that kept it from becoming a purely irritating experience, was the obvious sincerity that was driving it. Yes, it's the product of a novice writer. But every writer is a novice at some point, and I'm quite certain that almost every respected writer (of interactive fiction and regular fiction too) started out writing passages that were just as silly as, if not sillier than, the ones I quoted in my first paragraph. It's a necessary thing, and I know from my own experience that fear of looking foolish in public can hold a writer back from going through that stage. Since it's a stage that is almost always one of the first steps on the path to real skill, the fear stops many writers from reaching their true potential. So even though, from a critical standpoint, I can't see Lomalow as a success, I applaud its author for having the courage to overcome that paralyzing fear. I could see the promise of improvement shining through much of the text, and the game's very existence suggests that the author is committed to pursuing that promise. These thoughts allowed me to play through Lomalow with a smile rather than a grimace.
It's baffling to me that buggy games like this get entered, especially considering the fact that this year Lucian Smith and Liza Daly went to the trouble of actually setting up a betatesters clearinghouse on the web. Testers were available, so why weren't they used? All I can conclude is that the authors who submitted buggy games just don't care that much about the players' experience. This disregard leaves the player little motivation to care about the game's rating, and it gives me as a reviewer very little motivation to put any time or energy into giving useful feedback. In addition, playing a game so crammed with bugs feels like another version of non-interactivity, since there's almost nothing to see outside the bounds of the path dictated by the walkthrough.
So here's the deal with 4 seconds: it's not worth the download. Not only is its plot a b-movie rehash of much better games (mayhem at an isolated science complex a la Delusions or Babel), but it's pretty much unplayable. Tons of commands get no response at all from the parser. Many more get responses that make no sense. Those pieces of prose that do emerge, whether arrived at by use of the walkthrough or just dumb luck, lack the most basic proofreading. I spent an hour of my life that could have gone to something much more fulfilling on playing Four Seconds. I wish I had spent 59 minutes and 56 seconds less.
King Arthur's Night Out suffers in several places from "guess-the-verb" weaknesses. There is an item that, when SEARCHed, will yield an important discovery. However, if you look in, shake, push, open, or examine it, you won't find a thing. In another spot, you must retrieve an item from underneath something else. However, you can't crawl under this thing, nor lift it, nor just get the item from underneath it. The puzzle has a logical solution, but because such a specific wording was required, I didn't find that solution until I checked the walkthrough. I felt annoyed when I discovered the answer, because it was no more complicated that the things I had been trying, things which got no response. How was I supposed to know that this particular method had been implemented, I wondered, when 5 others weren't? I think my experience contains a lesson for me as an author -- puzzles shouldn't consist of hunting around for the one method which the author anticipated. The author should anticipate three or four methods of solving a puzzle, and implement them all, either as alternate solutions or as dead ends which will help point the player toward the correct method.
Having griped about that, I will say that the game was coded quite well overall. Many actions were accounted for, especially in areas which weren't puzzles. I found no bugs in playing the game, and only a very few errors in the prose mechanics. I still didn't have a particularly great time playing the game, but a large portion of that reaction is due to the fact that I didn't find the premise very interesting. Perhaps people who enjoy broad domestic farce would like it more. In addition, if a second edition of the game emerges that implements the puzzles a little more robustly, King Arthur's Night Out will be a solidly coded, if a little bit odd, piece of interactive fiction.
The game is clearly the product of a novice IF author, and while the writing and coding are both fairly good, each has a number of errors easily identifiable as beginner's mistakes. On the writing side, there are a number of punctuation problems: sentences missing periods, contractions missing apostrophes, quotes missing quotation marks and the like. The grammar and spelling are better, though an occasional glitch will slip through on those as well from time to time. On the coding side, there are a few little oversights such as some objects missing short_names, disambiguation problems caused by objects whose names are too short, and a number of unimplemented first-level nouns. More interesting is another slip-up. Searching the shelves in one store yields this:
Yada yada..blow dust..yada yada..small white packet.. yada yada... again with the no gold or jewels. Sigh.The description didn't make much sense to me until I reached another store, searched its shelves, and found this description:
You blow dust off the shelf, almost choking yourself from the resultant cloud, but you uncover a pair of pliers, which you pocket. Personally, I'dve preferred gold or jewels, but beggars can't be choosers.Clearly, the game assumed I would search the shelves in the opposite order that I did. This is an easy mistake to make, especially if you're concentrating on making sure your game is winnable by focusing on a particular walkthrough path. Vexingly, it's also the sort of thing that your betatesters won't always find -- if they go through the game in the same order that you envisioned, no problems will be apparent. Writing text that is dependent on some other text already having been displayed is very tempting in IF, but you have to be careful that you take account of what happens if that text hasn't yet been seen.
These are minor mistakes, and can be cleaned up easily in a subsequent release of the game. They don't much interfere with enjoyment. The same could be said of the puzzles. While there are a couple of sticky spots, most of the puzzles are either pretty obvious or rather clever. The "obvious" part of that evaluation may sound like an insult, but I don't intend it as one. I'm a fan of obvious puzzles -- they're a lot better than "guess-what-the-author-is-thinking" puzzles, and in an author's first game you're more likely to find the latter than the former. The clever ones include a nifty device reminiscent of the "T" remover in Leather Goddesses. The one real clunker is flawed in a way that, again, marks it as a beginner's error. There's an object in the game that will destroy anything put into it. When you try to put anything into it, you'll see a funny default message about how destroying something you may need later is a dumb thing to do, and the game won't let you do it. However, there is one object you must destroy in such a way in order to win the game. Based on the default message, there's no way of knowing that the destroyer will react differently to one particular thing. This isn't a problem with the puzzle so much as the way it is implemented -- it's like a hungry troll saying "I don't want to eat!" when offered the wrong kind of food, rather than saying "I don't want to eat that!" If the default message were worded slightly differently, the player could twig to the fact that although the attempted action is wrong, a similar one might be right. This is the sort of thing you learn with experience, either of writing a lot of IF or playing a lot of it, or both. Beat the Devil is an auspicious start, and I look forward to the author's next game.
Like last year's winner Photopia, Exhibition is all about someone whom the player never controls. Unlike Photopia, this game goes one step further: we never even see Anatoly at any point in the game. Instead, what we get are descriptions of his works, sometimes mixed in with anecdotes about him when the work is being viewed by someone who knew or met him. With each description from each viewpoint, we get another piece of the puzzle. All the pieces fit together like a jigsaw, but they do not form a clear portrait of the artist. Instead, like a frame around his outline, they define his shape, each moving from a different direction to collide with one of his boundaries, and sometimes with each other too. At the end of the game, we know Anatoly's form, but only obliquely, filtered through the very individual perceptions of each viewer. In the bargain, we are granted insight into his art, his loved ones, his disposition, and his culture, but all these insights are lines around a central emptiness, an absence reflected in the artist's final painting, "Iscariot." The painting, in the words of the critic, is "a simple desert landscape with a frayed noose hanging empty on a gnarled tree and a scrawny goat searching in its shadow." Anatoly hanged himself, and was found next to this completed painting. Each character offers an interpretation of the empty noose (as well as its grisly companion), and each interpretation gives us a piece of the truth. The author notes that, in part, Exhibition aspires to be "an experiment in how tales are told and the inevitable gap between the teller and the audience." It is by shining its light through these gaps that the game so sublimely illuminates and limns its subject.
Unexpectedly enough, this collection of descriptions is a puzzle, though certainly not in the tradition of most IF puzzles. It is up to the player to create that outline, to put the pieces together so that one viewer's comments clarify those of another viewer, and both together sharpen the focus on Anatoly's silhouette. Even the shape of the gallery itself, walls around a space, contributes to the developing portrait. Exhibition makes the process of deduction easier with its stellar production values. In the reams of text presented by the game, I found not one grammar or spelling error. I didn't find a single bug either, though the game's design is admittedly simple as far as programming is concerned. These virtues by themselves give me great pleasure, but what made the game a true joy to play was its wonderful writing. As an exercise in character and viewpoint, Exhibition is an impressive performance. As storytelling, it is mesmerizing. Exhibition may be a game of absences with death at its core, but like the stories it tells, it wields a power far greater than the sum of its parts.
...FILL WATER GUN Your logic, although interesting, is flawed. ...TURN ON FAUCET That's a pretty crazy idea, but it didn't work.These kinds of responses make me want to scream obscenities at the game, and sometimes I did, along with feeble protests like "No it isn't! Wanting to fill a water gun with water is not flawed logic! Turning on a faucet isn't a crazy idea!" Then I remembered that talking to yourself is a sign of impending mental collapse, so I stopped. But my blood pressure stayed high. The problem with this kind of message is that the game is willfully occluding its own shortcomings at the player's expense. Error messages that insult the player, when in fact it is the parser that has failed, piss me off. I'd so much rather see the game say "I don't know that verb" or "You can't fill that" -- that way I know exactly what hasn't been implemented, and that knowledge will be useful to me throughout the game. Instead, Lunatix sneers at me and acts like its flaws are my fault. Which brings me to the third principle of my Parser Manifesto: "Parsers must not ask questions without being prepared to receive an answer." I had lots of exchanges with the game that went like this:
...POUR CPU What are you trying to pour out? ...CUP In a perfect world, that might have worked. ...POUR CUP You empty the cup's contents onto the floor.OK, so I made a typo in my first command, and the game asked me a disambiguating question. Fair enough. But wait! Further evidence reveals that the question only appeared to be for disambiguation. Actually, the parser wasn't asking me a question at all, but giving me a message along the lines of "I only understood you as far as wanting to pour." By phrasing that message as a question, Lunatix tricks me into thinking it is following the standard set by every other major parser: ask the player a question and process the answer. Instead, it's only prepared to follow through with the first half of that standard, and gives me a snippy error message in the bargain. Grrr.
These kinds of problems have been more or less eliminated in the default library parsers used by most major IF tools, but Lunatix doesn't use one of those parsers. Instead, it is a "homebrewed" creation written in (from what I can glean from the readme) QBasic, and presenting a radically different interface than most IF games do. The game splits the screen into four windows: the top half of the screen is split vertically between a square graphics window (displaying a picture of the current room) and a square text window, which always displays the textual description of the current room. Taking up most of the bottom half of the screen is a rectangular text window, which displays the game's responses to the player's input. Below that, a frame around a one line text field, is a window for the player's input. It's a bit reminiscent of the Legend interface, except instead of a compass rose and clickable command menus, there's just a room description next to the graphic. The graphics themselves are grainy and pixellated (or at least, they were on the two monitors I used to play the game), but still manage to be appropriately atmospheric at times, and even rather attractive once in a while. More importantly, they add significant content to the game -- there are some objects that would be difficult to envision when described in text, but the presence of the graphic clarifies the setting a great deal. The window with the textual room description was nice, too, as it allowed systematic examination of the first-level nouns without having to periodically "LOOK" to remember what those nouns are. Of course, the game doesn't actually implement most of these nouns, but that's not the window's fault. The only difficulty I had with this window is that it didn't always automatically update when something drastic had changed about the room, unless I explicitly typed "L" again. Thus, after solving a puzzle I might see a picture of a normal hallway, while the description alongside it raved about the giant squid blocking my path. In addition, lots of keen features were implemented in the interface, like command recall with the up-arrow, splash screens at the beginning and end of the game, a weirdly pulsating cursor, and nifty sound effects. So I can say with certainty that Lunatix is the most technically competent homebrewed game in the competition, perhaps even the most technically competent homebrewed game in the history of the competition. Unfortunately, all the snazzy windowing and gee-whiz effects in the world don't really make up for its substandard parser.
The other part of the game's core, its story, is OK. It's one of those IF scenarios whose premise rationalizes why it is full of patently ridiculous things. In this case, you're the unscrupulous director of an insane asylum and you've been given a drug which replicates insanity. This is a cozy explanation for why nothing you see really makes any sense, and seems to be just a setup for lots of different code and one-use-object puzzles. These puzzles are mostly OK, too. They're more or less logical (within the confines of the completely nonsensical story) and, with one or two exceptions, pitched at the right level of difficulty. There is one real howler towards the end which makes almost no sense but will be deeply appreciated by fans of The Penguin on the old Adam West Batman show. So in other words, the story and puzzles aren't great, but they aren't terrible either. Unfortunately, the combination of fair-to-middling plot with really-irritating parser makes the game less fun to play than it should be. See, (he said, mounting his soapbox) an IF game is a fusion of parser and story. The beauty of the modern IF languages is that they have freed designers from most of the hassle of worrying about the parser, allowing them to focus the bulk of their creative energy on the story. When a game eschews these time-tested solutions, it doesn't just double its work, but increases it exponentially. Lunatix, strong as it is, isn't quite up to the task.
Paul O's 99 Competition Game Reviews -- Page 7 / Paul O'Brian / obrian at colorado.edu / Revised November 2002