in Comp97

The Town Dragon by David A. Cornelson [Comp97]

IFDB page: Town Dragon
Final placement: 24th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Town Dragon is a game with a lot of problems. The fact that the game is confusing was evident from the very start: after a few turns, I was told “Peter is following, looking at you strangely.” I thought, “Following? But I haven’t gone anywhere!” Turns out that when somebody is following you, the game tells you so every turn. This type of sloppiness occurs throughout. There are numerous grammar and spelling errors, so many that I stopped keeping track of them. The game’s prose is often terse and uninformative, reducing room descriptions to simple lists of exits and object descriptions to brief lines like “They’re copper and few would trade on them” for a handful of coins. In addition, the game suffers from a number of technical bugs, including failure to properly define a short name for objects and failure to respond to player commands at certain points during the game.

In fact, the game reminded me of nothing so much as an early piece of homemade interactive fiction, perhaps vintage 1982 or so. What’s amazing about this is that it was made with Inform, a very sophisticated tool. I found myself marveling that something with such a primitive feel could be constructed with materials so obviously intended to allow a programmer to avoid this kind of aura. I suppose that the experience once again brought home the knowledge that even the highest quality tools do not automatically confer high quality upon their product. From time to time the argument comes up that games with “from scratch” parsers are somehow more pure or have more integrity than games made from prefab libraries, on the grounds that the prefab games can’t help but be good. I think that what The Town Dragon shows us is that sophisticated parsers and libraries are of no use unless they are put to a sophisticated purpose.

Still, with all these problems, I enjoyed the game for what I felt were its merits: sincerity and consistency. The Town Dragon impressed me as a game written by someone who cared about his story but didn’t have much skill with prose or with Inform. This doesn’t make for a great product by any means, but I enjoyed it a tiny bit more than the last game I played (Zero Sum Game) a piece with good writing and coding but a very cold heart. With an improvement in prose quality and code, this game could be enhanced into a fair example of standard fantasy IF. I could see that potential, and it helped to mitigate the game’s other disappointments.

Prose: Even aside from the grammar and spelling problems, the game’s prose leaves a lot to be desired. Several important locations were described in 20 words or less — not much on which to hang a mental picture. The milieu was not well or thoroughly imagined, and some descriptions actually left out crucial pieces of information. People and objects also were not well-described, with many descriptions turning on some variation of “looks ordinary.”

Plot: The plot worked to drop a few clues and build to a climactic revelation at the end, with mixed results. Certainly there was some degree of building the mystery, and there was a revelation at the end. However, some pieces of the game (especially the daughter’s responses) gave the secret away rather too easily, and the crippled prose was unable to create tension or emotional investment effectively.

Puzzles: Puzzles suffered from the same afflictions as the rest of the game. The prose was sometimes too ineffective to convey sufficient information to solve the puzzle logically. The buggy programming hampered my confidence as a player that I would be able to tell the difference between puzzles and bugs. In addition, the game broke several commonly held “players’ rights”: An arbitrary time limit was imposed, a couple of gratuitous mazes created frustration (especially since there were too few inventory items handy for the ‘drop and map’ method), and information from “past lives” was often necessary to avoid disaster.

Technical (writing): The game was littered with grammar and spelling errors. These errors ranged from the simple (“vegatation”) to the subtle (a room description read “To the southeast you see a supply store and roads in all major directions,” implying that all the major roads were to the southeast.)

Technical (coding): There were several coding errors as well. Again, some of these were simple errors like missing new_lines. Others were more difficult to deal with, like the lack of a short name for the volunteers who follow the player.


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