in Comp99

The Water Bird by Athan Skelley [Comp99]

IFDB page: The Water Bird
Final placement: 29th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

From the update on the comp web site, I already knew that The Water Bird had a game-killing bug in it, so I wasn’t surprised when I found it. What I was surprised by (though maybe I shouldn’t have been) was the number of other, extremely basic, bugs I found in it. This is unusual for me — usually once I see or hear of one bug in a competition game I expect them to come in droves, but the opening text to The Water Bird is so good that I allowed myself the belief that the critical bug was just a really bad-luck oversight, one of those things that makes you just about swallow your own tongue as an author the second a player finds it and it’s TOO LATE to change a thing. But no, actually, there are bugs throughout the game. In fact, in only the game’s second location, attempts to walk in an unavailable direction are met with “[TADS-1023: invalid type for built-in function]”.

This extremely fundamental omission is emblematic of the unfinished feel that the entire game has. It reminds me of a poster we have up in our bathroom, a print of an unfinished painting from London’s National Gallery. Part of the canvas is an accomplished portrait of a young woman with a dramatic landscape behind her, and the other portion of it is just a brown mass, with rough lines drawn to indicate how the rest of the painting will go. Similarly, Water Bird reveals its edges at unexpected moments. Here’s one room description:

Lodge Roof
You are on the roof of the lodge. From here you can see most of
the village. ... (good view, etc., smokehole (covered by?))

Now, to be fair, that’s not typical. Most of the descriptions are written, and written well, but there are several occurrences of the “…” symbol, which I’m guessing was the author’s Search-and-Replace code for “Elaborate on this later.” Incidents like this made me feel like I was playing a game that isn’t even ready for beta testing, let alone general release.

I have an opinion on this sort of thing. I’ve expressed this opinion before, and it hasn’t met with general approval. Nor do I expect it to now, although to me it seems like sheerest sense. But I just have to say it: if your competition entry isn’t ready by the deadline, and by “ready” I mean fully proofread, beta-tested and (please) played through at least once to ensure that it’s finishable, DON’T ENTER IT. Don’t even breathe a word of its existence. I adamantly maintain that you gain no appreciable benefit from entering an unfinished game into the IF competition. Instead, it’s detrimental to you in several ways.

First of all, many people who might have been open to playing your game will write it off as buggy and poorly done, and probably never come back to it again. After all, why should they bother with your rough draft when there are so many pieces of really good IF being published each year, and a wealth of older classics in the archive, all available for free? The audience for IF isn’t so large that an author can afford to alienate such a significant portion of it; as the hoary cliche goes, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

Secondly, releasing an unfinished game tarnishes your reputation as an author, since it implies that you really don’t care how good your work is before it’s released, that you don’t take pride in it. But perhaps most heartbreakingly of all, it’s so agonizing for a player to go through a game that has lots of good pieces but is an overall bad game, and bad not because its author can’t write, not because there’s anything wrong with the concept or the programming or anything, but just because it’s NOT FINISHED. It’s like biting into a pancake and finding that inside it’s still just batter. It’s so much more disappointing than going through a game that just plain stinks on ice, because it’s so clear how much unrealized potential is present in the unfinished game.

I’m an author myself, and I understand how much time and energy goes into the writing of an IF game. Why would you want anybody to see that game before you’ve honed it and worked out the kinks? Why waste all that good effort? Instead of entering that game, finish it. Do it right. Then release it in the Spring, or the Summer. Or if you really want to be in the competition, enter it in the next year’s competition where it has a chance of kicking some serious butt over all the unfinished games in that year’s field. Exercise a little patience.

Hmmm, well I seem to have ascended my soapbox and delivered a rant, completely heedless of the fact that I’m supposed to be reviewing The Water Bird. OK, here are some impressions from what I saw of the game. It’s obviously quite well-researched, and makes a very smart move by putting most of the author’s explication of that research into footnotes, so that a player can choose whether or not to be exposed to it. This is a new approach to footnotes in IF, one that is amusingly enough much closer to how footnotes are used in actual books. The game is well-written, with great puzzles and a really interesting subject, and if it were finished I have no doubt it would make a sterling entry into that fledgling canon of folktale IF currently occupied by games like Firebird and Lesson of the Tortoise. Indeed, it’s so good that my disappointment was all the sharper when I realized that I couldn’t actually finish it, because by the time I hit that point I very much wanted to see the rest of what The Water Bird had to offer.

Rating: 4.1

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