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Escape From Crulistan by Alan Smithee [Comp00]

IFDB page: Escape from Crulistan
Final placement: 43rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

When the IF competition started, it was meant to be a mechanism for encouraging people to produce more Inform games, and not incidentally more Inform sample source code. After much haranguing on the newsgroups, it was agreed that TADS authors ought to be able to participate too, and the two types of games were grouped into their own separate divisions. After the games came out, we realized that not much new Inform source code had been released, but that the comp was definitely a major hit.

In a unifying spirit, the next year’s comp dropped the language specifications; the gates were opened to any kind of IF game. Since then, every single year the comp has seen at least one “homebrewed” game — that is, a game written without the aid of a major IF language such as Inform, TADS, or Hugo. And not one of those games, not one, has had a parser and model world to match that which comes automatically with the major IF languages. Some have had their own nifty features, to be sure, but the core of IF (and the biggest programming challenge as well) is the parser and model world. When that is lacking, the game is just not going to be good, no matter what else it has going for it. If you’ve guessed by now that Escape From Crulistan is no exception to this trend, congratulations.

Please pardon me. This is something like my 47th comp game. I’m running low on sleep. I’m cranky, and my mood was not improved by the extremely frustrating two hours I just spent with a game that responds like a lobotomized Inform. The first command I type when I’m playing a game for review is “script”, so that I can have a transcript to refer to as I write the review. The next command I type is “verbose”. When the game recognized neither of these, I began to get a sinking feeling.

My subsequent experiences didn’t make me feel any better at all. Experimentation soon revealed that the game only recognizes an extremely limited set of verbs and nouns, far too few to provide any sense of smooth gameplay whatsoever. Now, as I often say when I review homebrewed games, I admire what it did achieve. The desire to write an IF engine from scratch is foreign to me, but I certainly can respect it in others, and it would take a better programmer than I to create even the parser in Crulistan, let alone the strong parsers of the established IF development systems. Nonetheless, achievement though it is, Crulistan‘s parser is woefully insufficient. When you’ve just gone through several dozen games whose parsers have a very high level of quality by default, stepping into Crulistan feels like a jail cell in more ways than one.

Perversely, rather than drawing attention away from these limitations, the game’s design seems instead to want to emphasize its flaws. It consists of a string of situations which require very specific solutions, and the game usually neglects to implement any alternatives, even if just to tell the player that they won’t work. For example, the initial puzzle of escaping from a cell might seem to hinge around going through the window. Yet by no combination of verbs and nouns (and believe me, I tried a lot of them) can you convey to the game that you want to try this. It’s fine if the game doesn’t want to allow it, but not even to implement it? Inexcusable.

Then, when I finally did figure out how to escape the cell, then spent another half-hour trying to guess the right sequence of commands (with very little useful feedback from the game) for the next section, I found myself outside the prison, and the game, unbeknownst to me, was in an unwinnable state. I only learned this after much frustration and failed brute-force attempts at puzzle-solving sent me back, in desperation, to the initial scene. Turns out there are two ways to escape the prison, but only one of them will allow you to proceed further in the game. The game gives no indication whatsoever of this situation, and because so little is implemented, I found it easy to believe that the “wrong” solution I had found was the one and only solution to the prison puzzle. So, the one time an alternate solution was implemented, it was only an extremely elaborate red herring — what an infuriating design choice, especially in a game where so few things work.

Once I did get further, I almost immediately found myself stuck in another situation where the solution was a mystery and the game didn’t recognize 90% of the things I tried. Compounding this problem, no walkthrough is provided. In fact, when you type “help”, the game chides you, “Oh come on now. This game is ridiculously easy.”. Yeah, if you wrote it, maybe. Then again, the author credit seems to allude to the disavowal that film directors sometimes issue on projects that have escaped their control. Of course, with an IF game, there’s really nobody to wrest control from the author, so this allusion is puzzling to say the least. But nobody can say it’s not justified.

Rating: 2.1

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