The Recruit by Mike Sousa [Comp03]

IFDB page: The Recruit
Final placement: 7th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Some games just feel like they come from deep inside the IF community. Take The Recruit, for instance: how many comp games not only include words of mine, but also go out of their way to compliment my work? Not many, I can tell you from sad experience, but not only does Recruit include pretty much the entire transcript from the 2002 XYZZY Awards ceremony, but when Another Earth, Another Sky is mentioned, this NPC message appears:

“I love that game,” says Fred. “I can’t wait for the third installment!”

Thanks, Mike! Er… Fred! I’m working on it! Anyway, I suppose that to avoid the illusion that sucking up to the judge gets you a good review and score, I should say here that I thought Recruit stank, but I just can’t do that. It was a fun game, if slight, whose puzzles are the star attraction. In fact, more than anything, it feels like a love letter to IF.

The premise, such as it is, is that you’ve been recruited (with the offer of a $50 reward) as a tester for “Real Life Interactive Gaming Simulacra” — in other words, IF puzzles constructed and brought to life. That puts Recruit in the unique position of being an IF game pretending to be reality pretending to be an IF game. In any case, the whole thing is more or less a hook on which to hang a series of puzzles, each of which has its theme: light source, NPC, attention to detail, and so forth.

The game is much more imaginative than this thumbnail description makes it sound. Each of the puzzles felt fresh to me, and the fact that they were explicitly molded around familiar IF concepts made their uniqueness stand out all the more. They also felt pitched at just the right level of difficulty — enough to make me think creatively, but not so hard as to send me running in circles and finally running to the hints, at least not for long. More importantly, each of the puzzles has fun with the concept it embodies, which makes the game a particular pleasure for those of us who have endured many far drearier versions of the same things. I’m not sure how well the game would work for somebody who was new to IF — it might make a fine learning tool, but I have a feeling it would feel more frustrating than educational to somebody who didn’t share its frame of reference — but for me it was a kick.

A great deal of the fun comes from the game’s writing, and I noted with admiration as I played through the game just how much Sousa’s writing has improved since his debut game Above And Beyond. [I’m about to spoil something, though I have no idea why it’s a secret to begin with.] Then I found out in the afterword that in fact, much of the writing wasn’t his, but was in fact done by collaborators like Robb Sherwin, Jon Ingold, and J.D. Berry. Why Sousa doesn’t simply acknowledge these co-authors upfront is a bit of a mystery to me — maybe he just doesn’t want players distracted by going through the game trying to figure out who wrote what.

Anyway, like every Sousa game, Recruit is coded very well, though not as exquisitely deeply as some of his past works have been. It was certainly bug-free, in any case, and quite responsive to most of the things I wanted to try. It also provides a fun list of AMUSING things to try after you’ve finished the game, which is a touch I always appreciate. After finishing The Recruit, I found myself just smiling, and thinking, “Cool!” Like several of the other games in this comp, it was IF about IF, but this time about just how much fun IF can be. It doesn’t provide much in the way of atmosphere or emotion, but it does pack the pleasures of good writing and interesting, interconnected puzzles, and that’s enough for me.

Rating: 9.3

Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me! by Mike Sousa and Jon Ingold [Comp02]

IFDB page: Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me
Final placement: 2nd place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oh, hallelujah. All through last year’s comp, I kept waiting for a game to come along that I loved enough, and found few enough flaws in, that I could rate it 9.5 or above. It never happened. While there were some excellent games last year, none of them felt to me like they’d entered that rarefied air occupied by past games like Shade, Babel, or Delusions. This year, after going through 25 games, the same thing was happening. Until now.

Despite its somewhat unpromising title, TDMAMOOM is a fantastic game through and through. How do I love this game? Let me count the ways. Okay, first, there’s the writing. Frankly, I could spend the entire review talking just about the writing, it’s so great, so I’ll restrict myself to just a few examples picked more or less arbitrarily. There are numerous instances of excellent foreshadowing, whether of themes or puzzles — in the former case, they add great pleasure on re-reading, and in the latter case they operate as a delightfully subtle but effective hint system. The room descriptions are masterfully done, drawing from an endless well of cleverness to make the typical exit listing sound fresh and interesting. Best of all, the writing in this game is just flat-out funny, sometimes howlingly so. Just one example of many — looking at a palm scanner after you’ve switched bodies with an NPC:

>x panel
Flat black glass, a panel that uses all manner of fancy beams to read
over your palm-print and check you are who you think you are.
Unfortunately, it's not clever enough to realise you now think you
are someone that you actually aren't. Or you think you are someone
who you're not, but really are. Or something like that. Anyway, it's
a pig-ignorant machine.

I love it when an IF game makes me laugh out loud, and that happened frequently in this game.

Then there’s the coding. This coding is good. Really good. A raft of nonstandard verbs get recognized and handled. There are a variety of special commands provided, such as “R” or “REVIEW”, which repeats the room description without using any game time. Descriptions of rooms, objects and events alter themselves in various subtle and blatant ways, depending on what’s come before. Timed events, even events where a huge amount is happening at once, run smoothly along their tracks with nary a glitch. There’s a very fine adaptive hint system, quite sensitive to situation and even possessing a self-destruct capability that removes the blatant walkthrough answers after the comp period has ended. Library messages adapt seamlessly to the PC’s situation and point-of-view.

Oh, and how could I forget the special effects? TDMAMOOM takes control of the interpreter to create a beautiful Infocom/Inform-style look-and-feel; people who don’t care for the general appearance of TADS games should definitely try this one. The game even features a little bit of sound, throwing in a system beep at an appropriate time.

Working with the coding and the writing to propel this game to greatness, the story is killer, a wild thrill ride through surprises small and large. Like its predecessors Delusions and Babel, TDMAMOOM takes place in that most favored of IF locales, an isolated scientific research station. I won’t even get into the plot here, because players should experience it for themselves with as few spoilers as possible up front, except to say that it all fits together very nicely, and every time I had doubts, the game anticipated them and tied up the loose ends.

Along with all this, just a quick word about the puzzles: many of them are not only inventive but pitched at just the right level of difficulty, providing several of those wonderful “aha!” moments for me. Some of them are rather complicated, but they’re always scrupulously fair. I ended up turning to the hints so that I could see more of the game before time ran out, but I think if I’d had the time available, this game’s puzzles would have rewarded me for spending it.

So we’re talking about a pretty phenomenal game, here. In fact, almost depressingly so, given that I’m an entrant this year and TDMAMOOM is miles better than my game. It’s not perfect, mind. I found a few spelling and grammar errors, and there were times I wished for clearer descriptions of events and objects. But those flaws are minor and cosmetic, and they do nothing to change the fact that this is a damn good game. Bravo.

Rating: 9.8

No Time To Squeal by Mike Sousa and Robb Sherwin [Comp01]

IFDB page: No Time To Squeal
Final placement: 4th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Sometimes two heads really are better than one. Take Robb Sherwin, an author with writing ability and panache to spare, but whose comp games have traditionally been major-league bugfests. Combine with Mike Sousa, whose Comp2000 entry At Wit’s End proved that he was capable of thorough, polished implementation and taut pacing, though his prose didn’t particularly draw attention to itself (for good or bad.)

The result is a game that uses each author’s strengths to its best advantage. NTTS had me on the edge of my seat almost immediately, invested in the characters and sweating through the rapidly mounting tension. That sick, scared, hollow-stomached feeling isn’t one I tend to enjoy, even when it’s produced by fiction — that’s why serial killer horror is a genre I usually avoid — but I have to admit, this game did an excellent job at producing it. Very short scenes, whose interactions are limited to a few, very obvious moves, pile rapidly atop one another, screaming towards a conclusion that left me breathless, saddened, and a little confused.

Right about then, the game did something that really pissed me off. Of course, I didn’t know at the time to be pissed off about it — I only found out later, after spinning in frustrated circles, trying to make progress. And even though this move is one of the major surprises in NTTS, I’m going to spoil it now, because to my mind, it’s a terribly unfair trap lying in wait for people who approach IF like I do. You’ve been warned.

What happens is that NTTS appears to end tragically. It then offers the standard “Please enter RESTORE, RESTART or QUIT” prompt, and indeed, you can restore or quit from this prompt, and those functions will work as advertised. RESTART, however, doesn’t really restart the game but instead moves it to its next section. Now, it’s true that this is not a new idea. At least one other game pulls a similar trick, but in that game, no matter what you type at the question’s prompt, the letters RESTART appear. NTTS, however, offers a system prompt at which some responses will generate system actions and other responses will generate game actions.

This is a very, very bad idea. You know why? Because I chose RESTORE, that’s why. I restored my game, trying to “win” that first section, and failed, not knowing that failure was the only option. I was about to restore again, but I just couldn’t think of anything new to try, so I checked the walkthrough, and found out that the way to solve this “puzzle” was to type RESTART at a system prompt that really wasn’t. This is dirty pool. If you’re going to sneakily integrate system prompts with the game, at least have the courtesy not to make the feature into a puzzle, because solving a cheating puzzle isn’t any fun.

I approached the rest of the game with wariness and caution, unwilling to get too drawn in, which is too bad because NTTS apes Photopia‘s viewpoint-fragmentation (though not so much its time-fragmentation) to great effect, in the service of telling an interesting, multi-layered story. Of course, it was a story that still left a few major plot danglers swinging even when it reached its real conclusion, not to mention threw in cultural references from Jack The Ripper to Lewis Carroll without much to support them. Still, it was engaging stuff, and was peppered with one or two really clever puzzles. The overall design was solid, save for the one flaw, but that flaw was so glaring, I really can’t ignore it. No Time To Squeal demonstrates that great things can happen when two IF authors combine their strengths, but unfortunately, it also shows that even teams still have their weaknesses.

Rating: 7.4

At Wit’s End by Mike Sousa [Comp00]

IFDB page: At Wit’s End
Final placement: 17th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

“Expect the unexpected” may be a clichĂ©, but there are a few things for which it is the perfect description. At Wit’s End is one of these things. This game’s plot has more twists and turns than a mountain road, and most of these surprises consist of various misfortunes for the hapless PC. In some games (e.g. Bureaucracy), I think this kind of plot could be intensely aggravating, but in this one, I thought it worked beautifully — each new twist injected drama and suspense into the situation, but the combined weight of all of them gave the story a comic feel which counterbalanced nicely against all the cliffhanging turmoil.

Of course, since the surprises are half the fun of AWE, I certainly won’t give them away here, but suffice it to say that the game strings together one fairly plausible situation after another, ending up with a string of bad luck that’s so unlikely it’s funny, even though it’s hard to laugh while you’re frantically trying to think your way out of the latest mess. In fact, the one thing I was worried about during my initial time with the game was that the whole thing would be too linear: “something bad happens — solve it. OK, something else bad happens — solve that…” for 10 or 15 bad things in a row. Luckily, after an admittedly lengthy opening sequence of linear puzzles, the game wisely broadens into a more traditional middle section, where several puzzles must be solved in order to bring about one overall result.

Speaking of puzzles, most of them worked quite well for me. Certainly the opening sequence presented situations that were quite logical — I found I sometimes needed to think a bit before I could come up with the right answer, but when I did come up with it, it felt right and made sense. Because of the tightly timed nature of some of these puzzles, I did come up against the death/failure message a bit more often than I’d have liked, but this is more my own fault than the game’s.

AWE isn’t one of those games that give you one move to figure out the right action and kill you if you don’t do it; some of the puzzles have four- or five-move time limits, but these limits make sense in the context of the puzzle situation, and they did succeed in creating a strong sense of urgency in me, whereas shorter time limits tend just to annoy me. There’s a time limit for the midgame, too, but it’s quite generous, and I found that it wasn’t necessary to motivate me — I was already frantic from the initial string of puzzles. I think this is a smart design choice on the game’s part, one that lent a sense of tension to a midsection that might otherwise have sagged. Rather than feeling a letdown at having to explore and put together multi-step processes, I continued to feel on edge, as befit the character’s situation.

Unfortunately, these multi-step processes comprise the game’s one significant flaw. Sometimes, in its fervor to crank up the puzzle intensity along with the story intensity, the game overloads certain puzzles, thrusting them into the Babelfishy realm of the ridiculous. One puzzle in particular, probably the most byzantine of them all, really strained the bounds of believability for me. It’s one thing to have a plot where misfortune piles upon misfortune, but when consistent, ongoing bad luck is a key feature of a puzzle, it’s hard not to feel that the game has unfairly stacked the deck against you.

I guess the lesson is that, for me anyway, when rotten luck is part of the plot, it still feels like the game is playing fair, because really bad days happen, but when the rotten luck is part of a puzzle (especially the kind of rotten luck that makes you think “but that wouldn’t really happen!”), it feels like the game is cheating. This quibble aside, AWE is an excellent piece of work. The writing, though nothing special, is serviceable, and the coding is really outstanding. The game notices and comments on lots of little things, which really deepens immersion, as does AWE‘s thorough implementation of all first-level nouns. The best part, though, is the plot. At Wit’s End has one of my favorite plots of any competition game from this year, one that kept surprising me even after I had figured out to expect the unexpected.

Rating: 8.8

Episode in the Life of an Artist by Peter Eastman [Comp03]

IFDB page: Episode in the Life of an Artist
Final placement: 11th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

My wife used to teach a college course called “Shakespeare For Non-Majors,” which was usually full of business and engineering students, there either to fulfill their dreaded “Literature and the Arts” core curriculum requirement, or else to, as she sometimes put it, “get their Cultural Literacy cards stamped.” Students generally came into this class with one of two attitudes towards Shakespeare. Some of them hated him — they called him “boring”, and groused of having him thrown at them all their lives as some sort of ultimate authority. Usually, a major part of these students’ problem was that they actually just didn’t understand the meaning of the words when they looked at a Shakespeare text.

The other category of students loved Shakespeare, and actually embraced and revered him as an ultimate authority. They would claim stridently that he was the Greatest Author Of All Time, that he had a perfect understanding of Human Nature, that his works are Timeless, and that every scrap of his texts embodied Deep Truth. Interestingly, these students usually also didn’t understand the meaning of the words when they looked at a Shakespeare text, but they knew enough to recognize that much of our culture sees Shakespeare as a dispenser of wisdom, and believes that if you can quote strings of words from his sonnets or plays, that ability indicates that you’re an intelligent person with great insights about life.

The PC of Episode is one of this latter type. His life could hardly be more mundane — he gets up, gets dressed, eats breakfast, and goes to work at a factory, where he spends all day in front of a conveyor belt putting green widgets on red wodgets. Yet he thinks of himself as smart and wise — an artist, in fact, and hence the title. “No one could put those widgets together like I could,” he says of himself. A large part of his faith in his mind and soul comes from the fact that he carries around a book of quotations, of which he has memorized great swaths, and he can pull out a quote for even the dullest occasions. Yet, as the text makes plain, knowing a quote isn’t the same thing as understanding it. For instance, when an unexpectedly blue widget suddenly appears on the conveyor belt:

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and he knew what he was talking about. He knew that sometimes the widgets would be green, and sometimes they’d be blue. So I’ve been doing this job for eight years, and every widget I’ve ever seen has been green. That doesn’t mean the next one won’t be blue. You’ve got to just take what comes and go on with your job. Emerson understood that, and that’s why he was such a great genius.

Of course Emerson wasn’t thinking of blue and green widgets when he wrote the “foolish consistency” line, and of course that line comes from a much larger explanatory context, but those things don’t bother the PC a bit — in his mind, he has access to Emerson’s “great genius”, to what literary critic John Guillory (swiping a term from sociologist Pierre Bourdieu) called his “cultural capital”, and that genius is helping the PC deal with a difficult situation. In fact, all he’s really doing is taking his own thoughts and slapping the label “Emerson” on them so that he can call them wise and not have to question them any further. This trait permeates the character, and makes him one of the most intriguing PCs I’ve seen in an IF game for a long time.

The design of Episode nicely reinforces the PC’s character. At first, I was annoyed with it for making me go through such extremely quotidian tasks as showering, picking out clothes for the day, and so on. Once I grokked the PC a little better, though, I loved the game for doing that. By forcing me to step through those tasks, and to experience the PC’s unwavering interest in and enjoyment of them (as well as hearing his ceaseless grab-bag of quotes applied to them), the game let me become closely acquainted with the PC’s mindset in a way that still felt interactive and advanced the plot. Because it’s preceded by such an exceedingly ordinary morning routine, that blue widget and the PC’s shock at it carries much more of an impact than if it had been the beginning scene of the game.

Speaking of shock, I was rather jarred by the fact that the game apparently takes place in the Zork universe. The PC carries a five-zorkmid bill in his wallet, finds a Dimwit Flathead lunchbox, and so on. Now, granted, one of the game’s major plot points rests on its Zorkian setting, but it feels a little strange to see references to people like Emerson and Shakespeare, or to see crates labeled “USDA GRADE A”, as if those things had some part in the Zork universe. There’s also the fact that nowhere does the game acknowledge that permission for use of these things was sought or received from Activision. It’s almost as if the game itself takes some part of the PC’s simple-mindedness.

That’s what’s so puzzling, and vexing, about this game. For all that it seems to be very cleverly written and designed, it also suffers from these logic gaps, as well as from sloppy coding and some serious bugs, one so bad that it can derail the game completely and force the player to a RESTORE or multiple UNDO. With a game like Rameses, part of the clue to look beyond the surface of things is the fact that the game is obviously coded with intelligence and care. I didn’t find that to be the case with Episode — aside from the aforementioned bug, I suffered synonym problems, guess-the-verb, and basic weirdnesses like the fact that the score stayed 0 out of 100 for the entire game.

I found no mechanics problems with the prose, which made the lackluster coding feel all the more odd. I still can’t decide whether this game is the product of great writing skill paired with novice coding abilities, or whether it’s just a not-very-good game that ended up unintentionally profound. If it’s the former, Episode would benefit greatly from a once-over by someone like Mike Sousa, who enjoys collaboration and whose TADS skills are impeccable. If it’s the latter, well, I guess I’m about to give my highest score ever for a bad comp game.

Rating: 8.4

About my 2003 IF Competition Reviews

For me as an author, 2003 was a frustrating year. I had entered part 1 of a trilogy into the 2001 competition, and (amazingly) won the 2002 competition with part 2. I had every intention of completing the set with a 2003 entry, and in fact even publicly announced that I would do so. By June, though, it was very clear that I wouldn’t make it. There were a few different reasons for this, from accelerated real-life demands to a ballooning project scope caused by more ambitious design goals, but nevertheless it was a very disappointing outcome to me. I had really wanted that unbroken run.

For me as a critic, 2003 had different frustrations. The IF Competition had become a massive center of gravity in the community, which meant that it sucked up all the energy and feedback, certainly for the few months it took place, and pretty much overall for the year as well. The perfect emblem of this dysfunction, to my mind, is the 2003 comp entry Risorgimento Represso, by Michael Coyne.

RR is a fantastic game — sumptuously implemented, brilliantly designed, beautifully written. It is also a full-length game. There’s no way anybody finishes it in 2 hours, at least not outside of just charging through the walkthrough. So I played it, and loved what I saw of it, but did so in the context of six weeks where I’m trying to play and review 29 games, and cut each one off after two hours. As it became clear that RR was much bigger, I turned to hints so that I could see more of the game. I would have enjoyed it more without doing so, but it was a choice between more enjoyment or more exposure, and I wanted to be able to review the game with as broad a perspective as possible. So I sacrificed enjoying a work that its author had surely labored over creating.

I hate being placed in this position, so in my review I let the game have it with both barrels, estimating that I’d seen a third of it, so only giving it a third of the score it deserved. As it turned out, RR placed second, and in my capacity as SPAG editor I routinely interviewed the top three placing authors from the comp. I was a little abashed at doing so with Michael, having lambasted his game for its length, so I went straight at the topic in my interview:

SPAG: Okay, let’s get it out of the way. Though Risorgimento Represso got excellent reviews, one frequent complaint was that it is too long a game for the competition. Since I was probably one of the loudest complainers on that point, it’s only fair you should get to air your side here. How do you respond to the criticism that your game was too large for the comp?

MC: By placing 2nd. : )

Well, really, it boils down to a question of timing and exposure (no,
I’m not talking about photography, bear with me).

My game was largely completed in June, and went through beta-testing up
to the end of August. At that point, I had a fairly polished,
large-scale game. I could have released it publicly, where it would have
been largely ignored, for a number of reasons. First-time author, Comp03
looming, and so on. The competition and the subsequent fall-out really
chews up the last 4 months of the IF Calendar, and releasing a game
outside the competition during that period just didn’t seem reasonable.

So there you have it. The competition pulls in games that don’t belong in it, because if you release those games outside the competition, even a month or two beforehand, you may as well not release them at all. I found this a deeply discouraging place to be. I tried to do my part in counteracting it — encouraging SPAG reviews of non-comp games, and even releasing a full-length non-comp game myself — but the immensity of the comp had gathered a momentum all its own. My banging against it affected me more than it affected the situation, I suspect.

However, while the downside of the comp’s centrality was that it gathered everything to it, the upside was that it gathered so many good things to it. The 2003 games had some fantastic experiences among them, even besides Risorgimento Represso. The winning game, Slouching Towards Bedlam, was stupendous, and made me a little bit relieved I hadn’t managed to finish part 3 of Earth and Sky for that year’s comp. Other highlights included The Recruit, Scavenger, and Episode In The Life of an Artist.

I also benefited from my history with the comp, as I got to enjoy the return of many a previous entrant. Mikko Vuorinen was back with another goofily incongruous exercise in icon-subversion, Mike Sousa brought a bunch of veteran authors into a group-writing exercise, and Stefan Blixt and John Evans returned with more half-baked entries in the line of their previous ones. Well, those last two weren’t so much fun, but best of all was the reappearance of Daniel Ravipinto, whose last game was in 1996 and who excelled once again. He brought with him a wonderful co-author named Star Foster, whose horribly untimely death in 2006 is one of the saddest stories in amateur IF.

I posted my reviews of the 2003 IF Competition games on November 16, 2003.

Once and Future by G. Kevin Wilson [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2002.]

IFDB Page: Once and Future

Swords and Sledgehammers

Note: This review contains minor spoilers.

If we wanted to make a short list of the people who had a major impact on the course of 1990’s interactive fiction, who would we include? Graham Nelson, Mike Roberts, and Kent Tessman would have to be in, for creating the major development systems (and, in Nelson’s case, a couple of major games) of the decade. Adam Cadre and Andrew Plotkin would make the list, for contributing some of the most important games of that period and, in Plotkin’s case, for crucial technical innovations as well. We can’t forget Volker Blasius, Dave Baggett, and David Kinder for founding and maintaining the IF Archive. And there’s one more name we couldn’t leave off: Gerry Kevin “Whizzard” Wilson.

Kevin contributed lots of things, all of which have their roots in his boundless, unstoppable enthusiasm for IF. He founded SPAG, the IF review webzine that I now edit. He organized and ran the first IF competition, and shepherded it through its first few years, as it became one of the most dominant forces in amateur IF, as well as one of the engines powering the IF Renaissance we currently enjoy. He labored to make Activision realize the value of the Infocom properties they own, and as a result brought some fascinating internal Infocom documents into public view, and brought paychecks and publication to the winners of the first IF Comp. He gave us one of our legends, too. I refer, of course, to Avalon. Avalon was the game that Kevin announced in 1993, estimating it’d take a month or two to finish. Two months turned into six, into a year, into many many years. The game seemed to be Kevin’s bĂȘte noire, the place where his enthusiasm was an anchor instead of a sail. That enthusiasm led him to keep expanding the game, perfecting it, adding more and more, while at the same time hyping it relentlessly in his every Usenet post, of which there were quite a few indeed. “Avalon” became synonymous with “overhyped vaporware.”

Then, in 1998, it happened. Avalon was released, albeit retitled Once And Future (OAF), since the name “Avalon” was already trademarked by another game. The trademark mattered, because the game was released commercially, the first pure text adventure to claim that distinction since the Infocom era. The company behind this venture was Cascade Mountain Publishing (CMP), run by Mike Berlyn, former Infocom Implementor. OAF was CMP’s flagship product, a thirty-dollar game touted as the return of “quality interactive fiction.” The story from here gets short and sad, for CMP founders rather quickly and tanks quietly, in the process apparently torpedoing the release of the Inform Designer’s Manual (4th ed.) for a good long time. While sales figures for OAF have never been released, it clearly never took off. Finally, on April 1st of 2001 (with no apparent irony), OAF is released as freeware.

I was one of the people who bought the original, thirty-dollar package. In fact, due to a CMP blunder, I actually received two copies, the second of which I gave away as a prize in last year’s comp. But for whatever reason, I never quite got around to playing it until now. When I finally did play the game, the weight of its history and its hype couldn’t help but burden the experience. It’s impossible to say how I would have viewed OAF had it been released humbly, for free, by an unknown author, but I think my reaction would have been quite a bit different. As it is, I find it difficult not to make this review a laundry list of faults. This game, upon which so much hope was riding, about which we heard so much and for which we waited so long, is far from perfect. In addition, as a commercial product it begs comparison not only to its contemporaries, the graphical adventures of the late Nineties, but also to its Infocom predecessors. Whether these are fair comparisons I don’t know, but OAF suffers by them. In the light of these considerations, I hope to make my criticisms as constructive as possible, and to remember the invaluable contributions of its author, the obstacles that stood in the way of its creation, and the gaming era from which it originated.

In that spirit, I want to focus on some of the things I loved about Once And Future. First of all, that’s a great title, far better than “Avalon.” OAF, for those of you new enough not to already know, is the story of Frank Leandro. Frank is a young soldier in Vietnam who, after sacrificing his life to save his friends, finds himself entrusted by King Arthur to journey through the fairy-tale realm of Avalon, collecting mythically resonant items like Excalibur and the Holy Grail and, finally, traveling through time to prevent a Great American Tragedy. In other words, he travels to the land of Once Upon a Time, at the behest of the man T.H. White dubbed the Once And Future King, in order to obtain One chance to save the Future. Where “Avalon” was a flat description of the landscape, “Once And Future” evokes the game’s genre, its themes, and its literary ambitions.

Those ambitions are important too. Kevin started this game in 1993, a time when serious themes and literary content were the exception rather than the rule in text adventures. He used a heavily characterized PC in the face of rather overwhelming IF tradition to the contrary, and injected that PC’s own distinctive voice into NPC interactions well before Varicella and its ilk. Come to that, he used a gimmick in the very first few moves of the game that feels fresh to us even now, at least according to Shrapnel and No Time To Squeal. I’m not the first to observe that this game would have been considered quite revolutionary indeed had it been released in 1994 (as originally planned). Still, the point bears attention. I suppose it’s the IF writer’s curse that because we most often work solo and our work is so demanding and detailed, there is a tremendous gap between conceiving an idea and realizing it in its finished form, and during that gap any number of things may come along to steal our thunder. It’s no wonder that some IF authors hate to see concepts blithely discussed; I’m of the mind that execution is just as important as concept, but it’s got to sting to see your game’s ideas called old hat, when in fact they may have been stunningly original at the time you first began work.

The best part about OAF, though, is this: it’s fun. The game is genuinely fun for long stretches at a time. It’s a rollicking text adventure of the old school, offering wonderfully open-ended design and puzzles that challenge the mind and care little for how arbitrary they ultimately are. Once And Future‘s love for the Infocom tradition shines through continuously and, at times, the game’s sheer scope and its cleverness manage to hit the same high notes as its predecessors. As literary as it may aspire to be, OAF is a game first and foremost, and, although plenty of critical attention has been lavished on its story and writing, to me the real star of the show is the puzzles. [I’ll be naming several of these by way of example for those who have already played the game, but I don’t think it’ll spoil anything for those of you who haven’t.] There are lots and lots of them, and most of them quite enjoyable. Of course, many of them are rather easy as well, which for me coincides neatly with enjoyability. Freeing Merlin, obtaining Excalibur, and helping the old man are all examples of that pleasant sort of IF puzzle in which there’s an action that makes sense, I try it, it works, and I am made happy. Even some of the tougher ones provided me with time well-spent, like the diamond puzzle and the earlier parts of the Mountain King puzzle.

When the puzzles did go wrong, it often wasn’t because they were too difficult, but rather because the series of steps necessary to execute the solution was long and tedious. A perfect example here is the braziers — the concept is straightforward enough, and a helpful mnemonic is even provided (a very nice touch), but actually carrying out this concept entails a great deal of tedious tromping back and forth and mucking about with fiddly liquid commands. The problem here is that the fun part of puzzle-solving is the actual figuring out — the rest is just follow-through, and if made sufficiently involved, becomes drudgery. The lesson for designers is to keep the emphasis on the former, and make the latter fairly streamlined, or at the very least entertaining in its own right. The worst offender in this category was the business with the blue paste — there isn’t even any figuring out involved, just a lot of mind-numbing inspection of nearly-identical objects.

Another area where the puzzles run into difficulty is bugginess. I suppose that in the technical sense there aren’t any game-stopping bugs in OAF, but having the game actually fail to respond to a command its documentation specifically recommends (ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS) comes close enough in my book. In addition, the game isn’t free from guess-the-verb problems. In fact, the particular final puzzle I encountered (there are a variety of them, depending on the character’s inventory in the final scene) had me so stumped that I actually went onto ifMUD, found somebody who had a hint book, and determined that I had in fact figured out the right action (an action which was rather nonsensical in itself), but the game hadn’t recognized any of the several commands I’d used to get it across. Once provided with the right verb, I was finally able to reach the game’s ending. It’s just the sort of problem that’s bound to plague a large game, but that doesn’t make it any more excusable.

Okay, clearly I’ve gotten to the part where I discuss OAF‘s flaws, so let me cut straight to its biggest one: the writing. Now, let me be clear about this. It’s not that OAF is poorly written in the way that a Rybread Celsius game is poorly written, or in the way that the games that occupy the bottom third of the comp standings tend to be poorly written. On the contrary, most of OAF‘s prose is clean, error-free and basically serviceable. However, it is punctuated with serious problems nonetheless, not the least of which is its plethora of overwhelmingly maudlin, trite moments. Here’s a sample, from a scene in which Frank sees a Vietnam buddy vegetating in a hospital bed:

"Is this Mark?" you think, as you look into the vacant, staring eyes. His mouth hangs slack, and there are no signs of intelligence. Gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes. He lies there, wasted and immobile, a monument to man's folly.

Lines like “a monument to man’s folly” and “gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes” are, I’m guessing, supposed to evoke goosebumps and a solemn nod, but all they elicit from me are groans. I don’t think it’s that I’m so jaded and hardbitten — rather, the lines take a redundant, sentimental shortcut around genuine emotion. I’ve already been told that Mark’s eyes are “vacant” and “staring” — does the point that they’re not sparkling really need to be made? Similarly, making stentorian statements like “a monument to man’s folly” short-circuits any possibility of my reaching that sort of conclusion on my own, and inclines me instead to see the narrative voice as irritatingly grandiose. [By the way, I’ve no doubt that this sort of thing has shown up in my own writing from time to time, and I groan when I see it there, too.]

When the writing isn’t being overdramatic, it frequently strays into cutesiness. In fact, one of the very first things a player is likely to see (because it’s in Frank’s initial inventory) is a candy bar object called “Mr. Mediocrebar.” In case you’re not familiar with American candy, this is a jokey reference to a Hershey product called “Mr. Goodbar.” The problem with this isn’t whether the candy bar ever serves a purpose — even useless objects have their place in IF. The problem is with the name. Calling the candy “Mr. Mediocrebar”, a name that no actual candy would ever have, immediately undercuts mimesis. It’s as if the author is playfully nudging us in the ribs and saying, “Hey there, this is all for fun, just a game. None of it’s real, and you certainly don’t need to take it seriously.” This sort of approach might work in a light farce, but it jars horribly against the somber Vietnam setting and the Big Themes to come. Furthermore, because the candy bar may well remain in the player’s inventory for the entirety of the game, its name has this deleterious effect over and over again. Not to mention the fact that it makes players think of the word “mediocre” throughout the game, which is hardly desirable.

Worst of all, though, is what I call the Sledgehammer Writing. Here’s an example: the player is in the throne room of a mysterious ruler called The Straw Man. This ruler sits silently and impassively on his throne. While in the room, Frank hears someone approaching, and hides. It’s a woman who tells the Straw Man her problem; he doesn’t respond, and by talking it out, she solves it on her own, and leaves. Then this happens again. Then it happens yet again, and this time, as she cries on his lap,

out of the corner of your eye, you notice the first sign of movement from the Straw Man that you’ve seen. His arm slips from the armrest of the throne, coming to rest on her shoulder. Reaching up to grasp his arm, she continues to cry for a little while before regaining control of her emotions.

Okay, so we probably know what’s coming, right? Sure we do:

But when the Straw Man’s arm slipped from the armrest, you noticed something. The Straw Man is just a plain old scarecrow.

Dum dum DAAA! But wait, there’s more:

Kind of funny, really, that the best ruler, the wisest person that you’ve ever seen, turns out to be a dummy.

Okay, I get the point. But still more awaits:

But maybe it says something too. People don’t always want or need advice, sometimes they just want someone to listen to them, and hold them.

WHAM WHAM WHAM! HERE IS THE MESSAGE I AM GIVING YOU! It’s as if the game has so little trust in its readers that after making its point subtly, then blatantly, it feels that it still must spell the whole thing out in painfully obvious terms, just to make sure we get it. This sort of thing isn’t just cringeworthy, it’s insulting; OAF would have been so much stronger had a little restraint been shown in scenes like this.

Finally, sometimes the writing just suffers from a simple lack of clarity. For instance, at a point in the game when Frank has been transformed into a mouse, reading a magical scroll gives this response:

Your head begins to spin as you read the scroll. Your hands start to glow red and twist into a more human shape. You briefly ponder what would happen if you were to become a full-sized human inside this mouse hole. It’s not a pretty thought. The scroll quietly dissolves to ash.

When I read this, I thought: Uh-oh, I’m about to die. I’d better UNDO, then get out of this mousehole before I read the scroll. Problem was, I couldn’t leave the mousehole without dying. In frustration, I sought a hint from Google and finally realized that I had been misled — the above message wasn’t presaging that I was about to be crushed, but rather that a several-turns-long growing process was beginning and that I needed to exit the mousehole before the process completed.

Speaking of that mousehole, it’s a good instance of one of OAF‘s primary qualities: its expansiveness. This quality is both a strength and a weakness, in my view. Certainly in terms of the game as a whole, it’s a strength — one of the best things about OAF is how big it is. Unlike the bite-sized IF that dominates current output, this game is a five-course meal. Then again, there are times when the “more is better” approach is a bit more dubious. For instance, hanging on the wall of the initial location is a paper listing “Murphy’s Laws of Combat”, a list that’s twenty-five items long. This little touch adds a bit of authenticity and characterization, but it also presents the player with a large, somewhat jokey wodge of text to read at the beginning of the game (following immediately upon the game’s long and somewhat non-sequitur-ish opening text), slowing down the pace of a scene that otherwise moves very quickly. Then there’s the geographical expansiveness, of which the mousehole is such a perfect example. According to my maps (I made them in GUEMap and have uploaded them to the IF Archive), the underground area of OAF comprises no less than twenty-seven rooms. The only purpose of this area is to provide a couple of puzzles that lead to an item that (along with a different item from another area) lets you solve another puzzle that ultimately yields one of the main necessary items for your final goal. The great majority of these twenty-seven rooms serve no purpose for obtaining that item. They’re just there for… scenery, I guess, or perhaps to make the world feel larger. A couple of them support items that comprise one of the game’s several dangling plot threads, but that’s about it.

I don’t think this approach to IF map design is optimal. A few non-essential rooms here and there can be a good thing, fleshing out the landscape and making the world feel a bit more whole. On the other hand, when the majority of the map seems to be made of non-essential rooms, something is a little out of balance. This happened to me on my first game — I had a puzzle planned out that would require a sandy beach, and it made sense to have several beach locations. In the end I cut the puzzle, but couldn’t quite bear to cut all the locations. Not only had I toiled to produce them, I thought they gave the landscape a greater sense of completeness. Of course, the game was rightly criticized for having a lot of filler rooms, and I learned my first lesson in the importance of pruning. (And judging from the length of this review, I still have quite a few lessons to go in that particular curriculum.) If I were writing that game today, I’d let my descriptions and transitions do a bit more of the space-establishing work, and I’d be less afraid to get rid of things that didn’t really serve the game except as decoration. I can’t help but feel that such an approach would have benefited OAF greatly as well.

Another strangeness about the maps is how gridlike they feel. The game contains several large landscapes, and in most of them, only movement in the cardinal directions is allowed, even though there are no logical barriers to diagonal movement. The locations are apparently evenly spaced from one another, despite the fact that they may represent radical shifts in landscape, so that a beautiful forest might nestle up against a blasted heath, with no apparent transition between the two. The result is that the setting has a very mechanical, unnatural feel, a feel that repeatedly reminds us that we are playing a game rather than traversing a real landscape. Again, whether this works is a matter of context — the grid layout might be great for a science-fiction game where the landscape is supposed to seem rigid and mechanical, but it doesn’t do justice to OAF‘s more natural, outdoorsy setting. There are a few areas in which the map is laid out in a fun, clever way, but these are almost always in the service of a puzzle.

Aside from its maps, OAF has a number of design successes. The game is fairly open-ended, so that a variety of puzzles are usually available at one time. It combines a Zorkish “wide landscape” with lots of Trinity-esque “little areas” by having lots of separate wide landscapes, which gives the game a chaptered feeling without needing formal divisions. The bottlenecks between these areas tend to work pretty smoothly, though I was hugely frustrated at one point — I failed to obtain an item from one area to solve a puzzle in another one, and wasn’t given another chance to do so, forcing me to restore from quite a ways back. Still, that was the only time that the game closed itself off for me, and given the era from which it originated, that’s not too bad.

The design of the story wasn’t quite so elegant. I mentioned dangling plotlines, and there are quite a few of them. I got to the end of the game, and instead of feeling resolution, I said, “That’s it?” For one thing, that ending inserts a sudden romantic subplot that was utterly unbelievable because it hadn’t been developed at all in any of the rest of the game. Moreover, the conclusion left so many questions unanswered about things that happened elsewhere in the game, it felt quite unsatisfying. For example, at one point you have a friendly kitty accompanying you on your travels. Then, in the process of solving a puzzle, that cat becomes lost, and possibly hurt. And you never find out what’s happened to it, or if it’s OK. Designers, don’t DO this! If your story puts an animal or companion in jeopardy, establish its final status before ending the game! The cat is just one example — there’s also stuff down in the mousehole that seems to imply a story, but the story goes nowhere. Instead, that stuff is just sort of there. The line between subplot and background color is a fine one, and OAF crosses it more than once, I think without realizing it’s done so. Subplots need to be resolved by the time the game ends, or else players end up feeling like I did: cheated.

The other problem I had with the story is more philosophical, and I suppose more idiosyncratic. The final quest of the game involves traveling in time to prevent a historical event. It’s an event that actually happened, but according to the game’s version of King Arthur, the world will be doomed if it isn’t changed. To me, this sort of story is wrongheaded. The pieces of our history, both good and bad, are what comprise our current reality, and living in that reality now, I found it hard to swallow King Arthur’s assertion that my world is doomed. In fact, I found it a lot more persuasive to think that Frank was being misled by a demon in holy guise, and was nonplussed [Ed. note: based on the length of this review, I think not!] to see that the game wasn’t going in that direction. The abstract question of whether the world might be better had certain parts of history been changed is an interesting one, to be sure, but I wasn’t at ease getting a protagonist to do something that in all likelihood would have prevented my own birth.

On a technical note, the game hangs together fairly well, especially for a work of such grand scope. It’s only natural that despite the five-year gestation period, this game would have more rough edges than smaller pieces of IF, and indeed it does. There are several times at which OAF gives default responses that don’t make sense. These details probably should have been seen to, but oversights like that are forgivable. Similarly, there were a number of bugs here and there, but nothing overly catastrophic or distracting. I have to admit, though, that I was disappointed by the NPCs. After all, this is the game that won the 1998 XYZZY award for Best NPCs, but they all seemed rather thin to me. Mordred, in particular, in spite of being a crucial part of Arthurian iconography, has almost nothing to say, nothing to do, and spends the majority of the game, in Michael Gentry’s words, “just sort of irritably standing around as though waiting for a bus.” Even some of the supposedly more fleshed-out characters, such as Merlin, suffer from serious lacunae in their knowledge. I’ve already mentioned that ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS doesn’t work, despite the documentation’s promise to the contrary. There are also exchanges like this one, which took place in Stonehenge after Frank had seen some strange blue stones:

>ask merlin about stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>ask merlin about blue stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

There's no verb in that sentence!

>ask merlin about blue
Merlin says, "Frank, I'm rather busy right now, can't that wait?"

>ask merlin about bluish stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>merlin, the blue ones, like I JUST $^%$ING SAID
I don't know the word "ones".

Or, similarly, when Frank has an unusual carved blue stone in his inventory.

>show stone to merlin
Which stone do you mean, the carved blue stone, or the flat stone?

Merlin isn't impressed.

>ask merlin about carved blue stone
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

Thanks a lot Merlin, you’re a big help. There were lots and lots of gaps like that, and to make matters worse, Merlin’s default “I don’t know” message was “Merlin pretends not to hear you.” And you can’t even KILL MERLIN WITH EXCALIBUR.

I spent several weeks playing through Once And Future, and I’m not sorry I did. For one thing, it’s an important part of recent IF history, and for another thing, as I said before, it’s fun. Still, it was a bit of a letdown. I suppose that after the hype, buildup, and fanfare it got, it couldn’t help but be a letdown, at least a little bit. On top of that, it was no doubt to the game’s disadvantage that I played it in 2002. However unfair it might be to judge what’s essentially a 1994 game by 2002 standards, it’s impossible not to, because, well, it is 2002. Styles have changed, and parts of OAF haven’t aged well. The bottom line is that it feels like the work of a beginning writer, one who has promise and may have matured through the process, but whose novice mistakes remain. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing — it most certainly is — but don’t believe the hype.

TOOKiE’S SONG by Jessica Knoch [Comp02]

IFDB page: Tookie’s Song
Final placement: 7th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Apparently, it’s the Year Of The Squid. When I wrote Another Earth, Another Sky, I was pretty pleased about the squid. “How many other comp games,” I might have thought to myself, “are going to include a squid?” Turns out there’s a freaking avalanche of them. Well, maybe not an avalanche, but two others besides mine, in a field of 38 games, really is rather a lot. The squid in Till Death Makes A Monk-Fish Out Of Me! is essential to the plot, though, while the one in this game is more or less decorative, so I have to say that TDMAMOOM wins on Squid Points. On the other hand, Squid Points don’t figure into my ratings, nor, I believe, anyone else’s, so who cares?

Besides, this game has plenty of charming and wonderful assets of its own to recommend it. First of all, and still my favorite, are the altered library messages. I hereby nominate the following for Comp02’s most delightful response to X ME: “You are, and I say this in all honesty, as good-looking as you have ever been.” There are plenty more where that came from:

>break it
You raise your hand to strike, but something mysteriously holds you
back. It's as if a voice inside your head is telling you that random
violence is not the answer to this one.

TOOKiE’S SONG takes most of the standard Inform messages and, without substantially changing their content in most cases, tweaks their tone so that they fit in perfectly with the game’s lighthearted world. In those cases where the game does change the message substantially, it’s for the better, such as its replacement of “That’s not a verb I recognize” with “That’s not a verb you need to rescue your Tookie.”

“Your Tookie” is the PC’s beloved pet bloodhound, captured by rascally alien felines. These diabolical outer-space cats have, as they so often do, placed the PC in an artificial environment with a bunch of puzzles, promising that if those puzzles are solved, maybe they might consider freeing the dog. This premise is utterly arbitrary, and the game knows this and revels in it. The writing is joyful and funny throughout, and many of the puzzles are rather clever.

TOOKiE’S SONG (really don’t understand what’s up with that capitalization, but whatever) hangs out near “pure puzzle game” territory for much of its duration, with themed areas (after the seasons), themed treasures (different-colored gems), and parallel puzzles in the various areas. Design is generally strong, with alternate solutions provided for many puzzles, interesting connections between the areas, and a fun ending that provided more evaluation of my actions throughout the game than I had been expecting. The game also takes care to provide lots of extra flourishes, such as an EXITS verb, which lists available exits in a room, and a terrifically complete HELP/HINTS section.

Unfortunately, I can’t praise the coding uniformly, because I encountered a number of problems during my time with the game. Most severe among these had to do with the “story problem” puzzle. Yeah, that’s right — one of the game’s puzzles is a math problem, couched in the old standard form: “Alice leaves city A at 9:20 a.m., traveling east toward city B at a speed of 60 miles per hour…” and so forth. For the word-problem-phobic, there is an alternate solution available, but I’m not particularly in that group, so I worked it out for myself. Unfortunately, the game was unwilling to accept my correct answer, no matter how I tried to express it. I tried saying (answer changed to prevent spoilage) “5:00”, saying “five o’clock”, writing them on a sheet of paper and handing them to the puzzler, but no dice.

After employing the alternate solution, I learned that the game was looking for “FIVE P.M.” I really dislike being told I have the wrong answer when I actually have the right answer — call it residual math class trauma. There were other difficulties too, mainly with objects used in unexpected ways, or error messages that were either too strange to be right, or too vague to be helpful. Happily, the author seems quite dedicated to collecting bug reports, so I feel fairly confident that there will be post-comp releases that take care of these problems. Once those bugfixes are complete, I would recommend TOOKiE’S SONG without hesitation.

Rating: 8.7