Phantom: caverns of the killer by Brandon Coker [Comp05]

IFDB page: Phantom: Caverns of the Killer
Final placement: 31st place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Right up front this game starts sending out the red flags. There’s the fact that its title isn’t in title case. There’s the fact that the debugging verbs are left on. (Not that I remember how to use them decades later.) And then there are the opening sentences:

Legends speak, of a great egyption warrior. Who rose in the military ranks faster that any other.

So, whew, just very rough right away. I dialed my expectations down, way down, and kept playing. Here is an advantage to playing the comp games outside the comp period — it had been about 6 months since I played Dreary Lands. Consequently, my patience account had built back up, enabling me to battle through the terrible writing and nonsensical milieu, looking for some things to appreciate.

The impression I got was of a very, very young author (or at least one who hadn’t done a lot of writing or received a lot of feedback), more attuned to the programming part of IF than the writing part. This is a demanding medium, in that it requires authors to be skilled in two traditionally separate areas — prose storytelling and coherent code. Phantom has its problems with the latter (though much less so than, say, Dreary Lands), but falls down very badly on the former.

The result is a game that tries to horrify, but keeps stumbling into unintentional comedy. Horror in particular is a tough genre for an author lacking basic skills, though it’s apparently an attractive one for such authors as well — see Exhibit A, Rybread Celsius. In order for a reader to be scared or creeped out by a fictional world, she’s got to be able to suspend disbelief about that world, and under an avalanche of prose errors, it’s pretty difficult to suspend disbelief.

Another obstacle to believing in Phantom‘s world lies in the weird numbers that occasionally pepper the text. For example:

>open black box
The box opens but a hand comes out grabs your face and squeezes the blood from your veins.1

“1”? I mean, the death message is a little comical as it is, what with the way a hand to the face somehow causes circulation problems, but the “1” afterwards is clearly just a mistake, or maybe a debugging leftover. Given that there’s a “2” that appears after the winning ending, I’m guessing this has to do with the game setting Inform’s death message flag, and maybe printing it out either by mistake or as a way of making sure the right message prints, or something.

Then again, it’s not just death messages — there’s also this:

You can see a Large emerald here.

>x 1
(the Large emerald)
A very large finely cut emerald.

Really not sure what’s going on here, but it did give me a good chuckle.

In any case, Phantom seems like a well-intentioned attempt by someone who does not have control of his tools. I’d prescribe some intense focus on learning basic English mechanics, hopefully with instructional support, and a lot of beta-testing to root out weird code behavior, in order to produce a much improved next game. Or at least, that’s what I would have prescribed 17 years ago — I guess now I’ll just call it general advice.

Rating: 3.6

Jesus of Nazareth by Paul Allen Panks as Dunric [Comp05]

IFDB page: Jesus of Nazareth
Final placement: 33rd place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Between this game and Panks’ previous comp entry, Ninja v1.30, one year elapsed. Between that review and this one, the better part of 18 years has elapsed. In the interim, some things have happened, including the author’s death in 2009, just shy of his 33rd birthday.

Panks contravened many of the social norms in the IF community, and for that reason provoked reactions ranging from shunning to outright hostility. Jason Scott sums it up as well as anyone in the blog entry he wrote shortly after Panks’s death, and the comments from that entry (one of the few times I actually recommend reading the comments) flesh out the picture further.

Many things have changed technologically in those 18 years as well, which meant that I couldn’t just double-click the game file in order to run it the way I might have been able to in 2005. Jesus of Nazareth is a Windows executable, and Windows 10 wants nothing to do with it. I had to fire up a DOSBox instance to run it, and even once that succeeded there was certainly nothing like a scripting capability available, so I was reduced to taking the occasional screenshot so that I could remember notable moments in the experience of the game.

I wasn’t certain I really wanted to go through the bother, because I did not expect the game to be good, and it wasn’t. And if DOSBox had failed, I’d probably have given up. But when it succeeded, and I could at least play the game, I felt like I should at least give it a try, and in light of the author’s short and difficult life, I’m not inclined to be hypercritical.

Nevertheless, what we have here is not great. It’s a homebrewed parser game — one of Panks’ specialties — which is deeply player-unfriendly. Most anything the parser doesn’t understand (which is most things), it responds to with “You cannot do that here.”, giving a “Hello Sailor” feel to the proceedings minus any of the humor or sense of distant potential. In the very first scene, there’s a note, and if you try to read it, you’re told “You can’t make out the note.” If you type “x note” (not “X NOTE” because the parser can’t handle capital letters)… you read the note. You meet a centurion who is holding a spear, helmet, and shield. If you try to examine any of those things, you’re told, “That isn’t here.”

Technical flaws aside, the premise of this game made me smile. You play — not surprisingly — Jesus of Nazareth, and your goal is to get followers. The game knows and relies upon the command “convert”, as in “convert matthew.” The “score” command tells you this, at the beginning of the game:

Your goal is to convert at least 4 disciples to your cause.
Thus far, you have converted:
You still have 6 disciple(s) left to convert.

If you’re going to make Jesus the PC in a text adventure, this seems like a pretty logical way to keep score! On the other hand, if you’re going to make Jesus the PC in a text adventure, the parser should probably know the word “forgive”. See, I hadn’t wandered too far when I found myself trapped in a location with the aforementioned centurion, who was insisting on seeing my papers, and wouldn’t let me leave. I had no papers — no inventory at all. Talking didn’t work. Converting didn’t work. Forgiveness wasn’t even an option. And there is no walkthrough.

So I quit, and forgave the game its trespasses.

Rating: 3.5

Xen: The Contest by Ian Shlasko as Xentor [Comp05]

IFDB page: Xen: The Contest
Final placement: 16th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, it took eight games, but I’ve finally hit the classic “game too big for the competition” issue. After two hours of Xen: The Contest, I had 29 points out of 63, so about halfway through the game I guess. It was enough for me to encounter the big (heavily telegraphed) plot twist, but not enough for me to understand how that twist changed the story. As usual, I’ll be reviewing the game based on what I saw of it in two hours.

What I saw, mostly, was your standard “implement a college campus” game, overflowing with stereotypes seemingly lifted from a paonply of 1980s movies, overlaid with a plot in which the PC gradually discovers he has superpowers and why. First, a word about the college stuff. I’ve had a 27-year (so far) career in higher education, moving from administrative assistant, to financial aid counselor, to Java developer, to manager and now associate director in the IT office. For a good chunk of that career, I’ve been in charge of the student portal, which has brought me in contact with nearly every part of the university, so it was with an insider’s perspective that I received the game’s treatment of the college experience.

Reader, it was not good. This game hates college. It hates the faculty. It hates the administration. It hates the students (well, the student athletes anyway.) It hates the grill chef. It hates the bookstore clerk. For crying out loud, it hates the receptionist at the student health center:

>x receptionist
Yet another minimum-wage employee who has been corrupted by the meager authority bestowed upon them, the receptionist has a permanent sneer on her face from looking down on all in her presence. In simple terms, she's a real [expletive].

(Note that the “[expletive]” is the game’s censorship, not mine.) Mind you, the PC is a freshman who has literally never walked into the University Hospital before. But for somebody who’s just showed up, boy does he have a lot of preconceived notions about everyone and everything. The snarling disdain for everything around him is evident in the majority of room and object descriptions. What’s more, there’s quite a bit of disdain set aside for the player and the basic mechanisms of IF as well. Many an object description ends with a “duh” statement, like so:

>x backpack
This is your backpack. You put things in it. Novel concept, huh?

One time, this kind of understatement can be a little bit funny. Over and over, for description after description, it communicates a resentment for even having to write descriptions at all, which causes me as a player to wonder why I’m playing this game that the author didn’t want to bother fully implementing. By the way, do you find anything in that description to suggest that the backpack would be better at extinguishing a fire than, say, a blanket? I sure hope so, because if you use the blanket to smother a fire you die, whereas the backpack is a big success!

That’s the other fundamental problem with snide non-descriptions. Not only is their tone grating, they also actively impede the play experience by failing to provide key facts that the player needs to succeed. Taken together, these qualities add up to a game that feels like a bully, calling you dumb for not knowing information that it intentionally withheld from you.

When it wasn’t making me learn stuff by dying, Xen was making me guess triggers. This is one of those games that waits for a particular command, then dumps out plot or exposition when the player enters it. These aren’t puzzles, really — most of the time the command is something like “sleep” or “sit”. When a trigger system like this is working smoothly, as it does for the majority of Xen, it can feel like traveling effortlessly through a story — just follow the very logical cues and you will make the plot happen. When it’s working badly, as it does sometimes, it can feel like wandering around in the wilderness, trying to guess the magic word that will unlock the only possible path forward. At no point does it feel like you have a choice of actions — scenes are strung together in a single linear path, and until you figure out the trigger that advances you along that path, you will make no progress in the game.

Between its truculence around describing things and its insistently single-track design, Xen: The Contest feels like a prose story whose author decided it would get more attention as an IF game. That may have been true, but it wasn’t a lot of fun for me as a reader or a player, especially given the fact that in two hours, even when resorting to the walkthrough several times to unearth a hidden trigger, I only saw about half. I suppose in a way this is the old “the food is terrible and the portions are so small” joke in action again, but I wasn’t really laughing.

Rating: 4.5

Escape to New York by Richard Otter [Comp05]

IFDB page: Escape to New York
Final placement: 11th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

I had to swim through some choppy technical waters to even get to this game. Apparently ADRIFT’s latest version isn’t backwards-compatible with games generated by previous versions, or at least it didn’t appear so — the interpreter squawked something about generator libraries at me, giving me an instruction it wasn’t capable of letting me carry out. (I’m guessing the instruction was for authors?) So back I went to a previous version, which required a full windows install and when run complained about how it didn’t have the right permissions to update the registry (surely something the installer could have taken care of?) Anyway, I fought through that — let’s chalk it up to me trying to play this game 16 years after it was released, and move on.

Escape to New York has an intriguing albeit somewhat odd premise. You play a thief who has boarded the Titanic. Now, the game is extremely coy about actually acknowledging the fact that you’re on the Titanic — the name isn’t mentioned anywhere in any of my game transcripts or the supporting materials. In the game, it’s just a big fancy ship that happens to leave Southampton for New York on April 10, 1912. Oh, and it also sinks. Hey, just like the Titanic! I’m not sure why the game is so reluctant about naming the ship — you can even find a pamphlet that tells you a million facts about it (perhaps somewhat anachronistically expressed in metres and metric tons?]… but not the ship’s name. A strange choice. Another strange choice: it names its protagonist “Jack Thompson”, which is really awfully close to Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Jack Dawson” from the massively popular 1997 film. Why?

In any case, placing the PC on the Titanic creates a weird sense of dramatic irony — we know the ship’s going to sink, but he doesn’t, and therefore it’s a little odd to be running around trying to liberate loot from the passengers on a ship you know is doomed. Apparently the game’s idea of a successful run is to steal as much as possible and make it to a lifeboat, but it’s not clear from the outset that this is your goal. I kept expecting a big twist to happen where suddenly you forget about being a thief and just try to make it out alive, but nope. The game’s insistence on petty goals when the player knows a life-or-death situation is coming made for an offputting dissonance.

The other offputting part is the underimplementation. Some aspects of the game are quite lovingly crafted — it provides lots of good descriptions and creates a fine sense of place, but just as often it frustrated me with its seemingly arbitrary requirements and boundaries. For example, the first section of the game requires you to wander around the ship’s corridors until you find the mailroom. Fair enough, but sometimes travel directions are closed off with the message, “Something tells you that wandering around the corridors of the ship is not the best use of your time.” Well, maybe not, but it certainly is what the game requires! You can’t succeed without doing that, so “something tells me” the PC’s intuition is a little off in that regard.

There are also several learn-by-dying or learn-by-undo puzzles scattered throughout the game. You might enter a room in which someone suddenly pounces on you based on something you’re wearing or carrying, with no warning whatsoever. In another section of the game, you require a disguise to get past a watchful policeman. The only ways to get through this are to either try it and fail with a game-ending message, or to finally acquire enough disguise-ish items that the game tells you, “That lot should make a good disguise.” Mind, it’s given messages before about individual items, saying that they’d make a good disguise on their own, only to snatch the rug out when you try to actually use them. It seems to me that if the PC is capable of assessing how complete a disguise needs to be, he should also be capable of assessing whether or not to assay an attempt at passing a policeman with an incomplete disguise, but the game provides no such internal monologue.

At some point I got annoyed enough with this bait-and-switch behavior that I switched over to using the walkthrough, and once I did I started having a reasonably good time. For one thing, it helped me understand what sort of playthrough the game had in mind — run around gleefully nicking stuff and stuffing it in a suitcase, so that you can escape to boat with your big prize (a stolen painting you connived to get into the mailroom) and a bunch of other loot as well. Strip away the historical scaffolding and it’s essentially a Zorky treasure hunt, albeit with far less clever puzzles — you mostly get stuff via LOOK ON [object] or LOOK UNDER [object].

I also found myself really appreciating ADRIFT’s autocomplete feature, which surprised me a bit. I’m sure it’s been at least 15 years since I played an ADRIFT game, and having recently reposted all my previous comp reviews, my memories of it are not kind. This time, though, I enjoyed the way that its autocomplete let me type just one or two letters of verbs and nouns, really smoothing the playing experience. It was also a useful (though not entirely reliable) way to see if the game had implemented something — it yielded some false negatives, but if you saw it autocomplete something, you knew it was in the game somewhere. It did have a downside, sometimes anticipating nonsensical input and leading me to accidentally enter commands like “put parcel in baggage slip” when I meant “put parcel in bag”, but overall it was a feature I found myself wishing were in other games.

Overall this was a pretty flawed game, with mild issues in premise, writing, and implementation, but once I allowed myself the walkthrough I found it fairly enjoyable, and I appreciated the chance to be in a story that takes such an unusual approach to the hoary set-piece of “You are on the Titanic.” Once I knew it was a treasure hunt, I could gleefully romp through the ship ripping off valuables, in hopes that me, my giant suitcase, and my stolen painting could end up safe on a lifeboat while the rest of my luckless fellow passengers scrambled for their mere lives.

Rating: 7.4

Internal Vigilance by Simon Christiansen [Comp05]

IFDB page: Internal Vigilance
Final placement: 10th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

So first, let’s acknowledge that when it comes to libertarian-flavored political stories, there’s quite a large contextual difference between 2005, midway through the Bush-43 presidency with its wars and its USA-PATRIOT Act, and 2021, the year of an attempted coup against the American government and a devastating pandemic that continues to kill tens of thousands despite the wide availability of highly effective vaccines, because a significant portion of the population refuses to get vaccinated. I will also acknowledge my own bias, which is that while I have some sympathy with the sentiment behind libertarianism, I find its real-world application tends toward the simplistic and absolutist, an indignant sputtering about freedom and rights, with very little attention to necessity and responsibilities. Certainly in the case of the insurrection, the people screaming about freedom under “thin blue line” flags were the same ones beating up cops in the name of a would-be authoritarian. Consequently, I was the wrong audience at the wrong time for this game. Nevertheless, I am who I am and it is when it is, and since I’m the one writing this review I’m here to report that I found Internal Vigilance thudding and exasperating rather than the thought-provoking exercise I’m sure it was intended to be.

You play a generic government agent (seriously, your email domain is “”) in an apparently repressive regime which nevertheless seems to take very few prisoners — your charge in the game is to interrogate “prisoner no. 6”. Perhaps the agency is very new? Or maybe they number prisoners out of order. In any case, this guy’s crime was to write a libertarian-leaning book, whose argument you sum up as follows:

Freedom is more important than safety. It is not hard to understand why he is
supected of having terrorist connections.

Uh-huh. Apparently the old “.gov” hates freedom now and equates it with terrorism, and so do you. (Or at least, you “supect” such a connection.) I had to look again to make sure this game isn’t titled YOU Are a STRAW MAN!, but nope. Internal Vigilance is both the name of the game and this guy’s book. So after examining all the stuff in the PC’s office, I steered him down to interrogate the guy. The game uses an enhanced version of the ask/tell conversation system, where you can abbreviate ASK to “A” and TELL to “T” if there’s only one interlocutor in the room, and can add extraneous text which the parser will sift for keywords. The game’s example is “ASK JONES ABOUT HIS VIEWS CONCERNING THE RIGHTS OF THE INDIVIDUAL”, because of course it is.

Using this system, I questioned the prisoner, and that’s when I started to discover that not only is the game too lazily imagined, it’s too lazily implemented as well. The dialogue is riddled with errors, including the baffling repetition of a lower-case “i” for the first-person singular nominative pronoun — quite ironic for a game about individualism. My conversation hit so many dead ends that I eventually looked up the hints and found that while “ASK ABOUT FAMILY” was a fruitless line of questioning, “ASK ABOUT MOTHER” hits the jackpot! Okay. Once I break through and get the intel I need, the prisoner glares at me and I’m told, “If looks could kill, you would be death by now.” I would be death?

Anyway, that scene ends and then a new chapter starts, in which the PC is flying. Flying! The glorious freedom of flight! He’s got “a pair of large majestic wings with white feathers, held together by wax”, which are also somehow a part of his body that would have to be removed surgically, we find out. DANGER, METAPHOR AHEAD. In this chapter, you can fly too close to the sun and have your wax melt, or you can fly too close to the ground and get shot down. In all cases, you end up in a cell with somebody telling you your wings will need to be removed “for your own good.” DO YOU GET THE METAPHOR YET? If not, the game will throw you a C.S. Lewis quote about how “of all tyrannies a tyranny exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive.” Of course, the original quote had more words and a comma, but this game is free of repressive rules about accurate quotation!

So the wings scene turns out to be (surprise!) a dream, and then you get to investigate the case, basically figuring out whether the prisoner is connected with domestic terrorists. There are a number of ways this can go. The way mine went found me chatting with the prisoner’s sister, or someone purporting to be her. She served me some tea. I drank it and found that it had “a interesting spicy taste”, from which I immediately concluded I’d been drugged. (And that the author is blissfully free from the fascist rules about indefinite articles.) Here’s what happened next:

You feel sleepy.

>get up
In the middle of the conversation? That would be pretty rude.

>shoot allyson
Your gun feels much to heavy to lift...

>throw tea at allyson
(first taking the cup of tea)
You carefully pick up the teacup, making sure not to spill the hot contents.

You struggle to keep your eyes open.

>a tea
You don't believe that question will get you anywhere at the moment.

In other words, the game wants to let me know the PC has been drugged, but is not prepared for me to actually try to do anything about it. As with the lower-case “i”, I had to take a moment and soak in the fact of how this libertarian game keeps taking away my freedom to act. In fact, in the very next scene it pretty much ties the PC to a chair to shout the plot at him.

My game ended shortly after this, as the terrorists shot the PC in the head. I decided to give it another try, this time following the hints, and what I found was a puzzle having to do with a book code and a passphrase, which could allegedly get me into the terrorists’ hideout without being drugged. Following the hints exactly, I looked up the code and tried the phrase. (The phrase is, sigh, “Freedom from protection.”) The game did not accept this phrase. I tried again, making sure I had all the numbers and words right. The game did not accept it. Apparently the hints had steered me into a game-breaking bug.

At this point, I decided to quit the game and never come back. The word I would use to describe this decision is: liberating.

Rating: 4.4

Snatches by Gregory Weir [Comp05]

IFDB page: Snatches
Final placement: 8th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Snatches is a very ambitious game whose reach ultimately exceeds its grasp. It’s got some great things going for it: a compelling structure, vivid writing, and powerful drama. Unfortunately, it also has an uneven and railroady design, and it’s generally underimplemented, lacking the commitment to fully execute on its premise. Consequently, I kept wanting to be engaged by the game, but generally ended up frustrated instead.

The game starts off immediately arresting, with a distinctly IF version if in medias res — the parser prints out the response to the command it was just given, albeit not by the player: “Taken. The scotch inside the glass glows golden.” I thought this was quite cool, and only later did I realize that it also sets the stage for the lack of choice to come. Turns out the game does not want to let you leave the room until you drink that scotch. I tried to avoid it, because I’m contrary like that. I spent lots of time examining things, including some curtains which seem to just be hanging on a blank wall, because when I tried to examine the window I was told I couldn’t see any such thing. I tried to smash the glass, but was stymied. I tried pouring out the scotch but the game didn’t know the word “pour.” I tried another tack:

>empty drink
You toss the scotch back, and it burns as it goes down. Now you're ready to head to town.

Ha! If only Inform had printed “[into yourself]” that response would have been perfect. Anyway, having alcoholically unlocked my prison, I moved into quite a large landscape — a manor house with lots of rooms and hallways. I explored all over, but most things seemed pretty locked and deserted. Still, I wandered around examining and moving things for about 30 minutes before concluding that the game was patiently waiting for me to do the one thing that would results in my character’s demise, and that there was nothing else I could do.

So I did that thing, the character died, and things got wilder – suddenly I was another character, seeing the aftermath of another just-completed command. The same pattern played out again, but with much less exploration this time — I stumbled into death pretty quickly. Then it happened again, and again, and again many times over, a different character each time. The game’s writing really shone in these sequences — it very deftly employed the multi-POV IF trick of describing the same set of locations in completely different ways to illustrate a character’s viewpoint. Brief as my encounter with each character was, I frequently found myself caring about them, and that’s down to the strength of the writing.

Sadly, that was also what made the game frustrating, because there seems to be no way to save any of these characters from their fate. So the game continues repeating the pattern of thrusting you into a PC’s shoes, making you care about that PC, then disposing of the PC. Well after it’s clear what’s going on, it’s also clear that there’s no fighting it, even though the game also jumps around in time, giving you (what would logically be) opportunities to prevent the whole thing from happening, if not for the fact that the parser curtly shoves back at any attempt to do so. In this process, I kept trying things that made sense from a world-modeling point of view, but just weren’t implemented, much like that absent window in the first room. I couldn’t even SCREAM. (Really, a horror game that doesn’t implement SCREAM?)

So the experience of the game is of failing over and over, until you finally get incarnated into the one character who has any real agency. By that time, with the various frustrations of the game having piled up, it’s pretty hard to care anymore. I somehow found myself able to kill off the scary menace that had picked off all my earlier selves, but it felt like a pretty pyrrhic victory. I then followed the walkthrough to a different ending, which was also pretty unsatisfying. Maybe there’s an ending out there that lets you revive the victims and see the sunrise on a hopeful new day, but after struggling against the game’s tight restrictions for a couple of hours, I really didn’t feel like seeking it.

Rating: 7.6

Dreary Lands by Paul Lee [Comp05]

IFDB page: Dreary Lands
Final placement: 29th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

There are lots of different ways to write a bad comp game. There’s the Rybread special — terrible spelling and coding in a bizarre world. There’s the dreaded bad homebrew. There’s the obnoxious bad “joke” game where the joke is on you for playing. There’s the promising but badly unfinished (or broken) game. There’s the “here’s my apartment” (or house, or school, or aero club) game. There’s the simpleminded bad religious evangelism game. There’s the “first game” that seems intent on making a bad first impression. There’s the game with puzzles so broken they can’t be solved without a walkthrough. There’s the exasperating “I’ve never heard of spellcheck and can’t write in English” game. And of course, there are the games that check more than one of these boxes. I’ve played all the flavors, many times over, but sometimes I get fooled as to which is which. Dreary Lands, for example, looks at first like it’s going to be a surreal Rybread whirlwind, but turns out to be a first game not only broken in English and puzzles but also seemingly attempting some clumsy evangelism as well.

Sure, the writing is bad, and I mean awful. Here’s a sampler, in response to the command “CLIMB TREE”:

You lock your legs about the wet distusting trunk; but it is far to slippery to get a hold on, and you fall backwards into the marsh, getting soked in the vile mire a bit more than you’d have thought acceptable.

When I first started playing this game, I was noting all the blatant writing errors — in this case “distusting”, “to slippery”, and “soked”. I had to stop almost immediately because those errors are constant. Even where we get past spelling/typo issues, there are questions like, “exactly how much ‘soking’ in the vile mire would I have found acceptable?” Some games with terrible writing feel like they’re produced by someone for whom English is a second (or later) language. Dreary Lands didn’t really feel like that to me — it has more of a “very young writer who has a lot to learn about proofreading” vibe, combined with a generous helping of “can’t really express myself articulately yet.”

The coding errors aren’t quite so constant, but when they happen, oh boy are there some doozies. Here’s my favorite:

You can also see (which is currently burning., (which is currently burning., (which is currently burning., (which is currently burning., (which is currently burning. and (which is currently burning. here.

I have no idea what is supposed to be happening here, nor what went wrong to turn it into what it has become, but wow. I know I just used a “literally” joke in my last review, but it is hard to avoid thinking of this as the flaming wreckage of some poor attempt at Inform code. What’s definitely true about it, though, is that it presents a puzzle that’s pretty much unsolvable without the walkthrough, concealing as it does an object crucial to that solution.

I used the walkthrough to get out of that jam, and then tried to continue on my own but almost immediately became ensnared in other illogical object behaviors, so between the writing and the coding I decided to just type straight from the walkthrough the rest of the way. Even then, I had to restore from an earlier point because somehow I’d gotten the game into an untenable state. With the help of the walkthrough, though, I was able to finish the game, which is how I figured out it was trying to be sneaky evangelism.

Mind you, I understand that all games evangelize something, consciously or not, and usually a whole raft of things. This game, for instance, argues against the value of comprehensible writing, promotes D&D-style medieval cliches like walking around with a sword, shield, and bow, and makes the case that games should be entered in the comp whether they work or not. But alongside all that, it starts to introduce religious imagery that by the end shows a clear proselytization agenda. When it turns out you’re fighting a fallen angel (rebelling against both Satan and God) and that your sword-strike against it gets a little boost, “Footprints in the Sand”-style, by “two more hands, large and mighty, cupped around your own”, it seems pretty clear that the game is arguing for the Christian beliefs.

And just like Jarod on his Journey, its alignment with those beliefs lets it feel super-smug towards the rest of the world, so that the PC can wander out into traffic and then shake his head at “the poor frenzied soul driving the pickup” that nearly ran him down. Tsk tsk mister driver, can’t you see I’m elevated? But this game to me was more like that pickup driver, “a big middle finger… shoved toward you,” and after its absolutely dismal presentation its smugness is deeply, deeply misplaced.

Rating: 2.9

Off the Trolley by Krisztian Kaldi [Comp05]

IFDB page: Off the Trolley
Final placement: 20th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Off the Trolley has a pretty arresting premise. You play a 65-year-old trolley driver on his last day at work. It’s your last day because your trolley line is going to be closed tomorrow, and no wonder — the line just goes back and forth between a grassy hill that used to be a movie theater and a cafe that seems to serve mainly trolley staff. But you’re obsessed with a mirror-windowed building just beyond the cinema stop, convinced that they’re building something in there “against humanity, morality, and
you.” The puzzles are all about figuring out how to crash the trolley into the building, and the game even makes a point of noting that in the last movie you saw at the now-gone theater, “Robert De Niro was acting great driving that taxi, solving all those matters so frankly.” So basically, you’re pensioner Travis Bickle in Trolley Driver.

Or at least, maybe you would be if the game hung together better. Unfortunately, it undermines its own effectiveness through a combination of awkward language, muddled tone, broken implementation, and a baffling, inconclusive ending. As you might have divined from the De Niro sentence, there are some significant problems with the English in the game. It’s not that it’s entirely broken all the time, though there are certainly plenty of broken moments. It’s more that the writing lacks grace and ease, using words in not-quite-right ways and making infelicitous diction choices throughout. For instance, here’s a sentence you’re likely to see often in the game: “Looking out, the trolley strolls steadily on its level route.” I believe what’s intended here is that you can see the landscape going by through the window, and you know that the trolley is moving at a steady pace. But “looking out” seems to apply to the trolley in the sentence, and by itself (without the addition of “the window”) it means scanning for danger. Not only that, “strolling” is not something that wheeled vehicles do — it’s a synonym for walking, with a connotation of casualness. It’s certainly possible to understand what the sentence wants to mean, but taking the journey from what it says to what it intends kicks you right out of the story.

The puzzles are enjoyable despite the language issues — well-cued and logical. However, I turned to the walkthrough after the game started spitting “[TADS-1010: object value required]” at me every turn. After that, things got stranger than I expected. Throughout the game, it’s unclear whether Off The Trolley wants to be a gentler version of Taxi Driver, revealing the psychosis of its protagonist, or whether in fact we would find something horrible within the mirrored building. But after I followed the walkthrough to avoid the TADS errors, I reached the ending, which resolves into… neither option? Instead, it suddenly shifts point-of-view for an Aisle-ish one-move experience, leading to various endings that ignore the protagonist’s arc altogether, stepping outside it to resolve absolutely nothing. These endings are all pretty much variations on a theme, and none of them are satisfying at all, instead leaving us hanging… sometimes literally.

Rating: 6.4

Mix Tape by Brett Witty [Comp05]

IFDB page: Mix Tape
Final placement: 18th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

The blurb for this game brought a big smile to my face:

For those with a love of music, creating a mixtape can be a genuine form of poetry. When someone cannot create the right words to express their love, rejection, loss or hope, they may find them in their favourite artists. This is my Mix Tape.

“Yeah,” I thought, “I’m part of the target audience.” As an 80’s kid, mix tapes were right in my wheelhouse. Nick Hornby is less so, but the game still endeared itself to me by starting off with two Hornby homages in rapid sequence — a quote from High Fidelity (albeit the movie, not the book), and a shout-out to Ben Folds Five’s “Smoke”, a Hornby favorite highlighted in Songbook, from an artist with whom Hornby would later have a Taupin/John style collaboration. The game’s writing is good, not just free of errors but evoking a strong mood and involving the senses. “Oh yeah,” I think, “I’m going to love this.”

Cut to 30 minutes later, and I cannot wait to break up with this game. Basically, the honeymoon ended the moment I tried to do anything outside the exact path the game was expecting. Twentysomething drama spins up almost immediately around the mix tape concept, which is fine — I have experienced my fair share of mix tapes, twentysomething drama, and mix tapes about twentysomething drama — but it turns out the drama is very fragile. My overwrought boyfriend has brought me up to a mountaintop so we can ceremoniously tear out and burn pages from our relationship scrapbook (ugh), but because I didn’t follow the path dictated by the walkthrough, the game and I are at an impasse. Behold:

>talk to peter
“Um, Peter?” you ask.

He quietly turns to face you, and nods, letting you speak further.

(You could ask him why you are here.)

>peter, why am I here
The story doesn’t understand that command.

>ask peter about why I am here
Peter interrupts you. “Valentine, we have to concentrate on this. On our
relationship. Do you understand what we need to do?”

Peter does not respond.

>peter, no
Peter does not respond.

Turns out the game was waiting for the bizarre command “ask him why you are here”, which feels very confused — who’s the “you” in that scenario, when the game itself addresses the player/character as you? Surely that’s not how the player/character would refer to herself? But it got worse. He asked if I was ready to burn the book, and I said no. From there, it appears I entered an unwinnable state, though the game’s obtuseness disguised that for a while.

You haven’t finished what you’ve come to do yet.

>x fire
A timid campfire whips its small fingers of flame about, sheltering as much as
it can from the wind.

>put out fire

>x fire
A timid campfire whips its small fingers of flame about, sheltering as much as
it can from the wind.

>ask peter about me
You mumble about me, but Peter doesn’t hear you. Or chooses not to respond.

>give scrapbook to peter
Peter does not appear interested.

>put scrapbook in fire
Peter stops you. “No wait... We should do this, you know, ceremoniously.
Tear out a page at a time.”

>tear page
You don’t want to damage the book just yet.

>get page
You can’t have that; it’s part of your scrapbook.

>burn scrapbook
What do you want to light it with?

(first trying to light the campfire)
What do you want to light it with?

>tear out a page at a time
The story doesn’t understand that command.

>tear out a page
(the page)
You don’t want to damage the book just yet.

Not only did I absolutely want to damage the book, I wanted to damage the game. Instead, in an ironic twist, it was burning me instead, one move at a time.

Mix Tape is structured as a series of scenes, each of which is associated with a song. It’s a great structure for the concept, but it becomes maddening when you get trapped in a scene, because there’s nowhere else to go. On this count, the second scene was no better than the first. I’m going to go ahead and spoil the magic command that’s needed, which is “serve dinner”. Showing the dinner to Peter doesn’t work. Telling Peter about the dinner doesn’t work. And so on. Plus, Peter is a total jerk about the whole thing anyway, and Valentine is rock-stupid, like “can’t unlock a door from the inside” stupid.

The last several scenes go by much more smoothly, because they are mostly non-interactive — the kind of thing that propels itself forward no matter what you do. Normally I find that kind of thing irritating, but this time it really felt like a relief. Once I wasn’t stuck in guess-the-command hell, I was able to enjoy the writing, characterization, and scene-setting a little more. By this point, I didn’t find either of the characters sympathetic, but I could at least appreciate how lovingly the game portrays their dysfunction.

Moments like that make me sad about saying this, but Mix Tape, it’s just not going to work out between us. And it’s not me, it’s you.

Rating: 5.2

History Repeating by Mark & Renee Choba [Comp05]

IFDB page: History Repeating
Final placement: 13th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’m writing this in 2021, having been in a kind of Comp coma since 2004. Oh there was occasional dip into a comp game or two — perhaps a solicited XYZZY review, or an overview of an acclaimed author, or an attempt at grabbing and rating a handful of games from 2015 — but those were flickers of consciousness, nothing like the focused attention I used to give the IF competition. That focused attention probably isn’t coming back anytime soon. Parenting doesn’t demand the kind of time it used to, but it still takes up a whole lot of my world, and other hobbies have grown into my life too — trivia and writing about Watchmen come to mind.

Nevertheless, freshening up all my comp reviews for this blog has given me the itch to play more, so I’ve decided to give the Comp05 games a whirl. As before, I downloaded the whole package from the IF Archive, fired up Comp05.z5, and pressed the “Big Red Button Which, If You Push It, Will Make You Do Everything You Really Need To Do Automatically.” That generated a randomly ordered list of games to play, and in one of the purest examples of beauty arising from chaos, the first game on that list was called History Repeating. Let the repetition begin!

Of course, it can’t be a literal repetition. I’m a different person than I was in 2005, and these reviews are written under decidedly different circumstances. My old comp reviews were written during the judging period, and the point of them was to explain my ratings and give useful feedback to authors. Now the results are long established, and most of the authors have likely moved on from writing IF altogether. The scene is completely different too, and I’m pretty completely out of touch with it. Consequently, there isn’t the old sense of urgency nor the sense of community accompanying these reviews. They’re more for me than for the authors, though of course I hope some others still find them interesting or useful. So while history is repeating in a certain way, an another way it really can’t repeat at all — it’s a river, and you can’t step in the same one twice.

That’s part of the point of this game, too. The premise is that you lose consciousness in your office job, and suddenly wake up back in high school. Turns out a Doc Brown-like figure has dragged you back into the past as a way of testing his hypothesis that we can change the future. Your way of doing this apparently will be to turn in a history report that you blew off, which seems to have derailed your life into the unsatisfying doldrums we’re told it’s in. However, as you might expect, changing the past isn’t so easy.

That isn’t just because of the timestream protecting itself or whatever. It’s also rather challenging because it turns out this game’s version of the past is pretty thinly implemented, and its puzzles require a fair amount of authorial telepathy. Having just read through many years of my own comp reviews, I know that the points here are ones I’ve visited many times, so I’ll skip teacher mode and just say that when a game doesn’t offer a rich implementation, it had better be very well cued, or else you end up like me, checking the walkthrough because many logical actions get no useful response, which makes it very difficult to guess the one reasonable action that the authors intend as a solution.

Outside of its thinness and its rather improbable puzzle solutions, History Repeating hangs together pretty well. It’s got a fun premise, solid coding, and error-free writing. It’s reasonably sized, and reasonably enjoyable, thanks to the walkthrough. It feels like the work of beginners, but beginners who are dedicated to creating a quality game. Overall I think it could have used a round or two of testing and then implementing better feedback to what the testers try, but the nature of the comp deadline tends to preclude that sort of thing all too often. If I saw another entry by these authors, I’d be interested to play it, and hope that they’d learned from history rather than just repeating it.

Rating: 7.7