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