Tapestry by Daniel Ravipinto [Comp96]

IFDB page: Tapestry
Final placement: 2nd place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

I thought this was really an impressive piece of work. Yes, it was a bit heavy-handed at times, and probably a little too derivative of Neil Gaiman’s visions of Fate and Evil in his Sandman cycle. But nonetheless, I found the situations compelling, the dilemmas convincing, and if a work is going to be derivative of someone, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Gaiman. I sometimes resented having my emotions so blatantly manipulated (somewhat akin to my feelings in a few Spielberg films) by the Dickensian drama of the mother and wife with wasting illnesses, the struggling family business on the edge of ruin, and the innocent “victims of inexorable fate” in the form of an onrushing car. Still, the fact is that the work succeeded in pushing my emotional buttons, and I was moved by the story. Tapestry is an ambitious piece, and both its successes and its failures are due to its exploration of the possibilities of interactive fiction. For example, the feeling of not being able to control the car despite what you order the character to do is an extremely chilling one, and it is an effect that would not pack the same potency were it attempted in static fiction. By the same token, though, exchanges with the wraith seemed a bit forced due to the limits of the medium — often complex points were reduced to the level of trying different versions of “tell wraith about x”. I have to admit, even though I’m educated enough to recognize “Morningstar” as Lucifer (the author even whispered in my ear to tell me so), I still chose his path my first try through the game. At the endgame, I was forced to think about my choices, and to recognize that I had been (and therefore could be) manipulated into making a choice that was wrong for the character, even if it wasn’t morally wrong, even if it is the choice I myself would have made under the circumstances. It wasn’t a nice feeling.

Prose: The prose tended toward the histrionic at times, and unfortunately this actually occasionally diluted the emotional impact of the situations. However, my experience of those moments was that they stuck out from the general trend of the writing, which was quite craftily done, and in fact sported some moments of real intensity and poignancy despite the occasional cliché.

Difficulty: I didn’t find the game too difficult to get through, but then again it wasn’t particularly puzzle-oriented. In fact, the path of Morningstar required a great deal more puzzle-solving than the path of Clotho (which is the other one I tried). Is there a message here?

Technical (coding): On the whole the coding was quite proficient. I was a little unhappy with what I perceived as some shortcuts (for example, a medicine bottle not implemented as a container), and the author’s realistic setting caused a few problems with Inform‘s standard responses. (Examples: entering “DIAL 911” and being told “You don’t know that phone number.”, and being told that I really should clean the soot that’s collected on my carpet, yet “CLEAN SOOT” receives a reply of “You achieve nothing by this.”) Apart from these details, the coding was accomplished quite handily.

Technical (writing): Grammatical and/or spelling problems and typos were not entirely absent, (I remember noticing an “a” used in place of an “at” or some such) but they were very few and far between.

Plot: I found the plot quite compelling. The prologue worked quite well for me, (though I did appreciate the “begin” command after my first time through) and the mutually exclusive endings were well planned. Ultimately, the game’s plot boils down to the idea that moral dilemmas can be extremely powerful in the medium of interactive fiction. I think this is a very, very good idea indeed.

Puzzles: As mentioned above, this work wasn’t really very puzzle-oriented. The puzzles that were included were integrated well with the game — no gratuitous grafted-on “crossword” elements — and this was both a strength and a weakness. The strength: nothing interrupted the suspension of disbelief created by the game’s dramatic scenarios. The weakness: character-driven puzzles (which most of these were) all too often boiled down to how to fill in the blanks on “tell ____ about ____.”


Stargazer: An Adventure In Outfitting by Jonathan Fry [Comp96]

IFDB page: Stargazer
Final placement: 19th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Stargazer worked quite well as a prologue, but I’m not sure I cared for it much as a stand-alone game. Just about the time I thought the action was about to start, the entire game ended. This made for a rather anticlimactic experience, especially since I worked through the game in well under the two hours allotted. Also, the game’s brevity worked at cross purposes to its genre; confusing references and unfamiliar objects can usually be let slide in fantasy since they are sure to be explained later. Not so in Stargazer. Aside from these problems, however, the piece was fairly enjoyable. There were a few technical problems, but nothing too great, and the author created a world I wanted to learn more about, which is certainly a step in the right direction. Stargazer worked well as a prologue — I look forward to the game.

Prose: Aside from the sometimes awkward or convoluted sentence structure (“One reason for this is that this is also…”, “…any other senses you may have.”), the prose worked fairly well. I got a nice sense of the turbulence of the river, and I thought the dialogue worked fairly well. Nothing was wonderfully well-crafted, but most was certainly serviceable.

Difficulty: I found the game quite easy — I finished it in about 40 minutes. Unfortunately, this ease aided the sense of anticlimax triggered by the game’s abrupt ending.

Technical (coding): Overall the coding was strong, though there were a few weak points. These points included: two separate moss/lichen objects which shared names, so that in one location “X MOSS” yielded “Which do you mean, the moss or the lichen?” over and over again; an object which is on a rock across a rushing river, yet which can still be touched or moved, a god who demands a sacrifice when the verb “sacrifice” isn’t in the game’s vocabulary, and a dusty lens which responded to “X DUST” with “You can’t see any such thing.”

Technical (writing): The writing was sometimes rather awkward, but it was generally correct in spelling and grammar.

Plot: Well, Stargazer didn’t contain much plot, though it did have the beginnings of one, and probably contained a lot of foreshadowing (though it’s difficult to tell without seeing the story ahead). What was there was an intriguing beginning, but not much more.

Puzzles: While quite easy, the puzzles moved the story along well, and were very well integrated with the storyline. I’ll be interested to see what challenges the author has in store in the actual game.


The House Of The Stalker by Jason Clayton [Comp96]

IFDB page: House Of The Stalker
Final placement: 23rd place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

A promising beginning turns into an excruciating series of coding and design errors and irritating writing. It’s hard to know where to begin with the criticisms. The tone of many of the responses was a kind of smarmy, smart-alecky wit which undercut any dramatic buildup or fear created by the tense premise. The underlying idea is good, but its execution was rife with logic errors. I can think of at least a dozen plausible solutions that were not implemented. For example, if I squirt the killer with Drano then try to go to the porch for help, I’m told “You can’t go that way.” (Oh no, he’s so dangerous he can make my door disappear!). Another example: I can wander through my entire house without meeting the killer, so why don’t I just call the police? Well, not one single room in the house has a phone. Add to this some fundamental coding errors, unconvincing writing, and “read the author’s mind” puzzles, and the result is a distinctly unenjoyable game.

Prose: The opening sequence of the game got me quite interested, but most of the other prose served to undo tension rather than create it. For example, the author tries to create emotional depth to the character by describing a recent divorce. After about a paragraph of this, the game says “Now that you’ve had a good cry, maybe you’d like to try preserving your life some, hmm?” The condescension and flippancy in this narrative tone completely destroy any gradually building sense of empathy or emotional urgency. Also, object descriptions give no thought to the interactivity of the game. For example, every time you look at the TV, an announcer breaks into a show and says the exact same thing. The hair dryer is described as having its cord hanging off the sink… no matter where you take it. This is lazy writing, and it obliterates suspension of disbelief.

Difficulty: I used the hints to get through the entire game once I realized that there was only one way to solve it and that was by doing exactly what the author had in mind, since no reasonable alternatives are provided. This kind of difficulty tests one’s patience, not one’s intelligence.

Technical (coding): Coding errors were everywhere. For example: The player must remove a scarf from a doll, but this can only be done in the room where the doll is originally located. Trying “YANK SCARF” anywhere else gets a response of “You can’t see any such thing.” Another example: “PUSH CHAIR” gets the response “You push the chair over to the bookcase.” “PUSH CHAIR TO BOOKCASE” gets the response “You can’t see any such thing.” The only other character in the program, the killer, wasn’t even implemented as animate. (“SHOW PICTURE TO KILLER.” gets “You can only do that to something animate.”) Like the writing, the coding was lazy and ineffective.

Technical (writing): There were very few technical errors in the writing. It’s frustrating — a good idea with technically sufficient writing ought to have been a much better game.

Plot: The premise had the promise of being extremely gripping and intense. The idea that danger lurks around every corner of a familiar setting has the potential to be great interactive fiction. However, by the end of the game, the idea of plot degenerated into a series of arbitrary but extremely specific actions performed on the killer’s body.

Puzzles: The puzzles were very difficult because of their arbitrary nature. One has to do a very specific and exact sequence of actions to the killer’s body before the game won’t respond to “KILL STALKER” with “Violence isn’t the answer to this one.”


Small World by Andrew Pontious [Comp96]

IFDB page: Small World
Final placement: 4th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

I really enjoyed this game a great deal, and it definitely gets points for originality. The literalized version of the game’s title made for a charming premise, and because the premise was so heavily based on setting, the brand of fantasy which resulted was perfect for interactive fiction. Wandering through the miniaturized world was really a treat, although sometimes I found it difficult to retain my suspension of disbelief, especially since some of the obstacles to my progress seemed just a little too arbitrary. For example, the inventory management problem caused by the lack of gravity in the majority of the game’s locations was a major pain in the neck. I didn’t feel that I was doing anything clever or solving an intellectual challenge when I had to trudge back to Dawn anytime I wanted to get something from the backpack. Puzzles like this, which tended toward the arbitrary, were the game’s weakness. From the weak gravity problem to the “loose ring” to the capricious magic rod, the game took advantage of its whimsical setting to create puzzles which were irrational and divorced from reality, and failed to provide enough hints and description to make them reasonably solvable. On the other hand, some puzzles (such as the satellite/snow puzzle and the lagoon) did a very nice job of exploiting the game’s scenario to witty ends. On the whole, Small World was a delightfully well-written game which has a few flaws, but is nevertheless lots of fun.

Prose: The prose which describes the world is very well done indeed, and much of the time I really felt a part of the situation because of how well the world’s Lilliputian proportions were described. The game obviously draws heavily on Gulliver’s Travels, especially in its description of the player staked to the ground by tiny people, and though it shares none of Swift’s social commentary, it does convey a distinct sense of his imaginative milieu. The main weakness in the prose related to the puzzles. In puzzles such as the loose ring and the rod, I didn’t feel that enough description was provided to allow me to reasonably predict the outcomes of my actions, and consequently I ended up solving some puzzles by force. (e.g. how would I know that something made of silver would buoy me?)

Difficulty: I found the game rather difficult, and ended up referring to the “cheat” hints a number of times (13, or so I’m told by the game). Unfortunately, much of this reliance was due to the lack of information described above or, in one case, to a lack of synonyms. When these features are improved, the game’s difficulty will be well pitched.

Technical (coding): There’s little to complain about in the coding of Small World, so I hope my quibble doesn’t receive undue focus. On the whole the game was very smoothly implemented, and I never found myself searching for the right word, except for once. Of particular note were the game’s warnings before moving to an unsolvable state, and its ingenious hinting system. The one area in which I had trouble was in receiving the “that verb isn’t implemented” response to “CLEAN SOCKS.” When that verb wasn’t available, I presumed I was on the wrong track altogether, not that I simply needed to “WASH” the socks instead. It took a “cheat” to get me out of that one.

Technical (writing): The game’s writing was technically proficient. Mr. Pontious does a nice job of eliminating errors in grammar and spelling.

Plot: The plot of the game was really quite sweetly designed, creating a childhood fantasyland which was evocative not only of Jonathan Swift, but also C.S. Lewis’ Narnia works, Lewis Carroll, and Bill Watterson. The battles between Heaven and Hell were a very nice touch, and I smiled at the gentle ending, which packs the character off to the hiking trip with a refreshed perspective.

Puzzles: This is my main difficulty with the game. As I mentioned above, some of the puzzles were really delightful and smart, while others felt a bit lazy. I think, though, that with the addition of richer descriptions for crucial objects such as the ring and the pipe (whose mechanism is mysterious to me even now), and with a closer attention to synonyms, these wrinkles will be well-ironed.

OVERALL — An 8.8

The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet by Graham Nelson as Angela M. Horns [Comp96]

IFDB page: The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet
Final placement: 1st place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

I was very impressed with Sherbet, a highly inventive adventure which puts yet another imaginative spin on the Zork mythos. The game’s prose is at a very high level of quality, its world is very well-designed, and several aspects of the documentation (the context-sensitive hints and the diplomatic “briefing”) were very well done indeed. I didn’t get through the entire game in the two hours allotted, and I found myself resorting to the hints quite a lot. Often, this was because a logical puzzle had me stumped, but the first two times were due to puzzles which didn’t offer enough alternative syntax. Unfortunately, these two situations inured me to looking at the hints, thinking perhaps that my other obstacles were due to syntax problems as well. Apart from this one flaw, Sherbet was a truly excellent piece of work — well-plotted with clever puzzles, a strong sense of unfolding narrative, and rife with the pleasures of revisiting an old friend in a new context.

Prose: The game’s writing consistently maintains an exceptional level of quality. The vacuous’ Amilia’s ramblings serve exquisitely to define her character, and the “briefings” concisely draw the player’s diplomatic situation while quietly evoking Zorkian echoes. I found myself just a little confused by some of the cave descriptions, but this was mainly due to the sense of scope which the author unerringly conveys.

Difficulty: As I mentioned, the game was too difficult (and large) for me to complete in the two hours allotted for judging time, and part of this difficulty arose from problems with the first two puzzles. After finally summoning the bird of paradise, I spent a good fifteen minutes trying to pour, put, rub, insert, or otherwise attach the sherbet to the elephant before finally resorting to the hints only to discover that the game demanded I “throw” the sherbet glass. However, in other spots the difficulty of the game was quite legitimate and logical, as in the instance of the ladder problem, which was another solution I found in the hints rather than finding it myself.

Technical (coding): On the whole, the game was very well coded, and I never found the kind of irrational flaws which can snap the suspension of disbelief in interactive fiction. There were a few spots where the game suffered from a lack of synonyms, especially the elephant (as described above) and the hook (one must again “throw rope over hook” but cannot stand on the table or hamper, lasso the hook, simply “throw rope” , “put rope on hook”, or even “throw rope onto hook”.) When these problems are eliminated , the game will be very strong indeed.

Technical (writing): Sherbet is a well-written and well-proofed piece of work in which I don’t recall noticing any technical mistakes.

Plot: It was a great pleasure to get embroiled in the plot, and the premise of the main character as a diplomat rather than an adventurer provided a break from cliché married with a plausible reason for the snooping called for by the game’s structure. I’m looking forward to the endgame, which I hope will offer a tie between the game’s diplomatic beginnings and its Zorklike middle.

Puzzles Mostly discussed above in “Technical (coding)” and “Difficulty.” Many of the puzzles were real pleasures (panning and the ladder come to mind) and the twist on treasure collecting (giving all the treasures to the Zork adventurer) was brilliant. Once the puzzles are better coded the game will be really first-rate.


Rippled Flesh by Ryan Stevens as Rybread Celsius [Comp96]

IFDB page: Rippled Flesh
Final placement: 24th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Having already played the author’s other competition entry, I sincerely dreaded playing this one. Probably my low expectations contributed to my feeling that this game was actually slightly better than Punkirita Quest. Sure, the writing is still riddled with errors, and sure, the plot and premise still make absolutely no sense, and yes, the coding is very poor and the design even more so, but at least this time I had some faint grasp of what was supposed to be happening. Perhaps this derives from the fact that Flesh takes a more realistic setting and thus less needs to be explained by the author’s inadequate verbal skills. Of course, that doesn’t mean I liked it — just that it was less painful than the other game. Progress? Perhaps — I’ll just try to judge the game on an objective basis rather than on its dubious achievement of being a better piece of work than Punkiritia.

Prose: The descriptions were weak, and the overall feel of the game evoked walking through the brain of a mental patient — a series of non sequiturs, loosely tied together by an irrational framework. The writing suffered under so many errors that they seriously occluded the author’s ability to communicate, and this problem was compounded by the fact that many (most, actually) of the objects and rooms in the game seemed to have no real purpose or function.

Difficulty: I found it possible to move through the game without much trouble, which is a good sign; at least the language problems didn’t render the game so opaque that it was simply impossible to complete without a walkthrough. Mainly the point of the game simply seemed to be finding one’s way through a maze of rooms — the one real puzzle (the wardrobes) had its effect spoiled by the fact that one didn’t really gain much of anything by solving it.

Technical (coding): Coding problems abounded. Nothing fatal, but certainly plenty of the nonsensical and downright baffling. For example, how about those lights that get turned on so brightly that they blind the character, yet in the next turn the room is still dark?

Technical (writing): Really quite terrible. My only hypothesis is that the author is a student (rather than a speaker) of English, and a rather poor one at that. A dictionary and a spell-checker would improve things immensely — then the proofreading can begin.

Plot: No, there wasn’t one. A bunch of random events tied together by a whacked-out ending does not a plot make.

Puzzles: I mentioned the game’s only real puzzle above. Other than that, the game’s “puzzle” was just walking through the exit in each room until finally arriving at the “win game” room. Nothing much made sense, and so the whole experience ended up being unsatisfying. The real brain-twister is why the author chose to enter this piece into the competition in the first place.


Reverberations by Russell Glasser [Comp96]

IFDB page: Reverberations
Final placement: 13th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

This game was strong on good intentions, but rather weak on execution. The plot of the pizza delivery boy who foils the giant conspiracy was clever and lots of fun to play through, but the enjoyment was dampened by several technical problems in the game’s interface. Witty remarks abounded, and some unlikely actions were anticipated quite hilariously, but the positive effect of these features was counterbalanced by some logical errors in the game’s construction. It was a fun game, and with some polishing could be a real gem of IF, but in the state it was in for the competition, its great ideas were bogged down by flawed coding and language.

Prose: In some areas the prose was outstanding — economical descriptions which brought off the flavor of an object or area without getting mired in detail. In other areas the prose failed to note rather important aspects of a scene (the most grievous offense occurring at the very first room of the game.) Finding the clever responses was the greatest pleasure in the game, though sometimes the “SoCal” references felt quite self-conscious; overall the game’s prose was like the game itself: strong ideas weakened by problems in key areas.

Difficulty: I never found myself resorting to the hints, but I was occasionally forced to solve problems in the game by exploiting the logical errors in its structure. For example, the beginning sequence gives no indication that a pizza needs to be delivered — I didn’t find out until I tried to leave town and the game told me “You aren’t leaving town until you deliver that pizza.” What pizza? Why, the one never mentioned in the initial room description! Consequently, the game was somewhat difficult, but for the wrong reasons.

Technical (coding): The game suffered from several coding problems, including not only the one mentioned above, but a disappearing door (to the mayor’s office), a store manager who only notices stealing when it conflicts with the plot, a pizza box and note which drift from room to room, and several rooms which do not contain text for items mentioned in their description. On the other hand, there are some shining moments in the coding as well, such as tailored responses to YES and NO.

Technical (writing): The writing’s occasional proofing errors provide a bit of unintentional humor, such as when the game describes the district attorney as being “only… uh, ten years old than you!”

Plot: The plot of the game was great! The fun and zaniness of foiling the conspiracy made the game’s technical errors much more forgivable. Several moments in the plot were even quite inspired, and felt intuitively right in the unfolding story. Examples include kicking the window while hanging on the ledge and throwing the bomb in the sewer.

Puzzles: Some of the puzzles (such as getting past the security guard and getting rid of the bomb) were quite good and managed to achieve the subtle balance between the problem logically blocking the narrative and the solution advancing it. The puzzles that presented real problems were based on coding flaws rather than conceptual ones, such as the initial pizza problem and the final rope problem, which defeats so many attempted verbs that one feels like jumping off the building.


Ralph by Miron Schmidt [Comp96]

IFDB page: Ralph
Final placement: 12th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

The concept of Ralph is great fun — the idea of nosing around as a dog gives the author the ability to take advantage of some of the most fun aspects of the text-based interface, putting the player into the canine mindset with dog’s-eye-view room and object descriptions and action responses. Consequently, Ralph gives a hilarious rendition of the canine experience, and the little moments this provides (for example, the reactions to “examine me”, “bite blamant”, and “dig hole”) are the best parts of the game. On the negative side, however, the game’s puzzles are fairly illogical (perhaps I would understand them better if I were a dog, but I don’t think so), and one particular problem was poorly coded enough to give it a real “guess-the-verb” feeling. Ralph was fun for the first hour I played it, but I was frustrated with having to turn to the walkthrough and find that I had already thought of the solution to the problem that was stumping me, but hadn’t phrased it in exactly the way the author demanded.

Prose: The prose in Ralph is unquestionably its best feature. Lots of really clever, funny touches make the game a real joy to read, and I found myself trying all kinds of things because I knew that I would more often than not get a chuckle out of the answer. Of particular note are the reactions to “dog-specific” verbs like “scratch”, “bark”, and “wag”, which give great context-specific responses.

Difficulty: Unfortunately, I found it impossible to progress beyond 0 points without the help of the walkthrough. Even more unfortunately, this was because I had chosen the syntax “put sheet in hole” rather than “block hole with sheet” — this is the type of difficulty I don’t enjoy.

Technical (coding): Apart from the above-mentioned problem, I found the coding quite competent. Especially noteworthy was the simulated dynamic creation of objects (when holes are dug). The author smoothly created the impression of being able to dig an infinite number of holes by a combination of smart coding and a cleverly worded cap on the number of holes dug.

Technical (writing): The prose was technically very strong. I found no errors in grammar or spelling.

Plot: While the plot was quite simple, I didn’t find this to be a problem, since the viewpoint character was a very simple creature himself. The experience of commanding a dog to do random things provided a very funny perspective on animal behavior.

Puzzles: This was the weakest part of Ralph. I found the puzzles quite baffling, especially the “guess-the-verb” one but the others as well. For example, why would a human scrabbling in the ground for ten seconds be able to find a bone which had already eluded a more efficient canine nose?

OVERALL — An 8.4

Piece of Mind by Giles Boutel [Comp96]

IFDB page: Piece of Mind
Final placement: 16th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

This story seemed to struggle to find its voice, vacillating between the chilling (the voice in the boxes), the satirical (the copyright man), and the bubblegum epic (participating in the adventures of Jeff Steele, Galactic Hero, and battling the Chromium Knight). The writing never seemed to settle into one style, and as a result the entire work felt disjointed, as it was not the result of a unified vision, but rather a collection of “wouldn’t this be neat?” concepts, halfheartedly strung together. The other lasting impression left by the game is one of frustration, since a bug prevents players from winning. Consequently, although Piece has some interesting moments, it fails as a whole.

Prose: Lots of the writing was really quite winning, and provided several nice moments of humor (the improvised songs) and drama (the opening sequence). I just wish the story could decide what it wanted to be, because the amalgam lacked an overarching purpose. One final note about the prose: I found several of the puzzles quite difficult because the room description seemed to belie the character’s willingness to do the action necessary to solve the puzzle. Examples are smashing the television and touching the computer screen. I think that room descriptions play a very complicated role in defining the character’s traits, and while the contradicting room descriptions were an interesting experiment, they didn’t work for me in this case. Perhaps if I’d gotten more sense of desperation, or if the character-defining traits (“I’ve managed to avoid smashing it so far.”) were described in less of an offhand way, I’d be more inclined to lead the character to do things that it is described as wanting to resist.

Difficulty: Due to the phenomenon described above, I found myself consulting the walkthrough quite often. Of course, then there’s the separate issue of the game’s unsolvability. Frustratingly, this bug sets the difficulty at “impossible.”

Technical (coding): Having a game-killing bug prevents Piece from getting a high score on coding. Apart from the fact that the game is unwinnable, I found the coding to be pretty smooth, although I think Inform is capable of handling things more smoothly. For example, when walking into the copyright office without clothes, the game should prevent the player from entering rather than allowing entrance only to revoke it.

Technical (writing): The writing was relatively free of typos (though I think I noticed one in one of the box quotations, unless the author is playing subtly on the meaning of the = sign.) and grammatically correct.

Plot: Well, I’m not sure I ever really understood the plot, since I never got to see the endgame. The concept of a character who is aware it is being controlled is an interesting one, and I think one with great potential. Unfortunately, that potential is not realized here, due to the game’s schizophrenic approach.

Puzzles: As mentioned above, the structure of the room descriptions made some of the puzzles quite difficult. Others, though, had their share of wit and pizzazz. I especially enjoyed the copyright man.


The Land Beyond The Picket Fence by Martin Oehm [Comp96]

IFDB page: The Land Beyond the Picket Fence
Final placement: 14th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Picket is a gently whimsical fantasy without much of a plot, whose main interesting feature is its interface. I haven’t played much DOS executable IF before (Inform, TADS, and Infocom games seem to monopolize my time), and it was an interesting experience to play a piece of IF in different colors from my normal white letters on blue background. The different colors of background and text lent a distinctive mood to the piece, and the effectiveness of this technique makes me realize some of the special effects we sacrifice in the name of platform independence. A small sacrifice, perhaps, but a pity nonetheless. As to the content of the game, it was basically average — nothing too irritating or pointless, but nothing astounding or groundbreaking either. It provided a pleasant hour’s entertainment, with a few jarring moments where the prose deviated from standard English. All in all, an enjoyable if unspectacular game.

Prose: There were a few moments in the prose where it was clear that the writer did not speak English as a first language, but the fact that those moments were noticeable as exceptions to the general trend means that overall the writer did a fine job of writing in an unfamiliar language. The descriptions were sometimes a little thin, especially with the game’s two NPCs, but in general the fairytale fantasy mood was well-evoked by the writing.

Difficulty: I found this game’s difficulty to be pitched a bit below average. I never needed to look at the hints, and felt that I progressed through the narrative at a satisfactory pace. I finished the game in a little under an hour, which may mean that it was a little too easy if a two-hour playing time was intended (I’m certainly not the quickest IF player, as earlier reviews may indicate). However, I never felt disappointed with anything being “too easy” — easier than usual, perhaps, but never to an annoying degree.

Technical (coding): There were a few coding problems, and in fact one fatal bug which first made some of my possessions disappear after a restore and then kicked me out of the game altogether. Also, some fairly common verbs (“throw”, and the “character, command” mode of interaction) were not implemented, which was a little disappointing. Aside from these problems, the coding was smooth and relatively bug-free.

Technical (writing): As I mentioned above, there were a few instances of awkward grammar which indicated that the writer was not quite comfortable enough with English to sound like a native writer. The problems were relatively infrequent, and had less to do with spelling or grammar errors than with awkward or unusual constructions.

Plot: Well, the only plot here was a basic “find the object” quest, though cast in much less epic/heroic terms than usual, which was refreshing. There wasn’t much of a sense of unfolding narrative, and many objects were either totally unexplained (the key to the gnome’s treasure room tied around a swan’s neck with a red ribbon? How did that happen?) or so convenient as to be ridiculous (how handy that the scientist just happens to have a powerful fungicide that can kill the problematic mushrooms!), causing the game to feel less like a plotted story than an excuse for stringing puzzles together.

Puzzles: The puzzles were rather average pieces, some quite derivative (the “key tied around an inaccessible animal’s neck” is of course a direct crib from Zork II.) The ordinariness of the puzzles contributed to the game’s low level of difficulty — they weren’t too difficult to solve, because they seemed quite familiar, and those that weren’t derivative were of the “just-happen-to-have-the-perfect-item” type.