Zombie! by Scott W. Starkey [Comp97]

IFDB page: Zombie!
Final placement: 12th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

I love the beginning of Zombie!. [SPOILERS FOR THE PROLOGUE AHEAD] In it, you play Valerie, a junior at the local college who is enjoying a relaxing camping trip after having finally dumped her loser boyfriend Scott. The atmosphere of the camping trip is very well-done, from the CD player spinning 80s hits to the various characters squabbling over how to build a campfire. Equally well-done is the terror of learning that there is something awful lurking in those woods, and it’s coming to get you. You run, but to no avail: you are overtaken and killed… and then the prologue is over and you find yourself in your actual role: that of Scott, the unlucky guy who has just been dumped by his heartless girlfriend Valerie, ridden his motorcycle out into the country to get his mind off the breakup, and (wouldn’t you know it?) run out of gas in the remote woods. The viewpoint shift caught me off-guard, and it worked marvelously. I felt like I had a better insight into my character after having seen him through the eyes of another, and vice versa for the character I played in the prologue. Viewpoint shifts in traditional fiction can make for a dramatic effect; interactive fiction, with its customary second person form of address, made the shift all the more dramatic, at least this time. It also serves perfectly to crank up the tension: one of the first things you hear with Scott’s ears is a scream — it sounds like Valerie, but what would she be doing out here in the woods? [SPOILERS END]

Unfortunately, after this promising beginning Zombie! stumbles badly. [MORE SPOILERS HERE] For one thing, after taking so much time to develop the relationship between Valerie and Scott, the game never returns to it! I fully expected to see Valerie show up again as a zombie, to see Scott’s emotional reaction to encountering her in that state, and to find out what happens after he rescues her from zombification. A reunion, perhaps? Well, no. In fact, the prologue is the last we see of Valerie. Now, I usually like it when a game proves itself less predictable than I thought it would be, but this time I felt cheated. I wouldn’t have paid so much attention to Valerie or put so much time into learning about the relationship had I realized that she was just a throwaway character. [SPOILERS END] Doubly unfortunate is the fact this is far from Zombie!‘s only problem. There are numerous bugs in the code, hand-in-hand (as they so often are) with an unpleasantly high count of mechanical errors in the writing.

I kept finding myself feeling frustrated, because every time I really got into the game, allowed myself to get interested in its tensions, a bug or a spelling error would come along that would shatter mimesis and deflate the emotional effect. The thing is, the game does a great job of building that tension. It’s a b-movie all the way, no deep or serious issues here, but it’s definitely got that suspenseful, creepy feeling that the best b-movies have. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony in that phrase, so as Sideshow Bob says, you needn’t bother pointing it out.) The sound of heavy footsteps approaching, or the feeling of driving rain beating against a worn, gothic mansion, or the sight of horrific creatures staring dead ahead (literally!), and similar gothic pleasures were all very well-executed in this game, until you hit the inevitable technical error. Still, better to have a good game with lots of bugs than a mediocre game executed flawlessly. Bugs are easy to fix. When Starkey fixes them, Zombie! will definitely be one to recommend.

Prose: The prose isn’t beautiful by any means, and it often shows signs of awkward construction or phrasing. On the other hand, it does achieve many suspenseful moments, and quite often has some very nice pieces of description or atmosphere. I found the rain very convincing, and the eerie outside of the mansion was also well-portrayed. In addition, the prologue had some well-done dialogue and atmosphere, and built the tension just right for entry into the game proper.

Plot: The plot was a good combination of the spooky and the silly, with the emphasis on the silly. I found it reminiscent of some of the early LucasArts games, especially the moments with Ed the Head. The kitschy charm of the mad scientist, his lumbering assistant, the haunted mansion, the unholy army of the dead, etc. was great. The main disappointment I had with the plot was the ending. It felt tacked on, as if there were more story to tell but because the game is a competition entry the author didn’t have time to explore it. [SPOILERS AHEAD] Also, as I mentioned above, the emphasis placed on Valerie was rather odd considering that she never again showed up in the game. Finally, I know this is just a personal preference, but I felt a little annoyed that in the end of the game, I couldn’t foil Dr. Maxim’s nefarious scheme. I understand there’s a long tradition of apocalyptic endings in this kind of story, but this ending didn’t manage the triumphant feeling of destroying evil or the spooky feeling of inevitable defeat. [SPOILERS END]

Puzzles: I actually liked the puzzles in Zombie! quite a bit. Some of them were a little tacked on (the measuring cups), and the overall puzzle framework (collect the elements of a recipe) is quite shopworn by now. However, all the puzzles, cliched as they may have been, fit very well into the overall story, and that seamless fit makes a lot of things pretty forgivable. If the game hadn’t been plagued by bugs, its puzzles would have come very close to achieving the goal of aiding the narrative rather than obstructing it.

Technical (writing): There were a significant number of mechanical errors in Zombie!‘s writing.

Technical (coding): The game also had quite a number of bugs. It needs at least one round of intense playtesting before it’s really ready for the world at large.

OVERALL: A 7.5

Symetry by Ryan Stevens as Rybread Celsius [Comp97]

IFDB page: Symetry
Final placement: 32nd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oh, man. When I saw the title, one misspelled word, I began to feel the familiar dread. When I read the tortured sentences of the introduction (“Tonight will be the premiere of you slumbering under its constant eye.”) the fear built higher. And when I saw the game banner, I knew that it was true: Rybread Celsius has returned! Yes, the infamous Rybread Celsius, author of last year’s stunningly awful Punkirita Quest One: Liquid and only slightly less awful Rippled Flesh. Rybread Celsius, who announced to the newsgroups that his games would suck, and proved himself extravagantly correct. Rybread Celsius: I hope it doesn’t hurt his feelings if I call him the worst writer in interactive fiction today.

See, he just doesn’t write in English. Sure, it may look like English, but on closer inspection we find that the resemblance is passing, perhaps even coincidental. Misspellings and bad grammar are just the tip of the iceberg. The sentences often just don’t make sense. (For example, “A small persian rug sits as an isolated in the center of the room…” I’m not making this up. In fact, this all comes before a single move can be made in the game.)

But OK, say you were smart and had a good translator, and could understand what the game is talking about. Then, my friend, you would have to deal with the bugs. The game world makes almost zero sense, even if you can get past the prose. Simple commands like “get in bed” thrust you into darkness, at the same time insisting “But you’re already in the Your Bed.” (you weren’t.) Perhaps you’d turn to the walkthrough in such a situation. No luck. In fact, the (twelve-move) walkthrough includes a command which isn’t even in the game’s vocabulary. The best you can achieve is “A Phyric Victory” (I think he means “Pyrrhic.”)

I don’t mean this as a personal attack. I really don’t. I would love to be proved wrong, to see “Rybread” come up with a great game, or even an understandable one. But I’m not holding my breath. Go ahead, play Symetry. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Prose: … oh, forget it.
Plot:
Puzzles:
Technical (writing):
Technical (coding):

OVERALL: A 1.4 (you’ve got to give the guy credit for persistence.)

Sins Against Mimesis by Adam Thornton as “One of the Bruces” [Comp97]

IFDB page: Sins Against Mimesis
Final placement: 9th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Few things are more unfunny than an in-joke that you’re not in on. On the other hand, an in-joke that you are in on can be hysterical, as it provides not just the pleasure of humor but also the feeling of community that comes from shared experience. Sins Against Mimesis is definitely a very in-jokey game, and consequently not for everyone. However, having been a longtime (since 1994) lurker and sometime participant in the rec.*.int-fiction newsgroups, I was part of the audience at which the game was aimed, and I have to admit that I found a lot of the in-jokes really funny. In fact, one of the most fun parts of the game was to play name-that-reference — kind of the IF equivalent of listening to a World Party album or a Dennis Miller routine. Of course, the nature of the game (and the fact that it was written pseudonymously) also invites us to play guess-the-author. I’m casting my vote for Russ Bryan. I’m not sure why — something about the style just struck me as a little familiar and rang that particular bell in my head. Or maybe it’s just a masochistic desire to humiliate myself publicly by venturing an incorrect guess. I’ll find out soon enough, I suppose.

If you haven’t played much IF, and in fact even if you haven’t spent much time on the IF newsgroups, most of this game is going to mean very little to you. Even its title is an allusion: to Crimes Against Mimesis, a well-crafted series of articles posted to the newsgroups by Roger Giner-Sorolla (whatever happened to him, anyway?) a year or so ago. The rest of the game continues in that vein. The opening paragraph alludes to Jigsaw. The score of the initial part of the game is kept in IF disks which magically pop into the player’s inventory every time a correct move is made. In some ways, this familiar, almost conspiratorial approach is a weakness. Certainly in the context of the competition it won’t endear Sins to any judge who stands on the outside of the privileged circle at which the game aims itself. Even for an insider, the constant barrage of “if you’re one of us, you’ll know what I mean” references can start to feel a little cloying. However, the game is cleanly coded and competently written, and on the first time through I found it quite entertaining.

There aren’t many games which I would highly recommend to one group of people and discourage others from playing, but Sins is one of them. If you’re an raif and rgif regular, I think you’ll find Sins quite funny and entertaining. If not, forget it. It’s bound to be more baffling and irritating than anything else.

Prose: The prose is generally somewhere between functionally good and rather well done, with occasional moments of brilliant hilarity. The best one has to be when the game is in “lewd” mode and the player amorously approaches the plant: “Your embrace becomes hot and heavy and you surrender to the delights of floral sex.” An LGOP reference and an extremely bad pun at once! Can it get any better?

Plot: The plot is based around several clever tricks which are quite funny at the time, but aren’t worth repeating. If you’ve already played, you know what they are, and if you haven’t played yet I won’t give away the jokes. Like the rest of Sins, the plot is funny the first time through but won’t wear well.

Puzzles: Actually, this was the weakest part of the game. Many of the puzzles can be solved by performing extremely basic actions, which of course hardly makes them puzzles at all. Others, however, depend either on extremely specific (and not well-clued) actions or on deducing something about the surroundings which is not included in object or room descriptions. For a game so adamantly self-aware, it’s ironic that Sins falls into some of the most basic blunders of puzzle design.

Technical (writing): I found no mechanical errors in Sins‘ writing.

Technical (coding): I found no bugs either.

OVERALL: An 8.3

The Obscene Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf by Gary Roggin [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Obscene Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf
Final placement: 22nd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oddly enough, due to the vagaries of Comp97 I played The Obscene Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf (hereafter called OQDA) immediately after playing its direct competitor in the silly name wars, Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza. Consequently, my expectations of OQDA were probably distinctly affected by that recent experience. I was expecting another lackluster game where goofy names and so-so jokes were supposed to make up for careless writing, buggy programming, and weak design. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. OQDA is a fairly enjoyable college game (with a minor time travel motif) which kept me pretty entertained for the two hours I played it. Of course, this is not to say that the game doesn’t have its problems. It certainly does: there are many spelling and grammar errors (though not as many as in Phred) and some bugs are definitely still in the game (again, my recent experience with Phred made these seem relatively few as well.) Also, there are several elements about OQDA‘s narrative strategies that I found rather grating — more on this later. Still, with some polishing this game could be an enjoyable vignette.

One interesting thing about OQDA is that not every object in its world serves a purpose within the game. There are locked doors that never need (or even can) be opened. There are many objects that serve no specific purpose. In fact, as far as I can tell, there are a number of puzzles that never need to be solved in order to complete the game. This strategy has its weaknesses: the danger of the red herring count exceeding the tolerable limit is quite high, and solving puzzles is less satisfying when you realize that your brainwork has achieved no appreciable results. Still, on balance, I liked the feeling of openness and mystique that resulted from all these frills in the game universe. That, along with the author’s willingness to implement multiple puzzle solutions and the fact that OQDA is apparently the first chapter of an ongoing work, gave me a similar feeling to that which I had when I first played Zork: the experience of being in a mysterious world which is simultaneously a fun game.

However, there were several elements of the game world which I could have done without. One of these is the way that OQDA constructs its player character. You are told from the beginning that you work in your present job because you were expelled from school during your senior year, due to an “incident involving a freshman (of the opposite gender), a stolen time machine and a bottle of cheap champagne.” The opening text makes clear that you mourn your lost career hopes. Fine. After that, though, almost every single room in the campus Physics building has some kind of remark about how you spend your days weeping and crying. Example: upon examining a couch, “You have spent many an afternoon lying on this couch and weeping into the pillows, wondering what happened to your life. It’s very cozy.” After a while of this, I started to wonder why I cared about this miserable loser who seemed physically incapable of getting on with life. I stopped wanting to play the character, because my sympathy and identification were eroded by a stream of self-pitying text. Infidel plays a similar trick with an unsympathetic player character, but while Infidel at least gives you the pleasure of playing an outright villain, OQDA just provides the less thrilling experience of playing a pathetic whiner.

Prose: As I just mentioned, the prose sometimes goes much too far in repeating the same thematic point in object after object. Another example of this is the game’s treatment of the Anthropology building. There are eight locations around the perimeter of the building; six of these use the word “massive”, “looms”, or “towers”, or some combination of these three. We get the point. On the plus side, the humor in the writing often works well, and some of the silly points within the game were really quite funny. I especially enjoyed some of the professors’ names, like French professor Dr. Eaubooboo, or Philosophy teacher Dr. Jobless — “pronounced (zhahb- LAY).”

Plot: Well, it’s hard to say too much about the plot at this point, since the game makes clear that it is only the first chapter of an ongoing saga (the second chapter is apparently scheduled to be delivered for the ’98 competition). So far as it goes, OQDA‘s plot rests on a very realistic device exaggerated to the point of hilarity. Your boss, Temporal Physics professor Dr. Bignose, has asked you to deliver an envelope to a box on his colleague’s desk. He even gives you a key to the appropriate building. However, in typical absent-minded professorial fashion, he isn’t quite sure where he left the envelope, nor can he verify that his colleague’s office is where he thinks it is, or even if that key really unlocks the building it’s supposed to (predictably, it doesn’t). Unsurprisingly, this apparently simple errand turns into a wide-ranging exploration of a very strange campus. It seems to be only a prelude, but it works well.

Puzzles: One great thing about the puzzles in OQDA is that a number of them are solvable with more than one method. Such a capability always takes extra effort on an author’s part, and it does not go unappreciated. The game has its fair complement of locked doors and their corresponding keys, and there are a number of more inventive puzzles as well. The only problem I really found with the puzzles is that a few of them seemed to be based on wanton destruction for no satisfying reason. There’s nothing anywhere in the prose to indicate that the character is evil (only pathetic and possessed of rather bad judgment), so puzzles which require highly destructive actions went against the grain for me.

Technical (writing): There are a goodly number of technical problems in the game’s writing, including misspellings, typos, awkward sentences, and mangled grammar.

Technical (coding): A number of bugs also exist within the game. The majority of these are puzzles which can be solved over and over, and objects which do not behave consistently when their state is changed.

OVERALL: A 6.9

Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza by Michael Zey [Comp97]

IFDB page: Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza
Final placement: 19th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Before I begin, let me make it clear that I’m a fan of silly, absurd humor. I’m a loyal Monty Python watcher. I think The Jerk and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure are two of the best movies ever made. I gave last year’s competition entry Phlegm an 8.5 because it cracked me up. Consequently, I had high hopes for any game that would title itself Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza (hereafter called PPQP). However, I was disappointed. PPQP certainly wants to be a funny game, and it does have some genuinely hilarious moments. Unfortunately, much of the game is buggy, error-laden, and tedious, and nothing saps my sense of humor more quickly and completely than those three things. In addition, the game seems to have caught the same disease from which Laura Knauth’s Travels in the Land of Erden suffers (perhaps I’ll start calling it Erdenitis): a great deal of swelling and very little focus. The walkthrough goes on for 17 screens. This isn’t a two hour game, folks (see my review of Erden for further comments on this.) Even setting aside the game’s size, it has both surface problems (lots of grammar and spelling errors, a number of serious bugs) and deeper ones (badly designed puzzles.)

There are some things that PPQP does right. For one thing, it made me laugh out loud several times. My favorite has to be when you come upon a butcher who is described thusly: “Gunnar is burly, scary-looking brute. But he has the heart of a lamb. He has the heart of cow, too. He has many hearts in a pile on top of the counter.” That was hysterical. [PUZZLE SPOILERS AHEAD] I also enjoyed killing a vampire by driving a fatty steak into his heart before he arose from his coffin. As he dies, he exclaims “Too much cholesterol. My arteries can’t take the torture.” [SPOILERS END] In addition, many of the names chosen for places and people strike the right note of humor. In fact, many of them are strongly reminiscent of the Unnkuulia series (for example, “Mizztik Island”), which in my mind is a good thing. These moments of mirth prove that the author is definitely capable of writing funny moments. Unfortunately, the game proves unable to sustain the humor, a task made no easier by its bugs and errors.

I won’t go on for too long about these, except to say that the game clearly should have had some intense playtesting before it was released to the public. Playing it reminded me of the old New Zork Times playtesting article with the story of how initially in Dave Lebling’s Suspect it was possible to carry Veronica’s corpse around the party and not have anyone react to you in any way. In PPQP I was able to solve a puzzle or two without ever having found the items necessary to do so, and to add an unconscious dwarf to my inventory after I tried to take off his vest. These things were funny, but I don’t think this was quite the type of absurdity the author was aiming for.

Prose: At times, the prose works beautifully, delivering funny lines with good pacing and diction. Other times, it feels a bit over the top, trying too hard to be funny and falling short. The conclusion I came to after two hours of play is that the author is probably quite funny, and is working on the craft of distilling that humor into written form. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but I look forward to his future creations if he continues to develop his comic voice.

Plot: Well, play a silly game, find a silly plot. The idea behind PPQP is, quite predictably, a treasure hunt. This particular variety of treasure hunt asks you to chase down all the ingredients necessary to make a pizza as demanded by Phred Phontious (not the main character, surprisingly enough), the court jester who is your boss’ boss. You, the lowly peon, must traverse the faux fantasy landscape to come up with the sauce, cheese, mushroom, etc. It’s a silly, shopworn device that nonetheless serves its purpose. Of course, I didn’t come close to finishing the game in two hours so I don’t know whether the pizza ever actually gets made, but that’s not the point anyway.

Puzzles: This was one of the weakest areas in PPQP. A number of the puzzles are highly dependent on each other, and a few are not as well clued as they should be. [SPOILERS AHEAD] I found myself completely stuck after exploring for a little while, only to discover that I was supposed to pull a hook in the kitchen. I didn’t see anything suggesting that the hook should be pulled, and the prose led me to believe that the hook was in the ceiling and (I reasoned) hard to reach. Turns out the hook was in the wall, and pulling it opened a secret passage to a wine cellar which held a bottle of wine absolutely necessary for any progress in the game. [SPOILERS END] This struck a sour note with me, and I found myself using the walkthrough repeatedly after that. I still didn’t come anywhere close to finishing in two hours.

Technical (writing): There were quite a few mechanical errors in the writing.

Technical (coding): As mentioned above, the game was quite buggy. It definitely could have used another round or two of playtesting.

OVERALL: A 4.2

Madame L’Estrange and the Troubled Spirit by Ian Ball and Marcus Young [Comp97]

IFDB page: Madame L’Estrange and the Troubled Spirit
Final placement: 17th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Madame L’Estrange and the Troubled Spirit (hereafter called MmeLTS) is a frustrating game, because it builds such a slipshod house upon a very promising foundation. The game is riddled with what I would guess are at least a hundred grammar and spelling errors. It flipflops seemingly at random between past and present tense. It can’t seem to decide whether to address the player in the second or third person. It consistently causes a fatal crash in at least one interpreter (WinFrotz). All this would be easy to evaluate as simply the product of incompetent authors if it didn’t take place in a game that starts with an interesting premise, executes a number of great interface decisions, and manages to unroll a complicated mystery plot along the way. As it is, MmeLTS is a great mess that could’ve been a contender if only it had been written with more care.

One area in which the game does succeed is that of the innovations introduced by its authors, especially in the area of navigation: MmeLTS combines the direction-based locomotion of traditional IF with the more intuitive “go to location x” type of travel used in games like Joe Mason’s In The End. The title character (a “spiritualist detective” who is also the player character) can travel to various locations around Sydney with the use of the “travel to” or “go to” verb. However, once she has arrived at a particular location she uses direction-based navigation to walk from place to place (or room to room, as the case may be.) Moreover, the authors often write direction responses as a simple set of actions performed by the title character rather than implementing entire rooms which serve no purpose. These methods of navigation combine the best of both worlds, providing a broad brush for cross-city or cross-country travel but not taking away the finer granularity available to the direction-based system. A related innovation concerns Madame L’Estrange’s notebook, in which the game automagically tallies the names of important people and places which come up in her investigations. This notebook (similar to the “concept inventory” used in some graphical IF) provides a handy template for travel and inquiry, and would be welcome inside any game, especially those involving a detective.

One other point: MmeLTS takes the character all over Sydney, and in doing so provides an element of education and travel narrative along with its detective story. The medium’s investigations take her from Centennial Park to the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Taronga Zoo to the University of New South Wales. Locations are often well-described, and after playing the game for two hours I felt more knowledgeable about Sydney than when I started (I hope the game’s locations weren’t fictional!) As an American whose knowledge of Australia is mostly limited to Mad Max movies, I can attest that the travel aspect of the game is a lot of fun.

Prose: It’s not that the game’s prose was terrible of itself. The game is quite verbose, outputting screensful of text as a matter of course, and much of this text is effective and worthwhile. As I mentioned, many of the descriptions worked quite well, and the game does manage to clearly elucidate its plot as events happen. It’s just that the mechanics of the prose are so bad (see Technical/writing). When technical problems are so pervasive, they can’t help but have a tremendous negative impact on the quality of the prose.

Plot: The game’s plot is actually quite interesting. Mme. L’Estrange is presented with two apparently unrelated mysteries: strange wildlife deaths ascribed to a mysterious beast loose in Centennial Park, and the apparent suicide of a marine biology worker. As one might expect, these two situations eventually turn out to be linked. I wasn’t able to finish the game in two hours (in fact, I only scored five points out of 65 in that time, which makes me wonder just how much of the game I haven’t yet seen), but what I saw makes it clear that the game is well-plotted. I was interested in seeing its mysteries unfold.

Puzzles: I didn’t really find many puzzles as such — the game is mainly focused on exploration. Those puzzles which I did find were quite soluble as long as enough exploring had been done. What took up most of my time was visiting locations, talking to characters, and “tuning in” to the spirit world to commune with the spirits of the dead or learn more about a place’s spiritual aura. This kept me busy enough that I didn’t really miss the lack of puzzles.

Technical (writing): The mechanics of the writing are just horrible. Sentences constantly lack periods or initial capital letters. Words are constantly misspelled. Typos are everywhere. The tense shifts back and forth at random between past and present; either one would have been workable and interesting, but the game seems unable to make up its mind. A similar phenomenon occurs with the voice, which vacillates between second and third person address. This avalanche of mechanical problems cripples what could have been an excellent game.

Technical (coding): The jury is still out on how well the game is coded. When I was using WinFrotz to play the game, I encountered Fatal errors repeatedly, but I’m not sure whether they were the fault of the designer or of the interpreter. JZIP presented the game with no problem, but again that could be because the interpreter was ignoring an illegal condition. Several aspects of the coding, such as Madame L’s notebook, were quite nifty (unless that’s what was causing the problem with WinFrotz crashing), and the implementation was solid overall.

OVERALL: A 7.1

VirtuaTech by David Glasser [Comp97]

IFDB page: VirtuaTech
Final placement: 21st place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

If sword-and-sorcery fantasy was the overused genre of the 1996 IF competition, I’m beginning to believe that virtual reality will win the honors for 1997. Of course, it’s not David Glasser’s fault that Comp97 scheduled his game to be played after several other VR-themed pieces on my list, but I can say that it took away some of the thrill for me to see yet another page from the VR handbook. The other unfortunate part of this is that VirtuaTech‘s use of VR is pretty humdrum: step inside your computer a la Planetfall, or alternately “VirtuaPhone” other entities, none of whom turn out to be characters. The game’s near-future milieu was reasonably interesting (though rather cliched), but it felt like a thin science-fictional sheen over what is basically a very simple college game — fix your computer and print out your paper to bring it to class.

As such, VirtuaTech isn’t bad. It’s short, easy, and inoffensive. There is some entertainment to be had from solving the game’s puzzles and exploring its limited geography, but it doesn’t deliver much in the way of excitement or thrills. The puzzles are mainly a matter of putting the right key in the right lock, and finding numbers to type on a variety of keypads. The game’s one slightly more interesting puzzle (opening the portal) I solved just by noodling rather than through any kind of inductive reasoning, so I wasn’t able to experience the pleasure of any great flash of insight.

On the plus side, there isn’t much particularly wrong with the game. The writing could be better, but it certainly works. The design is compact and efficient, and the setting as a whole is consistent and makes logical sense. There are very few bugs in the code (I only found one real problem), and the puzzles may be unimaginative, but they’re fair. Consequently, VirtuaTech turns out to be a pleasant way to spend 45 minutes or so.

Prose: There’s certainly a level of awkwardness to the prose in VirtuaTech. Many of the sentences are rather clunky, and the whole thing could use an edit for elegance and rhythm. However, I only rarely found myself confused by descriptions or situations, so the writing did its most important job: it conveyed the scene with accuracy and clarity.

Plot: The game’s plot is very, very simple, which is probably what makes it such a short game to play. [SPOILERS AHEAD] In fact, I was rather surprised that all I needed to do was to get the paper printed and to walk out the door. [SPOILERS END] When the winning message came up, I said “That’s it?” It was.

Puzzles: As mentioned above, the puzzles are pretty garden-variety. Lots of typing codes into keyboards or pushing the right button. Still, the puzzles all make sense within the game’s world, and there are no “guess-the-verb” or “read-the-designer’s-mind” puzzles to be found.

Technical (writing): I found a couple of grammar errors in the game, but nothing too egregious.

Technical (coding): There was only one bug in the game, and its effect on gameplay was negligible. A couple of verbs could have been better implemented, but solutions to these problems were also not hard to find.

OVERALL: An 8.0

Aunt Nancy’s House by Nate Schwartzman [Comp97]

IFDB page: Aunt Nancy’s House
Final placement: 33rd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I began learning Inform, one of the first things I did was to put together a little simulation of the cottage I was living in at the time. It was great fun making a text adventure out of my current environment, adding both magic and realism as I saw fit. That Inform program would have easily been finished in time for submission to the 1995 IF competition, but I didn’t submit it. My reasoning at the time was that even though it was fun for me to walk around my virtual cottage, it would be really boring for other people. Now that I’ve played Aunt Nancy’s House (hereafter called ANH), I know I made the right decision.

According to its author, “Aunt Nancy’s House is actually based on my aunt’s (soon-to-be-former) house, and was created as a way of teaching myself Inform. There are no puzzles, the idea is mainly to wander about in an interactive environment and have fun.” Well, “wander” was certainly there, but “fun” wasn’t, at least not for me. Basically ANH simulates an empty house. That’s it. I have no doubt that creating this simulation was pretty exciting for the author, but without that connection to the subject material, other players are going to be bored.

ANH taught its author how to use Inform — I look forward to when he applies that knowledge to the creation of a game.

Prose: The game’s prose wasn’t outstanding, but it served its purpose.

Plot: ANH has no plot.

Puzzles: ANH has no puzzles. (Hey, puzzleless IF!)

Technical (writing): I spotted a few grammatical errors in the game, which I’ve passed along to the author.

Technical (coding): ANH has a number of bugs, which I’ve also forwarded to the author, but for a first exercise in learning Inform, it was put together pretty well.

OVERALL: A 2.9

[Postscript from 2020 — This game inspired one of my favorite reviews ever from Andrew Plotkin, one I still recall to this day. Relevant excerpt: “…somehow I get the impression that the author has spent a lot of time being bored in this house. I mean — I wandered around, I turned on the tv and the video game machine, I turned them back off, I poured myself a soda. Then I went back upstairs. Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time at relatives’ houses that way.”]

The Tempest by Graham Nelson as William Shakespeare [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Tempest
Final placement: 25th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

“Yet look, how far
The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow
In underprizing it, so far this shadow
Doth limp behind the substance.”
— William Shakespeare
The Merchant of Venice III.ii.126-129

The Tempest attempts a great deal, and achieves much of it despite being somewhat flawed. The work presents itself not as a game, but as an “interactive performance” which asks the player to perform as the magical will of Shakespeare’s Prospero, guiding the spirit Ariel (a.k.a. the parser) through the plot of The Tempest (the play), though not necessarily in the order in which Shakespeare wrote it. Remarkably, this complicated positioning of subjectivity works quite well (and opens some unexplored territory for the mixing of first, second, and third person forms of address in IF). It is blended with a new approach to dialogue which prevents the player character from speaking at all but presents many screenfuls of dialogue between other characters (and sometimes including Ariel himself), the exchanges broken up by pausing for keystrokes between each character’s lines. In a sense, the player’s commands to the parser become essentially stage directions issued to an onstage persona via a magical conduit. This idiom also works beautifully, bestowing the game with a powerful aura of theatrical performance. The Tempest is entertaining and innovative; it often feels quite magical to inhabit the Prospero/Ariel connection, and to take part in a groundbreaking interactive experience. I think that the game also has great potential as an educational tool, allowing readers to experience Shakespeare’s language in a new and thrilling way.

All this being said, however, The Tempest is not without its problems. Actually, perhaps the game just has one major problem which manifests itself in several ways. Although the author does an excellent (sometimes astonishing) job of rearranging Shakespeare’s scenes and lines to fit the interactive mode, the fit is not perfect. Several times during the game I felt faced with responses which, if not complete non sequiturs, were certainly only tenuously connected to the command I had typed. The author wrenches in bits and pieces of dialogue from all over the play for various purposes, pressing them into service as room descriptions, parser rejoinders, and other sundry purposes. Sometimes they are perfectly suited to their purpose and sometimes less so. When I was on the wrong end of this continuum, my relationship with the game became strained — the parser’s responses were beautiful, but didn’t make enough sense, and not because of any opacity in the Elizabethan English. This situation creates a problem with the game’s puzzles: usually interactive fiction prose can be written in such a way as to suggest subtle hints to the problems facing the player. However, when control of the prose escapes the author, those hints become harder and harder for a player to come by. It is to this difficulty with the prose (and, of course, to the lack of any hint system or walkthrough) that I ascribe the problems I’ve seen players having, often with the very first puzzle of the game. With a typical piece of IF, the author could simply tailor the game’s responses to help the player along — The Tempest often achieves this goal, but all too often it falls short.

Before I played The Tempest, I was unlucky enough to run across a USENET conversation which suggested that Graham Nelson is the game’s author. I thought this was a spoiler, and I admit that it did set up a bit of preconception for me before I had even seen the first word of the game. Having said that, several things about the game do have a strong air of Nelson about them. The author’s erudition is clear, from the simple choice of subject matter to the deft interweaving of other Shakespearean and Renaissance phrases into the play’s text when necessary (for example, to the command “throw x at character” the game responds “I have no aim, no, no chance of a palpable hit.”, a phrase echoing Hamlet). Such attention to scholarly detail recalls some of the finer moments of Nelson’s epics, especially Jigsaw. Moreover, the game’s help menu (which it calls its frontispiece) contains fascinating blurbs on lost islands and the play’s history, as well as notes on the game, its creation and characteristics. Such additions are strongly reminiscent of the diplomatic briefings in Nelson’s 1996 1st Place game The Meteor, the Stone, and a Long Glass of Sherbet. Finally, the author’s technical skill and innovations with Inform are tremendous, and who better to code so well than the language’s inventor? It may be that Nelson is in fact not the author of the work (in which case the author should take the comparison as a compliment of the highest order), but even if that is so, the talent behind this game is clearly a major one. The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last play, and as such carries a distinct air of finality — I only hope that whoever authored this work will not allow it to be his or her last as well.

Prose: I suppose this is where I ought to weigh in on the debate over the originality of a work like the IF version of The Tempest. It’s my opinion that the IF Tempest is absolutely a different piece of work from The Tempest, the play. Yes, the author uses almost the entire script of the play, but I would argue that such usage is not plagiarism, because whatever Shakespeare’s intentions, I think it’s safe to say that the play was not written to be adapted into interactive form. Consequently, I don’t see the IF Tempest as any less an original work than Emma Thompson’s Sense and Sensibility or, for that matter, Shakespeare’s MacBeth (whose plot was lifted from Holinshed’s histories.) Yes, the seams do sometimes show between the author’s additions and Shakespeare’s text — these are the work’s weaker moments. However, in judging The Tempest‘s prose, I judge not the quality of Shakespeare’s writing, but the quality of its usage in its new medium — on that basis, more often than not, it succeeds.

Plot: I predict that a certain contingent of voices will raise the hue and cry over what they perceive to be The Tempest‘s lack of interactivity. I wasn’t able to finish the game in two hours (far from it, in fact — I got only six points, another example of an excellent competition game which breaks the two-hour rule), but the parts I saw made it pretty clear that the game leads you along rather carefully from one plot point to the next, allowing for very little branching. My own opinion is that this structure is not a problem — after all, the piece bills itself as “more a ‘performance’ than a ‘game’,” and as such it’s perfectly appropriate for The Tempest to enforce a certain degree of rigidity to accommodate the exigencies of its plot. In fact, what this achieves is the inclusion of a much more complicated plot than is common in interactive fiction; by limiting the player’s ability to affect the narrative stream, the game allows the complexity of Shakespeare’s plotting to shine through even in this challenging new form. I’m satisfied with the trade-off.

Puzzles: As noted above, this is where I identify the major weakness of The Tempest. [SPOILERS AHEAD] I cite as an example the first puzzle of the game, where Ariel must blow a storm to upset the boat and set the plot into motion. The reason that players are finding this puzzle so difficult is that it requires rather close knowledge of the play (and not just of the play’s first scene), which most players, even very well educated ones, are not likely to have at their fingertips. No hint is given of Ariel’s powers or of his purpose in regard to the ship. [SPOILERS END] Now, in a typical IF game, there might be a sentence or two in the introductory paragraph which introduces the idea and sets players on their way. However, because of the constraints imposed by using a collage of prewritten text, these hints are unavailable and thus players flounder in a “read-the-playwright/designer’s-mind” sort of puzzle. It won’t be the last time.

Technical (writing): The prose did an excellent job with handling a number of difficult technical tasks with regard to writing and using Elizabethan English.

Technical (coding): I found only one bug in The Tempest (at least, I think it was a bug), among a thoroughly reworked library of Inform responses and the introduction of a number of excellent devices for the presentation of dialogue and clarification of the plot.

OVERALL: A 9.2

Sylenius Mysterium by Christopher E. Forman as “whomever wrote it” [Comp97]

IFDB page: Sylenius Mysterium
Final placement: 18th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

[Because of the nature of Sylenius Mysterium, any or all of this review could be considered a spoiler. In addition, spoilers are present for Freefall and Robots. You have been warned.]

There seems to be this strange impulse in the text adventure community to recreate the experience of graphical arcade games using the Z-machine. The first evidence I ever saw of this trend was Andrew Plotkin‘s “Freefall”, a z-machine Tetris implementation using realtime opcodes to reproduce the geometrical game with ASCII graphics. Others have followed, including Torbj√∂rn Andersson’s “Robots”, which recreates one of the earliest video games, and a DOOM implementation which I haven’t played. I have to say that this notion baffles me. When I first saw “Freefall”, I thought it was good fun. It struck me as a typically amazing Plotkin programming exercise which showcased the versatility of the z-machine. But it didn’t become an arcade staple on my machine. As a text adventure, it was pretty wild. As Tetris, it was pretty average. I played it once or twice to see what it could do, then deleted it. “Robots” I kept, but I don’t play it.

Now here’s Sylenius Mysterium (hereafter called SM), the bulk of which is a textual emulation of a horizontally scrolling run-and-jump game, a la Pitfall or Super Mario Brothers. This kind of thing used to come up as a joke on the IF newsgroups from time to time, and now here it is, a real game. Unfortunately, SM demonstrates the reason that those games were implemented graphically in the first place. Namely, it’s silly to implement an arcade game in descriptive mode. (“You begin walking right.” “You execute a running jump.” “Beneath you is a low wall.”) These types of structures are what graphics are best at doing, and they were being done 15 years ago. It’s both more fun and less confusing to see an arcade environment in graphics, and if even ancient computers are capable of doing so, what’s the point of making a text adventure which simply produces an inferior copy of the original? Playing SM just made me wish that the author had sacrificed portability and implemented the arcade section in graphics. Hell, even cheesy ASCII graphics would have made for a more fun experience than one long room description reading “A panoramic landscape, parallax layers of empty, ruined buildings, scrolling by with your movements.” It seems to me that text is good at certain things and so is graphics, and to make a text version of Pitfall makes about as much sense as a joystick-and-fire-button version of A Mind Forever Voyaging. It’s great to know that the z-machine has realtime capabilities to produce a text arcade game, but surely those capabilities can be put to better use.

SM does have a prologue which operates in a traditional text adventure mode, and this section of the game is quite well-done, with the exception of a number of problematic bugs. The game does a very nice job of defining an engaging and convincing setting and characters, as well as creating a sense of nostalgia for the old gaming consoles. The Atari system was my first introduction to videogames that could be played at home, and I have many fond memories of days spent at friends’ houses playing Missile Command or Donkey Kong or Pitfall. In fact, the game evoked nostalgia so well that my disappointment was all the sharper when I realized that its “arcade” section was nothing more than realtime text.

Prose: The prose in the IF section of the game was really quite accomplished, so much so in fact that it sent me to the dictionary a couple of times to confirm the meaning of unfamiliar words. All the game’s elements, from the sterile quiet of a mall after-hours, to the almost exaggerated “skate punk” main character, to the loving descriptions of the old-time game consoles, were written in a style that I found quite rich and absorbing.

Plot: The plot in SM is mainly a device to whisk the player to the arcade section. The plot of that section is (intentionally, I think) extremely pure and simple: find the bad guy and undo his evil deeds.

Puzzles: Again, the puzzles outside the arcade section were few, and those inside the arcade section can’t really be called “puzzles” in the traditional sense, though I would argue that the game does propose an interesting juxtaposition between the challenges of a Mario Brothers-style arcade game and IF puzzles — the two are closer than they are sometimes thought to be. Those puzzles within the IF section were usually quite simple, though from time to time bugs arose that made the simplest actions seem unintentionally like puzzles themselves.

Technical (writing): The writing was technically excellent.

Technical (coding): Here there were a number of problems. I was keeping a text file of all the major bugs I found until I realized that the author had provided no email address (not even an anonymous remailer for comp97) to which bug reports could be sent. Suffice it to say that there were a number of situations, both inside and outside the arcade section, that needed much improvement. That being said, however, I’m willing to forgive quite a bit from someone who takes on a project as ambitious (even though I personally don’t find it to be very interesting) as the arcade section of SM. That section suffers from game-killing bugs of the “FATAL: No such property” variety (or at least it does under WinFrotz), but the working sections of it seemed to work quite well, and I salute the serious effort it must have taken to create them.

OVERALL: A 6.8