The Plant by Michael J. Roberts [Comp98]

IFDB page: The Plant
Final placement: 3rd place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

You know, by the time I get finished writing these reviews, I’m pretty tired. It takes a lot of energy to put out twenty or thirty thousand words about competition entries, and even though my reviews are shorter than last year’s, and there are fewer games involved, they were also written in a much more compressed judging period, so my exhaustion level is about the same. However, every year I’ve been reviewing the competition games I’ve gotten a little reward in the final game of the batch. In 1996, I was playing the games in order of filename, so the last game I played was Tapestry, an excellent piece of work by Dan Ravipinto which ended up taking second in the competition as a whole. Last year I let Lucian Smith’s Comp97 order my choices randomly, and ironically the last game on the list ended up being Smith’s own The Edifice. And true to form, that was another excellent game to finish on, and it ended up winning all the marbles in the 1997 comp. So it was with both trepidation and eagerness that I broached the final game of this year’s batch, The Plant. When I saw it was by Michael J. Roberts, the legendary implementor of both TADS and HTML-TADS, my anticipation was increased even further. I’ve never played one of Roberts’ games, having been an Inform initiate when I started programming, and having entered the IF scene just shortly before Roberts’ departure. And after this buildup, I’m pleased to say that The Plant completely lives up to my mini-tradition of grand finales. It was a great game to end the competition with — the reward I was hoping for, so that this review wouldn’t be too hard to write.

Probably the thing I liked the most about The Plant was its puzzles. I know there were several other games this year that were focused on puzzles, and some of the puzzles in those games were excellent. However, I liked The Plant‘s puzzles better precisely because the game wasn’t focused on puzzles. Instead, its puzzles were very well integrated into its story, so solving the puzzles really propelled the narrative. It’s much more interesting to solve a puzzle when it opens the door to the next piece of the story, rather than being just one of a roomful of puzzles that you have to solve to escape that room. The Plant was probably the only game in this year’s competition to give me a feeling similar to what I have when I play Infocom games. I love that feeling of uncovering an exciting story by cleverly putting pieces together, using items in unexpected ways, or doing the right thing at just the right time. And the game’s story is definitely an exciting one. It begins as you are stranded on an abandoned side-road with your boss, marooned by his unreliable car. It’s up to you to find a phone or a service station and get moving again, but when you go looking you may find more than you bargained for. I won’t give too much away about the secrets that are eventually revealed, but the game definitely packs plenty of surprises. The pacing is excellent — I only felt completely stuck once. I turned to the walkthrough to solve the problem, just because I wanted to finish as much of the game as I could in the two-hour time limit, but if you’re playing The Plant for the first time, let me urge you not to check the walkthrough unless you’re completely stuck. All the puzzles are completely logical, none of them require reading the designer’s mind, and many of them are quite satisfying to solve, requiring several steps or clever combinations of objects, or both.

Now, the story itself does have some flaws. There are some parts that felt quite implausible to me, and from time to time the fact that your boss follows you around in your travels doing the same two or three things all the time starts to feel a little artificial. In addition, there are one or two minor spelling errors in the game. Outside of this, the plotting and writing are quite good. The Plant‘s prose often conveyed a very vivid sense of the visual. I drive by a plant like this about twice a month, and the game’s descriptions of it, how its completely industrial and utilitarian networks of pipes and lights can seem almost like an abstract fairyland when glimpsed from afar, are right on the mark. I could really visualize most of the places in the game, and the mental pictures the game’s text creates are quite dramatic and compelling. In addition, the game uses a few small touches here and there which utilize the power of HTML TADS. No pictures or sound, but a few well-placed hyperlinks in the help text and one or two spots with specially formatted text really make the game look sharp, and add to the very visual quality of the prose. If you sometimes start to feel a little impatient with all the growing that the medium of interactive fiction is doing, and long for a good old-fashioned Infocom-style thrill ride, check out The Plant. I think it may be just what you’re looking for.

Rating: 9.0

The City by Sam Barlow [Comp98]

IFDB page: The City
Final placement: 13th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

The City gave me a very strong sense of deja vu. So many parts are hauntingly familiar. Here’s the story: You wake up, not knowing who you are, where you are, or why you are wherever you are. Sound familiar yet? If not, here’s more: You seem to be trapped in a surreal and inescapable institution. (This institution is called “The City”, hence the name of the game. Yes, that’s right. It’s not about an actual city.). Does this ring any bells? OK, here’s more: your situation is iterative, bringing you back to the same point over and over again. No? Well, how about this: at one point during the game, when you give a command that goes against the narrative’s wishes, the parser replies, in bold letters: “That’s not how you remember it.” This should definitely sound familiar to anyone who’s played the latest Zarf offering. Plotwise, it’s as if somebody chopped up Mikko Vuorinen’s Leaves (another escape-from-the-institution game whose name had only tenuous relation to its contents), added two tablespoons of Andrew Plotkin’s Spider and Web, garnished with a sauce of Greg Ewing’s Don’t Be Late, threw in a pinch of Ian Finley’s Babel, put the mixture into a crust made from tiny pieces of various other text adventures, stirred, baked for 45 minutes at 350 degrees, and served it up for this year’s competition. Now, I’m not entirely convinced this is a bad thing. I think that lots of great works of art, interactive fiction and otherwise, are really just inspired melanges of things that had come before, so I’m not particularly opposed to such derivation on principle. For me, though, some of the derivative aspects of The City didn’t work particularly well. This was especially true for the Spider and Web stuff — I felt that the game crossed the line between homage and rip-off, heading the wrong direction. In addition, the convention of waking up with no idea of who you are or where you are, despite how well suited it is to IF, is starting to feel very tired to me. Perhaps I’m just jaded, or burnt-out, but when I saw the beginning I said “Oh, not another one of these!”.

Now, this is not to say that the entire game was derivative. The plot certainly didn’t break any new ground, but certain aspects of the interface were imaginative and innovative. The City does away with status line and score, not to mention save and restore. Abandoning the first two precepts did lend the game a greater sense of rawness, of the interactive experience being immediate and unmediated by any artificial tracking devices. The absence of save and restore, on the other hand, was a pain in the neck. See, as much as IF might want to emulate real life, it’s never really going to be real life. Consequently, there will be times when I only have 15 minutes to play a game and want to at least get a start into it. Or when a fire alarm goes off and I have to shut things down. Or when my wife wants to go to sleep, and I need to turn off my computer (which is in our bedroom.) You get the idea. At those times, I want to preserve the progress I’ve made. I don’t want to have to start from scratch, and I don’t care how short the game is, I don’t want to waste my time typing in a rapid series of commands to get to where I was when I had to leave the game last time. Especially since with my memory, I’m likely to forget one or two crucial actions which will then oblige me to start over again. Here is the lesson for game authors: please do not disable interface conveniences in the name of realism. It will not win admiration from your players, at least not from this one.

One innovation I did like in The City was its expansion of the typical IF question format. The game allowed not only the typical ASK and SHOW constructions, but also questions (both to the parser and to other players) like “Why am I here?”, “Where am I?”, or “Who are you?” Now, it didn’t allow question marks, which made the whole thing look a bit strange syntactically, but I found it did have a pretty good record of responding realistically to reasonable questions. I can imagine how much work must have gone into this feature, and I think it really made a difference — I felt much freer to question NPCs in a much more lifelike way. Even when I bumped into the limits of this realism (with questions like “what is going on here?”) I still felt outside of the bounds of traditional IF. Unfortunately, the energy that went into this innovative question system must have been leached out of other technical parts of the game. There were a number of bugs in the game, including one that rendered the game completely unwinnable, forcing me to, you guessed it: restart. Since I couldn’t save, and since the bug happened about 2/3 of the way through the game, I had to completely restart and type in all the commands that had brought me to that point — you can be certain I was grinding my teeth the whole time. In a non-competition game I almost certainly would not have bothered, choosing not to finish rather than to waste my time in such a manner. If anybody needs another reason not to disable save and restore, it’s this: when bugs in your code force the player to go backwards, that player will not appreciate having to back all the way up to the beginning. In addition to the bugs in the game’s coding, there were also a number of mechanical errors with its writing as well. These were not egregious, but they were there, and wore on what little patience remained after the bugs, the disabled conveniences, and the ultimately frustrating nature of the plot itself. I think the question system from The City is a valuable tool that could be well-used elsewhere (though I’d appreciate the ability to punctuate my questions with question marks). I would be very happy to see that system integrated into a game with an original plot, working code, and error-free English.

Rating: 5.5

Enlightenment: A One-Room Absurdity by Taro Ogawa [Comp98]

IFDB page: Enlightenment
Final placement: 5th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

What is it with all the one-room games this year? There must be some kind of movement happening in the collective IF unconscious which says “Plot? Who needs it? Give me one room, and as long as it’s got one or more puzzles in it, I’m happy.” Well, sometimes I’m happy too. And, more or less, this is one of those times. Despite its title, Enlightenment has very little to do with gaining awareness or understanding Zen koans. To say what it does have to do with would probably be a bit too much of a spoiler, but it involves deliberately placing yourself in a situation that most text adventurers would avoid at all costs. Because of this, it took me a little while to actually catch on to how the game is supposed to work — I just couldn’t believe that deliberately placing myself in danger was the right path. It is, though, and getting there is all the fun. Like last year’s Zero Sum Game, Enlightenment puts the PC at the end of an adventure of dizzying proportions. Unlike Zero Sum Game, Enlightenment isn’t really an unwinding of the PC’s accomplishments — you get to keep your score, and even increase it. You’ve already overcome dozens of obstacles, collected lots of treasures, and scored 240 points out of 250; now there’s just the little matter of getting past a canonical troll bridge and scurrying out of the caverns with your loot. But how? In the game’s words:

If only you hadn't used your Frobozz Magic Napalm on that ice wall...
If only you hadn't used your TrolKil (*Tm) to map that maze...
If only you hadn't sold your Frobozz Magic Tinning Kit.
If only you hadn't cooked and eaten those three Billy Goats Gruff...
... or that bear ...

If ONLY you'd checked the bloody bridge on your way in.

This brief excerpt is representative of the writing in the game: it is both a very funny parody of the Zork tradition as well as an enthusiastic participation in that tradition. In fact, as you can see from the above quote, the game actually features some familiar parts of the Zork universe, such as Frobozz Magic products, rat-ants, and even certain slavering lurkers in dark corners. Activision apparently granted permission for this usage, as they did for David Ledgard in his adaptation of the Planetfall sample transcript for his game Space Station. Activision’s willingness to grant permissions for such usage, as well as their donation of prizes to the competition and their sometime inclusion of hobbyist IF on commercial products, is great news for a fan community like ours — their support of IF means that more people will devote their time to it, resulting (hopefully) in more and more good games. Enlightenment is one of the good ones, and one of its best features is its writing. Another way in which it is unlike Zero Sum Game is that it doesn’t take an extreme or harsh tone. Instead, the writing is almost always quite funny in both its comments on text adventure cliches (the FULL score listing is a scream) and its usage of them. The game is littered with footnotes, which themselves are often littered with footnotes. Sly allusions and in-jokes abound, but they’re never what the game depends on, so if you don’t catch them, you’re not missing anything important. Of all the one-room games I’ve seen this year, Enlightenment is definitely the best-written.

It even includes some fun outside documentation in the form of the HTML edition of the latest issue of Spelunker Today: “The magazine for explorers and adventurers.” This kind of mood-building file has been included with a few competition games this year, and Enlightenment‘s extras are definitely the best of the bunch. The writing in the faux magazine is just as good as the writing in the game, and the graphics look sharp and professional. I like these little extras — they really do help set the mood of a game — and they definitely add to the fun of Enlightenment. The one problem I had with this game was that, although the writing is funny and clever, it is sometimes not precise enough to convey the exact nature of a puzzle or its solution. In a heavily puzzle-oriented game like Enlightenment, this can be a major setback. For example, at one point in the game you’re called upon to cut something, but it won’t work to use your sword on it. You must find something else to cut with. Well, there is something else, but that object is never described as having a sharp edge. This is one of those puzzles that made me glad I looked at the hints — the only way I would have ever gotten it is by brute force, and that’s no fun anyway. In another instance, a part of the setting is described in such a confusing way that I still don’t quite understand what it is supposed to look like. Part of the difficulty, I think, is that the game features a gate, with metal spikes at its bottom set into the stone floor. Now, this made me think of bars, like you might see on a portcullis. However, as far as I can determine the game actually means a solid wall, with spikes at the bottom, which I wouldn’t describe as a gate. This kind of imprecision is a real problem when the objects so imprecisely described have to be acted upon in precise ways in order to solve puzzles. So I used the hints for a number of the puzzles, and I don’t mind that I did, because I wouldn’t have solved them on my own anyway. But imprecision aside, I’m still glad I used them, because it enabled me to play all the way through Enlightenment, and the trip out of that one room was well worth taking.

Rating: 8.6

Purple by Stefan Blixt [Comp98]

IFDB page: Purple
Final placement: 15th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

The world is ending. It’s not immediately apparent at first, because you and your brother are living out on the remote island of Lino Kapo, quite isolated from the political troubles of your future Earth(?), whose nations have names like “the Kollagio Antarktika” and “the Oceanic Republic.” But listen to the TV. (The nations have morphed so much that people are living in places like Antarctica, but we still get our information from the TV. Some things never change.) Political battles between the nations have led to the use of the deadly K-bomb, which releases, unsurprisingly, deadly K-radiation! (Where are you when we need you, Lane Mastodon?) This radiation turns the sky a disturbing purple, and threatens to choke out humanity in its menacing clouds. (By the way, the color of the sky is the meaning behind the game’s title. Hallelujah, a title that makes a little sense!) Lucky for you, your brother is a bit of a tinkerer, and has come up with this device called a Phoenix Nest, into which you can climb and sleep away the death of the world in suspended animation. The Nest wakes you up when the levels of K-radiation have dropped enough for humans to be safe. So in you climb, as the world ends, to await its rebirth and greet it with your own. Now, I know I’ve made a bit of sport with the plot here, but details aside I like this premise. It has a drama and immediacy to it, it creates a perfectly plausible reason for the world to be basically deserted, as it so often is in IF, and it gives the author a blank slate onto which a compelling alternate world can be drawn. Not to mention the fact that the mysterious “K-radiation” can be an excuse for almost any biological oddity you care to dream up.

The good news is that from this imaginative premise, Purple takes several very creative steps. The flora and fauna of the post-apocalyptic world are pleasingly exotic and interesting. The landscape is convincingly changed, and the language used to describe the new reality can be quite vivid. The bad news is that these good ideas are very poorly implemented. Let’s start with the writing. Purple isn’t exactly riddled with errors in the same way that, say, Lightiania was. However, there are enough mechanical (spelling & grammar) problems to be a serious irritant. Many of these problems aren’t exactly errors, but rather awkward turns of phrase that make the game harder to read. Purple‘s descriptions often sound as if they were translated from another language into English, by a somewhat inexpert translator. The awkwardness throws off the rhythm of the game’s prose, and I found myself frequently reading text more than once in order to figure out what it was saying. Then there are those sentences that really don’t make sense, like this one: “Urging to cover your eyes from the bright light, you still can’t move a finger.” I think that what this means is that you have the urge to cover your eyes, but you can’t because you’re paralyzed. I figured this out, but it took a minute, and for that minute I was thrown out of the story; in a text adventure, where prose is all there is, being thrown out of the narrative like this is problematic. Add a few outright spelling and grammar errors, and the game starts to feel more like work than fun.

Compounding this problem are some trouble spots in the code. There were several instances of disambiguation troubles, almost enough to make me feel like I was playing a TADS game. Scenes like this were not uncommon:

Which do you mean, the up, the ceiling or the hole?

Which do you mean, the ceiling or the hole?

Which do you mean, the ceiling or the hole?

To make matters worse, I also came across several run-time errors of the flavor ** Run-time error: [Name of object] (object number 211) has no property to read **, and in fact once crashed WinFrotz altogether with a “No Such Property” error. Besides these basic errors in the code, there were also a number of problems with the way objects were implemented. For instance, you have half of a tool that you have to complete by improvising the other half, and putting one piece into the other. Unfortunately, unless you choose the right piece to insert, you are told that the other half “can’t contain things.” I also had trouble with a number of the puzzles, and was unable to figure them out without a walkthrough, but I can’t tell if that’s because of the stumbling English and buggy code, or the difficulty of the puzzles, or just my own denseness. On balance, I’d say that Purple is a very rough version of what could become a good IF vignette. After it’s undergone a few vigorous rounds of beta-testing, you might want to give it a try.

Rating: 4.1

Cattus Atrox by David A. Cornelson [Comp98]

IFDB page: Cattus Atrox
Final placement: 20th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Cattus Atrox begins with a warning. The warning says this: “This work of IF contains strong language, violence, and sexual descriptions. It is not intended for children or anyone with a distaste for such things.” In my opinion, this warning does not tell the whole truth. I’d like to replace it with this warning: “This work of IF contains strong language, violence, and sexual descriptions. It also contains no plot, no characterization, and no puzzles to speak of. It consists of horrifying situations with no apparent logic behind them, graphic descriptions of gratuitous violence, and incident after incident that is unsolvable without prior knowledge (i.e. save-and-restore “puzzles”.) Its world is only fully implemented enough to serve these goals. In a winning session, you will beat an animal to death, watch 3 people be literally torn apart, and strangle a friendly housecat. If you like slasher movies, this is the IF game for you. It is not intended for children or anyone with a distaste for such things.” See, here’s the thing: I really don’t mind strong language, violence, or sexual descriptions when they’re in the service of a story that makes sense. The “strong language, violence, and sexual descriptions” tag could be equally attached to Bride of Chucky and The Color Purple. As you might have guessed from what I’ve written so far, this game is on the Chucky end of that continuum.

Now, it may well be that there are people with a taste for such things. I don’t really know who these people are, but I’ve been on the Internet long enough to know that it’s a big, wide, crazy world out there. But I’m not one of those people. I really hated the experience of playing Cattus Atrox, which, by the way, is another game whose title makes no sense even after you’ve completed a winning session. I’m not saying that means it shouldn’t have been written, but I am saying that when I rate a game on how much I enjoyed playing it, this game will not score highly. Here’s the situation: you play a regular person who, for no apparent reason, is suddenly pursued by a psycho. Then you find out your friends are all in league with the psycho, and also want to kill you. If this feels like a spoiler, don’t worry — you won’t solve the game without knowing this fact in advance. Now, this is a scary situation, right? One of the game’s goals had to be to create a feeling of suspense, dread, and horror, and it succeeds on all counts. While being chased by the psycho, I felt suspense. While running around a maze (yes, maze) of fog-shrouded streets, never knowing when the psycho would loom from the mists, I felt dread. When I was injured by the psycho, I felt horror. All this lasted for about 15 minutes. Then I began to feel annoyance. The questions in my mind were: “What is the point of all this?” and “Is this all happening for no reason?” The answers are: I don’t think there is one, and yes. That’s all the story there is to the game. It’s like one of those nightmares where everyone is out to get you and your actions don’t make much difference. If you’ve had a nightmare like this, you know how this feels. Maybe it’s a feeling you’d like to have while you’re awake as well. Not me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It is possible to win the game, though not without doing and experiencing some really awful things, including one that is a part of the winning message. I don’t know how this game could be won on the first time through, since several situations require knowledge you can only get after you’ve lost, but it can be won. It is also, as far as I could determine, fairly free of writing and coding errors. But there are a number of problems with the game that don’t have anything to do with mechanics, or with violence, sex, and cursing. I think I’ve already mentioned that the plot doesn’t make much sense. Also, there’s this: lots of things aren’t implemented, simply because there is only ever one solution available to any given problem. The street is covered with cars, but you can’t set off any alarms on them because the game doesn’t recognize the word “car”. The streets are full of houses, but you can’t go into any of them, because the game tells you that you can’t see any such thing. There’s one particular location in which you need to examine the street, but in all the other locations the street is “not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.” The story is so bare that the player character doesn’t know basic things, like where his house is or how to find a store, police station, or any sort of help. The PC has no other friends to call for help besides the psychos. There is no explanation as to who the PC’s psycho friends are, why he trusted them, or why he’s in the situation in the first place. There is no explanation as to why the psychos choose the PC to kill. The game is good at one thing, and that is producing fear and disgust. Unfortunately, unrelieved fear and disgust, without any reason behind them, aren’t my idea of fun.

Rating: 3.2

[Postscript from 2020: This game spawned a lasting IF community in-joke, based on the fact that at some point a character runs up to you and screams “LIONS!” Outside the game, this became a favorite non sequitur. Try it, it’s fun. “LIONS!”]

Lightiania by Gustav Bodell [Comp98]

IFDB page: Lightiania
Final placement: 22nd place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

After most of the reviews were submitted for the 1997 competition, there was the usual firestorm of controversy about what an IF review should do. Every time the subject of criticism comes up, there is a certain segment which asserts the idea that criticism should never be too negative, that it should nurture the developing author rather than blast the substandard game, and that reviewers shouldn’t treat their subjects as they would a professionally produced movie or book, but rather as the amateur product of an amateur author, and make generous allowances for any problems in the work. Now, I don’t subscribe wholeheartedly to these notions — I actually think that honest criticism of a work’s flaws is the best way to make sure that author’s next work (or even the next revision of the current work) will be free from those flaws, creating better interactive fiction for everyone. However, I do believe in constructive criticism, and I certainly don’t want to discourage anybody from writing IF, no matter how problematic their previous creations may have been. Some of the reviews for the 1997 competition were significantly harsher than mine, and I think (or at least I hope) that they were the primary spur for the subsequent criticism controversy. However, looking over my reviews from that year, I had a bit of a guilt attack, and posted a message apologizing for anyone’s feelings I might have hurt with my reviews, and assuring all authors that reviews are not personal rejections, but rather that they are about the work itself and that no one should be discouraged from further writing by a negative review. I also promised myself that I would try to have a lighter touch in my 1998 reviews.

Therefore, I tread lightly. But some reviews are harder than others to write. This is one of the tough ones. Lightiania is a very deeply troubled game, which will take a lot of work before I can really consider it a quality piece of interactive fiction. Therefore, in the spirit of constructive criticism, here are some of the things that would really improve Lightiania. First on the list has to be correct English spelling and grammar. The mechanics of the writing in this game are just abysmal — the nature of the errors lead me to suspect that perhaps English isn’t the writer’s first language, which would certainly make the problems understandable. I’ve taken some Spanish classes, but if I tried to write a text adventure in Spanish, you can be certain that the result would be nigh-unintelligible to a native speaker. However, due to my lack of ability I would recognize the need for a proofreader. This is the step that hasn’t been taken in Lightiania. As a result, the language is so mangled that it sometimes doesn’t even make sense. A sample sentence: “You get VERY supprised [sic] when you, after a smaller blackout, [no mention of blackouts before this point. Is this electricity, or drinking, or what?] realises [sic] that is [sic] is in fact a quite big space craft that has crashed in the middle of the meadow.” The first step to take, and one that would improve the game a lot, is major, major proofreading.

The next thing that needs to happen is that some very basic design points need to be changed. Right now, Lightiania is a very simple game, with really only one puzzle, and virtually no plot. The plot (such as it is) is this: You are an inventor, and a flying saucer has crashed a few miles away from your house. You try to get this ship flying again. Why does it matter that you’re an inventor? Where are the aliens? Why would you try to get the ship flying before finding the aliens? What does “Lightiania” mean in the first place? These questions, and many others, go unanswered in the game. What’s worse, the game’s one puzzle is virtually unsolvable without a walkthrough. It requires you to find a piece of a lock-and-key mechanism by LOOKing UNDER a piece of scenery. No problem, right? Well, the problem is this: that piece of scenery is never mentioned in the game. Until the walkthrough told me to “LOOK UNDER WARDROBE” (not the real solution, but analogous), I had no idea there was a wardrobe in the room. These are very serious problems. Many would be fixed by a good proofreader, or beta tester, or (dare I dream it?) both. I’m not saying these things to be harsh, and I definitely believe that someone with the imagination and enthusiasm displayed in this game should write again. But please, please: don’t release it until it’s in English and it makes sense.

Rating: 1.1

Photopia by Adam Cadre as Opal O’Donnell [Comp98]

IFDB page: Photopia
Final placement: 1st place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

If there was a prize for “competition game most mentioned on the newsgroups before the deadline had passed,” Photopia would win hands down. Everyone was quite courteous about it, spoiler warnings and rot13 and all that, but there was a marked impatience to talk about this game, recommend it to other people, make it the test case in any number of arguments. There is a reason behind this impatience: Photopia is an amazing piece of work. It’s also very hard to talk about without giving spoilers away, so please forgive me if I’m a little vague in my language. One of the most brilliant aspects of the game is its plotting. It has what Adam Cadre, in an unrelated discussion, called a Priest plot, named for writer Christopher Priest. I don’t know if this is a term that Adam just made up, but it’s a useful term nonetheless. It refers to a plot which just gives you fragments, seemingly unrelated to each other, which coalesce at (or towards) the end of the story. When the fragments come together, and you figure out how they relate to one another, the result can often be surprising or revelatory. When they came together in Photopia, I found the revelation quite devastating. I won’t say too much more about this, except to say that it wasn’t until the end of Photopia that I realized what a truly incredible, powerful story it is. It’s the kind of thing where when you’ve played it all the way through once, you can then replay it and all the pieces fall into place, everything interlocking from the beginning in a way you can’t understand until the end. I think that this is the game that opens new frontiers of replayability in interactive fiction — I needed to play through Photopia twice in order to see all the text again, knowing what I knew after the end of the game.

Actually, I hesitate to call Photopia a game, but not because it failed to live up to a standard of interactivity. It’s just so patently clear that Photopia is not interested in puzzles, or score, or some battle of wits between author and player. Photopia is interested in telling a story, and it succeeds magnificently on this count. Unfortunately this deprives me of the use of the word “game” in describing it — perhaps I’ll just call it a work. In any case, it’s a work that anyone who is interested in puzzleless IF should try. At no point was I even close to getting stuck in Photopia, because the obvious action is almost always the right one — or else there is no right action and fated events occur with heavy inevitability. Oddly enough, this creates a strange contradiction. I was on ifMUD looking for a word to describe the plot of this work (I couldn’t think of the phrase “Priest plot”) and someone said, jokingly, “linear.” But actually, that’s true. Despite the fact that it’s completely fragmented, and despite the fact that it jumps around in time, space, and perspective, Photopia is a linear composition. There’s only one way to go through it, and the player has little or no power to make it deviate from its predestined course. I think the reason that this didn’t bother me, that in fact I liked it, is precisely because Photopia isn’t a game. Because it is a story, the emphasis is taken away from a teleological model, where the player tries to steer for the best outcome. Instead, you’re really just along for the ride, and the ride is one not to be missed.

Now, this is not to say that Photopia may as well have been a short story rather than interactive fiction. In fact, it takes advantage of the capabilities of the medium in some very inventive and almost unprecedented ways. One of the foremost of these is its use of color — each section of the game (oops, there’s that word again. Make that “the work”) is presented in a preset color, and these colors also play a part in the Priest plot. I understood their function by the end of the piece, and once I understood, I knew exactly why they were there and how much they enhanced the storytelling. Unfortunately I found the colored text a little hard to read at times, especially the darker colors on a black background, but I wouldn’t go back and play it in blue and white. The colors, like everything else in Photopia, worked beautifully, adding artfully to the overall impact of the story. The work is interactive in other important ways as well. In fact, in many aspects Photopia is a metanarrative about the medium of interactive fiction itself. Again, it wasn’t until the end of the story that I understood why it had to be told as interactive fiction. And again, to explain the reason would be too much of a spoiler. I have so much more I want to talk about with Photopia, but I can’t talk about it until you’ve played it. Go and play it, and then we’ll talk. I promise, you’ll understand why everyone has been so impatient. You’ll understand why I loved it, and why I think it’s one of the best pieces of interactive fiction ever to be submitted to the competition.

Rating: 9.9

The Ritual Of Purification by Jarek Sobolewski as Sable [Comp98]

IFDB page: Ritual Of Purification
Final placement: 12th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

The feeling I got while playing Ritual reminded me of nothing so much as those old Dr. Strange comics from the 60’s, back when the master of mysticism was drawn by Steve Ditko, himself a master of the bizarre. The game is full of strange, hallucinatory images: a road that melts into nothing, an arch with marble carvings on one side and black decay on the other side, exploding and melting universes. The whole thing made me feel like I was immersed in a Ditko landscape, and the fact that the main character is a spellcaster on an astral voyage didn’t hurt either. Of course, some of the scenes in Ritual could never have taken place in a 60’s comic — at least, not one that adhered to the Comics Code Authority. There’s nothing really outrageous, but there are scenes of sexuality, drug use, and gore that you’d never see Dr. Strange experiencing. I’m not suggesting that the game is some sort of Dr. Strange rip-off, or that Ditko was an inspiration for Ritual — that’s just what it reminded me of. However, one source of inspiration for the game was clearly some of the more obscure poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. At the completion of almost every puzzle, the game throws a box quote from Poe, usually one which has some relation to the obstacle just overcome. These quotes are well-chosen, digging deep into the Poe archives and highlighting how much he inherited from William Blake, as well as how much he prefigured H.P. Lovecraft. At its best, most deranged or sublime moments, the game evokes the weird, dark mysticism shared by all these creators. On the whole, the effect is very trippy, and a fair amount of fun.

Unfortunately, there are some false notes as well. From time to time a character will say or do something fairly anachronistic, which tends to break the spell pretty thoroughly. In fact, at one point you can get a character to whip out a bong and start taking hits from it, which brings the whole elevated plane of symbolism and wonder dive-bombing back to earth. The effect is not so much of Alice in Wonderland‘s “hookah-smoking caterpillar”, but more of Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It just doesn’t fit. There are also a few times when the game seems to slip into clichés or “AD&Disms” — one beast is described as “biting easily through a set of plate mail”, and some of the spells feel suspiciously close to ones I remember from 7th grade basement role-playing sessions. In addition, the game has a number of grammar and spelling errors, usually minor problems like missing punctuation or vowel mistakes, but again they break the spell. Finally, and worst of all, there’s a bug in the game which causes it to not respond at all if a certain action is taken sooner than the game expects it. There’s nothing that ruins immersion quite so much as when a game just doesn’t respond to a command in any way. Well, maybe not nothing — crashing the interpreter would probably ruin immersion more, but because of the lack of response problem I ended up turning to the hints, only to find that I had in fact given the right command to solve the puzzle — I just gave it a little too soon.

The game suffers a bit from the “unconnected symbols” syndrome — sometimes it feels like all of these dreamlike images are just images, with no meaning or substance attached to them. However, the game manages to pull them together somewhat through its title, intro, and ending — the bizarre symbols with which the game is littered are all loosely connected through a theme of purification, of facing inner demons and the pain & joy of life in order to become a better person. It didn’t entirely work for me — some of the symbolism seemed arbitrary or clichéd to my mind — but I think it was a good beginning. I would really like to play a game with this kind of tone which had freed itself from shopworn images and RPG leftovers. Something with imagery like the more arresting parts of Ritual, but which really cohered to make a powerful statement on some aspect of the human condition, could really take advantage of IF’s immersive capability to create a remarkable work of art. Ritual isn’t it, but I hope it becomes the jumping-off point for someone (the author perhaps?) to create something like it but better: no writing errors, no clichés, no anachronisms, no bugs — just the Ditko universes exploding and melting all around us, with meaning.

Rating: 6.9

Muse: An Autumn Romance by Christopher Huang [Comp98]

IFDB page: Muse: An Autumn Romance
Final placement: 2nd place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’ve been sitting here for 10 minutes trying to find the right words to begin a review of Muse, but I can’t seem to come up with anything that speaks as eloquently as the game’s own prose. Muse is the most gorgeously written piece of IF in the competition — I’ve still got several games left to play, but I would be very surprised if any of them even equaled Muse‘s marvelous skill with words, let alone surpassed it. The game is like the IF version of a Merchant-Ivory movie: quiet setting, stellar production values, highly character-oriented, and deeply, deeply felt. It’s been a long time since I’ve been as moved by a piece of IF as I was by the “optimal” ending of Muse — even some of the less satisfying endings are crafted so well that in themselves they can be quite emotional. The game takes place in a French village in 1886, as viewed through the eyes of Rev. Stephen Dawson, a 59-year-old clergyman from Barchester, England. It is not a typical IF setting, and Dawson is hardly the typical IF hero, but Muse is far from a typical game. It is a story, one of the most successful pieces of interactive fiction I’ve seen for pulling off the fiction as much as the interactivity. Its characters feel real, including its main character; it is the story of Rev. Dawson’s own struggle for acceptance of himself and his role in life, of his journey past regret and into contentment. Through its masterful writing, excellent coding, and some clever techniques, Muse creates a story of someone else’s emotional transformation, made all the more affecting by our direction of that character’s actions.

One way in which the game accomplishes its goal is to eschew the traditional second person, present tense IF voice, settling instead on a first person past tense narration. A typical exchange looks somewhat like this:

I had on my person the following items:
my pocket New Testament

I practically knew its contents by heart.

Oh, but the trunk was heavy! I managed to lift it just high enough for the
purpose of moving it around, but I was getting far too old for this sort of thing.

At first, I was surprised how little a difference this made to me. The game still felt quite natural, which I think is another testament to its writing. On reflection, however, I think that the changes did make a difference. By choosing a first person voice, Muse sidesteps all of the controversy surrounding assigning emotion to the player character. In fact, the game is constantly ascribing emotions to the PC, but it never grates because the first person POV assumes this role quite naturally. Having a game say things like “you practically know its contents by heart” or “you are getting far too old for this sort of thing” would cause much more dissonance for me, especially as the game moved into its deeper emotional registers. The past tense achieves a similar sort of distancing from the player, as well as heightening the “period” effect, not that the game needs it. Muse evokes the Victorian feel extremely well, and the spell is never broken by any piece of writing, any detail of setting, or any development of character.

There’s only one problem. One part of Muse‘s realistic, natural approach is that events go on without you if you aren’t in the right place at the right time. On my first run through the game, I was off doing text-adventurely things like examining all the objects, trying to talk to various characters about dozens of different subjects (an effect which the game also pulls off remarkably well — its coding is quite deep in some areas) and exploring the landscape. Even though the game was giving me gentle nudges to check into the inn, I didn’t do so, because for one thing I couldn’t find it right away, and for another thing I was having too much fun exploring the very rich world of the game. As a result, one of the major plot points happened without me, putting me into a situation where, as far as I can determine, the optimal ending was unreachable. What’s worse, I didn’t know I couldn’t reach the best ending; because it was my first time through, I didn’t realize I had missed anything I could have participated in anyway. I ended up wandering around, quite frustrated with my inability to cause the story to progress.

When I finally looked at the hints, it became clear to me that I had failed to perform an important task, and that as a result the happiest ending had been closed to me. Now, this is of course very realistic — we miss things all the time that could change our lives significantly, and we never know that we’ve missed them — but I don’t think it’s the best design for a game, even a game so story-oriented as Muse. The loss was affecting in its own way, especially when I replayed it after completing the game with the happiest ending, but I didn’t like it that I had “lost” without having any way of knowing I had done so. I don’t think it had to be that way — I can certainly envision how the game might have at least pushed (or strongly nudged) me into a less optimal ending, so that I might realize more quickly that I had missed something, or perhaps the game could even have left the optimal path open even when the plot point had been missed. I would have loved the chance to complete such an incredible story my first time through, without having to resort to hints.

Rating: 9.3

The Arrival by Stephen Granade as Samantha Clark [Comp98]

IFDB page: Arrival, or Attack of the B-Movie Clichés
Final placement: 4th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Arrival is the first HTML-TADS game I’ve ever played, certainly the first competition game ever to include pictures and sound. I was quite curious as to how these elements would be handled, and maybe even a little apprehensive. I wasn’t sure that a lone hobbyist could create visual and musical elements that wouldn’t detract from a game more than they added to it. But Arrival dispelled those fears, handling both pictures and sound brilliantly. The game’s ingenious strategy is to cast an 8-year-old as its main character, which makes the fact that most of the graphics are really just crayon drawings not only acceptable, but completely appropriate. Just for good measure, the game chooses “Attack of the B-Movie Clichés” as its theme and subtitle, thereby making the cheese factor of the special effects (which is pretty high) actually enhance the game rather than embarrass it. The pictures are delightful — the crayon drawings evoke a great sense of childhood and wonder while continuing the humorous feel of the whole game. The spaceship (two pie plates taped together) and the aliens (in the author’s words “the finest crayons and modelling clay $2.83 could buy”) are a scream — I laughed out loud every time I saw them. The game also includes a couple of very well-done non-crayon graphics, one an excellent faux movie poster and the other a dead-on parody of a web page, both of which I found very funny. The sounds, though sparse, are equally good — the sound of the alien spaceship crash-landing startled the heck out of me. I’m not used to my text adventures making noise! But a moment later I was laughing, because the noise was just so fittingly silly.

However, all the funny pictures and sounds in the world couldn’t make Arrival a good game if it wasn’t, at its core, a well-written text adventure. Luckily for us, it is. The game is full of cleverly written, funny moments, and has layers of detail I didn’t even recognize until I read the postscript of amusing things to do. The aliens, who bicker like a couple of married retirees touring the U.S. in their motor home, are great characters. Each is given a distinct personality, and in fact a distinct typeface, the green alien speaking in green text while the purple alien has text to match as well. If you hang around the aliens you will hear quite a bit of funny dialogue, and if you manage to switch their universal translator from archaic into modern mode, you can hear all the same dialogue, just as funny, rewritten into valley-speak. The game has lots of detail which doesn’t figure in the main plot but creates a wonderfully silly atmosphere and provides lots of jokes. For example, on board the ship is an examination room, where by flipping switches, pulling levers, or turning knobs you can cause all sorts of machinery to pop from the walls and perform its function on the gleaming metal table, everything from laser beams to buzz saws to Saran Wrap. In addition, Arrival is one of the better games I’ve seen this year at unexpectedly understanding input and giving snarky responses to strange commands, which has been one of my favorite things about text adventures ever since I first played Zork. Even if you can’t (or don’t want to) run the HTML part of HTML TADS, it would still be well worth your time to seek out The Arrival.

However, don’t be afraid to rely on hints. I had played for an hour and hadn’t scored a single point when I took my first look at them. Now, once I got some hints I determined that the puzzles did in fact make perfect sense — they weren’t of the “read the author’s mind” variety and I would probably have come to solve them on my own. Perhaps the presence of pictures, sound, and hyperlinks threw me out of my IF mindset enough that I was struggling more than I should have with the puzzles. That’s probably a part of it, but I think another factor was that all the details in the game ended up becoming a big pile of red herrings for me. There are quite a few items and places which have no real use beyond being jokes, and I found it quite easy to get sidetracked into trying to solve puzzles that didn’t exist. It’s not that I don’t think those pieces should be in the game; I actually find it refreshing to play a game where not every item is part of a key or a lock, and even as it caused me to spin my wheels in terms of game progress, it helped me ferret out a lot of the little jokes hidden under the surface of various game items. However, if you’re the kind of player who gets easily frustrated when your score doesn’t steadily increase, don’t be afraid to rely on a hint here and there. Just remember to replay the game after you’re done so that you can see what you missed. Besides, that pie-plate spaceship is worth a second look.

Rating: 9.6