Little Blue Men by Michael S. Gentry [Comp98]

IFDB page: Little Blue Men
Final placement: 7th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

WARNING: Because Little Blue Men uses obscenities in its text, that language will also appear in this review.

Well, the first thing I have to say is that starting Little Blue Men right after finishing Human Resources Stories was quite mind-bending. The game starts with a character who is sitting at his desk thinking of his job as “another day in the trenches,” looking at his corner as his “own little slice of the shit pie those sons of bitches call an office.” I had this sudden vision of IF authors as angry loners, driven by their misanthropy and lack of social skills into highly solitary hobbies like writing and programming, friendless misfits who hate their jobs, hate their lives, and generally hate people, and who write supposedly entertaining games that are really about how much the world sucks. Luckily, the vision passed as the game underwent a curious transformation. First of all, the game’s disclaimer assured me that “at its most fundamental level, this game is about learning to love yourself.” OK, maybe we’re not loving anybody else yet, but loving yourself is at least a little positive. Next, I entered a few commands, the first ones that came to mind, really, and… won the game. Or did I? My final message said “*** You have learned to love yourself ***”, which is what I was told the game was about. So I won, right? In 10 moves? I wondered how in the heck a game whose .z5 file was 171K could end up being so short. I wondered, in the game’s words, “What the hell…?!”

It turns out that although LBM may be about learning to love yourself, if you do the things that help you reach that goal too quickly you end up missing the entire story. That story consists of scheming ways to kill or otherwise waylay your co-workers, destroy the things that aggravate you, discover the secrets hidden behind the bland office walls, and figure out just who or what your boss, “that bastard Biedermeyer”, really is. In short, it consists of getting an unpleasant character to do unsavory things, in service of a plot that grows more and more metaphorical and surreal as you progress through it. When I finally got to the end, I wasn’t sure that I was any more satisfied with the “real” ending than the one I got to in 10 moves. In his postscript, the author tells us that he wants the story’s structure to help us question to help us analyze some of our assumptions about IF. For one thing, we should think about what really is the most “optimal” ending of the game, and whether it’s worth it to actually play through a game if it’s possible to reach a positive ending at the beginning, and/or if the motivations of the character are twisted and repugnant? Now, these are not new ideas. Andrew Plotkin‘s A Change In The Weather offers a similar situation at its outset — if you rejoin the picnic, you end up having fun after all, but you also miss the story. To go back earlier, Michael Berlyn used a related technique in Infidel by making the main character a shallow, exploitive greedhead who probably deserves a desert demise, then asking you to solve puzzles and find treasure on his behalf. Little Blue Men, though, makes these propositions starker than ever before by making its main character thoroughly repulsive and an optimal ending immediately reachable.

Now, my answer to this question in its abstract form is that responses will vary depending on the player. Some people probably have no interest in playing a repulsive character, and so will just delete the game. Others might be driven by curiosity to complete the game even though they find the experience unpleasant. Still others will view it as a chance to get a glimpse into abnormal psychology, or to have some fun playing a villainous character. In this way, playing such a game is akin to watching a movie like Natural Born Killers, or reading a book like In Cold Blood — it may be very well-done, but it’s not everybody’s cup of tea, and that’s fine. Consequently, I guess I don’t view the question as all that interesting, maybe because any assumption I might have had about IF characters having to be good was eliminated as soon as I finished Infidel (in 1986). But even though I feel this way, LBM still didn’t work for me, not because of its main character but because of its choices of setting, imagery, and metaphor. The game invokes the movie Jacob’s Ladder a couple of times, which is a movie I loved. That film was by turns profound, chilling, and inspiring. LBM only achieves glimpses of these things, and I think the reason is because I found its imagery muddled and incoherent. The game is obviously taking place on some metaphorical level, but it was never at all clear to me what the metaphors were supposed to be representing, and as they stack up it only becomes more confusing. In addition, there was basically no connection with reality, which left the game’s symbols floating unanchored. Some flashback scenes, some glimpses of reality, some type of explanation for the heaven/hell dichotomy the game presents would have gone a long way toward connecting its symbolism with something more meaningful than just other symbols. There’s a lot to like about this game. It is written well, and although it doesn’t achieve an overall arc, it does contain moments which can be quite moving or frightening. Technically I could find very little for which to fault it, both in its writing and its coding. Its puzzles may have had some unpleasant content, but they were clever and engaging, and generally quite well integrated with the storyline. But for me, it did not succeed as a work of art. Nonetheless, I respect it for being an ambitious but flawed experiment — I’ll take that over competent repetition any day.

Rating: 6.3

Human Resources Stories by Harry M. Hardjono [Comp98]

IFDB page: Human Resources Stories
Final placement: 27th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

I have to confess, I’m a little afraid to write this review. So let me just start out by saying Harry, I’m sure you’re a wonderful person. I’ll bet you have lots of friends, a loving family, and are kind to small animals. I’m sure you’re not violent, or if you are violent, your violence is directed only at inanimate objects. Please accept anything in this review as purely constructive criticism, and remember that reviews are about the game, not about the game’s author. If anything I say offends you, I will gladly retract it. Please don’t hurt me.

OK, that being said, here’s what I thought of Human Resources Stories: I thought it was the most unrepentantly bitter, angry, and unsettling game I’ve ever played. I started to get a hint of this in the game’s readme file, in which the author proclaims “I am not a lemming,” as though he has been accused of thoughtlessly following the crowd, and feels obliged to defend himself. He goes on to say that he will probably suffer for the small size of his game, and that he has “pointed out (much to the chagrin of a lot of people) that judges are discriminatory toward size.” OK, so far I’d seen some defensiveness, a predilection to believe that the competition judges (basically any random r*if readers who bother to send in votes) don’t judge fairly, and the suggestion that when he has pointed out this “fact”, he has been shouted down. My guard was up.

And a good thing too, because after I read the intro (which casts you as an interviewee for various high-tech companies, all of which take pride in “paying the best, brightest, most talented people in the industry sub-average salary”), I read the credits. These thank various helpers, and at the end: “other raif denizen: Except for some obviously rude, stupid people who think they are _so great_.” Um, wow. That’s some real anger there. Or at least, that’s how I took it. Gee, I hope I’m not one of those “obviously rude, stupid people.” I’d hate to be rude and stupid, much less obviously so. I wonder who these people are. I certainly wouldn’t want to be the one to point out that flaming raif in the credits of your game and using a singular noun when you intend a plural isn’t exactly polite and intelligent. I don’t mean that in a hostile way, really. Just gently pointing out the irony I felt at that moment. If necessary, please reread my first paragraph. Anyway, once I got over the credits, I decided to type “XYZZY” for fun, since the readme file specifically mentions the author’s bafflement at why modern IF games still include it. That’s when I got the biggest shock yet.

The response to XYZZY is a long, long, long diatribe. It probably has more words than the rest of the game and the readme file combined. It starts out as an interview scenario, the question advanced being “How do you work?” This question becomes the jumping-off point for a highly detailed rant about how this poor programmer got the blame for every bad thing in the company, is working on weekends with no pay, has had the project timeframe reduced by 75%, meanwhile the manager is off to Hawaii, and finally this programmer, who is a good person and a fine worker (and an excellent programmer who would write outstanding code except for it’s impossible to do so under such oppressive conditions) pulls the whole thing together so that it works for the end users, only to have the whole process start over again. By the end of this, I was sitting there reading with my jaw hanging open, just in shock. Let me say that if I were interviewing someone and got this answer, not only would I never call the person back (in the game’s words, “The phone never ring.”), but I would be beefing up security and thinking about investing in a bulletproof vest, and phoning the interviewee’s current and former employers to suggest that they do the same. The level of anger and bitterness there is just incredible. By this point, I had completely forgotten the original question, so I typed “RESTART.” The game’s response? “That’s not how life works.” Same response to “QUIT”, which was my next inclination. And I thought Zarf was cruel! Certainly it’s true that you can’t do these things in real life (well, you can quit. See In The End), but disabling these basic commands made for a hell of an inconvenience when I actually did want to restart the game.

Perhaps “game” is too strong a word anyway. When I finally did get to it (by shutting down the whole interpreter then re-running it), I found that it wasn’t a game exactly. It’s advertised as a choose-your-own-adventure type of game, but beyond the initial prose there’s really no story, no advancing narrative whatsoever. Instead, HRS asks you a series of multiple choice questions, as if it were interviewing you for a programming job. At the end, you either get the brush-off (“The phone never ring.”), or you get the job with a series of letter grades for technical, teamwork, and leadership criteria, along with a salary. The best I did was an A, A+, and A+, with a salary of… $20,000. Now, I work as a programmer, for a state university no less, and I didn’t find that to be my experience of a starting salary. I have to wonder if the anger I saw in other sections of the game might be biasing its results… just a bit. To be fair, the game does not reward you for being a bootlick. If you give the typical “What you think an exploitative company would want to hear” answers, you will get “The phone never ring” pretty fast. However, the set of answers I gave for my highest score still indicated some pretty brutal expectations on behalf of the hiring company. And this, the game would like me to believe, in the face of the biggest high-tech labor scarcity in… well, ever. Aside from whether HRS reflects “real life” or not, it’s not much of a game. It’s more like a test than a game, and more like a rant than a test. I can’t really say I found it fun, though it certainly did provoke a strong reaction from me. I guess that in all honesty, I’d have to say that I really disliked being subjected to both the rant and the test. The game makes me glad I’m not looking for a job right now, but it makes me even more glad that I’m not looking for an employee. But that’s just me. Nothing personal. Please don’t hurt me.

Rating: 2.5 (I hope I’ve explained myself well enough to demonstrate that the length of HRS had very little to do with my rating. I, uh, am not a lemming.)

Space Station by David Ledgard [Comp98]

IFDB page: Spacestation
Final placement: 19th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Several years ago, Graham Nelson released a piece of work he modestly referred to as a “parsing exercise.” This exercise really was a short game, a competition-sized game before there was a competition. It included the spell system from Enchanter, and several good puzzles. In fact, it was very loosely based on the sample transcript included in Infocom’s original distribution of Enchanter. This game was called Balances, and it was a big hit with the IF community. It’s probably the most-played “exercise” in the IF Archive. It also spurred a discussion, which reoccurs from time to time, about what fun it would be to create games based on the sample transcripts from various Infocom games. Now, David Ledgard has been the first person to turn that notion into a reality. He took the sample transcript from Planetfall and (apparently with the permission of Activision) implemented it in Inform, also extending it a bit so that it would comprise a full, winnable game (the transcript ends with the player’s death.) Where Balances only took a couple of ideas from the Enchanter transcript, Space Station lifts the Planetfall transcript almost verbatim. Unfortunately, the results are a little mixed.

The transcript itself is great reading. It’s funny, interesting, and well-written. Consequently, the pieces of Space Station that are copied straight from the transcript are also funny, interesting, and well-written. This is not something for which the author can really take credit, though I’m certain it was a fair amount of work to do all the transcribing and implementing. Ultimately this section of the game occupies a rather shadowy realm of authorship, its text written by an Infocommie (one presumes Steve Meretzky), and its code implied by the written text, but the final code of Space Station was written by someone else, and while he certainly implemented it in the spirit of the transcript he also (of necessity, or from an enterprising spirit) added quite a bit of his own. The seams between the two parts of the game are sometimes all too visible. For example, a scene outside the space station’s window is described (in part) thus: “Through the large observation window, you see the milky way. Where the stars are scattered thinly, and the cold of space seeps in.” When I read that, I thought “Surely Meretzky didn’t write that sentence fragment!” I was right — he didn’t. It was a part of the game’s “extensions”, and the grammatical error grated quite harshly against the polished, accomplished prose in other parts of the game. Sometimes the problem was just as bad when the game didn’t extend itself — it was quite jarring to try a legitimate (included in the room description) direction and run into the terse reply “Unimplemented!” On the other hand, there were some very funny moments in Space Station, moments that I was sure were a part of the transcript but in fact were part of the extensions as well. It was an extra treat to find out that those parts weren’t authored by Infocom. The problem is that once any seams at all showed, the split between the transcript and the rest of the game was constantly on my mind, and grammar and spelling errors (of which the game has a few) felt all the more glaring because of it.

This is a cautionary tale for anyone who decides to implement one of the Infocom transcripts. The transcripts themselves are generally excellent, as they should be from a professional company which had the important task of explaining interactive fiction to a novice public. They are well-written and entertaining, with good settings and clever puzzles. To implement one of these transcripts so that it becomes a good game in its own right, you need a few things. You need to be able to write so well that nobody will be able to tell where the transcript prose stops and yours starts. You need to be able to make your sections of the game as entertaining as the transcript section. You need to be able to extend the setting of the transcript rationally, without introducing a foreign tone or feel. You need to be able to come up with puzzles that are consistent with those in the transcript, and are done as logically as the pre-written ones. If you can do all that, then absolutely write a transcript-based game (assuming you can secure Activision’s permission, of course). Then again, if you can do all that, why waste your talent on adapting transcripts?

Rating: 6.4

Trapped In A One-Room Dilly by Laura A. Knauth [Comp98]

IFDB page: Trapped in a One-Room Dilly
Final placement: 8th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

OK, probably the first thing I should confess is that I’m not hip enough to know what a “dilly” is. My handy dictionary suggests that it means “something remarkable of its kind” — their example is “a dilly of a movie.” Somehow I don’t think that’s what’s meant here. So, judging from context, I’m going to assume that “dilly” means “relatively enjoyable puzzle game with good coding and writing, but a few guess-the-verb problems and sometimes not enough synonyms implemented.” If this is what dilly really means, then Trapped In A One-Room Dilly has the most accurate title of any game in the 1998 competition. Like many others in this year’s competition, Dilly is very puzzle-oriented. Perhaps what we’re seeing this year is a bit of a backlash against the periodically swelling outcries for “puzzleless IF.” If backlash it is, I don’t think that’s entirely a bad thing. Sometimes because literature has so much more cultural capital than puzzles, we can get into a mindset which tries to shun puzzles in favor of an elusive brand of literary merit. Don’t get me wrong — I myself am much more interested in IF for its literary qualities than its puzzles, but I also think it’s important to remember that (for some of us, anyway) there is also a pleasure in puzzle-solving, the “crossword” part of IF as opposed to the “narrative” part. I believe that interactive fiction can cover a very wide spectrum indeed, but that there will always be a place for puzzle-oriented IF on that spectrum, and I’ll probably always enjoy a really well-done puzzle game.

Dilly is the closest I’ve seen yet in this competition to that lofty standard, but before I talk about the things it does right, I have to take one step back and talk about a game from last year. The author of Dilly entered a game in last year’s competition called Travels in the Land of Erden. Ironically, these two games could not be more different. Erden was a sprawling, gigantic game with an enormous map, any number of subplots, and a generally broad scope. When reviewing that game, I wrote about the benefits of focus, and suggested that “if the author had concentrated her energies on a game perhaps a quarter of the size of this one, she would have had time for much more extensive proofing and beta-testing, and the result might have been a tight, polished gem rather than the rough and gangly work she submitted.” Well, when I’m right, I’m right. Dilly benefits enormously from having a much tighter focus than Erden. The game narrows its scope to (as you might have guessed from the title) one room, and the room is a really interesting room, full of enough gadgets and gewgaws to keep me busy for two hours. At no time in Dilly did I lack for something to figure out, look at, or do. The game crams about 10 puzzles into this one room, but it didn’t feel particularly strained to me. In fact, Dilly makes a sly gibe about its lack of plot by including a bookshelf full of books whose plots are plausible explanations for your situation (Intelligence testing, alien abduction, the bomb shelter of a wealthy wacko, etc.). The puzzles are generally creative and fun, and all of the coding and writing is technically proficient.

Well, almost all. The only times I ran into trouble with Dilly were when I was close enough to the solution of a puzzle that I should have received some slight confirmation, but the game didn’t provide it. For example, at one point in the game something is ticking and vibrating. If you listen closely to this object, you can hear it ticking. However, if you touch it “you feel nothing unusual.” This is one of those instances where after I found out what was happening, I felt cheated. If I’m that close, I want at least a little nudge. In another instance, I had more of a guess-the-verb problem — the game wants you to tie two things together with a rope, as in “TIE FROG TO LOG.” (That’s not really what you’re tying, but I’m trying to avoid the spoiler here.) However, if you first “TIE ROPE TO LOG” you get a message along the lines of “That’s useless.” If I had tried “TIE ROPE TO FROG” first, the game would have picked up on what I meant to do, but I didn’t make that lucky guess. I don’t like to be put in the position of making lucky guesses. Nonetheless, these are relatively minor problems, easy to fix. They didn’t stop me from enjoying my time in the one-room… whatever it was.

Rating: 8.5

Research Dig by Chris Armitage [Comp98]

IFDB page: Research Dig
Final placement: 17th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Research Dig has pieces of a good story, inexpertly handled so that they don’t reach their full potential. In fact, the experience of the game was a bit like a real research dig — you have to mine through some errors, clichés, and unclear writing, but you can come away with some pretty good pieces. So let me first focus on the positive. The game has an intriguing premise — you are a beginning archaeology student, sent on a minor dig on behalf of your research center to an old abbey where the groundskeeper has uncovered “something old.” When you arrive, you meet the groundskeeper’s daughter, who whispers to you that the old piece belongs “to the Little People,” who live underground. (Exactly how little these Little People are remains in question, but I’ll get to that in a bit.) From this interesting start the game lays out a sensible map which delivers mystery and magic in reasonable proportions, never so much that it seems like a simple dungeon crawl or D&D knockoff. The writing can be rather atmospheric in several sections and some of the design contributes to this feeling, such as some important red herrings which lead nowhere but help to flesh out the game world. Overall, Research Dig feels like it was written by a beginner, but a beginner with good ideas and a passion for interactive fiction.

That being said, it’s also important to note that the game has a number of problems as well. Though the map was logical, it also felt quite a bit clichéd, with underground tunnels, spooky crypts, mysterious rune-encarved stones, etc. There wasn’t anything that felt very unique once the game got to this point, and it felt like a game with a lot of potential had devolved into another ho-hum underground excursion. In addition, the writing suffered at several points from basic proofreading errors. Spelling and grammar mistakes were not legion, but there were enough of them to be seriously distracting, especially since they sometimes turned up in places that would be read over and over again. For example, from the beginning of the game you find that you have a “referance book” in your inventory. After 10 times reading the misspelled word, my patience started to wear thin. It’s the kind of error that could have been avoided so easily, I have a hard time understanding why it’s there. The same is true for some key coding errors, like the key whose short name is “a key labelled ‘Shed’.” The problem with a short name like this is that Inform already provides articles for objects, so in the inventory the key is listed as “an a key labelled ‘Shed’.” Compounding the problem, there are two keys with this same error. The glitch is all the more aggravating because it comes up almost every time the game tries to refer to the keys. My favorite example: “Which do you mean, the a key labelled ‘Shed” or the a key labelled ‘Conservatory’?”

These mistakes were small, but sometimes small mistakes can make a big difference, and this game had the perfect example. However, before you read it, I should warn you that in order to explain my example, I have to spoil part of the endgame. Read on if you so choose. OK, so at one point you find an urn in the groundskeeper’s house with a piece missing. Then later on you find a rune-encarved “slab of stone, about 2′ square.” That’s two feet square. That’s way too big to be a piece of an urn. However, at the end of the game, you find out that it is in fact the missing piece of the urn. Meanwhile, you see the groundskeeper defeated by “a small person, you guess at about 3″ high.” That’s three inches high. That’s mighty small! However, by this time you begin to suspect that the game confused its notations, and is using ‘ for inches and ” for feet. This may seem like a minor error, but it changes the meaning of the things it affects so completely that it ruins any possibility of building the mystery. There’s something to be learned here: in some ways writing (I mean creative writing) and programming aren’t so far apart. Just as a missing semicolon can cause you no end of misery during compilation, so can a very small change completely deflate your story. Also, in both disciplines the semantic and syntactic errors are easiest to find, and your work is unacceptable until it is free of these. Logic errors are more difficult to detect, and take much more sweat to ferret out. Unfortunately for would-be writers, there is no automatic proofreading service for fiction that provides the error-checking of a good compiler. You have to do it yourself.

Rating: 6.2

CC by Mikko Vuorinen [Comp98]

IFDB page: CC
Final placement: 18th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

CC is a dreamlike piece of work that starts out in a void and moves into a desert. Its landscape remains spare, and the meaning is never clarified at any point in the game. Things never make all that much sense, and even after the ending “revelation” I never felt like I had any more understanding of the game than I started out with. The author is aware of this, and says in the text included with the game “You probably won’t understand what the game is about, but that’s all right… I just wanted to write something that doesn’t make much sense.” Mission accomplished. Actually, that probably sounds like I hated the game, which I didn’t at all. CC is rather evocative, and although I couldn’t begin to offer an interpretation of what it means, it wasn’t an unpleasant experience to wander through the game’s strange desert artifacts. It also included an equally mysterious NPC who, when asked about almost anything in the game, would make some vague, mysterious answer along the lines of “You must discover the answer to that mystery on your own.” Not very helpful, but that fits in with the tone of the game.

I wasn’t as wild about the puzzles. The text file and the walkthrough both make the point that the game is so easy nobody should need a hint, but I didn’t find that to be the case. True, in some of the puzzles the most obvious action was the one that was required. However, that wasn’t true every time. There was a real guess-the-verb puzzle towards the middle of the game, where several obvious answers didn’t work, and the correct answer worked in such a way as to make it very unclear why the others didn’t. I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere on this puzzle without the walkthrough. There was another puzzle on which I used the walkthrough, but in retrospect, it’s probably one I could have figured out for myself. Unfortunately, I went to the walkthrough much more quickly than I would have had I not had the earlier guess-the-verb experience. I think there’s a lesson for game designers in this: if some of your puzzles are poor, their effect is not limited to themselves. Instead, they make the player less willing to expend effort to unravel later puzzles, even if those puzzles are good ones. With every poor puzzle, you reduce the player’s faith that later puzzles won’t be equally poor. In a short game, this can mean that even one guess-the-verb puzzle is enough to send players to the walkthrough for the rest of the game, if they even bother to finish it at all.

The prose wasn’t bad, although for me it did have a few moments of dissonance that I chalk up to cultural differences. For example, there are some footprints in the desert, but the game calls them “footsteps.” I’ve always thought of footsteps as something you hear, so even though it wasn’t difficult to figure out from the context what the game meant, it jarred a little. However, I found no outright errors in the writing, and the coding was equally error-free. As in so many of the games in this year’s competition, this game was quite short, so the error-free conditions are only sustained for a very short time, but that’s alright. I’d much rather play an error-free short game than a problem-ridden long one. CC is slight, and rather confusing, but it has its good points too. If these trends continue, Mikko Vuorinen’s next competition game might be one to remember.

Rating: 7.1

Persistence of Memory by Jason Dyer [Comp98]

IFDB page: Persistence of Memory
Final placement: 9th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

NOTE: Because of the nature of Persistence of Memory, it’s difficult to talk about it without revealing a key secret. Therefore, be warned that any and all of the following review could be considered a spoiler.

Memory is a new twist on the one-room game. The setting is war; could be Korea, could be Vietnam, but it’s never really specified, and it doesn’t really matter. It’s a war in a foreign land, with villages, dense foliage, helicopters, rifles, and land mines. Especially land mines. In the first move of the game, you step on one, and realize that if you remove your weight from it, it will explode. Thus the potential paths which the game appears to have at its outset are reduced to one: wait. This restriction of freedom is a recurring theme in Memory. In incident after incident, the scope of action contracts until it becomes clear that there is only one action which will lead to your survival. Sometimes these actions are rather horrifying, but the game demands them if you wish to finish. I have mixed feelings about this kind of forcible plotting. On the one hand, it makes for an extremely linear game, and it curtails interactivity quite dramatically. This obstruction seems to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom about IF — it violates one of the Players’ Rights in Graham Nelson’s Craft of Adventure: “To have reasonable freedom of action.” In Nelson’s words, “After a while the player begins to feel that the designer has tied him to a chair in order to shout the plot at him.” On the other hand, I also think that interactive fiction can be a very good medium for conveying a sense of futility or entrapment. Because IF by its nature seems to require at least to a certain degree freedom of movement and action, and because it also creates a sense of immersion in the story’s world, when a piece of IF chooses to violate that perceived requirement the player’s sense of identification with the trapped character can be very strong indeed. Something about the frustration of having so few actions available to me which would not result in death made the equation of my situation with the character’s feel more intense than it would have were I just reading a story about this character.

Because of the game’s premise, you don’t seek out the puzzles; the puzzles come to you. And each puzzle must be solved if the character is to survive. Luckily, all of the puzzles make sense and have intuitive solutions, though in some of them it’s not clear what the deadly moment is until it arrives, and sometimes I found myself resorting to a save-and-restore strategy in order to defeat a puzzle’s time limit. I don’t think I could have solved the game straight through, because some puzzles had rather unexpected and uncomfortable solutions. This is where I found myself ill at ease with the game’s lack of interactivity — there’s a fine line between identifying with a trapped character versus simply feeling trapped into an action because the designer allows you no other choice, even though more options might have been available in reality. It’s hard to explain without revealing more spoilers than I already have, but some pieces of the plot felt rather forced, as though only one solution was provided because only that solution would create the game scenario desired by the designer. However, the choices worked in the end, and I found I only needed to look at the hints once, and in retrospect I think I probably could have avoided that had I spent more time on the puzzle that was stumping me.

The writing could get a little histrionic at times. Some descriptions tiptoed along the line between what works and what doesn’t. For example, the mud around your feet is described as “torpid”, a word which usually refers to a sluggish mental state. I suppose the mud’s thickness and viscosity could be compared to slow mental processes, but it’s a stretch. There weren’t too many moments like this — for the most part the prose did a fine job of conveying the situation, and in fact sometimes was quite good indeed. The description of the hairs rising on the back of your neck as you try to conceal yourself from enemy soldiers was chilling and engrossing. I found no technical errors in the writing, nor in the code. Overall, Memory does a very good job with an unusual choice of subject matter, and when it was over I felt not triumph, but relief. I suspect this is what the game intended.

Rating: 8.3

The Commute by Kevin Copeland [Comp98]

IFDB page: The Commute
Final placement: 26th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Imagine if this was your day: You start out in your kitchen, where you drink your coffee and eat your toast. Then you try to figure out the layout of your two-room house (the two rooms are a kitchen and a hallway). All the while you’re experiencing one epiphany after another about how much you love your life, except for having to go to work. Then you get your motorcycle helmet (which you think of as a “helmut”) and your keys and head off to your important meeting on your motorcycle. Unfortunately, you get a flat tire almost immediately. Then you wait around while your hands get busy and fix the flat, a process which takes 30 seconds (I think you worked in an Indy 500 pit crew before you got your office job.) Then you get another flat tire, which you fix in an amazing 14 seconds. You get 8 more flat tires in the space of 6 minutes. Then you decide to make up for lost time by driving “just above the speed limit,” and wouldn’t you know, you get pulled over. The cop notices that you don’t have your wallet, and kindly sends you home to fetch it. The drive home takes 7 seconds, and you drive your motorcycle through the house, because you have no idea how to get off of it. You haven’t a clue where your wallet is, and when you try to get it, you think to yourself “I may not need that. I may, in fact, have it already.” So you drive back out of the house and onto the road, but the same cop finds you, and sends you back home again, because you of course do need your wallet and don’t have it already. But something about your hallway just makes you think otherwise. So back you go, and the cop pulls you over 5 more times before you decide to point your bike at an embankment and end your “leisurely drive” by smashing into the concrete at 98 miles an hour. OK, so maybe that last part doesn’t happen, but you sure wish it could.

This is the experience simulated by The Commute, an incredibly frustrating DOS game. The first difficulty I had was with the interface, which looks like a traditional parser, but isn’t. A typical interaction with it goes something like this:

What shall I do? > GET ALL
I'm sorry, I don't quite understand (my mind is elsewhere).

What shall I do? > X FLOWERS
I'm sorry, I don't quite understand (my mind is elsewhere).

What shall I do? > EAT
I'm sorry, I don't quite understand (my mind is elsewhere).

It goes on, but you get the idea. Traditional commands, abbreviations, and disambiguation are replaced by the same markedly unhelpful error message. What’s worse, sometimes it pretends to understand things it doesn’t. For example, in the Hall you can say “GET KEYS AND HELMUT” (yes, the game forces you to misspell the word “helmet”,) and the parser will respond “Yes, I’ll need these.” Fair enough. But when you get out to your bike and try to “WEAR HELMUT”, it says “I’m sorry, I don’t have that here.” Turns out the parser only pretended to put it in your inventory — all you really picked up were the keys. Other times, it seems to willfully misunderstand you. My favorite example is when I typed “GET OFF BIKE” and Commute responded “I’m assuming you want me to get on the bike. OK, I’m on!” The game is full to brimming with this kind of frustrating stuff — it’s clear that the lack of an interactive fiction tool like Inform or TADS really hurt this game, much more than it hurt the other DOS game in the competition, I Didn’t Know You Could Yodel.

OK, so it had a lousy parser. This can be overcome, right? What I couldn’t overcome, at least without a walkthrough, was the “road from hell”, where every few seconds you either get pulled over or get a flat tire. At first, this was very frustrating. Then it just became funny. The point of the game seems to be that going to work sucks. This is a point on which I didn’t need much convincing, but if I got pulled over 6 times and got 8 flat tires on the way to work, I would be thinking that LIFE sucks, work or no work. Especially since all I get at home is a partner who keeps urging me to get out of the house, which I don’t mind doing since I can’t even go back to bed, seeing as how I don’t have one. Finally I consulted the walkthrough and found out how to get past the road from hell. Turns out some rather non-intuitive commands are necessary. For example, not to spoil it or anything, but the command to find your wallet is “HUG DAUGHTER.” Why didn’t I think of that? Unfortunately, even with those gentle nudges (OK, violent shoves), I got to work and couldn’t open the gate because I didn’t have a parking pass, even though the pass was in the wallet I had with me. Once I figured out that I just couldn’t see the pass because the only place I know how to look in a wallet is in a hallway, I deleted the game. My life has sucked much less ever since.

Rating: 2.0

Informatory by William J. Shlaer [Comp98]

IFDB page: Informatory
Final placement: 11th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Every year I’ve been writing reviews for the IF competition, I’ve seen several games which are their authors’ first attempt at learning Inform. These usually aren’t the better games — I find that most of the really good Inform games in the competition are not the first pieces of code ever hacked together by their authors. Informatory, however, gives a twist to this tendency — it is the author’s first attempt to teach Inform. Rather than replicating its author’s apartment or dorm room, Informatory instead replicates a number of familiar scenes and objects from various canonical IF games, and allows its player to peek at their source code in order to give some insight as to how Inform could be used to create them. It does this through a handy device known as the “Codex Helmet” — whenever the player character wears this helmet, source code for all objects becomes visible. Of course, a couple of elementary puzzles must be overcome in order to gain access to this miracle of technology, but hints are provided for those puzzles. Once the Helmet is acquired, Informatory presents a new kind of puzzle: to progress in the game, you must decipher the Inform source code of its objects so that you may use their special properties to your advantage.

For me, this kind of puzzle worked well, because it relied on information I had already acquired through working on my own Inform creations. However, for someone who did not know Inform and wasn’t particularly interested in investing much time to learn it, I think those puzzles would be a major nuisance. In fact, if you’re not interested in learning Inform, my advice would be to give this game a pass. Its interests are much more in helping novices to learn Inform in a fairly fun and ingenious way than to provide a fun gaming experience for everyone. This is a perfectly acceptable goal, but it makes Informatory more educational software than entertainment software. The game invokes the genie from Andrew Plotkin’s Lists and Lists, and the reference is quite apt — that game also didn’t much care about entertaining, instead giving the focus to its own (remarkable) z-machine implementation of Scheme. Informatory didn’t feel quite as oppressive as Lists to me, probably because I’m already familiar with Inform, an advantage I sadly lacked when it came to Scheme. However, the two share a common theme: they are not so much games as teaching tools, and if you’re not interested in learning, the tool isn’t for you.

Having thus limited its audience, Informatory does its task rather well, I think. The author bills it a “not-very-interactive tutorial,” and I think he’s only half-right on both counts. Depending on how you define the term “interactive”, I think Informatory is quite interactive indeed. It’s probably the only game I’ve ever seen that actually assigns outside reading to its players so that they have a better chance at the puzzles. This obviously doesn’t work in the competition context, but someone might find it a little useful when used as a tool in its own right, especially if that person is already in the process of learning Inform. Furthermore, Informatory‘s source-code-oriented puzzles are much more interactive than the typical tutorial style of “announce the concept, show the concept, now you try it.” Now, this is a double-edged sword too: sometimes the lack of guidance can really be rather frustrating. I sometimes found myself wishing for the genie from Lists to keep hanging around, giving me clues when I needed them. Consequently, I didn’t find Informatory to be “not-very-interactive”, but I didn’t really find it to be a “tutorial” either. Instead of teaching Inform piece-by-piece, it assigns reading in the Designer’s Manual, and in fact those assignments are only reachable after solving a number of source code puzzles. Informatory therefore isn’t much of a teacher, but it’s a good quiz for those who are already learning. As a competition game, it’s no great shakes: at its best, it’s about as much fun as taking a really interesting test. However, I can see it becoming one useful tool for people who are beginning to get their feet wet in the sea of Inform.

Rating: 6.8

Four In One by J. Robinson Wheeler [Comp98]

IFDB page: Four In One
Final placement: 16th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Playing Four In One, I was in an unusual, unprecedented (for me) situation: I was playing a game of which I had already read a complete, winning transcript. Not a walkthrough, but a transcript of commands and game responses. It seems that the author submitted this transcript to Stephen Granade’s IF Fan Fest, an informal quasi-competition held at Granade’s Mining Company web page. If I had known this transcript was also going to be a competition game, I wouldn’t have read it, because I hate spoilers. But I didn’t know that, so I read it, and it made playing the game a very strange experience — the whole thing gave me a very strong sense of déjà vu. Now, granted, the transcript isn’t an exact one. You can’t follow that transcript and hope to win the game, because the commands are not all perfectly duplicated, and there are some other differences between the two as well. However, they have a lot in common. Now, the funny thing about this is that when I initially read the Four In One transcript, my thought was “It’s a funny idea, but it would be far too difficult to actually turn into a game.” Well, I have been proved wrong.

The idea behind the game is that you’re a film director in the heyday of the Marx Brothers, and you’re directing them in their first picture for MGM. Or at least, you’re trying to direct them. Apparently, keeping all the Marxes in one room, getting along, and working productively is somewhat akin to herding cats. Consequently, you’re forced into the position of chasing after them, collecting them one by one, and forcing them to follow you around to their (and your) considerable annoyance. Even once you’ve got them all on the set and rehearsed, there’s no guarantee that one or more of them won’t go bolting off to make a phone call, hang out at the catering table, or read a book. What’s worse, you have only two hours to get a good take on a crucial scene, or you and the picture will both be canned. The transcript makes this into a hilarious situation, showing the Marx Brothers at their zaniest even when the cameras aren’t rolling. In fact, all the comedy takes place when the cameras aren’t rolling. This is the kind of thing that I didn’t think an IF game would be able to pull off, but Four In One is the living proof. It’s not as funny as the transcript, but it works, especially in places like Chico’s dressing room, where more and more people keep entering, pushing you inexorably to the back wall like the first entrant in a phone-booth-stuffing competition. Scenes like this can be irritating as well, and the game sometimes steps across the fine line between funny aggravation and just plain aggravating aggravation. However, with the exception of one internal TADS error that I found, the technical details of the writing and coding are executed superbly, and this goes a long way towards smoothing out any annoyances.

The place where the game’s technical proficiency shines the most is in its characters. Four In One is a the most character-intensive piece of IF I’ve ever played. Almost every location has one or more characters in it at all times, and these characters are as fully implemented as they need to be. The gaffer, for example, is not terribly talkative — ask him about the movie and he’ll say “A job’s a job,” but ask him about the lights and he has an opinion, as he should. Every character has responses about the things they should know about, though if you spend much time in conversations with them you will run afoul of the game’s time limit. The Marx Brothers can tell you about each other, the movie, MGM (Groucho says, “MGM stands for ‘more godless movies.'”), and anything else they ought to know about. Four In One does an outstanding job juggling all these characters, giving them just the appropriate depth of implementation so that the game really rewards replay. After I had solved the game, I went back and just chatted with the various characters, and was delighted with the extent to which they are implemented. The author’s research is quite apparent in these moments, and it makes a big difference. Four In One taught me things about the Marx Brothers that I had never known before, and made me want to go out and rent A Night at the Opera again. That’s entertainment.

Rating: 8.7