Cryptozookeeper by Robb Sherwin [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2012.]

IFDB Page: Cryptozookeeper

We Eat The Night, We Drink The Time

It took me some time to appreciate Robb Sherwin’s work. I found his first comp game, Chicks Dig Jerks, a really unpleasant experience, due to its misogyny and its bugginess. His second comp entry, A Crimson Spring, fared better with me, partly because it concerned superheroes, one of my favorite genres. But that game too was quite bloodthirsty in its content, and quite buggy in its execution, so it wasn’t really to my taste. Even then, though, the change had begun. Sherwin’s writing, which won praise in some quarters from the very beginning, was sharpening, and his coding discipline was increasing, albeit slowly. Subsequent games like No Time To Squeal and The Recruit gave Sherwin’s writing a chance to shine while somebody else took care of the fussy coding details, and outside the comp he bucked the general trend towards short games by releasing sprawling long-form works like Fallacy Of Dawn and Necrotic Drift. Not to mention, I met the guy on several occasions, given that we’re both IF people who live in Colorado, and it turns out that he’s one of the nicest people in the community. Belying the outrageousness of his writing, the man himself is a gentle, witty, soft-spoken presence, a real mensch who’s done me many a good turn over the years.

Which brings us to today, and Cryptozookeeper. It’s the most Sherwin-esque Sherwin game I’ve yet seen. It’s gonzo, it’s funny, it’s extreme, and it’s shambolic, and it’s all these things to the most highly refined degree I’ve ever seen Robb accomplish, which means it’s all these things to the most highly refined degree I’ve ever seen anyone accomplish. And is it still buggy? Oh sure, of course it is. There are bugs in this game that had me pounding highly creative curses into my keyboard, just so I could log them in my notes and remember how aggravated I was.

But then some well-crafted joke or unexpected linguistic fireworks would burst forth from the screen, and suddenly I was having a great time again. I don’t know whether this means that I’ve finally acquired the proper tastes, or whether Robb has finally pushed his work over my personal tipping point where good writing outweighs bad coding, but in any case, I found myself enthusiastically quoting the game to others, and recommending it to at least some of my friends — those with strong stomachs who could handle the gore and grotesquerie. Cryptozookeeper is by turns enthralling and infuriating, fascinating and repellent. Its reach ultimately exceeds its grasp, but oh, what a mighty reach it is.

Like many of Sherwin’s other games, Cryptozookeeper is a multimedia work, taking advantage of Hugo‘s ability to present images and sound integrated into the text game. I found the pictures a mixed bag. Many of the character photos, especially those of the PC, were both funny and informative, providing visual information that nicely rounded out the characterization provided by the text. The location shots, on the other hand, were sometimes useful but more often just a bit baffling. They were almost always washed with some weird filter that oversaturated colors and downplayed contrast, making the images so information-light that I soon mostly ignored them, a habit which ended up biting me later when a puzzle depended on me watching for subtle differences in the location photo.

The music, on the other hand, was a roaring success. Cryptozookeeper is equipped with an excellent soundtrack of ominous electronica, which almost always enhances the game’s mood with creepy synthetic overtones. I enjoyed the music so often that I found myself using the “NP” command (which displays the title and artist of the song currently playing) every few minutes, and periodically made notes to myself to seek out the tunes for my iPod. Another gimmick which worked well was the dynamic credits and help screen — in order to avoid spoilers, the game’s documentation keeps a few of its cards hidden early on, only displaying instructions for new commands and new actor appearances after they’ve been revealed in the story.

As with any Sherwin game, though, the star of the show is the writing, and Cryptozookeeper does not disappoint. The room descriptions in particular dazzled me over and over. Standard issue in the Robb toolkit is the extended aside that starts out original, then piles on harder and harder just to make sure that it’s absolutely matchless. To pick a sample room description more or less at random:

Building Corner
The corner of this building has a window at ground level. There aren't any security signs upon it, or systems that seem to be in place, other than "windows make a lot of sound when shattered," which is a feature you get for free with windows, even the ones in this town sold door to door. You were under the impression that the place was recently constructed, but judging by the deep scratches along the exterior, the place has apparently been under siege by either a pack of ravenous, wild, roving bobcats or sentient handclaws.

Calling “windows make a lot of sound when shattered” a building’s only security system is original, and funny. Mentioning that this is “a feature you get for free with windows” not only adds to the funny by belaboring the obvious but also, by its use of the word “feature”, echoes the sort of advertising claim that comes along with the operating system that happens to be called Windows. But it’s still not done! We learn that Christmas City, New Mexico (the game’s locale) apparently suffers from door-to-door window salesmen, whose products may be shoddy but not so shoddy that they aren’t still noisy when broken. And that’s not even mentioning the roving bobcats and the sentient handclaws. The vast majority of room descriptions contain this sort of wit overload, and they make the game a joy to read.

Not only that, there are a variety of miniquests built into the game’s design, and Sherwin frequently employs them as excursions into unusual writing styles, like the Rybread-level psychedelia of the section whose rooms have titles like “Were you ever content or did you assign it in retrospect?”, “Esophagus”, and “Despair and mouth.” Not all these experiments work perfectly, but each is executed with such bravura gusto that I was more than happy to be carried along. There are also a ton of inside references for Infocom and IF nerds, which I found quite enjoyable given that I am one such nerd. Every time the game threw out a phrase like “oddly angled” or “it all comes down to this”, I grinned wide. There’s plenty of food as well for other kinds of computer geeks, sports geeks, and aficionados of the weird and twisted. I can’t say I enjoyed every bit of it — this game prompted me to look up a few things I wish I’d never learned about — but I sure enjoyed a lot of it.

Sherwin is also well known for his dialogue, and there’s plenty of it here. It’s embedded, sometimes awkwardly, in a conversational system that provides a list of topics and makes TALK the central command. Though NPCs are nearby the vast majority of the time, most commonly there are no conversation topics available. However, when the plot is ready to move forward, Cryptozookeeper cues the player that a topic is available by highlighting the word in another character’s dialogue. Sometimes you even get your choice of two. Having three or more topics available at once is pretty uncommon, though.

This system eliminates the need to code lots and lots of responses into an NPC, and considering what excessive care Robb puts into his dialogue, it makes perfect sense to have such a labor-saver on hand, but as a player I found it clumsy more often than I wanted to. There were situations where an NPC would ask a direct question of the PC, but the topic of the question would never be made available in the topics list, which forced me into the situation of not being able to pick up a rock-solid conversational cue, and not being able to even acknowledge to the other character the reason for my silence. Other times, there were some things going on that seemed to beg for discussion, but the system didn’t allow for it.

However, when dialogue is available, life is pretty good. All Robb’s characters are more or less the same character: intelligent, self-hating, morally bankrupt, directionless individuals whose primary skill is hyper-referential and hilarious snarky commentary, and who are nursing some secret or semi-secret pain, often connected with a failed relationship. This results in a fairly low level of emotional engagement with their stories (at least for me), but an extremely high level of entertainment in their banter. Again, picking a sample more or less at random, how about a section where the cute goth host of a local access TV show is speaking to the PC:

“…It’s all right down here, but I’m originally from Colorado and I think I am moving back. Shortly. I just signed a contract to do this show on a station that way. Not that I’d tell any of the turnips around here. Do you have satellite TV?”

“I – ah, I’m between televisions right now. Trying to see what format emerges dominant. The color versus black and white thing really screwed with my ability to trust technology. That and the wireless revolution: I developed a fixation and craving for power cords.” The truth is that you could not afford programming for your TV once Elephant Memory fired you, so you just sold the television itself. (The part about power cords is also true.)

“Well, download my show off Usenet,” she says. You brighten, pretending you know what Usenet means. “It’ll be a lot of the same show, but with a slightly bigger budget. It’s really going to fly!”

Almost every sentence contains some offbeat note — “the turnips around here”, “a fixation and craving for power cords”, “pretending you know what Usenet means.” And that’s when the characters are flirting with each other. When they start sniping at each other, clever digs abound. That’s also when a lot of their backstories come out. As I mentioned, I don’t relate to these characters much on an emotional level, and that goes for their histories too, which in my mind generally tend towards the category of “sob stories from asshole guys.” For the most part, these people tend to behave in despicable ways and then suffer the inevitable consequences of doing so, which doesn’t make them very sympathetic. Even they have their moments, though. There’s something a little touching about the way these misfits find and sometimes help each other. The ending, in particular, I found satisfying and even moving as a character moment.

What really ties the whole game together and makes it work is the comedy. Sherwin has become a master of the well-turned IF joke, and Cryptozookeeper has many many many funny funny funny bits. Just to pick a few of my favorites:

  • Deanna looks at Lebbeus with irritability and exhaustion, as if he were lobotomized, an oft-misbehaving ferret, or had just left a comment on Youtube.
  • “Hey, ANY OTHER HORRIBLE CLONES THAT MAY BE IN EARSHOT – WE’RE COMING OUT! Everyone BE COOL or I will BEAT YOU with my INVENTORY.”
  • Everyone stops their animal fighting, boozing, whoring, sports book calling, plotting, thieving and usage of emulators in conjunction with ROMs they don’t own to stare – mouths agape – at your faux pas.

    “Hey, jerkoff,” says a non-descript guy in the back trying to attach a stiletto to the wing of a baby bald eagle, “What’s the goddamn matter with you? What an asshole!”

There are hundreds and hundreds of examples of such wit in this game. Cryptozookeeper is epic in many senses, but most of all it’s a boundless source of laughs. Even if it were an utter failure on all other levels (which it isn’t), this game would totally be worth playing for the jokes.

These jewels are strung together in a structure that doesn’t put much emphasis on puzzle-solving, branching, or interactivity. Quite frequently, the dialogue trees and even the compass directions equate to more or less a “turn the page” command. That’s not to say that Cryptozookeeper is some kind of foulmouthed, pseudoscientific Moment Of Hope. There are some puzzles, and certain aspects of the game in fact offer a vast variety of choices (thanks to the magic of combinatorics). There’s also a branching narrative in certain places — more about that in a bit. What’s true, though, is that this is a pretty conceptual game. It is far less focused on presenting the player with a landscape and objects than it is on presenting a definite plot (admittedly one studded with a lot of optional goals), a variety of set-pieces, and of course lots and lots of dialogue, jokes, and joke-laden dialogue. Consequently, quite often a directional command isn’t so much a method for getting through a physical landscape as a way of getting to the next piece of the story.

I mentioned miniquests earlier, which is where the opportunities for branching and optional goals come in. The PC is hunting for DNA samples from a wide variety of animals — nevermind why. A few such samples are required to finish the game, but for the most part, gathering a whole lot of them is entirely voluntary. I strongly recommend pursuing all available paths, though — the optional quests are quite often the occasion for crackerjack showcases of prose style experimentation and, of course, more jokes. Not only that, the DNA samples that are invariably the prizes of these quests open up greater and greater richness that can be brought to bear on the game’s midsection.

On the other hand, it’s in the miniquests where I encountered the game’s worst bugs, which were generally of the “unstable inventory” variety. Items, as well as people, disappear and (occasionally) reappear throughout the game without explanation. Or sometimes the explanation is so lame and the player so powerless that fury results. In particular, there was one occasion when an NPC purloined a number of my hard-won DNA samples, which never returned, and I never even got the opportunity to engage him in conversation about it or otherwise try to retrieve my stuff. This almost ruined the game for me, and I spent dozens of turns cursing at the screen about it. Few occurrences in IF provoke more ire from me than when inventory that took a great deal of work to obtain suddenly disappears, irretrievably, for no good reason. In fairness, at one point the game declared that it would eliminate an important item of mine, only to have the item reappear later on, seemingly none the worse for wear. So sometimes the instabilities worked in my favor, but they were still bewildering.

I should say here, by the way, that I hardly want to be the guy ragging on what was obviously an enormous labor of love. Like Peter Nepstad before him, Robb Sherwin obviously put a colossal amount of energy and dedication into this game, so much so that it in fact sent him to the hospital at one point. Plus, as I said, he’s a hell of a guy in person. However, a review that avoids mentioning any of a game’s flaws does a disservice both to the author and the audience, in my opinion. Thus, we say what must be said, albeit sometimes a bit sheepishly.

So while I’m complaining, let’s spend a little more time on the game’s defects. The biggest problem was the bugs, as is par for a Sherwin game, but it wasn’t the only problem. In some ways, the entire premise of the game is flawed, in that it seems to purport that the main character has some sort of special power to bring cryptids into the world, but the reason, such as it is, for the character’s power is very flimsy. The creation process is extremely simple, and completely facilitated by technology. Literally anyone could do it, but everyone in the game acts as if the PC is the only one capable of this rudimentary button-mashing.

The only thing I could piece together from the background given in the game is that his ability springs from his utter scientific ignorance and incompetence. In other words, anybody could do these simple things but only the most ignorant person would, because someone with even a shred of scientific understanding or basic sense would dismiss the entire thing as preposterous. So I guess this is a little subversive, having a PC whose abilities spring from stupidity, and it might work well for a one-time puzzle, but Cryptozookeeper forces the PC to engage in this process over and over. It seems to me that once everyone witnesses the process succeeding, the ignorance premise becomes invalid.

Speaking of repetition, let’s talk about the combat. Have I mentioned the combat? Loooong stretches of the game’s midsection are taken up with RPG-ish combat scenes. The game will allow an unlimited number of these, and a fairly hefty minimum is required in order to proceed to the endgame. Crucially, it’s unclear how much leveling up and how many combatants will be necessary in order to succeed in that endgame, so I decided to have ten combatants, and grind away until I’d leveled one combatant up to the highest possible level (which is level 5). This took a whole lot of grinding. I’ve got literally thousands of lines of transcript devoted to this fighting.

The fights are not without their charm. When the battle begins, a window displays the crucial stats for each fighter along with a little tagline, just for fun. As with everything else in the game, the nature of the creatures themselves as well as their taglines were often a source of laughs. For instance, the wolverine’s tagline is, “I’m the best at what I do.” Not quite a direct X-Men quote, but close enough to make me laugh. Also, each attack made by either enemy is described with some colorful little sentence, along the lines of “The sloth could have avoided that last blow, but craves oblivion, taking 3 points of damage.” There are maybe 20 of these sentences, and they’re fun and fine and everything, but like I said, the combat goes on for thousands of lines. Even this level of variety gets numbingly repetitive pretty quickly.

I wonder — for a game structure like this one, could the damage descriptions be crowdsourced? Say Robb got on ifMUD, or Jolt Country, or intfiction.org, (or maybe all of these and more) and asked 20 or 30 co-conspirators to come up with 5 or 10 damage descriptions each? Suddenly the algorithm’s options increase by an order of magnitude, and even thousands of lines of combat might still yield the occasional surprise. For all I know, this has been tried in the past — I haven’t bothered to check it out. All I can say is that a handful of even the cleverest lines wear thin through constant repetition, and I wonder if it would have worked better if there had been a barrelful. Thankfully, there is quite a bit of variety in the randomly selected enemies, and there’s a great deal of richness to be found when creating the combatants — more than I even wanted to take the time to find, really. Not that I wasn’t pissed when losing the opportunity.

Despite the repetition, or perhaps because of it, I found myself attaching distinct personalities to each of the fighters in my little ragtag army. I knew which ones were the badasses, which ones were the chokers. Some weren’t as good as their stats might imply, while some seemed to pull out an unexpected victory surprisingly often. The PC is portrayed as having paternal feelings towards the fighters, and damned if I didn’t find myself echoing that very dynamic. It was a peculiar phenomenon — code constructs that had almost no description, couldn’t be interacted with, and had virtually no personality at all aside from a photo and a tagline, suddenly became characters that I cared about, and whose foibles I knew, just because I watched them each go through randomized combat dozens of times. I don’t know if everyone would have the patience to do this (really, I doubt it), but I found it bizarrely and surprisingly rewarding, especially when the fighters came into play in the endgame.

On the other hand, given that there was so much repetition, I wish the game had done a better job of smoothing the path. Each time I wanted to set up a fight, I would go north, push a keypad, select a fighter, and go south. I did this over and over and over again, like a few hundred times. I dearly wish the process would have been condensed into one command, or even less than one command. Perhaps every time a fight ends, the game could ask me if I wanted to trigger another, and if I said yes, allow me to pick a fighter, then start the next fight straight away. That would have been so much less annoying than running through a litany of steps over and over.

There are a few interface stumbles like this. Several times, some kind of action scene involving the PC would begin, but action-y verbs like “KICK [object]” would still result in comically inappropriate standard library messages like “Venting your frustrations on [the object] wouldn’t accomplish much.” Or perhaps someone is coming at the PC with an axe, but “GET AXE” yields “You haven’t seen anything like that.” Oh, well, what a relief then — guess I can stop worrying about being chopped to bits by it! Finally, I found the conversation system syntax awkwardly staggered. The game enforces this formulation, with the “T” command for talk:

>T DEANNA
Please enter a topic
>> GUNS

Over and over again, I’d forget about this enforced second step and type something like “T DEANNA GUNS“, only to be told “[That is not understood by the game.]” I really wish it had been.

Okay, enough of that. I want to praise one more thing before I close: the cueing. This is the art of very subtly guiding the player into typing an unexpected or non-standard command at the prompt, and Cryptozookeeper does it masterfully. I won’t cite any examples, because that would obviously take the fun out of them for potential players. Instead, I’ll just say that several times I was rather flabbergasted at what the game got me to type, without being at all overt or on-the-nose about hinting at that response. Every time that happens, the player gets to feel like a genius. It’s one of the best tricks IF can pull, and Cryptozookeeper does it beautifully.

This game is definitely not for everybody. If you find gore and repulsive behavior too upsetting, avoid it. Similarly, if repetitive RPG combat makes you want to shoot yourself, stay healthy by not playing this game. For me, though, IF that makes me laugh over and over again, and occasionally astounds me with something sublime or defiantly ridiculous, can be forgiven of almost any sin. Cryptozookeeper is that kind of IF. It’s Robb Sherwin at the top of his very strange game, and I’m glad I finally figured out how to enjoy that.

Six by Wade Clarke [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2012.]

IFDB Page: Six

Delicious Icing, Even Better Cake

Six was the second step of my Best Game XYZZY 2011 journey, after Zombie Exodus, and the two games couldn’t have been more different. Where Zombie Exodus is a choose-your-own-adventure style web game, Six employs the parser, and not only that, puts the interface to use in a variety of minigames as well. Where Zombie Exodus has some shaky writing, Six is impeccably written, and not only that, it’s extraordinarily well-executed and professional on every level. And where Zombie Exodus is a horrifying gorefest, Six is utterly innocent and charming, charming, charming. I don’t think I’ve ever been so charmed by an IF game.

Heck, I was charmed before I even started playing! The game comes with a beautiful PDF manual to gently introduce new IF players to the form. It’s got a cute little map of the landscape that fits in perfectly with the tone of the game as well as eliminating any need for the player to make a map. (This document is also available inside the game by typing MAP, a typically smooth implementation detail.) After presenting an adorable frontispiece and a sprightly theme song, it takes first-time players through a breezy but concise configuration process to ensure that the player’s interpreter is prepared to handle everything that Six has to offer.

What does Six have to offer? Well, there’s an impressive library of sound effects, from rushing wind to crunching leaves to giggling children. There’s an original soundtrack of playful electronica. There are a few very cute illustrations, as already mentioned. That’s the multimedia piece of it, but in a text game, multimedia is icing on the cake. All the multimedia in the world can’t make a bad text game fun to play. Lucky for us, Six isn’t just icing — the birthday cake is great too.

That’s right, I said birthday cake. In Six, you play Harriet Leitner, a little girl celebrating her sixth birthday alongside her twin sister Demi. As a part of your birthday party, your parents have taken you and your friends to a park, where you’re playing Hide And Seek Tip. The “tip” part is to specify that this particular Hide And Seek variant incorporates a tagging aspect — once you find somebody, you have to tag (or “tip”) them in order to score a point. As Harriet, you play the searcher — once you find and tip all six of your friends playing the game, you win!

If the nomenclature strikes you as a little odd, you must not be Australian. The game is set in Australia and written by an Australian author — its small incorporations of Australian culture add to its appeal. As is typical of this game, everything that might confuse a first-time player is explained very smoothly. For instance, an entry in the HELP menu helps explain the occasional reference to “fairy bread” you might come across:

Fairy bread is white bread spread with margarine, covered in hundreds and thousands and cut into triangles. (If you don’t know what hundreds and thousands are, they might be called “sprinkles” where you live.) Fairy bread is commonly served at children’s parties.

Every aspect of the game is handled with extraordinary clarity and attention to detail. There’s text to handle first-time players and text to handle experienced players. There’s an explanation of all the game-specific commands, both within the game’s help menu and in the PDF manual. There’s the command HANDY, which lists out all the game-specific commands outside of the help menu. There’s a clever and useful innovation for player convenience: hitting Enter at the prompt repeats the last command. There’s the status line, which lists exits in ALL CAPS if the location they lead to hasn’t been explored, and in lower case when the location is familiar.

There’s an intelligent “can’t go” message, which recognizes which areas have been explored and which haven’t, like so: “You can’t go that way. It looks like you can go north, south (to the edge of the park), west or up (to the treehouse).” Those exits are also available via the EXITS command. There’s a compass rose on the status line to help players unfamiliar with navigating by compass directions, but which can be hidden by the command COMPASS OFF. The status line itself can be altered to have a different background color, or to hide the exits list. On and on it goes, and every time I found something new to provide options or clear the way for players, I got more and more impressed.

Then, partway through, the game delivered a wonderful, delightful surprise that just knocked me out. I won’t spoil it in this review — I’ll just reproduce the note I wrote to myself: “[AWESOME AWESOME A W E S O M E. Oh my god. What fun.]” As happy as I was with the game before this happened, I was more than twice as happy afterward. If I talk about it anymore, though, I’m bound to give it away, and it’s something you should really find for yourself, so let me change the subject.

I mentioned minigames earlier. At various points, the interface announces that it’s going to change, such as when you find your friend Marion, who is dressed as a pirate and challenges you to a duel. At that point, the game plays a short duel theme and announces in blue text:

<< In the duel, you should use these special commands: >>

ZAP - Type this to try to zap Marion with your wand. If you hit her, you win!
DODGE - Type this to try to run or jump out of the way of one of Marion's attacks.
BLOCK - Type this to try to block one of Marion's attacks with your wand.

If you want to let Marion make the next move, you can try to WAIT.

If you want to see these special commands again, type SPECIAL.

You can also use regular commands during this duel if you think they will help, though most of the time, they won't!

<< Press SPACE to begin the duel when you're ready >>

Thus does Six take minigames, long a staple in other video game genres, and integrate them effortlessly into interactive fiction. The game’s interaction simplifies down to a few commands, but still keeps the parser’s sense of expanded possibility available. When appropriate, the game also handles the case where an intuitive command for the minigame overlaps with a standard IF command, by offering the player a choice of how to configure the command set. That kind of exquisite implementation came as no surprise once I encountered it — I knew by then that I could trust the game to handle everything this way. For me, these subgames worked beautifully, and I’d love to see the idea taken up in future games.

With all of this customization and special effects, it’s amazing I didn’t find more bugs in the game. Of course, I did have the advantage of playing release 3 — I’m not sure what the experience was like for comp players, since I’ve tried to avoid reading reviews in order to prevent preconceptions. It couldn’t have been all that bad, as it came in second. (And boy, am I looking forward to playing the piece that voters thought was even better than this.) However, the one bug I found was a doozy: after playing the game for a couple of hours, then saving and coming back, I found I was unable to load my saved game. I’d type RESTORE and get a pop-up message box reading “Reference to nonexistent Glk object.” Given the catastrophic nature of this error, it’s hard to say at what layer it’s even occurring — game, interpreter, or Inform. Six pushes at the technical edges of IF, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it generates more opportunities for platforms to encounter conditions for which they are unprepared.

Rereading this review, I’m realizing that I might have made Six sound cutesy or cloying. It isn’t. The game presents its PC’s perspective in a very matter-of-fact way, with very little adult sentimentality attached. The NPCs are well-drawn too, feeling like real children rather than hasty stereotypes. I thought the dialog rang especially true — as the parent of a six-year-old myself, I recognized the mix of quirkiness and practicality in the game’s characters from my observations of the kids around me.

For nine straight years, I reviewed every game in the IF competition. My ratings added a decimal place to the comp’s typical 1 to 10 ratings, for a little finer calibration. In that time, I never gave any game a 10.0, because I never found the perfect game. However, I did award two games a 9.9: Adam Cadre’s Photopia and Ian Finley’s Exhibition. If I were still doing those ratings today, Six would earn my third 9.9. It’s that good.

Zombie Exodus by Jim Dattilo [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2012.]

IFDB Page: Zombie Exodus

Choice of Reviews

It’s been a long, long time since I reviewed a text game. Yes, I wrote a series of posts about IF-related stuff at PAX East 2010. I wrote an appreciation of GET LAMP, and a bit of a musing on applying IF-type thinking to real life. Oh, and a couple of non-interactive pastiches. But actually reviewing a text game? It’s been over three years! The last review I wrote was for Peter Nepstad’s 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery. Considering that I used to write hundreds of them, that’s quite a decline.

So recently I found myself with a little spare bandwidth, and having just enjoyed the Oscars, I decided to embark on a little mini-project of playing and reviewing the four games nominated for the XYZZY Best Game award this year. I ran the list through my handy-dandy randomatic scrambler, and out popped my first assignment: Zombie Exodus by Jim Dattilo. I was excited! It had gotten 10 nominations — more than any other game — and a nomination in almost every category! I’d never heard of Jim Dattilo, but I’ve been way out of the loop, so that’s to be expected. Off I went to check it out!

That’s when the surprises started. The game has no entry in IFDb. What kind of IF game has no entry in IFDb? So I just plain Googled it, and found that in fact, it’s a commercial release by Choice Of Games, makers of fine “Choose Your Own Adventure” (or CYOA) type stories. That required a little expectation adjustment, but it wasn’t all bad. I’d played a couple Choice Of Games offerings, and enjoyed them. Except… wait. Despite a press release which makes it sound as if Zombie Exodus was produced by Choice Of Games, it wasn’t, actually. It uses their ChoiceScript language, and is hosted by them, but it wasn’t actually created by the company. Still, that’s not a dealbreaker either. The vast majority of IF games are produced outside a commercial context!

Nevertheless, once I had done a little reading about the game, it became clear to me that I was not its ideal audience for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a survival horror game, a genre which I approach with trepidation. I’m not big on stories that aim to produce fear and disgust, without any particular reason or metaphor behind them. Second, it’s a CYOA game. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed many a CYOA book as a kid, and I still have affection for the genre, but compared to parser-based IF, I don’t find it particularly immersive. I tend to make decisions at random, at least at first, as I find that the majority of CYOA books and games play pretty fast and loose with the connection between choice and outcome. And indeed, that’s how I approached Zombie Exodus.

The game starts out well enough. A highly infectious virus is turning people into virtual “zombies” by disabling higher brain functions and triggering aggressiveness (though it later appears to be able to reanimate the dead as well; the story’s mythology isn’t quite in order), and society is starting to break down. As the player character, you have a more immediate problem: your sister Emma is out there in the chaos. Fair enough: setting and goal. The game begins with a somewhat clumsy PC construction section, taking the player through choices like “Are you Emma’s brother or sister?” and “While sleeping you dream of a time long ago… well, actually the past few months. In your time off, you had several activities keeping you occupied. What do you dream of?” The latter question helps establish a couple of specialties for the PC, which appear to (sometimes) open up options later in the game, RPG-style. Then, based on the choices you make in PC construction, you’re given a couple of choices for inventory items to carry. Awkward though it was, I liked the idea that RPG-ish and IF-ish features were integrated into the game’s basic CYOA structure. Those aspects promised to lend a greater depth of interaction and immersiveness than a vanilla CYOA narrative could offer.

Some of the time, it succeeds. There were definitely moments in Zombie Exodus when I felt very engaged with the story, and reconnected with that feeling of excitement I had as kid, flipping my way around some new Edward Packard or R.A. Montgomery book. Of course, those guys never wrote about zombies feasting on human flesh, but still, a driving story with meaningful choices can result in a very compelling experience indeed.

Unfortunately, all too often, the choices in Zombie Exodus are almost devoid of meaning, like the following, which comes up when you decide you’d like to steal a car to travel to Emma’s location:

Which car do you choose?

  • 2011 red convertible BMW 6-series
  • 2008 tan Cadillac Escalade
  • 2004 gray Dodge Ram Pickup
  • 2009 white Ford F-150 Pickup
  • 2010 blue Honda Accord
  • 1995 faded red Honda Civic

This is a fantastically meaningless choice, not to mention a level of observation that implies an incredibly car-obsessed autistic PC. How many people can identify not only the make and model of a car, but the year? How on earth could it possibly matter what color the car is? I guess maybe the bigger cars might be of more use in breaking through blockades and such, but other than that, how could a player possibly know what matters about these? This sort of thing is why I always have the randomizer handy when playing a CYOA game.

Another type of meaning-lite choice comes up rather often in battle scenes:

Heather’s back faces the zombie, and she does not notice the
imminent threat.

  • Shoot her with your rifle
  • Shoot her with your assault rifle
  • Shoot her with your revolver

Now, in the first section, I actually chose to configure my PC with a passion for guns, so the fact that she didn’t just grab the nearest gun to hand actually felt in character to me, but at the same time, the game starts to feel like a very degraded version of Doom when it asks me to select what weapon I’d like to use to blast away at the threat of the moment. Interestingly, there were moments when this type of choice worked well — for instance, when a zombie horde is advancing, the assault rifle seems like the clear choice. Unfortunately, I was given the choice whether or not it seemed to matter.

Aside from meaningless choices, the game’s other major flaw is that it stumbles occasionally into some pretty rocky prose, like “Now is time to make a decision”, or “There is an undescrible comfort to the room”, or “No zombies have spotted your group, though you keep watch on the closest creature thirty feet away across the street and wears a mailman uniform.” Some of the problems are just typos, and some of them require the intervention of an editor, but there are enough of them to make the game as a whole feel sloppy and unprofessional. It’s not an epidemic or anything — I’d say 95% of the game’s prose is trouble-free — but 5% is too high for anything that’s asking for money.

The biggest problem of all, though, came up right in the middle of the story, and it looked like this:

You have reached the end. Part 3 is in development, and begins with your arrival at the cathedral safehouse.

This game is not finished! Nowhere in its beginning, or its press release, or its “About ZE” web description, does anything suggest that you will suddenly be left hanging in the middle of the storyline. That is not okay with me. I’m not against episodic IF — I’ve committed some myself. But in my opinion, there are some crucial rules to follow. First, let your readers know upfront that they’re reading episode one, or episodes one and two, or whatever. Second, your release must tell a satisfying story in itself. It’s one thing to play through a game whose ending leaves some questions unresolved or hints at further developments. It’s quite another to play through a game that has no ending at all, that cuts off abruptly in the middle of a suspenseful scenario. In my opinion, such a game is not ready for release.

The fact that this game was nominated for so many XYZZY awards is fodder for an interesting discussion in itself, but I’m going to leave that aside for this review, except to say a few things. First, I think it’s perfectly legitimate to include CYOA games in the XYZZYs. Second, I think that when it comes to voting on finalists (not on nominees), voters should only weigh in if they’ve played all the games in the category. Finally, I thought the awarding of a “special recognition” XYZZY for Zombie Exodus was well-handled.

Overall, the game wasn’t my cup of tea, but it obviously has its fans, and I can see why. There’s plenty of suspense, plenty of gore, and a fair number of stretches that feel compelling and engaging. Once its prose is better edited, its meaningless choices are removed, and its story is, ahem, finished, it’ll be worth the time of horror devotees. Until then, the game is kind of a zombie itself, shuffling forward despite its crucial missing organs.

You have: A lamp (providing illumination) [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back in 2010 when it was on livejournal. GET LAMP is no longer for sale, so I’ve removed the ordering links, and updated some of the other links, but have otherwise left the text alone.]

I’ve written before about GET LAMP, the text adventure documentary. Back in March, I got to watch an hour-long mix of it at PAX East. Now, the full film is available on DVD, so I get to write about it again. Let me get right to the point: if you love text games, or you want to know more about them, you should watch this movie. Stephen Granade called it “funny, affecting, and informative, which isn’t a bad trifecta to hit.” I can’t think of a better description, though of course that won’t stop me from spending the next few paragraphs trying.

True, it’s pricey ($40 plus $5 shipping domestically, $9 internationally.) Director Jason Scott released the movie under a Creative Commons license, so it’s not illegal to torrent it, but of course, buying it is the more right thing to do. There’s no studio backing Jason — he produced this movie as a labor of love, and both the labor and the love shine through luminously. More about that in a bit. In order to make the DVD package attractive, he’s packed it with all sorts of fun goodies: nifty art, tons of featurettes, a DVD-ROM full of text games, three different commentary tracks, and a gorgeous individually numbered collectible coin. It’s a remarkably well-wrought product, especially considering that, again, this is the output of one guy. Plus, I’m in it, so, y’know, what’s not to love? 🙂

GET LAMP is very clearly a loving tribute to text games. Because I am passionate about the form myself, and because of my personal involvement with the film, I cannot judge it objectively. In any case, I’ve already written about what makes the movie good according to me, and all that still holds true. In fact, it’s better than the movie I saw at PAX — not only is it fuller, but the pieces I didn’t like in the hour-long mix have either been excised or fixed.

So this isn’t a review, but rather an appreciation, a recommendation, and a gleeful celebration of this cool thing that now exists in the world. There are a lot of fun layers to the whole thing. For instance, in the spirit of the “Have you tried…?” section that often appears at the end of text game hint manuals, there’s a whole game to be played with the movie itself: almost every shot has a lamp in it; collect them all like trophies. Even cooler, the movie itself is interactive. After the initial 25 minutes or so, you are presented with a menu of options for what piece of the movie you want to view next. Fair warning, though: if your DVD player is sorta lame like mine, you may be better served by just watching the non-interactive version. In fact, even in that one I keep getting kicked out to the top menu, and have to make my way through the film via clever use of the chapter forward button on my DVD remote. Hey, it’s a movie that’s also a puzzle!

I’m surprised how little that glitch bothers me. I think I know the reason why: every time I see this movie, or any piece of it, I come away feeling energized and inspired. That’s a big payoff, well worth a little remote-fiddling. I love GET LAMP, and I’m proud to have been a part of it. In fact, Laura and I have a date to watch it this weekend, so she can learn more about this crazy text adventure thing that has taken so much of her husband’s time over the last 15 years. That alone is a wonderful gift. The obsessive viewing of each commentary track, though — that’s just for me.

Moonmist [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Moonmist
[This review contains many major spoilers for Moonmist. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

The day arrived at last when Dante and I had played all the Infocom Zork (and Zork-esque) games, a list that numbered nine. When we set off down this path, I had decided to tack on one more game to put our agenda at an even ten items, and the game I picked was Moonmist. This was a bit random, but it was one of the Infocom games I’d never finished myself, and I’d stumbled across mention of it as one of the earliest video games to include a gay character. Since Dante is genderqueer and an LGBTQ+ activist, this piqued my interest enough to make it our tenth foray.

>SEARCH FOR GAY CHARACTER

Let’s address the gay character thing first — it won’t take long because there isn’t much to see. Her name is Vivien Pentreath, a bohemian artist whom the game describes as “a tall, tawny-haired woman of vintage beauty and uncertain age” who speaks in “an attractively low voice”. We don’t get to learn much about Vivien, as the game is quite spare in its descriptions of nearly everyone and everything, and in fact in two separate playthroughs Dante and I learned virtually nothing more about her than what I just listed. We got to the end of Moonmist and thought, “Where was the gay character?”

Well, it turns out that Moonmist is actually several games in one. At the very beginning, the game innocuously asks you your name and your favorite color. We said red for the color, and our interlocutor brightly replied, “Jolly good! The spare bedroom is decorated in red!” Just a bit of personalization, we thought. But craftily enough, that one choice in fact dictated numerous things about the plot of our playthrough — the identity of the murderer, the nature of the hidden treasure, the location and contents of clues for us to find, and so forth. Dante and I played through the red and yellow variants of Moonmist, and for the reasons I’ll talk about below, weren’t interested enough to keep going with the other versions.

That meant that we didn’t get to explore the blue plotline, which heavily implies that Vivien was in love with a woman named Deirdre, who in every plotline seems to have been the victim of a mysterious death. In Moonmist blue, Deirdre’s death was a suicide and Vivien pretends to be her ghost in order to get revenge on the character Lord Jack Tresyllian, Deirdre’s lover at the time of her death. Now this was 1986, so Vivien’s queerness was pretty deeply submerged, especially since this was an introductory level Infocom game, and therefore aimed at least partially at children. But it’s fair enough to call her a gay character, in the blue playthrough anyway. In the games we played, she was pretty much just wallpaper.

>SMILE

Also, like many of the characters in this game, she is tall. Lord Jack is tall. Montague Hyde is tall — his description calls him “a tall, foppish art and antiques dealer”, and he and Vivien together are a “tall graceful older couple,” which certainly puts a coat of heteronormative paint on her at the very least. Then there’s Lt. Ian Fordyce, “a tall blond.” His girlfriend is Iris Vane, about whom the game says, “Her height and figure would make her a perfect high-fashion model.” So, I’m guessing… tall?

All that would be amusing enough, but there’s one more character, the PC’s close friend Tamara Lynd, whose engagement to Jack, sightings of a ghostly “White Lady”, and recent survival of a murder attempt drive the plot. Here’s what the game says when Tamara appears:

Someone comes running out of the wing to greet you. She’s a beautiful red-haired young woman of average height. You recognize her as your friend, Tamara Lynd.

Poor Tamara — she must feel dwarfed in such company. Well, at least she can commiserate with the butler, Bolitho, “a short white-haired gentle man.” Do the characters’ heights figure into the mystery? No they do not. Well, at least not in the red and yellow versions. Authors Stu Galley and Jim Lawrence are just oddly obsessed with making sure we know how tall (or not) everyone is.

That opening scene also gave us the most bananas Infocom bug I’ve ever seen, even weirder than Zork II‘s mysterious blast of air. After being greeted by Tamara, we moseyed into the foyer with her, and tried this:

>ask tamara about white
[Which white do you mean, Bolitho or the White Lady?]

>bolitho
[Which vyou're drvrtlike lek omeuohl was about gdkglm imyxl do you mean,
Bolitho or the White Lady?]

Uh, say what? All I can think is that some kind of funky text compression must have been happening inside that cramped z-machine, and an unexpected disambiguation scenario made it barf out some gibberish we were never supposed to see. It was hilarious.

Cover image from Moonmist

Also good for comedy: the game’s use of the PC’s name. While our selection of favorite color changed vast elements of the plot, our selection of name mainly just let every character address us by first name. This wouldn’t usually be so funny, except for the fact that, inspired by all the Zorks we’d finished, Dante chose the name “Lord Dimwit Flathead.” So, for example, after Tamara rushed out to see us, the game says:

“Dimwit!” she cries with outflung arms.

Other amusing moments:

>ask tamara about white lady
"I've told you all I know in my letter, Dimwit."

>ask jack about punchbowl
"You know as much as I do, Dimwit."

[Congratulations, Lord Dimwit! You've won the game!]

More unintentional comedy sprang from some uses of the game’s default object description, “You look over the [object] for a minute and find nothing suspicious — for now.” Fair enough — it gets the air of melodramatic mystery across. However, sometimes Galley and Lawrence apply it a bit too broadly:

>x sea
You look over the ocean for a minute and find nothing suspicious -- for now.

I’m watching you… OCEAN.

>SEARCH FOR DESCRIPTIONS

When it isn’t provoking inadvertent laughs, Moonmist often generates quite a lot of frustration due to its shallow implementation. For one thing, the game makes the very odd choice of frequently eliminating room descriptions, providing them instead in its feelies. Infocom was always trying to come up with new angles on copy protection, to somehow make the game dependent on its printed matter. Often this works out to entering some kind of code, as in Sorcerer‘s infotater or The Lurking Horror‘s ID card. Sometimes games hide key information amongst a bunch of fun fluff, as in Zork Zero‘s Flathead calendar or Beyond Zork‘s “Lore and Legends of Quendor” handbook.

Moonmist, I’m sorry to say, takes this whole notion a step too far. The feelies include a tourist brochure of the castle that describes each room, but the game decides that since you’ve got those descriptions in hand, it doesn’t need to provide them. Sure, this accomplishes the usual necessity of providing key mystery-solving information in the feelies only, but it’s also incredibly disruptive to immersion. The overall effect is of wandering around a mostly blank landscape, and having to flip back and forth between the game and a document to get a sense of what’s there. Not only that, the game fails to implement many of the objects listed in the brochure’s descriptions, breaking mimesis even further.

Even when it’s not leaning on its feelies, Moonmist doles out its text quite parsimoniously, especially when it comes to conversation. All those tall NPCs rarely deign to divulge much, providing stock “dunno” responses to most queries, and generally remaining rather terse even on subjects they’ll respond about. (Though, the fact that they kept calling us “Dimwit” lightened the annoyance a bit.)

Objects, too, tend to be rendered with sparse brushstrokes. Most of them lack descriptions at all. They just don’t yield anything suspicious — for now. Generally, when an object doesn’t provide that default description, it’s because that object somehow matters to the plot, or rather a plot. Quite often we would find empty hiding places for things, because we weren’t in a plot branch that used the hiding place. For example, observe the difference between these mounted animal trophy heads in the game room (which, as Dante pointed out, has multiple senses of the word “game”):

>x buffalo
You look over the stuffed buffalo head for a minute and find nothing suspicious -- for now.

>x rhino
You can see nothing special inside it.

You can bet that there is something special inside the rhino’s head in some other favorite color’s plot configuration, because otherwise Moonmist would not have bothered with implementing that object as a container. This kind of thing makes for a number of moments which feel like they should be interesting discoveries, but instead land completely flat.

Screenshot of the first few moves of Moonmist, including us naming our character Lord Dimwit Flathead

>LOOK THROUGH GAME

“Flat” was the adjective that kept coming to us as we explored the game. Even when something dramatic is supposed to happen to enhance the plot, Moonmist tends to handle it with a small non-interactive infodump. For example, discovery of the ghost in the red plotline happens when the PC spends a moment in a certain outdoor location. Here’s how it went for us:

>nw
(You open the door and close it again.)
(You are on the path.)
This is an area behind shrubbery by a steep cliff overlooking the sea. In the dim light, you can barely see a path leading north along the cliff. A priest hole and a lever are on the outer wall.

>turn on lantern
Okay, it is now on.

>n
You start to follow the path, but it's too tricky in the dim light, so you turn back.

Out of the dark comes a figure with long blonde hair, dressed all in silvery white and glowing with an almost unearthly light. The ghost approaches you, her cold eyes shining. In a moment, she sees you and freezes.

>ask ghost about deirdre
She says, "Please don't speak, just listen! I'm really Deirdre, and I'm alive. Jack tried to murder me, and I think he murdered Lionel! He pushed me down the well, but an underground stream carried me quickly to sea, where I was rescued by a yacht.
I have come back to Tresyllian Castle in disguise -- both to frighten him and to find some proof of Lionel's murder. And to incriminate Lord Jack for my own 'murder' by planting the tiny red jewel from my necklace in the clothes he wore that night -- but then I lost it in the drawing room."
She goes on, "But now that you're on the case, I can leave the country with the yacht captain. Find proof of Lionel's murder, and we both can rest easily!" She races off down the path.

(Congratulations, Lord Dimwit! You've identified the ghost!)

Plop. That “don’t speak, just listen” told us that it didn’t really matter what we said to Deirdre — as long as we addressed her in any way at all, everything was going to come spilling out. It’s pretty easy to be a detective when the victim runs up to you and gives you the solution to the crime. We identified the ghost, I guess, but we felt pretty flat afterwards.

In fact, some of the game’s mystery infrastructure felt like it had never been filled out at all, so instead of finding clues we found placeholders labeled “clue”. Really:

>look under punchbowl
You find the first clue underneath, so you take it.

“The first clue”? Not something like “a neatly folded piece of parchment paper”, just… “the first clue”. At moments like this, Moonmist really feels more like a board game than an interactive fiction. Rather than trying to immerse the player in a fictional world and an unspooling story, the game lays its mechanics completely bare and marks them as mechanics, just to make sure we know where we are in its structure.

That’s pretty much how it went for our whole traversal of the red plotline — squinting to uncover rare descriptions, interspersed with occasional anticlimaxes as the game popped up plot fragments like targets in a pinball machine. We got to the end and said, “Okay then!” Out of curiosity, we then decided to play through the yellow variation, only to run across one of those puzzles whose solution is so unintuitive we would never have come up with it sans InvisiClues. After that, we both felt done with the game, uninspired to plod through the other two branches.

I suspect that the version 3 z-machine bears some of the blame for Moonmist‘s shortcomings. Stuffing even one full mystery plot into that 128K is a pretty tall order — 4 is just too many for such a small format. Still, the idea of a mystery that can go a bunch of different directions when you replay it is a fundamentally cool idea, even though the authors and the technology really couldn’t support it in a way that felt satisfying. Give Moonmist credit for stretching, even if its reach ultimately exceeded its grasp.

Also to Moonmist‘s credit: the general concept of a kooky old house with tons of embedded secrets is a great IF setting, and this game did it before it was a chestnut. Hollywood Hijinx is cut from the same cloth, and released almost the same time. Plenty of other games have followed suit, but Moonmist was a pioneer.

Maybe this game was just ahead of its time, simply a more expansive and ambitious attempt than the state of the art could maintain. It didn’t land very well with us, but a more updated version might. I wonder if Rian Johnson would ever be open to an IF Knives Out game? With the proper writer attached, I’d play that in a heartbeat.

Wishbringer [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Wishbringer
[This review contains many major spoilers for Wishbringer, medium-level spoilers for Beyond Zork, and some details that might technically be considered spoilers for Trinity and other Zork games. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

Brian Moriarty is responsible for only three Infocom games, but what a trio it is. There’s Trinity, often hailed as the best game in the entire catalog, and pretty much always in the consensus conversation about the cream of Infocom’s crop. There’s Beyond Zork, which in many ways is a hot mess but which was also one of the most ambitious Infocom titles ever, in the ways it attempted to improve the text adventure interface and marry the IF tradition to the emerging CRPG. Then there’s Wishbringer, Moriarty’s debut and a charming work of quasi-Zorkian lore that mostly succeeds in its attempt to provide a friendly doorway into the world of interactive fiction.

>CONNECT THE GAMES

What I didn’t realize, at least not until playing Beyond Zork and Wishbringer in close proximity, is how many threads tie them together. It first occurred to me when we encountered the umbrella. You know the one — its handle is carved like a parrot’s head, I assume in homage to the one in P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins. Trinity gets cred for the way it references Travers, J.M. Barrie, Lewis Carroll, and others, but this particular Travers reference predates Trinity by a year. I saw it in Wishbringer and thought, “Is this umbrella in every Moriarty Infocom game?” Yep, sure is.

That’s nothing, though, compared to the ties between Wishbringer and Beyond Zork. Look at this:

  • A Magick Shoppe where “a concealed bell tinkles merrily.”
  • For that matter, funky spellings like “magick” and “shoppe”
  • Hellhounds and eldritch vapors
  • A lighthouse
  • A cat that you can pick up, but which squirms out of your arms in a few turns
  • Anthropomorphic platypi belonging to royal courts
  • A whistle connected with transportation
  • Connections from the fairy tale in the Wishbringer documentation — fields of Frotzen, a coconut of Quendor, hungry Implementors
  • A horseshoe for luck
  • Chocolate in your inventory

Dante and I played these games out of order, but having played through Wishbringer it became clear how much Beyond Zork was in part a project to solidify the connections between Moriarty’s first game and the Zork universe. That said, Wishbringer is clearly a Zork game even without those connections forward. For one thing, it’s got the grues. By this point Dante and I had dressed up like a grue, repelled grues, even become a grue. Wishbringer let us comfort a baby grue and get milk out of a grue fridge — a fittingly adorable grue variation for this beginner’s game.

Even more on-the-nose was the “shimmering trail” to a location called “West of House”, complete with mailbox and leaflet. In keeping with the game’s less-austere tone, this mailbox pops out of the ground and follows you around, like a mute echo of Planetfall‘s Floyd. The game’s messaging is a little muddled around this Zorky callback, though. When we first walk the path, we get a “shock of recognition” upon arriving West of House — seemingly we’ve been here before, and perhaps this mail clerk is even the Zork adventurer somehow? When we leave, though, it says:

As the house disappears into the distance, you get the distinct feeling that, someday, you will pass this way again.

Which is it, Wishbringer? Were we there before or will we be again? I guess, given the number of games that have quoted that location, both could be true. In fact, Zork Zero, both a future and a past game depending on your perspective, even had its share of ties to Wishbringer — an ever-burning candle, some granola mines, and even the trick of transforming a landscape, at least in its prologue.

>EXPLORE LANDSCAPE. G.

That transforming landscape trick is one of the best things Wishbringer does. Experiencing a landscape, then re-experiencing it after a fundamental change, is a powerful technique in IF, and a fantastic way to create emotional resonances for the player and the character. Steve Meretzky would later take this approach to its apotheosis in A Mind Forever Voyaging, but Moriarty lays wonderful groundwork here.

The cover of Infocom's grey box for Wishbringer. Two hands are cupped around a bright purple light. Text above reads"Through strange, savage zones your way will be shown by the magical stone called WISHBRINGER".

Cleverly, the game’s design forces us to cross Festeron before it transforms, so that we can’t avoid seeing a variety of different locations that will then take on a different cast in Witchville. I wonder, though, if the time limit in the early game serves this design very well. With Mr. Crisp and the game itself urging us to hurry hurry hurry, we’re led to not only take the most direct path, but to rush through locations without noticing their features.

I think I’d rather the game had made the Magick Shoppe a little harder to find, so that we must traverse and pay close attention to more of Festeron, and therefore feel the creepiness of its change all the more strongly. In addition, sometimes a message in Witchville will clearly reference a change from Festeron, but if the player hasn’t visited that location prior to the switch, that message pretty much goes to waste. An example is the broken speaker in the church when you pick up the candle.

I shockingly failed to mention in my Spellbreaker review that it was the very first Infocom game that Dante and I played in this entire project that didn’t force us to restart. Hooray for Lebling and his excellent design, breaking away from one of the most tedious IF traditions! I mention this because Dante and I voluntarily restarted Wishbringer due to the time limit discussed above. It wasn’t that the game became unwinnable without this restart, but that we wanted to experience more of Festeron so that we could better appreciate Witchville.

We volunteered for something else, too. Wishbringer, as I said, is a game for newcomers to interactive fiction, and therefore tries not to be too forbidding in its puzzles. Consequently, many of the game’s puzzles can be solved either the old-fashioned way, or alternately via the magic(k) wishes of the title stone. Dante and I, playing our ninth Zorky game, felt like experts at this point, so we set out to solve the game without using any wishes at all.

It’s a sign of Wishbringer‘s craft that this path felt challenging but not daunting. We were able to complete the game in nine sessions, ranging from 30 to 90 minutes each, and the one time we got really stuck it was our own fault, because we’d failed to take a pretty obvious action. (For the record, we didn’t read the love note once it was out of its envelope.) Once we got over that hurdle, it was pretty smooth sailing to the endgame.

>WISH FOR MULTIPLE SOLUTIONS

I don’t have the greatest sense of how various tropes and techniques developed in 1980s interactive fiction outside of Infocom — for that you’d have to turn to Aaron Reed or Jimmy Maher. But at least within the Infocom canon, Wishbringer was the first to thoroughly integrate a sensibility of multiple puzzle solutions. Sure, these date back as far as Zork I, though that game’s version of “multiple solutions” generally involved one that made sense and one that was a cutesy (or nonsensical) magic word. Its commitment to multiple solutions was as haphazard as the rest of its aesthetic.

Wishbringer, on the other hand, puts multiple solutions at the core of its design, and the result is a world that not only feels more welcoming to beginners but also feels richer and more real. After all, we don’t have wish-granting stones in our world, but we generally do have multiple approaches available when confronted with a problem, so when a game world offers multiple paths through the same barrier, it’s easier to believe in that world, even when some of the paths are magical. Let’s not forget — some of the problems are magical too!

Even better, just as the protagonist has multiple ways of solving problems, so too do the antagonists have multiple ways of causing problems. Wishbringer is the rare mid-80’s game in which enemies learn from their mistakes. Find a hole that lets you out of the prison cell? Well the next time you get thrown into that cell, that hole has been patched with concrete. Escape again? Nevermind — they’ll just throw you into the ocean.

The opening screen of Wishbringer, including a prompt preceded with "Okay, what do you want to do now?"

Playing a beginner’s game as experts, it was hard for Dante and I to judge just how easily an IF newbie would accustom to it, but we could certainly see that Wishbringer was doing its best to be welcoming. Even beyond the multiple puzzle solutions, there’s friendly text like “Okay, what do you want to do now?” before the first few prompts, gradually tapering off so that it doesn’t become tedious. There’s also this friendly death message:

Looks like the story’s over. But don’t despair! Interactive fiction lets you learn from your mistakes.

We looked at each other after our first time seeing this message, and agreed with a smile that for accuracy’s sake, “lets you” should probably be replaced with “often forces you to”.

Even so, we found Wishbringer a charming experience, and a very pleasant end to our journey through Infocom’s Zork titles. As cat lovers, we especially appreciated that the point of the story is to rescue a cat, and in an even more satisfying way than Beyond Zork had allowed. With nine games down, we had only one remaining in our list, and it would be a new experience for both of us, given that I’d never played it to completion. Moonmist awaits!

Spellbreaker [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Spellbreaker
[This review contains many major spoilers for Spellbreaker and some mild to moderate spoilers for Zork and Enchanter series games. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

When I first started listening to the Beatles as a kid, I listened to the hits, and to me they were all just Beatles songs. Before too long, I could feel the differences between the early stuff (i.e. the red album) and the later stuff (the blue album.) From there I moved away from hits collections into regular releases, and my ears began to pick up the Paul songs, versus the John songs, versus the George songs, versus the Ringo songs. Sufficient listening, reading, and attention got me to the point of fine discernment, understanding the subtle but unmistakable differences between Rubber Soul Paul vs. Revolver Paul, or between Let It Be George and Abbey Road George.

Where am I going with this? The voices within Infocom, pretty clearly the Beatles of interactive fiction, reveal themselves similarly given sufficient attention. At first they all feel like just Infocom games, but we can start to pick out the styles after a while. There’s the brash, prolific, and eclectic Meretzky, the cerebral Blank, the ambitious and enthusiastic Moriarty, and so on. Spellbreaker belongs indelibly to the voice of Dave Lebling, possibly the finest writer of the lot, and a creator who lovingly balanced sober themes with dry humor, biting understatement with mathematical intricacy. Not only that, this is classic mid-period Lebling, a flowering of IF’s potential before the chillier days of commercial retrenchment set in.

>EXAMINE WRITING AND STRUCTURE

Spellbreaker was one of my favorite Infocom games when I was playing them in the ’80s, and I was particularly excited to share it with Dante. Looking at the game now, I think it holds up quite well, though I do have some critiques here and there. In particular, Lebling’s writing really shines. Just in the introduction alone, there are so many artful touches. For instance, when Sneffle of the Guild of Bakers complains about the gradual failing of magic:

>examine sneffle
Sneffle is a small doughy gentleman whose person is splotched here and there with flour.

“Doughy” is a rich word to describe a person, and using it for the baker, without piling on the puns, evokes a strong visual, especially combined with his comical flour-splotches. Then there’s the subtle evocation of Shakespeare when: “In the blink of an eye there stands at the podium, not the orator, but rather a large orange newt.” Eye of newt indeed, and something wicked this way comes.

This game also has some of Infocom’s most vivid imagery, and memories of playing it as a teen have stuck with me strongly through the years. In particular, the “beautiful blue carpet with a strange design of cubes” is something I’ve always wished would manifest in this world. I would buy it in a snap. (Though I’d probably want to haggle the price.) Etsy carpet-weavers, make me an offer. Here’s your product description:

>examine blue carpet
This is a carpet of unusual design. It is blue, beautifully woven and has a pattern that looks different each time you look at it. Sometimes, for example, it's an array of cubes pointing upward, and other times it's the same array pointing downward. There is a jaunty fringe around the outer edge.

In Spellbreaker, which by certain lights is Zork VI, Lebling finds himself in the position of finishing a second trilogy, and tonally he makes some similar choices to what Zork III did. Not that this game is anywhere near as bleak and radical as Zork III was, but it shares a similar feeling of somber grandeur. The ruins and the abandoned castle, in particular, give the same sense of desolation. The Ouroboros snake and the rat-idol, like the Royal Puzzle and the Technology Museum, are once-important landmarks left mouldering and forgotten.

Compared to the “fight the Big Bad” plots of the previous two Enchanter-series installments, this a darker and more adult finale, with richer textures and deeper pleasures than the other two. I’ll have more to say about the plot-level comparison with Zork III when I discuss the endgame, but for now I’ll leave it with the observation that the notion of magic slowly failing is a wonderful metaphor for coming of age, and this game moves IF from innocence to experience in a beautiful and gentle way, which encompasses the seriousness of Zork III but leaves much more room for playfulness than that finale did.

The cover of the Infocom grey box for Spellbreaker

Much of the fun in an Enchanter-ish game is the way that you can use your magic to make changes to yourself and the world around you, and Spellbreaker is no exception. Usually, when an IF game wants to surprise and delight, the author needs to anticipate actions that the player wouldn’t expect to see implemented, and give some fun response to those actions. However, Spellbreaker (and the Enchanter series broadly) gets mileage out of a different technique, which is to allow harmless alterations of the world that enrich the player’s experience without requiring any foresight on the part of the author.

One example of this is how you can frotz various things — the loaf of bread, the roc, et cetera — to make a lantern out of some unassuming object or imagine a puzzle component glowing uncharacteristically. This sort of pleasure was available in previous games, but Lebling adds another layer in Spellbreaker — the ability to label objects with arbitrary names, injecting your own sense of order or humor into the game’s world. Beyond Zork copied this quality but with less success, because (aside from the convenience factor of not having to type out “pterodactyl” all the time) its use was totally superfluous to the game.

Spellbreaker, by contrast, gives us a load of identical items — the cubes — which must be distinguished from each other in order to accomplish a successful playthrough. The ability to label these cubes in whatever way makes the most sense (or seems the most fun) to the player allows us to inject our own personalities into the game’s world. It’s such a pleasure that the Invisiclues even included a section titled “What did we name the cubes here at Infocom?”

Structurally, too, the game feels mature. Rather than a big, sprawling dungeon (like the Zork trilogy games) or a compact trunk full of puzzles (like Enchanter and, to a lesser extent, Sorcerer), Spellbreaker incorporates many dimensions and many sub-maps, which sometimes link into larger maps. Lebling themes these dimensions around fundamental elements, forces, and concepts, allowing players to feel that their travels are not only traversing a map but encompassing, via metaphor, the full universe of the game. Each new discovery not only expands the world but enriches it as well — rather like the mapping version of how the spell mechanic deepened the Zork game model. The ability to travel via cube gives us new angles on previously visited locations, as well as new locations, just as the ability to cast spells gave us new angles on puzzle-solving, along with all the old ones that were still available to us.

>COMPARE SPELLBREAKER TO D&D

One of those spells, “snavig”, proves particularly entertaining. This spell allows the PC to transform into any nearby creature, which not only underpins several puzzles but is also an imaginative delight. In particular, Spellbreaker breaks the trend of grue avoidance and lets us become a grue at last! This in turn enables one of the most fun Easter eggs in the game:

>snavig grue
You feel yourself changing in a very unpleasant way. Your claws feel odd, and you have an uncontrollable tendency to slaver. You gurgle vilely to yourself, worrying about the presence of light. Directly in front of you, a horrific creature recoils with a look of shocked surprise. It scuttles off, perplexed.

>slaver
You do that very well for such an inexperienced grue.

It’s fitting that Lebling, the inventor of the grue (for IF purposes), got to flesh them out with such panache here. Spellbreaker would be Lebling’s last grue-infested game.

“Snavig” feels indebted to the “polymorph” spell from Dungeons and Dragons, and it’s one of a few clear D&D tributes in this game. I’ve written before about IF’s connections to the classic tabletop RPG, and it’s worth mentioning again that Dave Lebling was a member of Will Crowther’s D&D group, which influenced Crowther’s genre-founding cave-exploration simulator. Besides polymorphing, the game strikes another D&D note when it lets you pry a gem out of the eye of a giant idol, a clear homage to the classic painting on the cover of the first edition Player’s Handbook.

The painting on the cover of the first edition AD&D Player's Handbook, by David Trampier. Two burglars are prying a gem from the eye of a huge demon statue, while various adventurers wait in the foreground by the body of a slain lizard-man.

The game’s biggest and best D&D tribute, though, is the magic zipper — a Bag of Holding in all but name. Just as frotz removed light source puzzles and rezrov removed locked door puzzles, so does the magic zipper remove inventory limit “puzzles” by allowing the player to carry a functionally infinite number of items. (How I wish it had been in Beyond Zork!) And just as these games found ways to create light and lock puzzles despite frotz and rezrov, this game finds a way to make the removal of inventory limits a detriment to the player, by including a puzzle that requires an inventory object to be sitting on the ground.

>ANALYZE PUZZLES

This puzzle — the gold box — has a great concept, but in practice it’s just underclued. In case it’s been a while: each cube has an exit that seems impassable, but it turns out that it really goes to wherever the gold box is if the gold box is keyed to that cube. However, because it’s counterintuitive adventurer behavior to not carry around everything you can, Dante and I never had occasion to find this out without turning to the hints, despite the fact that we knew the gold box was important and we understood it could be tuned to different cubes. The puzzle feels reminiscent of those puzzles in Zork II and Enchanter where you need to not have a light source.

However, those light source puzzles were hinted at — perhaps obliquely (especially in the case of Zork II), but hinted nonetheless. No such luck in Spellbreaker, and consequently it stumped us. Maybe if the opened “impassable” exit felt a little less rigid, even when you’re holding the box? Or if the phrasing when trying to put anything other than a cube in the box was a parallel to trying to go through the impassable exit? There needs to be something more to link the box to what it does — otherwise it’s hard to imagine many people actually figuring this out rather than stumbling upon it by flailing blindly. Perhaps I’m overstepping in that speculation, but it was certainly the case for us. Ironically, an inventory limit might have helped here, but what would have helped much more is better cueing.

The gold box puzzle is one of a few places where it felt like the game was trying to live up to its “Expert” difficulty rating. The last third (or so) of Spellbreaker has several puzzles which require quite a bit of patience — the octagonal rooms, the flat plain, and worst of all the cube piles. As you can probably tell from that summary, Dante and I found them a mixed bag. There was a certain elegance and satisfaction to the first two, but we face-planted completely on the last one. According to the Invisiclues, those cube piles are “a variation of a classic coin-weighing puzzle” — one coin may be heavier or lighter than 11 identical others, and you have to figure out which with only three weighings — but we never did solve it. We just got through it with dumb luck (and a lot of save and restore). None of these math/mapping/logic puzzles were as enjoyable for us to play through as the first two-thirds of the game, but that may be mainly a matter of taste. Except for the coin puzzle, at which I shake my fist one last time.

>WHAT IS MAGIC?

As I’ve mentioned, the cubes tie the game together and thematically traverse numerous fundamental concepts. As you progress through the game, you move from exploring the classical world of material elements — fire, earth, air, water — into an immaterial realm of concepts — connectivity, time, mind, life, death. Further, while the classical elements may make up our world, some of those more conceptual elements underpin the virtual world of the game. Connectivity suggests pointers in code, and the “No Place” of the mind cube is like a null pointer, or a null value. Connections between nodes run underneath the game at the code level, and within the game at the map level, not to mention that the title “String Room” is itself a string within the game’s code, along with every other snippet of language it contains. The binary oppositions (light/dark, life/death) evoke the ones and zeroes underneath it all.

Finally, there is magic, which is what happens when creatures like us from the material world use life and mind over time to interact with the virtual environment. Immersion is the closest we get to magic, and Spellbreaker is a masterfully immersive game — Dante and I made the fewest notes of any Infocom playthrough, because we found the experience so involving.

But startlingly, our final aim (it emerges) is to eliminate magic. There’s another interesting parallel with Zork III here. In that game, you become the owner of creation, by gathering the elements that distinguish its ownership. Here, you become responsible for creation by gathering the elements that define its existence, and what you must protect it from is yourself, or at least the worst version of you. Then, rather than safeguarding a dungeon of wonders, you must create a universe of mundanity.

The final screen from a winning playthrough of Spellbreaker.

The notion of a literal, magical shadow self echoes Zork III once again, wherein you must strike your shadow self down with a magical sword, then show compassion to it. Here, rather than a mystical test imposed by a godlike figure, your shadow is the result of magic itself, an “evil twin” that grows in power every time you cast a spell. Thus, if you eliminate the magic, you eliminate the evil.

It’s a nice thought, and Spellbreaker sells it skillfully, but it’s pretty problematic on inspection. The magical shadow only literalizes a truth — that the exercise of power is itself a creator of potential corruption. In 2022 it is painfully evident that even in a world without magic, we must regularly contend with humans controlled by their shadow sides in their desire to obtain and retain power. If only we could so simply remove the element of our existence that creates this quality, but we would have to remove ourselves. The problem isn’t magic — it’s humans.

There’s a less allegorical way to interpret this, though. In the end, what your shadow does is to create — implement — a universe. Your job is to remove the magic from the center of that universe. (We replaced it with a chunk of rye bread (providing light), a slyly still-a-little-bit-magical keystone.) The idea of turning a miraculous universe into an ordinary one (replacing mages with scientists) feels on one level like a counterintuitive, anti-creative notion. But it is an intriguing one for a magical world running on a scientific platform.

Also, there is this: perhaps solving puzzles unwinds the magic. Once you’ve played through Spellbreaker, it’s done. Sure, you can explore nooks and crannies here and there, but it has been dismantled for you. A solved puzzle is like a deconstructed hypercube — mysterious and compelling in its original form, but just a set of lines once it’s been taken apart. We can appreciate the elegance of what it was, but to solve it is to take the magic from the center of it. That is, until you allow sufficient time to pass, and revisit it with someone new along. Then it malyons back to life, ready to dance its enchanting little jig once more.

Phantom: caverns of the killer by Brandon Coker [Comp05]

IFDB page: Phantom: Caverns of the Killer
Final placement: 31st place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Right up front this game starts sending out the red flags. There’s the fact that its title isn’t in title case. There’s the fact that the debugging verbs are left on. (Not that I remember how to use them decades later.) And then there are the opening sentences:

Legends speak, of a great egyption warrior. Who rose in the military ranks faster that any other.

So, whew, just very rough right away. I dialed my expectations down, way down, and kept playing. Here is an advantage to playing the comp games outside the comp period — it had been about 6 months since I played Dreary Lands. Consequently, my patience account had built back up, enabling me to battle through the terrible writing and nonsensical milieu, looking for some things to appreciate.

The impression I got was of a very, very young author (or at least one who hadn’t done a lot of writing or received a lot of feedback), more attuned to the programming part of IF than the writing part. This is a demanding medium, in that it requires authors to be skilled in two traditionally separate areas — prose storytelling and coherent code. Phantom has its problems with the latter (though much less so than, say, Dreary Lands), but falls down very badly on the former.

The result is a game that tries to horrify, but keeps stumbling into unintentional comedy. Horror in particular is a tough genre for an author lacking basic skills, though it’s apparently an attractive one for such authors as well — see Exhibit A, Rybread Celsius. In order for a reader to be scared or creeped out by a fictional world, she’s got to be able to suspend disbelief about that world, and under an avalanche of prose errors, it’s pretty difficult to suspend disbelief.

Another obstacle to believing in Phantom‘s world lies in the weird numbers that occasionally pepper the text. For example:

>open black box
The box opens but a hand comes out grabs your face and squeezes the blood from your veins.1

“1”? I mean, the death message is a little comical as it is, what with the way a hand to the face somehow causes circulation problems, but the “1” afterwards is clearly just a mistake, or maybe a debugging leftover. Given that there’s a “2” that appears after the winning ending, I’m guessing this has to do with the game setting Inform’s death message flag, and maybe printing it out either by mistake or as a way of making sure the right message prints, or something.

Then again, it’s not just death messages — there’s also this:

You can see a Large emerald here.
1

>x 1
(the Large emerald)
A very large finely cut emerald.

Really not sure what’s going on here, but it did give me a good chuckle.

In any case, Phantom seems like a well-intentioned attempt by someone who does not have control of his tools. I’d prescribe some intense focus on learning basic English mechanics, hopefully with instructional support, and a lot of beta-testing to root out weird code behavior, in order to produce a much improved next game. Or at least, that’s what I would have prescribed 17 years ago — I guess now I’ll just call it general advice.

Rating: 3.6

Jesus of Nazareth by Paul Allen Panks as Dunric [Comp05]

IFDB page: Jesus of Nazareth
Final placement: 33rd place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Between this game and Panks’ previous comp entry, Ninja v1.30, one year elapsed. Between that review and this one, the better part of 18 years has elapsed. In the interim, some things have happened, including the author’s death in 2009, just shy of his 33rd birthday.

Panks contravened many of the social norms in the IF community, and for that reason provoked reactions ranging from shunning to outright hostility. Jason Scott sums it up as well as anyone in the blog entry he wrote shortly after Panks’s death, and the comments from that entry (one of the few times I actually recommend reading the comments) flesh out the picture further.

Many things have changed technologically in those 18 years as well, which meant that I couldn’t just double-click the game file in order to run it the way I might have been able to in 2005. Jesus of Nazareth is a Windows executable, and Windows 10 wants nothing to do with it. I had to fire up a DOSBox instance to run it, and even once that succeeded there was certainly nothing like a scripting capability available, so I was reduced to taking the occasional screenshot so that I could remember notable moments in the experience of the game.

I wasn’t certain I really wanted to go through the bother, because I did not expect the game to be good, and it wasn’t. And if DOSBox had failed, I’d probably have given up. But when it succeeded, and I could at least play the game, I felt like I should at least give it a try, and in light of the author’s short and difficult life, I’m not inclined to be hypercritical.

Nevertheless, what we have here is not great. It’s a homebrewed parser game — one of Panks’ specialties — which is deeply player-unfriendly. Most anything the parser doesn’t understand (which is most things), it responds to with “You cannot do that here.”, giving a “Hello Sailor” feel to the proceedings minus any of the humor or sense of distant potential. In the very first scene, there’s a note, and if you try to read it, you’re told “You can’t make out the note.” If you type “x note” (not “X NOTE” because the parser can’t handle capital letters)… you read the note. You meet a centurion who is holding a spear, helmet, and shield. If you try to examine any of those things, you’re told, “That isn’t here.”

Technical flaws aside, the premise of this game made me smile. You play — not surprisingly — Jesus of Nazareth, and your goal is to get followers. The game knows and relies upon the command “convert”, as in “convert matthew.” The “score” command tells you this, at the beginning of the game:

Your goal is to convert at least 4 disciples to your cause.
Thus far, you have converted:
You still have 6 disciple(s) left to convert.

If you’re going to make Jesus the PC in a text adventure, this seems like a pretty logical way to keep score! On the other hand, if you’re going to make Jesus the PC in a text adventure, the parser should probably know the word “forgive”. See, I hadn’t wandered too far when I found myself trapped in a location with the aforementioned centurion, who was insisting on seeing my papers, and wouldn’t let me leave. I had no papers — no inventory at all. Talking didn’t work. Converting didn’t work. Forgiveness wasn’t even an option. And there is no walkthrough.

So I quit, and forgave the game its trespasses.

Rating: 3.5

Xen: The Contest by Ian Shlasko as Xentor [Comp05]

IFDB page: Xen: The Contest
Final placement: 16th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, it took eight games, but I’ve finally hit the classic “game too big for the competition” issue. After two hours of Xen: The Contest, I had 29 points out of 63, so about halfway through the game I guess. It was enough for me to encounter the big (heavily telegraphed) plot twist, but not enough for me to understand how that twist changed the story. As usual, I’ll be reviewing the game based on what I saw of it in two hours.

What I saw, mostly, was your standard “implement a college campus” game, overflowing with stereotypes seemingly lifted from a paonply of 1980s movies, overlaid with a plot in which the PC gradually discovers he has superpowers and why. First, a word about the college stuff. I’ve had a 27-year (so far) career in higher education, moving from administrative assistant, to financial aid counselor, to Java developer, to manager and now associate director in the IT office. For a good chunk of that career, I’ve been in charge of the student portal, which has brought me in contact with nearly every part of the university, so it was with an insider’s perspective that I received the game’s treatment of the college experience.

Reader, it was not good. This game hates college. It hates the faculty. It hates the administration. It hates the students (well, the student athletes anyway.) It hates the grill chef. It hates the bookstore clerk. For crying out loud, it hates the receptionist at the student health center:

>x receptionist
Yet another minimum-wage employee who has been corrupted by the meager authority bestowed upon them, the receptionist has a permanent sneer on her face from looking down on all in her presence. In simple terms, she's a real [expletive].

(Note that the “[expletive]” is the game’s censorship, not mine.) Mind you, the PC is a freshman who has literally never walked into the University Hospital before. But for somebody who’s just showed up, boy does he have a lot of preconceived notions about everyone and everything. The snarling disdain for everything around him is evident in the majority of room and object descriptions. What’s more, there’s quite a bit of disdain set aside for the player and the basic mechanisms of IF as well. Many an object description ends with a “duh” statement, like so:

>x backpack
This is your backpack. You put things in it. Novel concept, huh?

One time, this kind of understatement can be a little bit funny. Over and over, for description after description, it communicates a resentment for even having to write descriptions at all, which causes me as a player to wonder why I’m playing this game that the author didn’t want to bother fully implementing. By the way, do you find anything in that description to suggest that the backpack would be better at extinguishing a fire than, say, a blanket? I sure hope so, because if you use the blanket to smother a fire you die, whereas the backpack is a big success!

That’s the other fundamental problem with snide non-descriptions. Not only is their tone grating, they also actively impede the play experience by failing to provide key facts that the player needs to succeed. Taken together, these qualities add up to a game that feels like a bully, calling you dumb for not knowing information that it intentionally withheld from you.

When it wasn’t making me learn stuff by dying, Xen was making me guess triggers. This is one of those games that waits for a particular command, then dumps out plot or exposition when the player enters it. These aren’t puzzles, really — most of the time the command is something like “sleep” or “sit”. When a trigger system like this is working smoothly, as it does for the majority of Xen, it can feel like traveling effortlessly through a story — just follow the very logical cues and you will make the plot happen. When it’s working badly, as it does sometimes, it can feel like wandering around in the wilderness, trying to guess the magic word that will unlock the only possible path forward. At no point does it feel like you have a choice of actions — scenes are strung together in a single linear path, and until you figure out the trigger that advances you along that path, you will make no progress in the game.

Between its truculence around describing things and its insistently single-track design, Xen: The Contest feels like a prose story whose author decided it would get more attention as an IF game. That may have been true, but it wasn’t a lot of fun for me as a reader or a player, especially given the fact that in two hours, even when resorting to the walkthrough several times to unearth a hidden trigger, I only saw about half. I suppose in a way this is the old “the food is terrible and the portions are so small” joke in action again, but I wasn’t really laughing.

Rating: 4.5