Internal Documents by Tom Lechner [Comp03]

IFDB page: Internal Documents
Final placement: 19th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

After Curse Of Manorland, it was a relief to start into a game that seemed at least to be composed of coherent sentences, although the incredibly long, clause-upon-clause opener was a bit of a red flag. Still, the premise of the PC as civil servant investigating electoral fraud in a small town seemed like it had potential, and I began the game excited and interested. Sadly, Internal Documents fails on a number of levels, and by the end of the game I was just annoyed and disgusted, typing straight from the walkthrough. Some of its problems are pretty standard, such as the writing issues — typos and grammatical errors are common, and a noticeable number of sentences just fail to make any sense.

The coding is similarly problematic. At one point, I tried to read a document that (according to the hints, anyway) contains important clues. Here’s what happened:

>read manual
Chapter 1 reads:
Xy                  Yi                  Z
Zm              x                    b      k       a  c         k
a  d         k      a  e         k       a  f        k       a
g   Y   k       a  h   (   k      a  i   ê  k       a  j
y   k       a  k   0y   k       a  l   1u   k       a  m   2o   k
a     3c                 3u

I think this freakiness happens because of a particular quirk in Inform, because I vaguely remember using it intentionally in LASH to demonstrate illiteracy. However, in this game it obviously wasn’t intentional, and even the most basic testing should have revealed that it wasn’t working properly.

Another one of Internal Documents‘ big problems is one that I’d like to discuss in more depth, because I think it’s a signpost for anybody who wants to design good IF. Basically, the mantra is this: THINK LIKE A PLAYER. This game doesn’t, and falls down badly as a result. Here’s an example: early on in the game, I walk into a bar, and after the room description and a bit of incidental business, I get this:

The bartender cuts in and asks you, “So what brings you around here?”

Remember now, I’m a player. I’m trying to be immersed in the game’s fictional world, to do what the PC would do. So I type TELL THE BARTENDER ABOUT DUE DILIGENCE. In the game’s words, “This provokes no response.” So then I try to TELL THE BARTENDER ABOUT several other things, with no results. I proceed to strike out with TALK TO BARTENDER, ANSWER BARTENDER and ASK BARTENDER ABOUT <a variety of topics.> With sadness, I realize that the game has asked me a question but has no intention of providing me with a way of answering. So much for immersion.

See, as a designer, I might know that the bartender isn’t useful, and therefore give him only the bare minimum implementation. Maybe I want him to seem a little bit alive, so I give him a line of dialogue when he’s first sighted, and maybe I don’t so much care just what that line is. As a player, though, I have no idea whether the bartender is useful, so if he has some dialogue that encourages further interaction with him, I’ll take it as a cue that indeed he is supposed to be interesting. Then, when I encounter his minimal implementation, I’m annoyed and disappointed. The solution? Make the bartender surly and uncommunicative, so that his thin implementation seems like a natural aspect of his character. Your game is going to shape your player’s expectations — there’s no way around that, so it should shape them to its advantage rather than to its detriment.

On another “think like a player” point, remember that what’s fun for you isn’t necessarily fun for your player. You may really dig writing up three hundred slightly varying descriptions of the same sort of rather ordinary room, but by all that is holy, it is not fun to walk through them. Don’t set up situations where the player ends up wandering huge swaths of useless, pointless territory, or has to sit around or walk around aimlessly for dozens of moves waiting for a random event to trigger. That’s not fun, and it produces no particular emotional effect except for irritation. That’s not what players want from their IF.

Another aspect of thinking like a player is recognizing that if the game prevents a particular action repeatedly by use of unlikely coincidence, the player is going to believe that this action is forbidden and unimportant. If you think that the player will later be moved to attempt to do that forbidden thing as a way of solving a major puzzle, you’re probably wrong, especially if much more sensible solutions are disallowed. If I the player end up looking at the walkthrough, you want me to think “Oh, of course! Why didn’t I think of that?” Instead, I end up thinking, “First of all, I thought the game didn’t allow that action, and second of all, how does that make sense as a solution to that puzzle anyway?”

There’s a larger point here, which is that implementation generates expectations. If 99 out of every 100 nouns in your game are unimplemented, as is indeed the case with Internal Documents, I will come to expect a very bare-bones experience. I will not type out a long and unusual command construction, because what possible reason would I have to believe that the game would understand it? If you do expect me to do things like that, the game becomes either an intolerable exercise in attempted authorial telepathy, or else it ends up having to dole out sledgehammer-like hints (such as 1-2-3‘s notorious “Don’t you want to ask me about her breasts?”)

Before you even begin coding, think about what it will be like for players to experience your game, and if the answer is “boring”, or “irritating”, or “confusing”, stop those problems before they start. Otherwise, you end up with something that’s great fun for you, but not for anybody else… something like Internal Documents.

Rating: 5.3

Got ID? by Marc Valhara [Comp00]

IFDB page: Got ID?
Final placement: 29th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: There are a couple of obscenities in this review.

I am being tested. That has to be it. How else to explain the fact that immediately after playing 1-2-3…, a game that practically dares you to stop playing and pummels you mercilessly with ghastly, brutal descriptions if you don’t, I end up with this game? This game comes across like a schoolyard bully, one who not only wants your lunch money but who wants to make sure you know that you’re weak and ugly, too. It misses no chance to sneer at and belittle both the player and the PC.

Get this: you play a high school kid, and your goal in the game is to buy beer with a fake ID so that you can bring it to the party at the house of the most popular girl in school, so that maybe she’ll let you sit at the lunch table with her cool clique for the rest of the year. Talk about a concept that I could not relate to — when I was in high school, sitting with the so-called “popular” kids would have been my idea of a punishment, not a reward. Combine this with the fact that from the first sentence, the game makes clear that the PC is less a character than a laundry list of faults: fat, ugly, stupid, deceitful, shallow, etc. etc. Take, for example, this description of the shirt you’re wearing:

Glittery, sparkly, metallic-looking fabrics are all the rage this
season. Unfortunately, they're also extremely expensive. To
compromise, you've glued tinfoil to the front of your tee shirt.

So the game sticks you in this role, and wastes no opportunity to remind you that the character you’re playing is pretty much a waste of oxygen. Then, on top of all that, the game is designed to fling taunts at the player as well. For example, if you do the most obvious thing at the beginning of the game, in fact the thing that is necessary to continue the story, a little sign appears. The game won’t let you alone till you read the sign, reminding you of its presence every turn. What does the sign say? The sign says YOU SUCK. See what I mean about bullying? I half-expected it to print “An asshole says what?”

Now, let me back off a step or two. It’s true that the game is an insult machine, and that I did not enjoy the abuse it heaped on me. However, it may have chosen this approach as a part of its overall tone, which attempts to be a kind of gonzo, over-the-top parody. A parody of what, I’m not sure, since the game seems to hold pretty much everything and everyone in contempt. Perhaps it wants to be a kind of dark, cutting satire — certainly the reference to Jonathan Swift embedded in one of the locations would suggest that it aspires to that kind of humor, but the difference is that “A Modest Proposal” had a point to make, and this game does not, or if it does, the point gets buried under an avalanche of condescension.

However, it wasn’t unremittingly awful. I laughed at a few points. I can envision somebody who might even enjoy this kind of tone, and for that person, the insults would probably fit right in, and might even be funny rather than annoying. I have a small suspicion that this game was written by the same person who wrote Stupid Kittens — they share a few things, like their in-your-face tone and their fascination with dead cats and with refuting cutesiness (oooh, real tough target.) This game feels like what Stupid Kittens might be like if it was more interested in being like a traditional IF game than in being a dadaist excursion. It didn’t appeal to me at all, but perhaps it might appeal to somebody.

After all, it’s not as if the game is badly implemented. All the words seem to be spelled correctly. Its grammar betrays no glaring errors. It’ll insult you, but at least it will do so correctly. Similarly, with the exception of one major bug, its implementation is tested and clean. The puzzles, while rather arcane, all make some kind of sense within the extremely exaggerated world of the game. Of course, that doesn’t make their content any more appealing. In fact, one major portion of the game is unpleasantly reminiscent of I Didn’t Know You Could Yodel — will IF authors never cease to be fascinated with flushing toilets?

Excremental obsessions aside, I found I had a more difficult time than usual with the puzzles in the game, and I think it was because I found the insults so offputting that my travels through the game became more and more desultory. In addition, the hints weren’t as much help as they might have been because, like the rest of the game, they’re working hard to make you feel like an idiot. They mix in fictional and factual hints pretty much indiscriminately, and they don’t give you any hints as to which is which. Between these two factors, I hadn’t solved the game when, after about 110 minutes of play, something happened that forced me to go back to a very early restore. Faced with the prospect of playing through the whole tedious thing again, I declined. I had been itching for a reason to quit anyway, and relished the fact that it was finally my turn to tell the game to go fuck itself.

Rating: 3.9

1-2-3… by Chris Mudd [Comp00]

IFDB page: 1-2-3…
Final placement: 42nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

For the past few years, each competition has had one game that I found unremittingly unpleasant, a horrible experience from start to finish. Last year, it was Chicks Dig Jerks, with its pounding misogyny and seething nests of bugs. The year before that, it was Cattus Atrox, whose relentless but shallow horror and totally logic-free plot I found impossible to stomach. I was beginning to think that I’d make it through 2000 without such an experience, but no such luck: 1-2-3… wins the prize for Most Repellent Comp Game, hands down.

It doesn’t suffer from bugs, though — it doesn’t really get the chance, because it is as linear as a short story. Basically, the game is one long string of guess-the-noun or guess-the-verb puzzles. In fact, for most of the game, each move is in itself one of these types of puzzles, since the game will allow no other action than the one it’s waiting for you to guess. The most freedom it ever allows you is when it spreads seven or eight guess-the-noun puzzles in front of you, which you can do in any order, but all of which must be done before the story can proceed.

Actually, I use the word “puzzle” but that’s being rather generous. Really, the situation I mention above is that you have a couple of NPCs, both of whom must be ASKed ABOUT three magic topics each before the game will continue. These NPCs are so minimally implemented (as is pretty much everything in the game) that they only answer to those three topics — all others will provoke one of three random default responses. As if this extremely minimalist implementation didn’t make guessing the noun difficult enough, the topics you’re expected to type in sometimes verge on the ridiculous. If a character doesn’t respond to ASK HIM ABOUT ADVICE, why would I expect him to respond to ASK HIM ABOUT WHAT HE WOULD DO?

Of course, the game gives me an unsubtle shove in the right direction by having the character say, “Do you want to know what I would do?” But this is a pretty desultory form of interactivity. The game may as well just tell you what your next command should be, since it has no plans to respond to anything else anyway. If you think that’s interactivity, you probably also think ventriloquists’ dummies come up with their own punch lines.

Non-interactivity is annoying enough, but consider the context: 1-2-3… is about a serial killer. It puts you in the role of this serial killer. It won’t let the game continue until a murder is committed, then another, then another, and these murders can be triggered by rather innocuous (if unintuitive) commands. Now how much does it suck to have no choices?

The killings are horrific, misogynist gorefests, with nauseating specifics lovingly enshrined in detailed descriptions, capped by attempts at psychological pathos that would be laughable if they didn’t follow such revolting excesses. The first murder scene made me feel literally sick to my stomach, and I seriously considered quitting the game there and then, abstaining from rating and reviewing it. I’m still not sure why I didn’t do that — perhaps some overactive sense of fair play among the comp entries, perhaps a misplaced hope that the game would produce some artistic justification for its ultraviolence. In the end, I had such a horrible experience playing 1-2-3… that I almost wish I hadn’t played it, but since I did, I want at least to give others the warning I didn’t get.

Thankfully, the game doesn’t keep you in the serial killer’s role throughout. You are privy to a couple of other viewpoints, most prominently the police detective whose mission is to find and apprehend the killer. Unfortunately, the scenes from the detective’s POV are no more interactive than those from the killer’s. You must follow, more or less lockstep, exactly what the game has in mind for you, if you want to finish the story.

Is 1-2-3… a psych experiment of its own, a kind of test to see how much gag-inducing content a player can take before switching off the computer and (to steal a line from Robb Sherwin) switching her hobby to “Scattergories”? Is it the IF version of Lisa Simpson testing to see how many times Bart will grab for the electrified cupcake? Maybe it is, and if so I certainly seem to have failed the test, because I played through to the end. But my emotional engagement with the game had ended long before that, having suffered multiple stab wounds from the vicious, senseless violence that permeates the game. I was taking every one of the game’s cues, typing in what it told me to and letting the text scroll by in the vain hopes of some Rameses-like epiphany. None was forthcoming. Now excuse me — I have to go take a shower.

Rating: 2.5