The Djinni Chronicles by J.D. Berry [Comp00]

IFDB page: The Djinni Chronicles
Final placement: 14th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

A favorite trick in Interactive Fiction, especially short works like those that appear in the comp, is to make the PC some kind of unusual or non-human creature. We’ve seen it with animals, as in Ralph and A Day For Soft Food. We’ve seen it with monsters, as in Strangers In The Night or Only After Dark. We’ve seen it with children, as in The Arrival and On The Farm. A Bear’s Night Out did it with a plush toy. In the freaky realms of Rybread, we’ve even seen it with things like car dashboards.

When the game is written competently and sufficiently debugged, this trick often works remarkably well, even better than its static fiction equivalent might. Why is that? I think it’s because IF has an advantage over static fiction in the area of character identification. When you’re reading a book, you may read third-, first-, or even second-person accounts of a particular entity’s exploits, and with sufficiently effective writing and characterization, you may even identify with that entity quite strongly despite its non-human traits, but no matter what you are still watching that entity from a distance. IF, however, literalizes the process of identification one step further. Not only does the prose put you in someone else’s head, you actually have to guide the choices of that someone.

I’d submit that when a reader is compelled to guide a character’s actions, especially if there are puzzles involved, that reader will try to think like that character would think. When this happens, the identification process has reached a place where static fiction can rarely take it.

It is exactly this place that The Djinni Chronicles limns with skill and imagination. The game puts the player in charge of a succession of spirits, each of whom has a unique method of interacting with humans and the physical world. These spirits perceive reality quite differently from corporeal beings like ourselves, and the game leaves it to the player to figure out just what those differences are. Luckily, it provides enough clues (and sometimes even outright explanations) that if you’re paying attention, you should be able to get the basic gist of how the system of djinni magic works.

This system is ingenious in several ways. First, it is quite alien from conventional portraits, which only makes sense, since those portraits have always been from the point of view of the summoner rather than the summoned. Second, despite its unfamiliarity, it makes perfect sense, or at least it did to me, as a plausible explanation for spirit magic. It uses the logic of “undercurrents”, in the game’s terminology, to explain things like why a djinn’s blessing can so often be accompanied by a curse — humans always ascribe a malevolent motive to such curses, but the game suggests that this may be just because we’ve never known the djinn’s side of the story. Finally, the system works well on a gaming level — Djinni Chronicles tells an interesting story that fits many folktale motifs, but doesn’t forget to be a computer game at the same time.

If it sounds like I was impressed by the game’s magic system, that’s because I was. To my mind, it did an excellent job of combining story and game into a seamless unit, providing fertile ground for puzzles that always made sense within the context of the story. Best of all, the system really made me feel like I understood what it was like to be a magically summoned spirit, and also why it is so difficult for humans to understand why such spirits so often bring more misery than happiness to their human summoners. The writing helped further this character identification, such as in this passage:

Vault Entry Room
The location of my summoner was a room between the surface of the
world [physically west] and a complex of vaults [physically east].

The room was a trap for physical beings. On one side of the room, a
portcullis barred the way to the outside. To the other were the
vaults for storage. A patterned stone wall blocked their unauthorized

This description does a lovely job of tracing the outlines of a location, because the spirit wouldn’t care about the details, while still giving its human reader a fair impression of the location’s real purpose. The game also indulges in judicious use of made-up synonyms for familiar concepts, thereby deepening our sense that the djinn population sees what we see, but through very different eyes.

I mentioned that the puzzles are integrated well into the story — they are also pitched at just the right difficulty level, or at least they were for me. I often found I had to think carefully, to think like the djinn I was directing, and that when I did so, I was properly rewarded. This experience added further to my sense of immersion in the PCs, since I never had to break the spell by consulting the walkthrough.

The game wasn’t perfect — a few typos lurk here and there, a section of verse has badly broken meter that jars against the elegance of the spirit world, and the routine that causes death when a certain point score drops too low is always one turn behind. Overall though, Djinni Chronicles puts a new spin on a well-loved IF gimmick, and makes it work like a charm.

Rating: 9.4

Music Education by Bill Linney [Comp99]

IFDB page: Music Education
Final placement: 24th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

In Music Education, you play a college student majoring in music. The game takes place in and around a college music building, and many of the characters and puzzles involve music in one way or another. The specificity of this premise helps the game feel a little less like a generic college romp, but does not help it to transcend the genre of games which feel more or less like implementations of somebody’s (usually the author’s) fairly quotidian life. These are the kind of games that are much more fun to write than to play. Aspiring writers are given the advice that they should write what they know, and try to write for themselves, creating works that they themselves want to read. This is good advice, but I think that when it is applied to interactive fiction, it often leads to games which are more or less an interactive version of somebody’s apartment, or house, or campus. These can be fun to play, but only if the main attraction isn’t the game’s similarity to the author’s real life.

For example, A Bear’s Night Out may have been set in an implemented version of the author’s house, but the main attraction of the game isn’t the fact that you get to walk around a virtual replica of a typical house. Instead, there are specific, interesting elements to the game that put the house in the background rather than the foreground. In Music Education, the college music building occupies the foreground, and one suspects that the most fun thing about it for the author is its resemblance to that author’s lived reality. This is a type of fun in which very few players can share. I may be way off base here. Perhaps the whole building is imaginary, and the game’s scenario has no bearing on the author’s life. If so, the game fails to make the fictional scenario compelling enough to hold the player’s interest. This lack of zing arises in part from the sheer ordinariness of the scenario (with occasional lurches into absurd death scenes), but also from its curious goallessness.

The game begins at a parking meter, so it’s reasonable to think that the goal of the game is to feed the meter. However, even after you do this, the game is not won, and there are many more points to be scored. There’s no real plot to the game, so it’s difficult for players to understand just what they’re supposed to be trying to accomplish in order to win the game. There are no overt indications of exactly what the puzzles are, let alone how they ought to be solved. Consequently, I spent a good deal of time wandering around the game just doing the obvious thing with the few objects to hand, without ever understanding the purpose of such actions. After I ran out of ideas, I consulted the walkthrough and discovered that a couple of highly unlikely (though, in retrospect, more or less logical) actions are necessary to complete the game.

I still didn’t understand why any of those actions were necessary until I had performed them, and I think I’ve figured out the problem. Most of the puzzles consist of bringing things to various characters, or creating a situation that the character desires. However, the characters never give any indication as to what they want, so it’s very difficult to know what you’re supposed to be doing for them. This is why such “locked-door” characters in IF normally say things like, “Boy, I sure could go for some ice cream right now!” It’s a way of feeding the player specific information about the key to unlock the NPC’s puzzle without that NPC needing to break character. In Music Education there is one character whom you can ask about the other characters, but again there’s no motivation to do this other than trying to figure out what the goal of the game is, and even when you do ask, the character only answers on a few topics. This setup breaks mimesis, since there’s no intrinsic, character-based reason to ask such questions; the game becomes less about a music student and more about a confused player trying to figure out what the game is looking for.

Luckily, there’s an easy fix to this: just enhance the characters so that it’s easier to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing for them. This could mean tweaking their responses to various questions, or giving them a response to “hello”, or giving them opening text for when they first meet the player, or some combination of the above. Granted, “I really want a…” statements can feel rather artificial when written poorly, but wandering around wondering what to do in a simple environment feels much more artificial. Music Education is a game whose writing and coding are relatively free from errors, but whose drive is deflated by the banality of its setting and some relatively basic omissions of puzzle design. Once the latter of these problems is fixed, the former will cease to have as much effect.

Rating: 6.1

A Bear’s Night Out by David Dyte [Comp97]

IFDB page: A Bear’s Night Out
Final placement: 5th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

So you’ve played the plundering adventurer. You’ve been the mage, and the detective, and the stellar patroller. You’ve stepped into the shoes of priests, tourists, English lasses, time travelers, and picnic-weary bridge-lovers. You’ve even played a dog. Time for A Bear’s Night Out (hereafter called ABNO), which puts you into the persona of one of the most unlikely heroes ever seen in IF: a teddy bear. The game is based around a magical “Velveteen Rabbit” premise — when the humans fall asleep, the stuffed animals get up to roam the house. When the night comes, you must set to work, gathering various objects so that your owner, who is perfectly wonderful but somewhat disorganized, will be ready to take you to the Teddy Bear Picnic tomorrow. This charming idea is carried out with aplomb by ABNO‘s lovely prose. The author has obviously taken a great deal of care to ensure that everything from room descriptions to library messages assist in constructing the player character, a cuddly, fuzzy teddy bear owned by some fellow named David. For example, to the command “jump”, the game responds “Full marks for cute and furry, but none for achievement.” This kind of care with implementation really helps a player become immersed in the setting and the characters.

Interestingly, ABNO bills itself as “An Interactive Children’s Story.” Perhaps this is from some misconception that playing a teddy bear is an activity suitable only for children. Whatever the reason is for the description, I think it’s a mistake; the difficulty of its puzzles makes ABNO a mighty tough game for kids. This is not to say that the story’s content is unsuitable for children in any way — it certainly is not. However, several of the puzzles had me stumped, and I suspect the same would be true for the majority of kids who encountered them. Some of these difficulties are due to some missing verbs: [SPOILERS AHEAD] for example, one of the crucial puzzles in the game requires you to ride the cat, but the word “ride” isn’t implemented. [SPOILERS END] Other puzzles are difficult, well, just because they’re difficult. Many key elements of the game are unreachable without first solving several interrelated puzzles, none of which by themselves are enough to significantly advance the story. The game provides a fine hint system, and its puzzles are logical and fit well into the story. However, the textual clues that surround them still fall a bit short of sufficiency; several of the messages given by the game fail to indicate the significance of the particular actions as well as they should.

This point aside, ABNO is a delightful game. It is well-written and, for the most part, well-coded, including a number of details which serve to enrich the childlike, enchanted game world. For example, the television runs a very funny infomercial for a hardware z-chip, to turn your computer into “the interactive fiction machine of your dreams!” The cat’s random event routines create an endearing illusion of feline unpredictability. Judiciously chosen box quotes enhance the game’s sense of magic and wonder. Finally, perhaps the best touch of all, all the elements of the full score are written alliteratively: “furry fashion” for wearing your coat, “kindness to kittens” for petting the cat, etc. The combined result of all these details is a world well worth visiting by children and adults alike.

Prose: ABNO‘s prose is without a doubt its best feature. The writing strikes just the right tone, soft and forgiving, much like the game’s protagonist. The author clearly understands how much the game’s prose serves to shape the main character. For example, describing the door leading outside as “A tall and forbidding locked door” performs several functions in one concise phrase: “Tall” reminds us that we are playing a short teddy bear, to whom ordinary objects seem quite imposing. “Forbidding” reminds us that our character is used to the home — the outside world is large and scary. And of course “locked” lets us know that we won’t be getting through it without a key. The game’s prose is full of this kind of well-crafted prose. Bravo.

Plot: Here the game falters just a tiny bit. The idea of playing a teddy bear is great, but the plot of gathering items for the picnic doesn’t lend much of a sense of urgency to the game. It’s sweet, and it serves, but it doesn’t propel the narrative with much strength. Instead, it seems more of an excuse to take our furry protagonist around the various areas of the house so that we can experience them at a bear’s eye view.

Puzzles: [SPOILERS AHEAD] As discussed above, the puzzles aren’t terrible or unfair or irrational, but some of them are a bit illogical (an answering machine crashing to the floor fails to wake my owner?), and others are somewhat counterintuitive (a soft little teddy bear can hit a pipe with enough force to dislodge the sludge that gravity isn’t affecting?). [SPOILERS END] In addition, as I mentioned some of the puzzles aren’t really as well-clued as they should be. At their core, the puzzles are good, but they could use another round of testing to iron out the kinks.

Technical (writing): I found no technical errors in the game’s writing.

Technical (coding): Aside from the fact that “ride” should have been implemented as a verb, the game’s implementation was quite solid.