Unraveling God by Todd Watson [Comp02]

IFDB page: Unraveling God
Final placement: 12th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

And so the legacy of Photopia continues. Here we have a linear, puzzleless narrative, told in small portions out of chronological order, each of which is preceded by a blank screen with one word in the center. Sound familiar? Of course, there are differences: all segments are told from the same point of view, and rather than being a vision of tragedy, Unraveling God is more of a morality tale in the familiar Things Man Was Not Meant To Know tradition. I also don’t mean to suggest that UG is some sort of lame rip-off. It isn’t. I don’t think this game is trying to be Photopia, but is using many of the tools that Photopia used first in order to tell its story.

What we may in fact be seeing is the development of a new subgenre of IF; maybe fragmentation is such an effective way to tell a puzzleless IF story that it’s bound to become a time-honored technique in story-heavy games. The story and the writing are certainly the feature attraction in this game. You play Gabriel Markson, a scientist who has stumbled across a way to freeze organisms in suspended animation without the use of cryogenics. You are also, as a number of well-judged character details indicate, not a very nice guy. The game’s prose does a fine job of portraying the PC as a complex villain, someone who has elaborate mental structures dedicated to justifying his behavior, and this portrayal makes his opportunities for redemption meaningful. There are one or two logical gaps in the story, but for the most part events interlock nicely, which also lends power to the story’s climax.

The technical elements, unfortunately, weren’t as trouble-free. To begin with, UG started with the inherent disadvantages of the ADRIFT parser, and didn’t manage to overcome them with careful compensation like The PK Girl did. Because the game is more or less puzzleless, the parser’s deficiencies didn’t hurt it as much as they hurt this year’s other ADRIFT game, A Party To Murder, but they were still fairly irritating. In addition, this game had its own unique problem, which was that it was plagued by a mysterious lack of articles. For instance:

A typed label on the manilla folder reads, "Time Magazine draft
article." Manilla folder is closed.

You take manilla folder from the desk.

(manilla folder)
You open manilla folder.

This kind of thing happened throughout the game, and kept reminding me of that old Saturday Night Live skit from the 80s where Tonto, Tarzan, and Frankenstein sing or read well-known works like “The Raven”: “Once upon… midnight dreary… While pondered… weak, weary…” The frequent injection of unintentional comedy doesn’t do much for a dramatic story. The grammar errors didn’t help either.

Still, I found some value in UG despite these flaws, and there’s one more thing I’d like to point out about it: this game is pretty clearly a work of Christian IF, and it is Christian IF done properly. I’m not a Christian, and I’ve been offended in the past by games like Jarod’s Journey whose overt mission is an evangelical one. This game chooses a richer path, which is to tell a story set in a world in which Christian myths turn out to be true, and exploring the consequences and subsequent choices for the characters once this revelation occurs. It’s not exactly great religious literature, but it does manage to portray a Christian world without condescension or arrogance. Because it allows a little complexity into its world, UG ends up a more thought-provoking and rewarding piece of work than the sort of Christian IF that just wants to shout scripture at the player.

Rating: 6.9

A Party To Murder by David Good [Comp02]

IFDB page: A Party To Murder
Final placement: 28th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I will say this for it: A Party To Murder is the best ADRIFT game I’ve ever played. Unfortunately, that’s not saying much. Even if it were written in a first-tier IF language, APTM would have some problems to overcome, but as it is, it’s hopelessly lumbered by the terrible, terrible ADRIFT parser. We’re talking about a mystery game here, reminiscent of Suspect — you play a guest at a party where a murder is discovered, and you must extricate yourself from suspicion. A mystery game, okay? You might think that, in a mystery game, you’d be able to SEARCH things. Not this one — it doesn’t recognize SEARCH, LOOK IN, or LOOK THROUGH. Worse, with the latter two it parses them as LOOK rather than just admitting that it doesn’t recognize them. Same with LOOK UNDER and LOOK BEHIND. Hint: ignoring prepositions doesn’t make them go away, it just makes your response more likely to be wrong.

Perhaps, in a mystery game, you might want to SHOW things to NPCs. You can’t here. Even if you hold a completely damning piece of evidence and want to show it to the person whom it damns, all you get from the ADRIFT parser is “I don’t understand what you want me to do with the letter.” Maybe, in a mystery game, you might even want to TELL someone about something. In this game, you can’t. All these very basic verbs, absolutely standard with any first-tier system, are unavailable in ADRIFT, and their absence absolutely slaughters this game. In fact, from a very early stage, whenever I encountered one of the game’s many containers, I got in the habit of trying to GET ALL FROM it, because that was the only reliable way I could get the game to tell me whether there was anything inside. Needless to say, I wasn’t exactly feeling immersed in the story while doing so.

As I said above, even if all these problems were resolved, APTM still wouldn’t be a great game. Part of the reason for this is the fact that the game seems to operate on its own inscrutable logic rather than any sort of recognizable sense of cause-and-effect. For instance, there’s a portion of the game where access to a useful item is being controlled by one of the NPCs. The only way to persuade this NPC to let you have the object is to perform a long series of apparently arbitrary tasks, and the NPC doesn’t really indicate that it wants these tasks performed. The only way I found out was via the walkthrough, and I’d be surprised if anybody figured it out any other way.

Of course, by that time I was going straight from the walkthrough anyway, because in my initial playthrough of the game, I never found that NPC at all — it seems she only appears after a particular item has been discovered, even though that item is more or less unrelated to her absence. Oh, and that item is only accessible by using an object whose primary logical use is unimplemented in the game. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t name what that object is, but just for example, if you found a knife, and the game didn’t understand the word CUT, you might think that knife was a red herring (and that the game was lazily implemented). Wouldn’t you be surprised to find out from the walkthrough that even though CUT isn’t implemented, you still need the knife to, oh I don’t know, scrape the mud off a stone tablet or something? Something analogous occurs in this game.

See what I mean about inscrutable logic? In addition to logic problems, there are certain implementation errors as well. For example, most of the game consists of a flashback, but typing X ME while still in the frame story depicts the PC as if the flashback was already happening.

So after all this, what makes APTM the best ADRIFT game I’ve ever played? Well, for one thing, despite the occasional glitch, it does have a decent depth of implementation. Most first-level nouns are described, and the setting is rather richly detailed. I spent an inordinate number of hours with Suspect when I was younger, and at times this game brought back pleasant memories of that experience. The writing gets its job done with a minimum of errors, and the NPCs are coded to handle a reasonable number of inquiries. In fact, a couple of times during the game I asked an NPC about a somewhat extraneous topic, and was happily surprised to discover that the response had been implemented.

Another point in favor of the NPCs is that they will sometimes react sensibly to strange actions on the player’s part; for instance, walking into the teenage daughter’s bedroom while she’s making out with the neighbor elicits angry responses from both of them, escalating in intensity the longer the PC hangs around. Snooping around the objects in the house, though it’s necessary, also provokes suspicion from some of the NPCs. Then again, nobody gives you a second glance when you walk through the house carrying an 8-foot ladder, so this realistic implementation is really rather patchy. Overall, APTM would be a seaworthy craft, but between the logic holes in its hull and the tsunamis of ADRIFT inadequacy, it sinks dismally fast.

Rating: 4.6

About my 2002 IF Competition Reviews

2002 was the eighth year of the IF competition, and everything was pretty firmly in place. That includes the games and authors, who occupied the usual range from ugh to wow, and in fact pushed the top of that range back up above where I found it in 2001. It also includes me.

By 2002 I’d been reviewing comp games for many years, and I was very comfortable in the critic role. Without being too egotistical about it, felt like I could write reviews that would not only explain the my reaction to game and give useful feedback to the author, but at least sometimes do so in a way that would be useful for lots of aspiring authors, not just the one who wrote the game in question.

Writing all those other reviews had also made me deeply conversant with the history of the comp, which became increasingly helpful, as more and more comp games seemed to be in conversation with their predecessors. This certainly happened on the stylistic level — for example the “pure puzzle game” flavor I’d identified in previous years’ games like Colours and Ad Verbum continued in 2002 with games like Color And Number and (to a lesser extent) TOOKiE’S SONG. Koan was a tiny puzzle game in the spirit of In The Spotlight or Schroedinger’s Cat. Janitor was a cleanup game like Enlightenment and Zero Sum Game.

Dialogue with previous IF also happened at the thematic level — A Party To Murder called straight back to Suspect, Coffee Quest II to Little Blue Men, and so forth. Finally, at the most abstract level, games like Constraints clearly functioned as meta-commentary on the medium itself.

Knowing the domain as I did helped me to feel like I could be a good teacher for newer authors. But even better, closely examining my reaction to a game and explaining it to myself by writing about it, especially informed by a long history of doing so, was the very best way of being a student. The great thing about the IF comp is that it provides such a wide variety of approaches, so in getting analytical about my own responses, I can understand what works and what doesn’t work across a whole range of styles. Particularly helpful were games like The Temple, whose approach inspired my own future work.

2002 was my third time as a competition entrant, and much to my amazement, my first time as a winner. I was genuinely shocked to win the competition — I really did not think my game was the best one. (But who am I to argue with the judges? 🙂 ) My own favorite game of the 2002 comp, by a pretty wide margin, was Till Death Makes A Monk-Fish Out Of Me!. In my meta entry about the 2001 comp, I stupidly asserted that my not reviewing All Roads because I’d tested it was “the first and only Comp where I didn’t review the winner”, but of course this is not true! I didn’t do so in 2002 or 2004 either, because my games were the winners.

Besides Another Earth, Another Sky, the only games I did not review were Buried! and Castle Maze, because they were withdrawn and/or disqualified.

I posted my reviews of the 2002 IF Competition games on November 15, 2002.