Once and Future by G. Kevin Wilson [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2002.]

IFDB Page: Once and Future

Swords and Sledgehammers

Note: This review contains minor spoilers.

If we wanted to make a short list of the people who had a major impact on the course of 1990’s interactive fiction, who would we include? Graham Nelson, Mike Roberts, and Kent Tessman would have to be in, for creating the major development systems (and, in Nelson’s case, a couple of major games) of the decade. Adam Cadre and Andrew Plotkin would make the list, for contributing some of the most important games of that period and, in Plotkin’s case, for crucial technical innovations as well. We can’t forget Volker Blasius, Dave Baggett, and David Kinder for founding and maintaining the IF Archive. And there’s one more name we couldn’t leave off: Gerry Kevin “Whizzard” Wilson.

Kevin contributed lots of things, all of which have their roots in his boundless, unstoppable enthusiasm for IF. He founded SPAG, the IF review webzine that I now edit. He organized and ran the first IF competition, and shepherded it through its first few years, as it became one of the most dominant forces in amateur IF, as well as one of the engines powering the IF Renaissance we currently enjoy. He labored to make Activision realize the value of the Infocom properties they own, and as a result brought some fascinating internal Infocom documents into public view, and brought paychecks and publication to the winners of the first IF Comp. He gave us one of our legends, too. I refer, of course, to Avalon. Avalon was the game that Kevin announced in 1993, estimating it’d take a month or two to finish. Two months turned into six, into a year, into many many years. The game seemed to be Kevin’s bĂȘte noire, the place where his enthusiasm was an anchor instead of a sail. That enthusiasm led him to keep expanding the game, perfecting it, adding more and more, while at the same time hyping it relentlessly in his every Usenet post, of which there were quite a few indeed. “Avalon” became synonymous with “overhyped vaporware.”

Then, in 1998, it happened. Avalon was released, albeit retitled Once And Future (OAF), since the name “Avalon” was already trademarked by another game. The trademark mattered, because the game was released commercially, the first pure text adventure to claim that distinction since the Infocom era. The company behind this venture was Cascade Mountain Publishing (CMP), run by Mike Berlyn, former Infocom Implementor. OAF was CMP’s flagship product, a thirty-dollar game touted as the return of “quality interactive fiction.” The story from here gets short and sad, for CMP founders rather quickly and tanks quietly, in the process apparently torpedoing the release of the Inform Designer’s Manual (4th ed.) for a good long time. While sales figures for OAF have never been released, it clearly never took off. Finally, on April 1st of 2001 (with no apparent irony), OAF is released as freeware.

I was one of the people who bought the original, thirty-dollar package. In fact, due to a CMP blunder, I actually received two copies, the second of which I gave away as a prize in last year’s comp. But for whatever reason, I never quite got around to playing it until now. When I finally did play the game, the weight of its history and its hype couldn’t help but burden the experience. It’s impossible to say how I would have viewed OAF had it been released humbly, for free, by an unknown author, but I think my reaction would have been quite a bit different. As it is, I find it difficult not to make this review a laundry list of faults. This game, upon which so much hope was riding, about which we heard so much and for which we waited so long, is far from perfect. In addition, as a commercial product it begs comparison not only to its contemporaries, the graphical adventures of the late Nineties, but also to its Infocom predecessors. Whether these are fair comparisons I don’t know, but OAF suffers by them. In the light of these considerations, I hope to make my criticisms as constructive as possible, and to remember the invaluable contributions of its author, the obstacles that stood in the way of its creation, and the gaming era from which it originated.

In that spirit, I want to focus on some of the things I loved about Once And Future. First of all, that’s a great title, far better than “Avalon.” OAF, for those of you new enough not to already know, is the story of Frank Leandro. Frank is a young soldier in Vietnam who, after sacrificing his life to save his friends, finds himself entrusted by King Arthur to journey through the fairy-tale realm of Avalon, collecting mythically resonant items like Excalibur and the Holy Grail and, finally, traveling through time to prevent a Great American Tragedy. In other words, he travels to the land of Once Upon a Time, at the behest of the man T.H. White dubbed the Once And Future King, in order to obtain One chance to save the Future. Where “Avalon” was a flat description of the landscape, “Once And Future” evokes the game’s genre, its themes, and its literary ambitions.

Those ambitions are important too. Kevin started this game in 1993, a time when serious themes and literary content were the exception rather than the rule in text adventures. He used a heavily characterized PC in the face of rather overwhelming IF tradition to the contrary, and injected that PC’s own distinctive voice into NPC interactions well before Varicella and its ilk. Come to that, he used a gimmick in the very first few moves of the game that feels fresh to us even now, at least according to Shrapnel and No Time To Squeal. I’m not the first to observe that this game would have been considered quite revolutionary indeed had it been released in 1994 (as originally planned). Still, the point bears attention. I suppose it’s the IF writer’s curse that because we most often work solo and our work is so demanding and detailed, there is a tremendous gap between conceiving an idea and realizing it in its finished form, and during that gap any number of things may come along to steal our thunder. It’s no wonder that some IF authors hate to see concepts blithely discussed; I’m of the mind that execution is just as important as concept, but it’s got to sting to see your game’s ideas called old hat, when in fact they may have been stunningly original at the time you first began work.

The best part about OAF, though, is this: it’s fun. The game is genuinely fun for long stretches at a time. It’s a rollicking text adventure of the old school, offering wonderfully open-ended design and puzzles that challenge the mind and care little for how arbitrary they ultimately are. Once And Future‘s love for the Infocom tradition shines through continuously and, at times, the game’s sheer scope and its cleverness manage to hit the same high notes as its predecessors. As literary as it may aspire to be, OAF is a game first and foremost, and, although plenty of critical attention has been lavished on its story and writing, to me the real star of the show is the puzzles. [I’ll be naming several of these by way of example for those who have already played the game, but I don’t think it’ll spoil anything for those of you who haven’t.] There are lots and lots of them, and most of them quite enjoyable. Of course, many of them are rather easy as well, which for me coincides neatly with enjoyability. Freeing Merlin, obtaining Excalibur, and helping the old man are all examples of that pleasant sort of IF puzzle in which there’s an action that makes sense, I try it, it works, and I am made happy. Even some of the tougher ones provided me with time well-spent, like the diamond puzzle and the earlier parts of the Mountain King puzzle.

When the puzzles did go wrong, it often wasn’t because they were too difficult, but rather because the series of steps necessary to execute the solution was long and tedious. A perfect example here is the braziers — the concept is straightforward enough, and a helpful mnemonic is even provided (a very nice touch), but actually carrying out this concept entails a great deal of tedious tromping back and forth and mucking about with fiddly liquid commands. The problem here is that the fun part of puzzle-solving is the actual figuring out — the rest is just follow-through, and if made sufficiently involved, becomes drudgery. The lesson for designers is to keep the emphasis on the former, and make the latter fairly streamlined, or at the very least entertaining in its own right. The worst offender in this category was the business with the blue paste — there isn’t even any figuring out involved, just a lot of mind-numbing inspection of nearly-identical objects.

Another area where the puzzles run into difficulty is bugginess. I suppose that in the technical sense there aren’t any game-stopping bugs in OAF, but having the game actually fail to respond to a command its documentation specifically recommends (ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS) comes close enough in my book. In addition, the game isn’t free from guess-the-verb problems. In fact, the particular final puzzle I encountered (there are a variety of them, depending on the character’s inventory in the final scene) had me so stumped that I actually went onto ifMUD, found somebody who had a hint book, and determined that I had in fact figured out the right action (an action which was rather nonsensical in itself), but the game hadn’t recognized any of the several commands I’d used to get it across. Once provided with the right verb, I was finally able to reach the game’s ending. It’s just the sort of problem that’s bound to plague a large game, but that doesn’t make it any more excusable.

Okay, clearly I’ve gotten to the part where I discuss OAF‘s flaws, so let me cut straight to its biggest one: the writing. Now, let me be clear about this. It’s not that OAF is poorly written in the way that a Rybread Celsius game is poorly written, or in the way that the games that occupy the bottom third of the comp standings tend to be poorly written. On the contrary, most of OAF‘s prose is clean, error-free and basically serviceable. However, it is punctuated with serious problems nonetheless, not the least of which is its plethora of overwhelmingly maudlin, trite moments. Here’s a sample, from a scene in which Frank sees a Vietnam buddy vegetating in a hospital bed:

>X MARK
"Is this Mark?" you think, as you look into the vacant, staring eyes. His mouth hangs slack, and there are no signs of intelligence. Gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes. He lies there, wasted and immobile, a monument to man's folly.

Lines like “a monument to man’s folly” and “gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes” are, I’m guessing, supposed to evoke goosebumps and a solemn nod, but all they elicit from me are groans. I don’t think it’s that I’m so jaded and hardbitten — rather, the lines take a redundant, sentimental shortcut around genuine emotion. I’ve already been told that Mark’s eyes are “vacant” and “staring” — does the point that they’re not sparkling really need to be made? Similarly, making stentorian statements like “a monument to man’s folly” short-circuits any possibility of my reaching that sort of conclusion on my own, and inclines me instead to see the narrative voice as irritatingly grandiose. [By the way, I’ve no doubt that this sort of thing has shown up in my own writing from time to time, and I groan when I see it there, too.]

When the writing isn’t being overdramatic, it frequently strays into cutesiness. In fact, one of the very first things a player is likely to see (because it’s in Frank’s initial inventory) is a candy bar object called “Mr. Mediocrebar.” In case you’re not familiar with American candy, this is a jokey reference to a Hershey product called “Mr. Goodbar.” The problem with this isn’t whether the candy bar ever serves a purpose — even useless objects have their place in IF. The problem is with the name. Calling the candy “Mr. Mediocrebar”, a name that no actual candy would ever have, immediately undercuts mimesis. It’s as if the author is playfully nudging us in the ribs and saying, “Hey there, this is all for fun, just a game. None of it’s real, and you certainly don’t need to take it seriously.” This sort of approach might work in a light farce, but it jars horribly against the somber Vietnam setting and the Big Themes to come. Furthermore, because the candy bar may well remain in the player’s inventory for the entirety of the game, its name has this deleterious effect over and over again. Not to mention the fact that it makes players think of the word “mediocre” throughout the game, which is hardly desirable.

Worst of all, though, is what I call the Sledgehammer Writing. Here’s an example: the player is in the throne room of a mysterious ruler called The Straw Man. This ruler sits silently and impassively on his throne. While in the room, Frank hears someone approaching, and hides. It’s a woman who tells the Straw Man her problem; he doesn’t respond, and by talking it out, she solves it on her own, and leaves. Then this happens again. Then it happens yet again, and this time, as she cries on his lap,

out of the corner of your eye, you notice the first sign of movement from the Straw Man that you’ve seen. His arm slips from the armrest of the throne, coming to rest on her shoulder. Reaching up to grasp his arm, she continues to cry for a little while before regaining control of her emotions.

Okay, so we probably know what’s coming, right? Sure we do:

But when the Straw Man’s arm slipped from the armrest, you noticed something. The Straw Man is just a plain old scarecrow.

Dum dum DAAA! But wait, there’s more:

Kind of funny, really, that the best ruler, the wisest person that you’ve ever seen, turns out to be a dummy.

Okay, I get the point. But still more awaits:

But maybe it says something too. People don’t always want or need advice, sometimes they just want someone to listen to them, and hold them.

WHAM WHAM WHAM! HERE IS THE MESSAGE I AM GIVING YOU! It’s as if the game has so little trust in its readers that after making its point subtly, then blatantly, it feels that it still must spell the whole thing out in painfully obvious terms, just to make sure we get it. This sort of thing isn’t just cringeworthy, it’s insulting; OAF would have been so much stronger had a little restraint been shown in scenes like this.

Finally, sometimes the writing just suffers from a simple lack of clarity. For instance, at a point in the game when Frank has been transformed into a mouse, reading a magical scroll gives this response:

Your head begins to spin as you read the scroll. Your hands start to glow red and twist into a more human shape. You briefly ponder what would happen if you were to become a full-sized human inside this mouse hole. It’s not a pretty thought. The scroll quietly dissolves to ash.

When I read this, I thought: Uh-oh, I’m about to die. I’d better UNDO, then get out of this mousehole before I read the scroll. Problem was, I couldn’t leave the mousehole without dying. In frustration, I sought a hint from Google and finally realized that I had been misled — the above message wasn’t presaging that I was about to be crushed, but rather that a several-turns-long growing process was beginning and that I needed to exit the mousehole before the process completed.

Speaking of that mousehole, it’s a good instance of one of OAF‘s primary qualities: its expansiveness. This quality is both a strength and a weakness, in my view. Certainly in terms of the game as a whole, it’s a strength — one of the best things about OAF is how big it is. Unlike the bite-sized IF that dominates current output, this game is a five-course meal. Then again, there are times when the “more is better” approach is a bit more dubious. For instance, hanging on the wall of the initial location is a paper listing “Murphy’s Laws of Combat”, a list that’s twenty-five items long. This little touch adds a bit of authenticity and characterization, but it also presents the player with a large, somewhat jokey wodge of text to read at the beginning of the game (following immediately upon the game’s long and somewhat non-sequitur-ish opening text), slowing down the pace of a scene that otherwise moves very quickly. Then there’s the geographical expansiveness, of which the mousehole is such a perfect example. According to my maps (I made them in GUEMap and have uploaded them to the IF Archive), the underground area of OAF comprises no less than twenty-seven rooms. The only purpose of this area is to provide a couple of puzzles that lead to an item that (along with a different item from another area) lets you solve another puzzle that ultimately yields one of the main necessary items for your final goal. The great majority of these twenty-seven rooms serve no purpose for obtaining that item. They’re just there for… scenery, I guess, or perhaps to make the world feel larger. A couple of them support items that comprise one of the game’s several dangling plot threads, but that’s about it.

I don’t think this approach to IF map design is optimal. A few non-essential rooms here and there can be a good thing, fleshing out the landscape and making the world feel a bit more whole. On the other hand, when the majority of the map seems to be made of non-essential rooms, something is a little out of balance. This happened to me on my first game — I had a puzzle planned out that would require a sandy beach, and it made sense to have several beach locations. In the end I cut the puzzle, but couldn’t quite bear to cut all the locations. Not only had I toiled to produce them, I thought they gave the landscape a greater sense of completeness. Of course, the game was rightly criticized for having a lot of filler rooms, and I learned my first lesson in the importance of pruning. (And judging from the length of this review, I still have quite a few lessons to go in that particular curriculum.) If I were writing that game today, I’d let my descriptions and transitions do a bit more of the space-establishing work, and I’d be less afraid to get rid of things that didn’t really serve the game except as decoration. I can’t help but feel that such an approach would have benefited OAF greatly as well.

Another strangeness about the maps is how gridlike they feel. The game contains several large landscapes, and in most of them, only movement in the cardinal directions is allowed, even though there are no logical barriers to diagonal movement. The locations are apparently evenly spaced from one another, despite the fact that they may represent radical shifts in landscape, so that a beautiful forest might nestle up against a blasted heath, with no apparent transition between the two. The result is that the setting has a very mechanical, unnatural feel, a feel that repeatedly reminds us that we are playing a game rather than traversing a real landscape. Again, whether this works is a matter of context — the grid layout might be great for a science-fiction game where the landscape is supposed to seem rigid and mechanical, but it doesn’t do justice to OAF‘s more natural, outdoorsy setting. There are a few areas in which the map is laid out in a fun, clever way, but these are almost always in the service of a puzzle.

Aside from its maps, OAF has a number of design successes. The game is fairly open-ended, so that a variety of puzzles are usually available at one time. It combines a Zorkish “wide landscape” with lots of Trinity-esque “little areas” by having lots of separate wide landscapes, which gives the game a chaptered feeling without needing formal divisions. The bottlenecks between these areas tend to work pretty smoothly, though I was hugely frustrated at one point — I failed to obtain an item from one area to solve a puzzle in another one, and wasn’t given another chance to do so, forcing me to restore from quite a ways back. Still, that was the only time that the game closed itself off for me, and given the era from which it originated, that’s not too bad.

The design of the story wasn’t quite so elegant. I mentioned dangling plotlines, and there are quite a few of them. I got to the end of the game, and instead of feeling resolution, I said, “That’s it?” For one thing, that ending inserts a sudden romantic subplot that was utterly unbelievable because it hadn’t been developed at all in any of the rest of the game. Moreover, the conclusion left so many questions unanswered about things that happened elsewhere in the game, it felt quite unsatisfying. For example, at one point you have a friendly kitty accompanying you on your travels. Then, in the process of solving a puzzle, that cat becomes lost, and possibly hurt. And you never find out what’s happened to it, or if it’s OK. Designers, don’t DO this! If your story puts an animal or companion in jeopardy, establish its final status before ending the game! The cat is just one example — there’s also stuff down in the mousehole that seems to imply a story, but the story goes nowhere. Instead, that stuff is just sort of there. The line between subplot and background color is a fine one, and OAF crosses it more than once, I think without realizing it’s done so. Subplots need to be resolved by the time the game ends, or else players end up feeling like I did: cheated.

The other problem I had with the story is more philosophical, and I suppose more idiosyncratic. The final quest of the game involves traveling in time to prevent a historical event. It’s an event that actually happened, but according to the game’s version of King Arthur, the world will be doomed if it isn’t changed. To me, this sort of story is wrongheaded. The pieces of our history, both good and bad, are what comprise our current reality, and living in that reality now, I found it hard to swallow King Arthur’s assertion that my world is doomed. In fact, I found it a lot more persuasive to think that Frank was being misled by a demon in holy guise, and was nonplussed [Ed. note: based on the length of this review, I think not!] to see that the game wasn’t going in that direction. The abstract question of whether the world might be better had certain parts of history been changed is an interesting one, to be sure, but I wasn’t at ease getting a protagonist to do something that in all likelihood would have prevented my own birth.

On a technical note, the game hangs together fairly well, especially for a work of such grand scope. It’s only natural that despite the five-year gestation period, this game would have more rough edges than smaller pieces of IF, and indeed it does. There are several times at which OAF gives default responses that don’t make sense. These details probably should have been seen to, but oversights like that are forgivable. Similarly, there were a number of bugs here and there, but nothing overly catastrophic or distracting. I have to admit, though, that I was disappointed by the NPCs. After all, this is the game that won the 1998 XYZZY award for Best NPCs, but they all seemed rather thin to me. Mordred, in particular, in spite of being a crucial part of Arthurian iconography, has almost nothing to say, nothing to do, and spends the majority of the game, in Michael Gentry’s words, “just sort of irritably standing around as though waiting for a bus.” Even some of the supposedly more fleshed-out characters, such as Merlin, suffer from serious lacunae in their knowledge. I’ve already mentioned that ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS doesn’t work, despite the documentation’s promise to the contrary. There are also exchanges like this one, which took place in Stonehenge after Frank had seen some strange blue stones:

>ask merlin about stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>ask merlin about blue stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>blue
There's no verb in that sentence!

>ask merlin about blue
Merlin says, "Frank, I'm rather busy right now, can't that wait?"

>ask merlin about bluish stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>merlin, the blue ones, like I JUST $^%$ING SAID
I don't know the word "ones".

Or, similarly, when Frank has an unusual carved blue stone in his inventory.

>show stone to merlin
Which stone do you mean, the carved blue stone, or the flat stone?

>carved
Merlin isn't impressed.

>ask merlin about carved blue stone
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

Thanks a lot Merlin, you’re a big help. There were lots and lots of gaps like that, and to make matters worse, Merlin’s default “I don’t know” message was “Merlin pretends not to hear you.” And you can’t even KILL MERLIN WITH EXCALIBUR.

I spent several weeks playing through Once And Future, and I’m not sorry I did. For one thing, it’s an important part of recent IF history, and for another thing, as I said before, it’s fun. Still, it was a bit of a letdown. I suppose that after the hype, buildup, and fanfare it got, it couldn’t help but be a letdown, at least a little bit. On top of that, it was no doubt to the game’s disadvantage that I played it in 2002. However unfair it might be to judge what’s essentially a 1994 game by 2002 standards, it’s impossible not to, because, well, it is 2002. Styles have changed, and parts of OAF haven’t aged well. The bottom line is that it feels like the work of a beginning writer, one who has promise and may have matured through the process, but whose novice mistakes remain. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing — it most certainly is — but don’t believe the hype.

Lock & Key by Adam Cadre [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2003.]

IFDB Page: Lock & Key

Death Becomes You

[NOTE: Lock & Key has a twist right at the beginning, and I’m going to give it away because it’s not practical to discuss the game without doing so. So if you haven’t played it yet and you want to be surprised, go play it before reading this, at least up to the twist anyway.]

I love editing SPAG, but the job does have its down-sides. For instance, I’m frequently obliged to read reviews of games I haven’t played yet. Most of the time, this isn’t much of a problem, since SPAG reviews are required to be spoiler-free. However, there is a small, occasional section of the ‘zine called SPAG Specifics, wherein reviewers are allowed to spoil as much as they like in the interest of promoting specific, detailed discussion about particular games. When I get a review for this section, I need to read it whether I’ve played the game in question or not.

That’s exactly what happened to me with Lock & Key — I’d played the game enough to get beyond the initial twist, see the setup, say “Cool”, and vaguely resolve to play it whenever I found the time. Shortly afterward, Eytan Zweig submitted a thoughtful, fairly critical review of the game for SPAG Specifics, and I decided that I wanted to wait a while to play the game after that, so that the review would fade enough in memory that it wouldn’t color my perceptions. Now it’s been about a year since that issue, Lock & Key has just won a handful of XYZZY Awards, and I have a new laptop I needed to test this past weekend; the stars were aligned, and I finished the game.

I wasn’t disappointed. Cadre’s writing shines as usual, as does his knack for giving every game a fresh angle. In this one, you play a prison designer and security expert in a mildly jokey pseudo-medieval milieu. Your job is to craft the perfect sequence of death-traps for the King’s dungeon, enough to defeat even the hardiest adventurer who might try to escape it. If you succeed, you’ll make a fortune and be able to retire. If you fail, well, you get beheaded. Those medieval managers really knew how to motivate their employees.

The meat of the game is its one and only puzzle, the one for which it earned the XYZZY for Best Individual Puzzle: setting the traps. It’s not that setting the traps themselves is all that difficult, but choosing the right ones… ah, that’s another matter. See, once you’ve finished constructing your ideal dungeon, it is put to the test by Boldo, a thick-thewed adventurer who, in the best IF fashion, seems to have an endless inventory of items that happen to counteract your traps perfectly. Every time he encounters a death-trap, you get to see exactly how he defeats it, and this in turn allows you to begin scheming about how you might deprive him of that method. Like Varicella, the game is highly iterative — the chances you’ll beat it the first time through are virtually nil, and this is by design. Instead, Boldo’s many triumphs allow you to make your own advances towards building the perfect dungeon upon restarting.

It’s a deeply rewarding puzzle of marvelously interlocking elements. Not only does it operate on several levels to begin with, it builds on itself to make lots of little “aha!” moments combine into a greater experience of overall insight. In addition, the game’s use of graphics do it a great service, presenting a clean and attractive game board to help players to see exactly what choices they’ve made.

My favorite part of the puzzle, though, is the hinting. The prose that describes Boldo conquering your traps is funny and enjoyable to read on its own merits, but it also frequently contains wonderfully subtle hints about how the dungeon might be better constructed. For the sake of spoiler-avoidance, I won’t quote any of those hints here, but I will say that they capture the feel that Infocom at its best was able to provide, of prose that is just as good on a game level as it is on a story level.

So Lock & Key wholly deserved its XYZZY for Best Puzzle. The other awards, I’m not so sure about. At the end of the XYZZYs, Lock & Key went away with the prizes for both Best Individual NPC (Boldo) and Best NPCs in general. The fact that it won these accolades for NPCs with whom (for the most part) the player cannot directly interact AT ALL is rather astonishing. I’m not sure what to make of it. Perhaps writing is just much, much more important than coding when it comes to NPCs, at least as far as the XYZZY voters are concerned. Certainly Boldo reacts to the traps placed by the player, and the descriptions of his reactions are all great and funny, but that’s a very limited sort of interaction, nothing at all like the dozens and dozens of responses that make up the typical fully-fleshed IF NPC. I wonder: can great writing alone make a great NPC?

Maybe sometimes it can, but I’ve yet to see it. Certainly this game’s excellent writing didn’t make Boldo an excellent NPC. He’s simply a cipher, an intentionally broad cliche whom the PC never meets, instead only watching cut-scenes of him on a sort of magic TV. He’s entertaining enough for the purpose he serves, but he hardly feels like a deeply implemented NPC, though he’s the deepest of the bunch. The other NPCs — the King, a gladiator named Musculo, and a host of others who appear in brief cameos — are present only in cut-scenes. The only exception to this, the only NPC who even responds to “ASK”, is the guard at the beginning. His response: “No talking in the dungeon!”

I would contend that the really remarkable character in Lock & Key is the player character. What’s remarkable about him? [1] Why, his cleverness, of course — his ability to string together just the right combination of traps to defeat Boldo. More to the point, what’s remarkable is the way in which the game constructs this cleverness. Like Primo Varicella, the PC of Lock & Key is what I’ll call an accretive PC, meaning that he becomes more and more himself with each iteration of the game, as the player’s knowledge accretes.

In most IF games, your character will never live up to you — it will never be able to do most of the things you can think of, nor say most of the things you can say. This is still true of Lock & Key and Varicella, but in an important way, what’s also true of those games is that you must live up to your character. You’re told a salient quality about the PC at the outset of the game — his expertise in dungeon design, or his Machiavellian plan to take over the regency — and then you must take him through one iteration after another until you yourself have attained enough of that quality to guide the PC to a successful conclusion. When you finally do reach that conclusion, it’s as if you’ve finally learned the real story, and all the failed attempts leading up to it exist only in shadowy parallel universes. This is who the character was all along — it just took you a while to catch up with him.

Of course, the case could be made that all IF PCs are like this to some degree. That may be true, but then again it’s de rigueur in most other IF to avoid game designs in which the PC must learn something by dying. Graham Nelson even made it Rule Number Three in his Player’s Bill Of Rights. [2] Of course, when a player must be able to step successfully into the PC’s viewpoint without any previous knowledge whatsoever, it becomes rather hard to give that PC any sort of expertise in the game world, which is why we so frequently see PCs who suffer from amnesia, or are fish-out-of-water, or other such tricks. Lock & Key and Varicella break this rule so brilliantly that it doesn’t even seem like a valid rule anymore. Why shouldn’t the player learn from past lives? After all, unless the PC is placed in some sort of contrived situation to deprive her of all her natural knowledge, she’ll inevitably know more than the player does the first time that player begins the game.

After a while, the requirement to match the PC’s knowledge with the player’s can begin to feel like a bit of a cage, and the most common contortions an IF game goes through to live inside it (such as amnesia) have long since lost their appeal. Even the freshest ones can still feel a bit tired and gimmicky unless done exactly right. The accretive PC is one key to this cage — it’s wonderfully refreshing to play a character who’s really good at something, and even better to become good at it yourself. Of all the jail-breaks that happen in Lock & Key, this one is the most satisfying.

[1] I’m referring to the PC as a male for convenience’s sake — I don’t recall its gender ever being specified in the game.

[2] See his excellent article The Craft Of Adventure, available in the info directory of the IF Archive.

Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort (book review) [Misc]

[I wrote this review when the book was released, and also posted an abbreviated version at Amazon.]

Book cover for Twisty Little Passages
Just over ten years ago, I was holed up in the University of Colorado at Boulder‘s Norlin library, researching interactive fiction. I was a grad student in English, and had a final paper due in my Literary Theory class. Activision had recently released the Lost Treasures of Infocom bundle, reawakening my childhood love of IF, and I felt inspired to write a paper that connected reader-response theory to the actual reader-responsiveness of text adventures. I wanted to cite and to engage with previous academic work on IF, but unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, it had received very little serious critical attention. Sure, I found a few articles here and there, but what I really needed was something substantial, something that offered a critical vocabulary for talking about interactive fiction, that placed it in a literary context, and that presented a basic history of the form.

What I needed was Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages. How strange and funny that ten years later, the paper I wrote for that class finds itself cited in the first book-length academic treatment of interactive fiction. True, the citation only occurs in a passing (and correct) dismissal of reader-response theory as anything but a very limited way into talking about IF, but it makes me feel like part of history nonetheless. Montfort’s book is just what IF needs to establish its rightful place in the scholarly discourse surrounding electronic literature, and indeed literature, full stop. It never fails to be informative, and frequently succeeds at being sharply insightful about the literary elements of IF.

However, Twisty Little Passages is quite suitable for readers outside the ivory tower as well. Though the book is clearly aimed at an academic audience, Montfort’s prose is blessedly jargon-free, clear, and effective, with generous doses of humor thrown in for good measure. Even in its most theoretical moments, the book manages to balance impressive rigor with unfailing clarity, a feat all too rare in literary theory. Consequently, it’s an entertaining read for general audiences and English professors alike. If you’re an IF aficionado like me, you’ll find Twisty Little Passages enlightening and fun, and if there’s anyone in your life who genuinely wants to know what interactive fiction is and why they should care, hand them this book.

Just the bibliography alone is a noteworthy achievement; Montfort has synthesized the already extant body of formal IF scholarship and mainstream coverage with much of the important amateur IF theory produced by people like Graham Nelson and Emily Short. Also included are a range of other contributions from the IF community and pieces covering the book’s other concerns, including riddles and computer science. In addition, there is a formidable collection of IF works cited, a list comprising much of the most influential interactive fiction of the past thirty years.

Something else that the bibliography makes clear is the value of Montfort’s personal connections. It’s peppered with references to emails and private conversations with some of the leading lights of IF history: Robert Pinsky, Graham Nelson, Steve Meretzky, and others. Montfort’s ability to gather such firsthand information highlights one of the most important things about Twisty Little Passages: not only is it the first book-length treatment of interactive fiction, it is the first formal treatment I’ve seen that approaches IF from the inside out, rather than from the position of a quizzical spectator. Montfort’s extensive experience in both the academic and IF communities lends him a brand of authority that previous commentators on IF lacked.

Of course, authority only gets you so far — it’s what you do with that authority that counts. That’s what makes the first two chapters of Twisty Little Passages such a particular pleasure: Montfort not only knows what he’s talking about when it comes to IF, he’s got quite a bit of original insight to offer about its literary and theoretical contexts. As with many works of literary criticism that seek to approach an underscrutinized area, the project of this book’s first chapter is not only to expose the topic’s theoretical underpinnings but to define and delimit a specific vocabulary for use in discussing it. Montfort does an excellent job of providing a clear definition of IF (and indeed of making the case for the term “interactive fiction”) and of defining a set of terms to identify the subcomponents of the IF experience. For example, according to the book, a session is “what happens during the execution of an IF program. [It] begins when an IF program starts running [and] ends when the program terminates”, while a traversal is “a course extending from a prologue to a final reply, and from an initial situation to a final situation” — thus a traversal can encompass many sessions (as frequently happens in the case of long, complex games), or a session can encompass many traversals (as happens with short games with high replay value.) Of course, at bottom the choice of terms is more or less arbitrary, but it is crucial that we be able to name the various parts of the IF experience — they are our stepping stones to more sophisticated discussions. Twisty Little Passages lays this groundwork admirably.

On the whole, this book seems more interested in surveying the territory of IF than in making unified arguments about it, but the exception to this is chapter two, where Montfort makes the case that the most important literary progenitor of IF is the riddle, and takes a counterpoint to the most famous analogy and contextualization of IF from the last decade:

The riddle, like an IF work, must express itself clearly enough to be solved, obliquely enough to be challenging, and beautifully enough to be compelling. These are all different aspects of the same goal; they are not in competition. An excellent interactive fiction work is no more “a crossword at war with a narrative” (Nelson 1995a) than a poem is sound at war with sense.

This is a brilliant and entirely convincing comparison. Montfort gives us a brief history of the riddle, and draws the necessary parallels to demonstrate IF’s similarities with it, leaving us with a new paradigm within which to view interactive fiction. Best of all, this angle of approach allows IF to be both story and game, both art and amusement, without detracting from the value of either.

Chapters three through seven, indeed the bulk of the book, are devoted to delineating the history of IF, from its mainframe beginnings to the current amateur renaissance. It’s an entertaining journey, and Montfort’s encapsulation of IF history is concise, approachable, and extremely informative. I found it a little frustrating, though, because it must of necessity skim over the ground rather quickly, especially as it moves into the Infocom era and beyond. Consequently, there are many moments of intriguing literary analysis of IF games, but they end almost as soon as they begin — practically every page contains material that could make a full article in itself. By the time I reached the end of the book, a sort of epilogue that takes inventory of the various ways in which the tropes of interactive fiction have made their way into our culture, I was already wishing for a sequel, one that assayed a more in-depth discussion of games like Mindwheel and Photopia instead of the tantalizing tidbits we get here.

Montfort has already done some of this sort of work, such as an article written with Stuart Moulthrop for an Australian digital arts conference, analyzing the role of Princess Charlotte in Adam Cadre’s Varicella. However, not much work of that sort could appear without Twisty Little Passages preceding it, just as in-depth conversations can rarely occur prior to introductions. This book creates a foundation for the inclusion of IF in literary discussions, and for further examination of specific IF works. Perhaps if we look back on IF criticism in another ten years, we’ll see that introduction as the most important service Twisty Little Passages performs.

Paul O’Brian
11 January 2004

Twisty Little Passages by Nick Montfort (book review) [Misc]

[This is a review I wrote in 2004, of the first book-length academic study of interactive fiction: Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages. I also posted a version of this review on the Amazon page for that book.]

Just over ten years ago, I was holed up in the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Norlin library, researching interactive fiction. I was a grad student in English, and had a final paper due in my Literary Theory class. Activision had recently released the Lost Treasures of Infocom bundle, reawakening my childhood love of IF, and I felt inspired to write a paper that connected reader-response theory to the actual reader-responsiveness of text adventures. I wanted to cite and to engage with previous academic work on IF, but unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, it had received very little serious critical attention. Sure, I found a few articles here and there, but what I really needed was something substantial, something that offered a critical vocabulary for talking about interactive fiction, that placed it in a literary context, and that presented a basic history of the form.

What I needed was Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages. How strange and funny that ten years later, the paper I wrote for that class finds itself cited in the first book-length academic treatment of interactive fiction. True, the citation only occurs in a passing (and correct) dismissal of reader-response theory as anything but a very limited way into talking about IF, but it makes me feel like part of history nonetheless. Montfort’s book is just what IF needs to establish its rightful place in the scholarly discourse surrounding electronic literature, and indeed literature, full stop. It never fails to be informative, and frequently succeeds at being sharply insightful about the literary elements of IF.

However, Twisty Little Passages is quite suitable for readers outside the ivory tower as well. Though the book is clearly aimed at an academic audience, Montfort’s prose is blessedly jargon-free, clear, and effective, with generous doses of humor thrown in for good measure. Even in its most theoretical moments, the book manages to balance impressive rigor with unfailing clarity, a feat all too rare in literary theory. Consequently, it’s an entertaining read for general audiences and English professors alike. If you’re an IF aficionado like me, you’ll find Twisty Little Passages enlightening and fun, and if there’s anyone in your life who genuinely wants to know what interactive fiction is and why they should care, hand them this book.

Just the bibliography alone is a noteworthy achievement; Montfort has synthesized the already extant body of formal IF scholarship and mainstream coverage with much of the important amateur IF theory produced by people like Graham Nelson and Emily Short. Also included are a range of other contributions from the IF community and pieces covering the book’s other concerns, including riddles and computer science. In addition, there is a formidable collection of IF works cited, a list comprising much of the most influential interactive fiction of the past thirty years.

Something else that the bibliography makes clear is the value of Montfort’s personal connections. It’s peppered with references to emails and private conversations with some of the leading lights of IF history: Robert Pinsky, Graham Nelson, Steve Meretzky, and others. Montfort’s ability to gather such firsthand information highlights one of the most important things about Twisty Little Passages: not only is it the first book-length treatment of interactive fiction, it is the first formal treatment I’ve seen that approaches IF from the inside out, rather than from the position of a quizzical spectator. Montfort’s extensive experience in both the academic and IF communities lends him a brand of authority that previous commentators on IF lacked.

Of course, authority only gets you so far — it’s what you do with that authority that counts. That’s what makes the first two chapters of Twisty Little Passages such a particular pleasure: Montfort not only knows what he’s talking about when it comes to IF, he’s got quite a bit of original insight to offer about its literary and theoretical contexts. As with many works of literary criticism that seek to approach an underscrutinized area, the project of this book’s first chapter is not only to expose the topic’s theoretical underpinnings but to define and delimit a specific vocabulary for use in discussing it. Montfort does an excellent job of providing a clear definition of IF (and indeed of making the case for the term “interactive fiction”) and of defining a set of terms to identify the subcomponents of the IF experience.

For example, according to the book, a session is “what happens during the execution of an IF program. [It] begins when an IF program starts running [and] ends when the program terminates”, while a traversal is “a course extending from a prologue to a final reply, and from an initial situation to a final situation” — thus a traversal can encompass many sessions (as frequently happens in the case of long, complex games), or a session can encompass many traversals (as happens with short games with high replay value.) Of course, at bottom the choice of terms is more or less arbitrary, but it is crucial that we be able to name the various parts of the IF experience — they are our stepping stones to more sophisticated discussions. Twisty Little Passages lays this groundwork admirably.

On the whole, this book seems more interested in surveying the territory of IF than in making unified arguments about it, but the exception to this is chapter two, where Montfort makes the case that the most important literary progenitor of IF is the riddle, and takes a counterpoint to the most famous analogy and contextualization of IF from the last decade:

The riddle, like an IF work, must express itself clearly enough to be solved, obliquely enough to be challenging, and beautifully enough to be compelling. These are all different aspects of the same goal; they are not in competition. An excellent interactive fiction work is no more “a crossword at war with a narrative” (Nelson 1995a) than a poem is sound at war with sense.

This is a brilliant and entirely convincing comparison. Montfort gives us a brief history of the riddle, and draws the necessary parallels to demonstrate IF’s similarities with it, leaving us with a new paradigm within which to view interactive fiction. Best of all, this angle of approach allows IF to be both story and game, both art and amusement, without detracting from the value of either.

Chapters three through seven, indeed the bulk of the book, are devoted to delineating the history of IF, from its mainframe beginnings to the current amateur renaissance. It’s an entertaining journey, and Montfort’s encapsulation of IF history is concise, approachable, and extremely informative. I found it a little frustrating, though, because it must of necessity skim over the ground rather quickly, especially as it moves into the Infocom era and beyond. Consequently, there are many moments of intriguing literary analysis of IF games, but they end almost as soon as they begin — practically every page contains material that could make a full article in itself. By the time I reached the end of the book, a sort of epilogue that takes inventory of the various ways in which the tropes of interactive fiction have made their way into our culture, I was already wishing for a sequel, one that assayed a more in-depth discussion of games like Mindwheel and Photopia instead of the tantalizing tidbits we get here.

Montfort has already done some of this sort of work, such as an article written with Stuart Moulthrop for an Australian digital arts conference, analyzing the role of Princess Charlotte in Adam Cadre’s Varicella. However, not much work of that sort could appear without Twisty Little Passages preceding it, just as in-depth conversations can rarely occur prior to introductions. This book creates a foundation for the inclusion of IF in literary discussions, and for further examination of specific IF works. Perhaps if we look back on IF criticism in another ten years, we’ll see that introduction as the most important service Twisty Little Passages performs.

All Things Devours by Toby Ord as “half sick of shadows” [Comp04]

IFDB page: All Things Devours
Final placement: 3rd place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

I must admit, I got a little nervous when I saw this game’s title, which appears at first blush to be grammatically incorrect. As it turns out, the title isn’t in error — it’s excerpted from one of the riddle-poems in The Hobbit, the one that begins “This thing all things devours.” I still think that it’s a weak title — the entire line would be much better — but I was relieved to know I was in the hands of a competent writer. In fact, my fears about the entire game were groundless; it’s very good. It has a plot, but by the author’s own admission, ATD is much more game than story, an intricate puzzle-box, with a couple of puzzles I found very satisfying indeed.

The setup is complex, requiring the same sort of lateral thinking as that featured in Sorcerer‘s famous time-travel puzzle. Due to its convoluted nature, the game had to be quite a chore to implement, and while its coding isn’t perfect, I was impressed with how thoroughly and skillfully it covered a very wide range of permutations. Moreover, ATD does a wonderful job of automating mundane actions, the very thing I was moaning about in my review of The Great Xavio. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see something like this:

>n
(first opening the door to the Deutsch lab)
(first unlocking the door to the Deutsch lab)

The Deutsch Laboratory

Every first-level object interaction I tried was handled gracefully, and the automation even did one or two cool tricks to keep track of player knowledge. Anyway, I’m about to raise a couple of points criticizing ATD, so I want to make it clear that I really did like the game. I liked it a lot.

That being said, there are a couple of flaws I’d like to discuss. The first is that I don’t think this game plays fair with the concept of the accretive PC. If you don’t recognize the term, that’s because I recently made it up, while reviewing Adam Cadre’s Lock & Key for IF-Review. In that review, I made the case that games like Lock & Key and Varicella have a unique sort of PC, one whose knowledge and/or cunning must by acquired by the player herself in order to successfully complete the game. Primo Varicella, for instance, has a devious plan to take over the regency. At the beginning of any session with Varicella, the PC knows what this plan is, but the player may or may not. It’s only through experiencing multiple iterations of the game, and thereby learning all the things that Primo already knows, that the player can hope to embody Primo successfully enough to win the game.

I call this sort of PC “accretive” because the player’s accreting knowledge allows the PC to become more and more himself on each playthrough, and once the player’s ingenuity matches that of the PC, she can successfully complete a game. When that happens, it’s as if the real story is finally revealed, and all those other failed attempts exist only in shadowy parallel universes. In my opinion, this sort of game is a brilliant refutation of the idea that IF games should be winnable without experience of “past lives.” After all, if the PC’s knowledge must match the player’s at the outset of the game, the PC must know very little, which is why we see so many amnesiac PCs in IF. An accretive PC allows the player to catch up with the PC through the device of past lives, and as long as the PC is established as already having all the knowledge that the player is able to gain, it all works swimmingly.

At first, ATD appears to be exactly this sort of game. It certainly requires quite a few iterations to win (or even to understand, really), and the PC is shown to have much more specific knowledge of the surrounding area and of her specific task than a player will on the first time through. However, partway through, something happens that the game clearly specifies as a surprise to the PC, something not included in her original plan. Consequently, she has to think on her feet in order to recover and still succeed at her goal. The only problem is, she can’t reasonably do that without knowledge of past lives.

A successful traversal of ATD requires not only knowledge of the circumstances and the setting, but advance knowledge of something that the game itself definitively states that the PC does not know in advance. Here, I cry foul. I’m not complaining that the game is unfair — it does an admirable job of warning players upfront that it’s going to be unfair, and I’m fine with that. However, it’s constructed in such a way that its story cannot make sense. The puzzles still work, but the unbelievability of the PC’s actions causes the story essentially to self-destruct.

There’s another problem too, one that causes the logic of the central puzzle to fall apart. Unfortunately, it’s terribly difficult to discuss without revealing spoilers. About the best I can muster at the moment is that if I follow the solution as laid out in the walkthrough, it seems to me that one of the central problems presented by the game remains unsolved, though the game does not acknowledge that this is the case. Because I was crafting my puzzle solutions to avoid this unsolved state (and having a hell of a time solving the puzzle as a result), I was rather flummoxed when I finally broke down and looked at the walkthrough. It was unsatisfying to end the game feeling as if it hadn’t played by its own rules.

Now, as I said initially, the environment in this game is really quite complex, and it’s possible (likely, even) that my objections stem from a careless or incomplete understanding of how the game is actually working. If that’s the case, I look forward to withdrawing my complaints once somebody explains how I’m being dense. Even if not, the game is eminently worth playing just for its clever premise and a couple of excellent puzzles. It may play a bit fast and loose with its concept, and its ending may be a bit anticlimactic, but I highly recommend it nonetheless.

Rating: 9.0

A Paper Moon by Andrew Krywaniuk [Comp03]

IFDB page: A Paper Moon
Final placement: 12th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

A Paper Moon isn’t a very good game, but it provides some interesting talking points nonetheless. Before I get to those points, though, let me elaborate a bit on the “not very good” part. For one thing, it’s one of those games that goes out of its way to insult and belittle the PC. I don’t have a problem playing a flawed character, but games like this (other prominent examples are Zero Sum Game and Got ID?, not to mention the extreme case of this year’s The Fat Lardo And The Rubber Ducky) don’t have anything interesting to say about the character’s problems, turning instead to insults as a form of faux cleverness. It doesn’t work. For instance, when you come upon an altar in this game:

>x altar
Like your heart, it is made of stone.

Huh? There isn’t anything in particular in the game that shows the character as cruel or heartless — instead, it’s apparently an attempt to be funny. The attempt fails. Another problem in this game is that both the writing and the coding, while not outright bad, are unpardonably sloppy. Things are coded to a reasonable depth, which is great, but bugs are all over the place, including some that seem to make puzzles unintentionally easy. Similarly, the writing does a basically acceptable job of describing everything important, and even pulls off a couple of good jokes, but punctuation is haphazard, especially when it comes to quotation marks, and there’s the occasional utter howler:

>think
Your thinking is attrocious.

Yeah, well, so is your spelling. These problems are aspects of a larger issue, probably the biggest flaw in the game, which is that the whole thing — story, puzzles, prose, and everything — feels fairly half-assed. Disparate elements and genres are thrown together (like, say, a cave with a McDonald’s play area inside) with no attention whatsoever to consistency of plot or tone. Right down to the end, it feels like a story that’s being made up as it goes along.

Problems aside, one worthwhile thing that Paper Moon attempts is to tie most of its puzzles together with the theme of origami — most solutions require some sort of folded paper creation at one point or another. This connection provides a nice unifying thread for the game, but what’s more interesting to me is the fact that although the game provides an endless supply of folding paper, what it does not provide is any sort of list of the shapes into which it can be folded. Instead, it relies on “common knowledge” (which gets the scare quotes because, as various culturally specific puzzles have shown us, whether knowledge is common depends entirely on where and when you come from.)

I’ve never been an origami buff, and consequently have only the most basic information about it in my brain, but surprisingly enough, I didn’t have to turn to the hints for a single origami puzzle. Sure, a lot of the things I tried didn’t work, but enough of my ideas were implemented that I was able to feel quite clever about my solutions. This is a risky game design decision, because it’s almost inevitably destined to fail miserably for some considerable number of people, but when it does succeed, it provides great satisfaction, much better than the average IF inventory or mechanical puzzle. It’s a different level of accomplishment to craft a solution from your own knowledge rather than putting one together by combining or manipulating the obviously implemented elements in the game. Paper Moon employs that strategy multiple times, and for me each one paid off.

The other noteworthy, albeit less effective, feature of the game is its occasional use of unmentioned but implied scenery items as important puzzle components. The first time I can remember seeing this technique used is in Adam Cadre‘s I-0, where a car is a major game object, and even though things like the tires, trunk, seatbelts, and glovebox aren’t explicitly mentioned in the car’s description, they’re implemented and often important. Similarly, Paper Moon sometimes relies on our mental picture of things for some crucial items that need to be examined, even though those items may not be mentioned in the room or item description.

I think the reason that this method didn’t work very well in Paper Moon is that it was done only inconsistently. I-0 was reasonably careful to implement implied items throughout the game, but Paper Moon expects us to look for implied things when it’s chosen to include them, but doesn’t provide the solid coding and consistency of depth that would lead us to expect those implied items always to be there. Consequently, when I first looked at the walkthrough to figure out what I was missing, I was fairly indignant that the item hadn’t been mentioned, and only later on changed my mind and decided that the game was playing fair after all. A Paper Moon isn’t a game I’d really recommend to anyone, but for its brighter moments it makes an excellent example of some underexplored aspects of interactive fiction.

Rating: 6.2

The Adventures of the President of the United States by Mikko Vuorinen [Comp03]

IFDB page: The Adventures of the President of the United States
Final placement: 21st place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

It’s been a long time since I’ve played a Mikko Vuorinen game. The last one was his 1999 comp entry King Arthur’s Night Out, which bizarrely recast King Arthur as a henpecked husband in a domestic farce. Some people, like Adam Cadre, apparently found this hilarious, but it mostly left me cold. Still, I was pleased to see Vuorinen’s name on a comp entry this year, and playing TAOTPOTUS felt like a reunion with a seldom-seen relative — even though its behavior was often exasperating, I couldn’t help feeling a certain fondness for it, both because of its reliably predictable traits and because of my sense of shared history with it.

Vuorinen hasn’t lost his affection for putting iconic figures into strange and comical circumstances, and indeed one of the most charming things about TAOTPOTUS is its gleeful disregard of realistic IF conventions. Consider, for example, this bit of game territory:

The United States of America.
Good old USA, in your mind the greatest country in the world. Home of
you and millions of other fellow Americans. The White House is a
magnificent place, but once in a while it's good to see the real
world. As you know, Canada is to the north and Mexico to the south.

> n
O Canada.
Their home and native land.
Lots of trees and that's about it.

To the west is Alaska and to the south the rest of the United States.

Next to you is a particularly tall maple tree.

This isn’t any kind of carefully worked-out fantasy trope — it’s not as if the President is suddenly a literal giant, walking across the continents in state-spanning strides, though at times it’s hard to avoid that mental image. Instead, it has the childlike feel of marching an action figure around a big map of the world, having little adventures in different places without much regard for any sort of fictional coherence. I mean this in the best possible way. I loved feeling like I was part of an innocent “let’s pretend” session, miniature toys tromping across a world-themed game board.

From the game’s title, I was wondering if it would be a political satire, but as close as it comes is to suggest that perhaps our President really does see the world in terms as abstract and simplistic as these. Then again, maybe that’s plenty. There are some moments that suggest a gentle satirical agenda, such as when you try to go south from Russia and are told “You don’t want to go to the Middle East. Some people there might not like you.” There are also some moments that that made me laugh out loud, such as when I typed HELP and was told, “You do not need any help. You are the President of the United States of America.” I tried to STOP THE WAR, but sadly the game informed me that the word “war” is not recognized. If only that were true.

Unfortunately, fun with icons wasn’t the only Vuorinen trait that made it into this game — there are also a handful of good old guess-the-verb puzzles as well, along with the typical admonishment in the walkthrough that there are no guess-the-verb puzzles, and that the game should be simple enough for anyone to finish without clues. I got stuck on the very first puzzle, and discovered from the walkthrough that, just like in King Arthur’s Night Out, there’s an item that needs to be SEARCHed, even though examining it yields a dismissive response. Some of the puzzles made sense to me, but there were others that really felt like an exercise in reading the author’s mind.

The environment (what there was of it) was reasonably well-implemented, though there were several bits of dodgy English, and I struggled from time to time with the deficiencies of the Alan parser. I also need to take a moment here to grouse about the typically feeble Alan game engine, which fails to include such essential bits of functionality as UNDO, AGAIN, and especially SCRIPT. I really dislike having to periodically copy the scrollback buffer into a text editor in order to keep a record of my interaction with the game, especially since I only belatedly remembered that this buffer keeps a rather paltry amount, and consequently I lost the transcript from my first 15 minutes or so with the game. Okay, I feel better now that I’ve vented. Overall, TAOTPOTUS is brief and kinda fun, and if you’re a Vuorinen fan, you’ll probably like it a lot.

Rating: 7.5

Rent-a-Spy by John Eriksson [Comp02]

IFDB page: Rent-a-Spy
Final placement: 15th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Actually, in terms of design, Rent-A-Spy is pretty good. If you think I sound surprised, you’re right, because in plenty of other areas, this game seems thrown together rather carelessly. For instance, it leaves the Inform debugging verbs turned on. Now, granted, ever since Inform started keeping them on by default, it takes a more conscious effort to avoid this problem, but on the other hand, Stephen Granade did send an email to all authors reminding them to turn these off, and explaining exactly how to do it. As he said in his message, “there’s nothing quite as fun as being able to purloin like a madman in a competition game.”

Consequently, seeing those verbs left on is usually a telltale sign of a bad game. There were other portents, too. The introduction is lumbered by some awkward writing, and the whole “rent-a-spy” premise feels shaky, an uneasy mix between the espionage and private eye genres. Also, the game is compiled to .z8, even though it’s only 140k (and that’s with strict mode left on!), which is really rather odd.

Having seen these signs at the beginning, my expectations for the rest of the game were rather low. Perhaps that’s why I felt so pleasantly surprised by the first puzzle, an interesting, realistic bit of infiltration, broken up into several believable steps. Several of the other puzzles felt pretty fresh to me, too. I especially enjoyed the way the PC must cover her tracks as she progresses in order to achieve the best ending. Opened doors must be closed, keys stolen must be returned to their original spot, documents are duplicated rather than filched, and so on. I thought this was a fun twist on the usual adventurer tendency to rummage through the landscape looking for treasure, leaving everything a shambles behind him.

Of course, many of these puzzles were quite thinly implemented. There were some extremely severe guess-the-verb problems, and plenty of other areas where clues were minimal or absent, and the environment too sparsely described. Consequently, lots of Rent-A-Spy‘s good ideas are badly obscured by its lack of polish.

I can’t help but wonder if this was a situation where the oncoming deadline prevented the game from being as complete as it could be. This is the very situation that Adam Cadre’s Spring Thing is meant to address, and I hope that for every unfinished game I’m seeing in this comp, there are two more whose authors are holding back in order to make sure that the games are as good as they can be before releasing them.

For this game, it’s too late to enter any more comps, but I still hope it sees a subsequent release. With some editing, further testing, and some premise doctoring (perhaps making the PC something like a reporter, which would be quite a bit more believable than a spy you can look up in the phone book), this could be a pretty enjoyable piece of IF. For now, it’s more an example of unfulfilled potential.

Rating: 6.1

To Otherwhere And Back by Greg Ewing [Comp01]

IFDB page: To Otherwhere And Back
Final placement: 28th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

For the past several years, the IF community has created a variety of “mini-comps” in the Spring of each year, competitions where the games are instructed to stick to a particular concept. These concepts can range from a required image like “a chicken crossing a road”, to the inclusion of a particular element (romance, dinosaurs, the supernatural), to a stipulation about the game structure itself (include the verb “use”, disallow the player from having any inventory.) Furthermore, for as long as there have been Spring mini-comps, they have had an effect on the Fall “maxi-comp,” because inevitably some author has a great idea that fits with the mini-comp, but doesn’t manage to finish by the Spring deadline, so instead polishes the game further and enters it in the Fall comp.

This spillover effect has given us such past treats as Downtown Tokyo. Present Day., and Yes, Another Game With A Dragon!, and now To Otherwhere and Back, a game originally intended for Emily Short’s Walkthrough-comp. The concept behind this particular mini-comp was that entrants had to produce games (or transcripts) that conformed to a particular walkthrough; as a further twist, this walkthrough was in the form of an unpunctuated telegram, containing strings of commands like “TAKE NEXT TURN SMOOTH DUCK DOWN” and “LOOK UP DRESS BOOK SHIP PACKAGE PRESENT BOWL”, which could be broken up in any number of clever ways.

To Otherwhere and Back meets the challenge ably, and in doing so, emphasizes an underrated IF technique: cueing. What we learn from games like this is that IF can prompt even quite unusual input from the player, as long as the setup has been executed with skill and the cue delivered fairly clearly. For example, in order to get me to type the first command from the walkthrough, the game presented me with this situation:

The screen of the debugging terminal is covered with code and
variable dumps. You stare at it with bleary eyes, trying to find the
last, elusive bug that you've been chasing for the last 37 hours
straight. You're so tired, you're having to make a conscious effort
to think.

That first command was, of course, “THINK.” That’s not something I’d usually type in at an IF prompt, because most games just give a canned answer to it, if they give any answer at all. This piece of text, though, was enough to cue me that in this situation, that command might produce something useful, and indeed it does. It’s not that good cueing leads the player by the nose — in fact, the first thing I typed after reading the text above was “DEBUG”, which actually put me into the game’s debugging mode, hilariously enough. But after that didn’t work, I looked at the text again, and was able to discern the right move without looking at the walkthrough. This sort of dynamic is the essence of good cueing, and TOAB does it over and over again. Of course, what’s also true is that Alan‘s heavily restricted parser and the shallowly implemented game world had me looking to cues quite a lot, but in this game that paucity of options was quite appropriate.

What TOAB doesn’t quite manage, though, is to construct a coherent plot. Granted, hewing to a deliberately challenging premise while telling a story that makes sense is quite a tall order — most of the entrants into the walkthrough-comp either came up with some arbitrary reason why those words would be strung together (as in Adam Cadre‘s hilarious Jigsaw 2), or relied heavily on the dream/surrealism/hallucination device to justify the necessary contortions. TOAB pursues the latter option, and its story ends up feeling more than a little arbitrary as a result.

Still, the game applies itself to the walkthrough’s odder moments in some very clever ways, and provides some good laughs, such as the Polish phrasebook that “contains translations of many phrases useful to a traveller in Poland, such as ‘Please develop this film’, ‘How much is the sausage?’, and ‘Am I under arrest?'”. Overall, I enjoyed TOAB, and while the fiction element of it wasn’t so great, its interactivity techniques got me thinking. That’s not a bad track record for a comp game, no matter what comp it might belong to.

Rating: 7.1

Jarod’s Journey by Tim Emmerich [Comp00]

IFDB page: Jarod’s Journey
Final placement: 47th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

This game has one of the most startling first lines I’ve ever encountered. The line is this: “Welcome to Jarod’s Journey, a TADS-based game that will hopefully get you and Jarod closer to God.” This line brought up a couple of questions for me. The first was “Whose God?”, and the second was “What gives you the right?” I’m agnostic, but I wouldn’t scorn someone simply for their religious beliefs. I respect the desire and necessity of all people to find their own spiritual paths, and I expect to receive the same respect in return. A game that wants to bring me closer to what it calls God is violating what I see as a very personal boundary, the boundary around my soul and my spiritual life.

My agnosticism is of the stripe that objects to the notion that any human has privileged access to any sort of Higher Truth. I find it deluded and arrogant when a person claims to have all the answers to the Big Questions, even when they’re basing that claim on some kind of intense personal experience, but I respect that person’s right to believe whatever feels right to them. However, when they want to proselytize to me (or to anybody else, really), that’s when I get offended. I think people have the right to believe whatever they want, but I don’t believe they have the right to evangelize others about it — doing so runs roughshod over those others’ right to believe what they want. Consequently, I found the basic goal of Jarod’s Journey to be an offensive one.

That being said, I’ll try to set aside my fundamental personal objections to the game’s announced intent and review it simply as IF. Sadly, it doesn’t have much to recommend it, even from a pure gaming standpoint. First of all, it crossed another big bias of mine by having, you guessed it, a starvation puzzle. Actually, two starvation puzzles. Strangely, there doesn’t appear to be any actual consequence attached to the starvation. Jarod, the PC, never dies, no matter how long he starves, but the game continues to print annoying messages.

It could be argued that these are better than typical starvation puzzles since they don’t ever actually enforce a time limit, but I say that they’re just as bad, because without the time limit they become entirely pointless instead of just mostly pointless. In addition, there are a disheartening number of spelling and grammar errors in the game’s writing, which makes the whole thing seem less than divinely inspired. On top of this, there’s the fact that although the game tries to maintain a third-person voice, there are little slips of second-person throughout, as in this scene:

Dream
Jarod is in a dream, or at least he thinks it is a dream. The
angel is here and has delivered a map.
You see a map here.
There is an angel here who is slightly glowing!

If the player controls Jarod, who is the “you” that sees the map? Perhaps it’s the same “you” that the game announces in the first line that it wants to convert — that is, me? But I don’t see a map, just a computer game. Or rather, a digital sermon. (One nice thing about JJ is that next time somebody tells me that LASH is preachy, I can point at this game and say, Crocodile Dundee-style, “That isn’t preachy. THIS is preachy!”)

Setting aside the game’s deficiencies in the areas of design, prose mechanics, and coding, we come at last to the quality of the writing itself. Jarod’s Journey is written in a kind of earnest, gee-whiz tone that works best when you imagine it being read aloud by Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. (And by “works best”, I mean “is most entertaining.”) An example:

>ask angel about god
"God is wonderful. He loves you very much and created you just as you
are."

>ask angel about grace
Jarod asks the angel about grace. The angel responds saying "Grace is
truly wonderful! You will not find a better gift!"

Jarod thinks to himself, "The angel is truly magnificent, glowing
ever so brightly."

Okeley-dokeley-do! Don’t get the impression that I scowled through this game. On the contrary, I laughed a lot, but only because it was difficult to take this wide-eyed tone seriously. On a more serious level, though, perhaps it’s worth thinking about the model of Christianity that this game constructs for us.

There’s one section that I found quite ironic — Jarod meets a pharisee who is described as “praying loudly. So loudly that everyone nearby can hear him. Even in the short time that Jarod pauses to listen, it is obvious that the man is repeating himself. Is this what pleases the Lord?” From this description, we’re supposed to realize that the pharisee’s method of prayer is Not OK. But only one location away is a Christian priest who fits this same exact description. Not only that, the game itself fits this description. The deep irony of the pharisee section made me suspect that not only is the game evangelical, its evangelism isn’t even well thought out.

Another example: at the end of each section of the game, Jarod is asked to make a spiritual choice between various methods of approaching God. If you pick the right one, you get a point. If not, you get chided with a scripture. Is the sacred realm of faith really so simple as that? Can the intricacies of individual worship really be boiled down to a multiple choice test? According to the game, apparently so. The best religious literature explores the mysteries of faith rather than handing out reductionist platitudes. Dante knew this. Chaucer knew it. Lewis knew it. Jarod… Well, Jarod still has quite a ways to go.

Rating: 3.4

[Postscript from 2020: As dire a game as this was, it did inspire a really fascinating and fruitful conversation on rec.games.int-fiction. Duncan Stevens — one of the best IF reviewers of all time — challenged my “What gives you the right?” question, saying “Why shouldn’t he have the right?” And it went on from there, with lots of other community members weighing in with thoughts and jokes.

Rereading that conversation reminds me of what a vibrant community lived in the IF newsgroups once upon a time. This competition landed during the glory days of that community, and the conversation was often as good as or better than the games themselves.

Oh, and Adam Cadre’s review of Jarod’s Journey was very funny. Man, Adam was on fire with funny reviews that year.]