Baluthar by Chris Molloy Wischer [Comp03]

IFDB page: Baluthar
Final placement: 8th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

When looking at an IF Comp author’s name, there’s always the risk of being gulled by a pseudonym, but I’d be willing to bet that Chris Molloy Wischer really is a first-time author. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course — it’s just that several things about Baluthar suggest that it’s the product of a less experienced creator. For one thing, GET ALL lists every object in the area, scenery or no, which is a classic rookie mistake for Inform authors. Of course, it’s possible that this was an intentional choice, but even if so, it’s a bit questionable. Sure, it’s a handy way to see what’s been implemented, and that’s certainly what I used it for, but it’s not exactly the most mimetic way to handle a player’s request to take everything available for the taking, since it results in responses like this:

wind: The wind resists your clumsy efforts with the mad energies of
its eternal youth.
your hand: Your hand is stuck to you already.

Aggravating the problem is the fact that every time GET ALL executes, the game assumes that you want to open all closed containers and take their contents too, resulting in a particular puzzle solution getting unraveled over and over again.

Another basic coding pitfall in Baluthar has to do with disambiguation. There are a couple of instances where the game, presented with several choices for how to interpret a noun, chooses the least obvious or least useful option. For instance, at one point the game describes a figure whose hand is clutched in a fist. So the obvious action is EXAMINE FIST, right? Observe:

>x fist
(your hand)
Your hand is very muddy.

No, not my hand! The thing that’s so specifically called a fist! A little ChooseObjects or parse_name trickery would go a long way here, and that’s just the sort of trickery that an inexperienced author is unlikely to have available.

As is evident from the “TAKE WIND” response above, the prose has its share of problems too, tending strongly towards the florid and even turgid. Even aside from the fact that the gross-out level stays very high throughout the game, and that every description of emotion tends to hit the drama extremely hard, there are some simple structural problems that keep the writing earthbound. For instance, a sentence weighed down by too many prepositional phrases strung together:

A nine-foot statue of a deity scowls down at you from the top of a
large boulder near the hut.

Instead of dancing or even stepping cleanly, the sentence puts one foot forward, then drags itself across the ground, piling on one modifier after another. Consider if instead it had read, “Atop a large boulder, a nine-foot statue scowls down at you.” We don’t need to know it’s near the hut, because we know we’re standing outside the hut — the simple presence of the object in this location tells us it’s near the hut. Save the fact that it’s a deity for the statue’s description, and separate the remaining prepositional phrases by moving one to the beginning of the sentence, shortening “from the top of” to “atop”, and now we have a much more concise and compelling description.

Another chronic problem in the prose is “adjectivitis”:

The white-lined faces of the densely-packed leaves give the
unsettling impression of a ghostly crowd of fish bones which
stretches endlessly around and above you.

Ack! “The [adjective noun] of the [adjective noun] give the [adjective noun] of a [adjective noun] of [adjective noun]…” This repetitive structure gives the prose a lumbering, choppy feel, no matter how vivid the words may be. Again, this sort of thing is the mark of a novice writer, whose focus is more on providing a full description than on communicating it gracefully.

So enough about that. Every author is a rookie once, and only once, and those who can learn from their mistakes and try again will inevitably produce a better game next time out. There are some things about Baluthar that showed promise. The hint system was nicely implemented, a menu-based setup that gave nudges at the right level without ever giving away too much too fast. Also, even though it had some structure and diction problems, the writing had very few grammar and spelling errors, and in fact the game in general felt like it had been tested and proofread, always something I appreciate in a competition entry.

In addition, the first puzzle was intriguing in that the obstacle it presented to the PC was emotional rather than physical, and consequently the puzzle and its solution not only advanced the plot but established some basic facts about the character as well. Finally, the story itself, while a bit over-the-top and melodramatic, presents a plausible emotional arc for the main character and provides an ending with symbolism that’s heavy-handed but effective. I’ll be interested to see what sort of improvements occur when and if the author produces another game.

Rating: 6.7