Marooned by Bruce Davis [Comp00]

IFDB page: Marooned
Final placement: 45th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Marooned was the first ADRIFT game I’ve ever played. Anytime I review a game whose system is new to me, that review can’t help but be partly about the system as well as the game itself, since it’s often difficult to disentangle who is responsible for what in the overall playing experience. Unfortunately, what with all the growling on the newsgroups from ADRIFT advocates who feel their system isn’t getting a fair shake, it’s a little tough to advance an opinion on it — anything less than unadulterated praise runs the risk of getting me labeled a “snob” or an “elitist” or something. Nonetheless, I shall brave the waters, and try to discuss the entire experience of playing Marooned, starting with the things for which I suspect ADRIFT was responsible, then moving on to those things that I’m guessing were done by the game’s author. In the interest of diverting the WOAA (Wrath of ADRIFT Advocates), I’ll even begin with the things I liked about the interface.

The ADRIFT runtime has a clean environment with two windows: one for the command line and one for the game text. The overall presentation was attractive and aesthetic, though the text window used a few too many newlines for my taste. One particularly interesting feature is that clicking on any word in the text window will insert that word into the command line. I’m too much of a typist to be messing with the mouse in that fashion, but I can see where it could be a really cool feature, especially after one got used to it. (I was so unused to it at first, unaware of it in fact, that when I clicked back onto the interpreter window after doing something in another window, I accidentally clicked on a command word and couldn’t figure out why the game seemed to be executing commands without my typing them!) A similar convenience is the “auto-complete” option, which allows you to just type a couple of letters from any dictionary word and attempts to guess what you mean, Microsoft-style. This option was a little wonky at times — for example, you find a “dented gas can” at one point which the game will auto-complete if you start typing “gas”, but not if you start with “dented” or “can”. Still, quirkiness aside, this was a great time saver, because it also shows you right away which nouns in the descriptions haven’t been implemented.

Some other cool options are available from the menu bar, most notably an excellent automapper, which operates in a separate window but creates a lovely map of the game’s landscape. This is an innovation for which many people have been clamoring, and it was especially welcome in this game, where many of the locations have the exact same name. There’s also a “control panel” which can execute common commands for you, even a “goto” command which gives you a listbox of discovered locations and sends you there via the best path. Finally, I must mention that I appreciated the inclusion of “Verbose” as a menu option, something I can just leave turned on for all games rather than having to explicitly request it each time.

OK, so there are a substantial number of things I liked about the ADRIFT interface. Sadly, there are also a number of things I really hated. First and foremost is the problem of the parser. ADRIFT’s parser violates all three of the current tenets in Paul’s Parser Manifesto (which I made up in response to another nonstandard parser, the one in last year’s homebrew game Lunatix.) Those tenets are as follows:

  1. Parsers must not pretend to understand more than they do.
  2. Parsers must not give smarmy, unhelpful error messages.
  3. Parsers must not ask questions without being prepared to receive an answer.

Well, I’m not actually sure it breaks #3 — I got too angry to try it. The exchange went something like this (I’ve inserted prompts before my commands for clarity’s sake — ADRIFT doesn’t put command prompts in its text):

> look in it
(the first aid kit)
This is a standard issue first aid kit. The first aid kit is open.
Inside the first aid kit is a small bottle.

> x bottle
This is a small bottle for pills. The bottle is closed.

> open bottle
You open the small bottle.

> look in it
(the small bottle)
This is a small bottle for pills. The bottle is open.

> x bottle
This is a small bottle for pills. The bottle is open.

> look in bottle
This is a small bottle for pills. The bottle is open.

> empty bottle
I don't understand what you want me to do with the small bottle.

> get all from bottle
You are not holding a small bottle.

> get it
(the small bottle)
You are not holding a first aid kit.

> get kit
Take what?

> ^%$# you! [Expletive removed to protect the easily offended]
I really don't think there's any need for language like that!

Frustrating exchanges like this were not uncommon, but even more infuriating were ADRIFT’s violations of tenet #2. Probably the worst offender was this one:

I can't undo your blundering.

Let me tell you an easy way to get me angry fast: give me an insulting message in response to a reasonable command. This one broke all previous speed records. Finally, there were the violations of tenet #1, most obvious when you type “x [anything the parser doesn’t understand]” — instead of telling you it didn’t understand you, it just says “Nothing special.” I hope that Santa will still bring me presents this year despite the fact that I couldn’t resist typing “x adrift.”

All these parser problems more than blew away any pleasure I derived from ADRIFT’s other innovations, because the parser is more important than the nifty features. Let me say that one more time, and listen up, system authors: THE PARSER IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE NIFTY FEATURES. Further crippling the ADRIFT experience was the sublimely aggravating policy that there is no scripting option as such — only a menu command that will record a transcript of the game thus far, a command that is naturally unavailable after a game ends! Who uses scripting, you ask? I do — I use it to write reviews.

Because I didn’t find my way around this misfeature until I’d been playing Marooned for an hour or so, it’s difficult for me to assess my experience with much accuracy, except to say this: Marooned is not the game I’d use to champion ADRIFT. To the problems in ADRIFT’s parser, this game adds its own irritations. For one thing, there’s a starvation puzzle. Game designers, please quit it with the starvation puzzles. Like mazes, they were interesting long ago, but no longer. They’re not clever, they’re not challenging, and they’re not fun — they just suck. This one was especially offensive because none of the food you find actually staves off starvation, and a couple of perfectly legitimate food items aren’t edible, according to the game.

Compounding this problem is the fact that there are tons of red herrings in the game, which means that you waste your time trying to figure out how to use something that’s actually useless, and consequently you keep dying over, and over, and over again. Dull, dull, dull, and ultimately rage-inducing. The premise of the game was fine, but it’s hampered by severe design problems, as well as the more fundamental weaknesses of the ADRIFT interface. All in all, I’d rather play Guess the Verb again.

Rating: 3.6

About my 2000 IF Competition Reviews

By 2000, the Comp had become the center of the IF community, for good and for ill. The good: artistic achievement continued to explode outward in every dimension. Comp00 delivered a bumper crop of stunners. I rated 7 (of 51) games a 9.0 or above, more 9.x scores than I’ve given any set of comp entries before or since. Those games came up with delightful variations on the Infocom themes, haunting new versions of old cliches like the one-room game, and writing that was simply fantastic. October of 2000 was an awesome time to be an interactive fiction fan, as your hard drive could suddenly fill up with one incredible experience after another.

Even the games that weren’t roaring successes were often bold experiments. This was the year of the breathtaking attempt, like Ad Verbum‘s astonishing linguistic gymnastics, Being Andrew Plotkin‘s POV shenanigans, or, gods help us, a full text adventure recreation of, and expansion on, Return To Zork. There was comedy (very hard to do well in IF), there was dada, there was brilliant subversion. There was even a game that tried to reverse the roles of the player and the writer! This year also saw the first comp entries by future winners (and all-around rock stars) Emily Short and Jon Ingold.

Basically, because the IF Comp had acquired a reputation for producing excellent games, it garnered a lot of attention, and because it garnered a lot of attention, people kept funneling their best work toward it. This attention economy had a dark side, though, which is that people also began to exploit the focus and feedback that the Comp generated. We’d seen some of this before, but the trend really accelerated in 2000, as people threw in “games” that were really more like pamphlets, or protests, or proselytization.

Combine with this the fact that there were no less than fifty-three games entered, to be judged over a six-week period. I reviewed 51 of those games, skipping over Happy Ever After and Infil-Traitor, which had known bugs required recompilation before the games were viable.

Consequently, my patience strained and then snapped when I was presented with games that weren’t really games at all, but rather (as I viewed them) abuses of my time, purchased with the general good will of the IF Competition’s overall reputation. In addition, I had (and have) zero time for obnoxious snipes at development systems or community members, disguised as comedy. Homebrewed games continued to bedevil me, and there was a new development system on the scene (ADRIFT) whose UI was cool, but whose parser was not up to snuff. And oy, do I ever want people to learn the difference between its and it’s.

Deadline misery was entirely self-created, though. Looking back, I’m rather astonished that I played 51 games and wrote 51 reviews in the course of six weeks. It’s easy to see why I stopped doing that once I became a parent. It’s harder to see how I ever did it at all.

I originally posted my reviews for the 2000 IF Competition games on November 16, 2000.