Curse of Manorland by James King [Comp03]

IFDB page: Curse of Manorland
Final placement: 28th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

So here we are in 2003 and people are still writing games in AGT. Even more disheartening, they’re still writing terrible games in AGT. Most bad comp games at least have the virtue of being short, but not this one — it’s huge, and unrelentingly bad all the way through. Now look, I want to offer constructive criticism, although with a game like this it’s hard to imagine that any suggestions will be implemented, since quality doesn’t exactly seem to be valued. Nevertheless, in lieu of a detailed review, here are ten ways to improve Curse Of Manorland:

10) Don’t use AGT. There are better tools out there now.

9) Settle on a point of view. In the beginning section, I had this exchange:

Chrissy's room
Your room is covered in rock posters but has Rupert the bear bed
sheets there is a full length closet mirror on the east wall. On the
south is a window. The carpet is bright pink

> x sheets
I loved Rupert - it was my favourite show when I was little - I want
to get Buffy now - she's such a strong character.

Thus, in just a few lines, I got third person (“Chrissy’s room”), second person (“Your room”), and first person (“I loved Rupert”). Pick one.

8) Puzzles need to make sense. I can’t imagine anyone (except maybe the author) ever getting through this game without the walkthrough. Actually, I didn’t even get through it with the walkthrough, since the walkthrough failed to specify the exact moves for the nonsensical maze, and the game itself was (unsurprisingly) no help. I was using that walkthrough from the very first puzzle, a puzzle whose solution makes absolutely no sense at all.

7) Sentences get to have both a subject and a verb. If one of those is missing, then what you have is a sentence fragment. These are fine, in certain circumstances, but avoid them until you’ve mastered writing regular sentences.

6) While we’re at it, both fragments and real sentences end in periods, not commas, and certainly not just nothing. This is unacceptable:

> x window
A white painted window,

It’s especially unacceptable when we need to know that this window is the size of a mattress. Actually, that comma is sort of an exception — the vast majority of stand-alone sentences in the game have no terminal punctuation whatsoever.

5) If the player is supposed to interact with some object, the game should maybe mention that object. It’s pretty hard to come up with “TIE ROPE TO TREE” when there’s nothing about any tree in the room description.

4) Error messages must not lie. If you’re looking for “CHOP TREE WITH AXE” and I type “CHOP TREE”, do not reply “Don’t know how to chop here…” That doesn’t tell me to try another syntax. Instead, it tells me to forget the chopping idea altogether. The game lied to me like that over and over again.

3) For heaven’s sake, do not put random messages in the game that prevent commands from being carried out without saying so. And certainly do not litter the game with them for hundreds of moves before a solution is available.

2) Please, forget the inventory limit. And please please please, if you’re going to make me drop stuff, let that stuff not disappear.

1) Spell-check. Beta-test. Have your prose proofread by someone fluent in English. Don’t enter long and/or terrible games in the IF competition. Give us a break, huh?

Rating: 2.0

SURREAL by Matthew Lowe [Comp01]

IFDB page: SURREAL
Final placement: 45th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

The author’s notes for SURREAL contain the following statements: “I am currently fourteen years old and I enjoy playing text adventures.”; “SURREAL is the first text adventure I have ever written so I hope that it’s alright.”; “I hope you like it.” So now I’m in a bit of a pickle. I didn’t like the game, because it had lots and lots of problems. But I hardly want to crush a first-time author, especially somebody so young who enjoys text adventures not as nostalgia, but on their own merits.

So this seems like a good time to reiterate my general reviewing philosophy: basically, I’m here to help. I never want my reviews to come across as nasty jabs, and if they do, it’s because of my own deficiencies as a writer and critic. Instead, I hope that these reviews offer worthwhile feedback to authors, and that they communicate some of my ideas and knowledge about IF. The point is not to smack somebody down for writing a bad game, but rather to report on my experience with that game so that the author’s next game can be better. Now, that being said: SURREAL was not a strong game.

Let’s talk first about the writing. It’s pretty apparent that the game’s landscapes are inspired by the Myst series, and that’s not always such a bad thing. There are moments throughout where a vivid picture arises from a paragraph, or even a sentence. However, grammar is a serious problem through the entire game. Poor grammar is a writer’s bane, because as a rule, it impedes the communicative arts; the prose in this game is no exception to that rule. Take these sentences, for instance:

You are standing in the fresh outdoor air again, a spray of salty water hits you in the face. The weather has taken a turn for the worse as dark clouds roll across the sky like and army of black horses marching to war.

The first sentence is a run-on, meaning that it’s really two sentences held loosely together by a comma. What this does to me as a reader is basically to pull the rug out from under me. I read the first part of the sentence, then hit the comma, which signals to me that I’m about to read something related to the first clause, probably either a dependent clause or an appositive. Instead, I get hit with another independent clause, and consequently I have to stop and try to figure out what the connection is. A moment later, I realize that there is no connection, because it’s just a run-on. But by then it’s too late — I’ve already been thrown out of the prose. All this happens very quickly, but the result is devastating to the story’s power, because it makes me remember that I’m reading words on a screen rather than inhabiting a surreal world.

The second sentence has a more obvious problem: instead of “like an army of black horses”, it says “like and army of black horses.” Typos like this are similar to heavy static on a TV screen. If we’re looking closely, we can see what’s supposed to be there, but after a while, it hardly seems worth the effort. Words are the game’s only conduit to our minds, and if the words don’t make sense, the game doesn’t either. There are also several NFIEs, but I have taken a deep, cleansing breath and promised not to rant about those.

Implementation is also a serious issue. The game is apparently programmed in GAGS, a precursor to AGT. Now, why in 2001 someone would want to use such a primitive development tool is a complete mystery to me. Even if one is too intimidated to broach something like Inform, TADS, or Hugo, there are plenty of newbie-friendly languages that are far more robust than GAGS. That choice of tool alone limits the game’s audience severely, since it’s only playable via MS-DOS, and even among DOS users, there are plenty of people who are unwilling to put up with a rudimentary parser and absent features from a modern text adventure.

On top of that, some of the most important items in the game are unimplemented, even with a “That’s just scenery” sort of description. No matter how much one loves text adventures, parser-wrestling is just not fun, and tools like GAGS make for lots of parser-wrestling. There is promise in a game like SURREAL, but it’s a promise largely unfulfilled. My advice to the author is to learn a high-level IF language (it’s not that hard, really!), review basic grammar, employ proofreaders and beta testers… and write again!

Rating: 2.5

Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country by Adam Thornton as One Of The Bruces [Comp01]

IFDB page: Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country
Final placement: 30th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: If you’re offended by obscenity, profanity, depravity, and what have you, please don’t read this review. In fact, if you are such a person, please avoid any further encounters with anything that has the word “Stiffy” in the title, up to and including this review and (for God’s sake) this game.

The original Stiffy Makane, a game authored by Mark Ryan and occasionally known by its full title, The Incredible Erotic Adventures of Stiffy Makane, earned its place in the annals of… er, in the history of IF by being fairly vile in subject, extremely terrible in execution, and very (unintentionally) funny. It became the standard by which all other awful, poorly implemented, ridiculously puerile “adult” IF is measured. It even inspired a MSTing co-authored by one “Drunken Bastard” who, one gathers, may go by a number of other aliases as well.

In short, this was not a game crying out for a sequel. Yet, here we have it. SMTUC is extremely vile in subject, fairly good in execution, and very (intentionally) funny, which makes it a real treat for anybody who can stomach an extremely vile game for the sake of humor. For those of you in this category, I’m loath to spoil any of the game’s wonderful, awful surprises, and I encourage you to heartily ignore any whispers of “moose cock” and suchlike that you may hear around the less reputable corners of the newsgroups. At least, ignore them until you play the game, and then don’t hesitate to join in. For those of you not in this category: listen, I already warned you once, so just stop reading already!

SMTUC opened my eyes to several things that I could have happily lived my entire life without seeing, and put several images in my head that will no doubt haunt me to my grave, but it was a good time for all that. For one thing, it lovingly parodies not only the original Stiffy (not a tough target), but also an entire subgenre of games, the redheaded stepchild of IF: “X Trek” (also not a tough target, but what the hey.) These would be pornographic pieces of IF, mostly written in AGT, devoted to detailing the sexual adventures of Star Trek characters. Such things, I’m told, exist — I’ve never sought or played one, due no doubt to my timid and puritan spirit.

In fact, there’s even an entire newsgroup devoted to them, alt.games.xtrek. I’ve never visited (see above for reasons), but rumors have filtered down to me that it’s become a hotbed… er, a haven for attempts to write legitimate IF erotica, a form of which I have never seen a successful example, though I’ll grant I haven’t looked very… er, searched with much diligence. SMTUC is not an attempt at erotica, but rather a gleeful poke (okay, I can’t keep avoiding it — double entendres ahoy from this point forward) at “adult” IF as it stands. There’s the requisite Horny Chick, whose uniform is just ever so “hot and chafey”, and who, when coaxed out of it, is more than happy to perform the most obliging acts on the PC. One of my favorite lines of hers:

>feed rohypnol to terri
"No thanks, I already took some."

There’s the aptly named Hot Chick, whose function the game makes clear:

The Hot Chick here is, as you have come to realize after innumerable
runs through the holodeck, the reward for your puzzle. The logic is
simple and always the same: jump through some hoops, get to fuck the
girl. If only real life were so easy!

Indeed. Up to this point, the game is a standard, serviceable parody of AIF, with a few gleeful jabs at people on the periphery of the r*if community, such as Espen Aarseth, Chris Crawford, and Brandon Van Every. I’m not sure which I liked more, the IF-related parodies or the AIF-related ones.

However. The game does continue beyond this point, and it’s here where we really cross the boundary into “the undiscovered” (at least by Stiffy, anyway.) I hate to spoil anything (and the following will be a medium-level plot spoiler, for those of you who care), but it’s essential to the point I want to make that following these two fairly standard AIF bangs, Stiffy fucks (and is fucked by) a giant, hairy, male Space Moose. This Moose is Stiffy’s mentor in the brave new world of homoeroticism, and thanks to the adroit manipulations of a not-at-all-neutral author, Stiffy has no choice but to enjoy it.

And so we come to the thing I liked best about SMTUC: the game’s (brace yourself) feminism. Yes, we get two scenes of the standard AIF objectification of female sexuality, though even these are subverted somewhat, given that one of the “women” is actually a rather unenthusiastic robotic hologram, and the other expresses strong dissatisfaction with the experience (“Barcelona sighs deeply, pushes you out into the hallway and snarls, ”Scuse me. I gotta go tickle the Elmo. Bye now.'”) After this, though, the Moose makes Stiffy his bitch, and suddenly the predatory PC gets scored upon rather than scoring. (Well, he still scores — one point, to be precise — but you know what I mean.)

By upending the traditionally male exercise of porno IF and making its PC the object as well as the subject of penetration (and penetration by a moose, no less), SMTUC takes a sly swipe at what’s really offensive about most AIF: the fact that it takes one of our most intimate, personal human behaviors, and reduces it to an exercise in hoop-jumping, involving thoroughly dehumanized players. Honestly, I have no idea whether this was at all Adam’s (oh sorry, “Bruce’s”) intention, but that’s how it struck me. Is it some kind of revolution or great step forward? Nah, but it was fun to see (and hear, and read about) Stiffy hoisted, as the saying goes, by his own petard.

[Oh, I’m out of paragraphs and forgot to mention the music and graphics. So: Yay music! Yay graphics! (Well, except for one particular graphic that, however appropriate it may have been, I just can’t say yay to. You know the one.)]

Rating: 9.2

VOID: CORPORATION by Jonathan Lim [Comp00]

IFDB page: Void: Corporation
Final placement: 41st place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

I like cyberpunk, though I prefer it in small doses. I’d never go on a cyberpunk reading jag, but I thoroughly enjoy the occasional William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, or Pat Cadigan novel. I also think that IF in the cyberpunk vein could be really cool — after all, if cyberpunk has one defining characteristic, it’s a certain atmosphere, and atmosphere is something that IF does very well. There is a danger, however: with IF conventions having been shaped out of a stock fantasy/D&D tradition in games like Adventure and Zork, the temptation might exist to just slap a cyberpunk sheen on standard fantasy tropes and call it good, when good is something it very probably wouldn’t be.

It’s exactly this trap into which VOID: CORPORATION falls. Instead of a shiny silver key to open a locked door, we find a “silver slab” imprinted with microcircuitry. A pistol instead of a sword, a cube with liquid metal software instead of a spell scroll, et cetera. And instead of wandering kobolds and bugbears and such, we get wandering FMI (Federal Military Intelligence) agents and “cyberpunks.” (It works much better as a label for a genre rather than for a group of people, by the way.)

Let’s talk a little bit more about those wandering monsters. Ask any Quake or Half-Life player this question: “How would it be if every time you fragged something, you dropped your weapon, and had to explicitly pick it up again before you could frag something else?” I think we both know that their answer would certainly be some variation on “It would SUCK! A lot!” Yet this is exactly how things work in V:C. At the beginning of the game, we are told this about the PC: “more people have died at his hands than braincells at a ‘Silver’ party.” Unfortunately, the guy seems to be more butterfingers than trigger-finger. Even worse, the game doesn’t even tell you that you’ve dropped your weapon — it was quite a surprise the first time I tried to shoot somebody and was told, “You don’t see any gun here.” Strange enough that the game seems to want to emulate the random-stream-of-bad-guys dynamic of action games, despite the fact that typing “kill cyberpunk” carries absolutely none of the visceral thrill of an FPS frag. But for god’s sake, why why why would this trained professional killer drop his weapon after every single kill? (Nevermind the fact that these kills happen on crowded streets and shops where nobody seems to bat an eye at gunplay.)

Adding to the irritation is the fact that certain monsters can only be killed by certain specific weapons, even though both weapons are basically guns. For example, if you try to kill a “mean-looking cyberpunk” with your shotgun, you are told “You strike at the cyberpunk with the shotgun, but your weapon bounces off it harmlessly”, almost as if you tried to clobber the guy with the stock rather than the far-less-strenuous effort of pulling the trigger. Yet a pistol takes him out without fuss? What could the difference possibly be? This bizarre behavior, coupled with the fact that every dead bad guy disappears in “a cloud of red smoke” made me feel sure that at some point the game would have the PC “discover” that he’s in a VR scenario. But no, that never happened, and the only explanation I’m left with is that some serious slippage into fantasy has occurred in these portions of the game.

Some of this behavior may be due to the fact that the game is written in AGT. I haven’t played many AGT games, since most of them seem to have came out between the fall of Infocom and the release of Lost Treasures, which is a period during which I had given IF up for dead. However, I have vague recollections of people asserting that the wandering monster stuff is default behavior in AGT, and that it has to be explicitly removed for a game not to have it. Or maybe I’m thinking of GAGS or something — they all sort of blend together for me.

In any case, there are problems in this game that definitely cannot be blamed on AGT. For example, one of the critical puzzles in the game depends on the PC going in a direction that is not indicated as available in the room description. This, mind you, when every single possible exit is listed in every other room description. Hasn’t the UN passed a resolution or something against games behaving like this? In fairness to the game, it’s true that a hint toward this action is given at one point, but in fairness to me, the descriptions do little to indicate in what location the hint is applicable, and in any case that’s still no excuse for leaving an exit unlisted when all others are. This is definitely the worst offender among the puzzles, but every aspect of Void, from the design to the writing to the plot to the coding, is tarnished with flaws. Some of these aspects have a genuine spark of excitement, or at least the possibility of such, but in the end, VOID: CORPORATION is a game that promises far more than it delivers.

Rating: 4.4

CASK by Harry M. Hardjono [Comp97]

IFDB page: CASK
Final placement: 31st place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, a game subtitled “my first stab at Interactive Fiction” doesn’t inspire much confidence. CASK is another one of those “I wrote this game to learn Inform” games that seem to be so popular this year. None of the other languages, even AGT, have inspired this particular genre of competition entry this year (with the possible exception of Mikko Vuorinen’s Leaves, written in ALAN), and I think it’s worth ruminating on the reasons for that. Inform is a sophisticated system, and there certainly have been no dearth of complaints on the IF newsgroups about how difficult it is to write programs with its C-like, object-oriented structures. Nonetheless, many people (including some of the people complaining on the newsgroups) have been able to use Inform well enough that they felt the results of even their first efforts were worthy for submission to the competition.

I think that part of the reason for this is that Inform’s libraries are comprehensive and detailed enough that even the barest shell .z5 game seems rich with possibility — dozens of verbs are implemented and ready to use, and creating simple rooms and objects is quite easy. The depth to which the Inform libraries are crafted allows even a designer’s first efforts to seem, at first blush, on a par with simpler Infocom adventures. Moreover, Inform enjoys a special place in the ftp.gmd.de hierarchy: besides being lumped in with all the good, bad, and indifferent systems in if-archive/programming, it also resides in if-archive/infocom/compilers. Consequently, anyone who came to IF by way of Infocom can stumble upon it in their first visit to the archive, simply through connecting to the most familiar word and then saying “Wow, the Infocom compiler is here?” I know that’s how it happened for me. Inform’s .z5 format is a nice piece of wish-fulfillment for all of us who wish that we could still get a job at Infocom. So just because Inform is granted this privileged association with Infocom, does that mean that a certain set of its users feel that their first efforts are on Infocom’s level, without a substantial amount of effort on the part of the author? Perhaps, but all these pieces combined don’t explain the trend I’ve seen this year. I’m not sure what the rest of the explanation is, but I do know this: I hope the trend won’t last. It doesn’t add a lot of quality interactive fiction to the archive, just a lot of shoddy Inform examples.

Which brings me up to CASK. The idea here is that you’re trapped in the basement of a winery, abducted for no apparent reason by your new employers. You must use your wits and the objects about you to make your escape. However, the real truth is that you’re trapped in a below-average interactive fiction game, which was entered in the contest for no apparent reason by its author. You must decipher vague prose, evade coding bugs, and defy logic to escape. Luckily, it doesn’t take too much time as long as you have help. Bring your walkthrough! CASK helped its author learn Inform. Let’s see that knowledge applied to the creation of a quality IF game.

Prose: There were a number of areas in which the vagueness of the prose contributed rather unfairly to the difficulty of the puzzles. [SPOILERS AHEAD] For example, at one point in the game you find a rusty saw, whose description reads “It is a rusty saw.” (Oooh! Now I understand! Glad I examined that!) When you try to cut something with the saw, the game tells you “You cut your fingers on the saw. Ouch!” Now, I’m no genius, but I do know which end of a saw to hold. It’s the handle, right? There’s nothing in the description suggesting that this saw doesn’t have a handle, so how would I cut my fingers? Is the handle sharp? Turns out you have to wrap a cloth around the saw then cut a hole with it. Though it seems to me a saw with a cloth wrapped around it isn’t going to have much cutting power. [SPOILERS END] Dealing with prose like this makes me feel like the character is supposed to be woozy and probably blind and pretty clueless as well. I hope the effect is unintentional.

Plot: Oh, I’m sorry. I gave away the plot earlier. You have to escape from a basement.

Puzzles: There are really only a few puzzles in this very short game, several of which involve having a switch in the right position (though figuring out which position is right is largely a matter of guesswork. Luckily the switch has only two positions, so even the brute-force solution doesn’t take long). There’s also a bit of outfox-the-parser, some find-the-bug, and a good deal of figure-out-what-the-hell-the-prose-means.

Technical (writing): The writing featured several entertaining errors. In one room (of the three total in the game) you can see that the room “has relatively few noteworthy” aside from “an old heavy machinery”.

Technical (coding): This game could definitely have used a great deal more testing. Object descriptions repeat when they shouldn’t, and some trapped responses behave in bizarre ways.

OVERALL: A 3.1

E-MAILBOX by Jay Goemmer [Comp97]

IFDB page: E-Mailbox
Final placement: 27th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, if there’s a prize for shortest competition game, E-MAILBOX will win it hands down. Clocking in at just under ten minutes, it barely gets off the ground before telling you either that you’ve won or that you’ve just met your death by having your body’s cells torn apart from one another. Not much of a menu, but at least either way the end comes quickly. The game purports to be “A true story based on actual events that occurred to a real individual,” but is written in a broad, exaggerated tone that is probably meant to be burlesque. It’s funny, in a limited kind of way, but it’s hard for the game to do very much when it ends so quickly.

One thing that it does do well is proves that an AGT game can hold its own in a modern competition. E-MAILBOX is short, yes, but it’s fun while it lasts. I used Robert Masenten’s AGiliTy interpreter for the first time, and found that it produced output that was well-formatted, easy-to-read, and even sometimes (gasp!) aesthetically pleasing. The game achieves a few nice special effects — nothing that couldn’t have been done with Inform or TADS (I don’t know enough about Hugo to say one way or the other) but nothing to sneeze at either — and generally works imaginatively with the text format. Of course, one wonders whether E-MAILBOX was kept so short in order to disguise the limitations of its programming system. There is virtually no navigation within the game, and the very linear design prevents most parser experimentation. Thanks to the handy AGT counter, I know that E-MAILBOX has a grand total of 4 locations, some of which only respond to one command. This game is a brief bit of fun, but the jury’s still out on whether AGT can match up to more modern systems when it comes to more substantial works.

There are some interactive fiction games that are epic, and may take even a great player a three-day weekend to complete (without looking at any hints, of course). Then there are those which could take up a day or two, and those (many of the competition games, for instance) which might fill a long lunch break. Play E-MAILBOX over a 15 minute coffee break. You’ll have some fun and still have time for a brisk walk.

Prose: I found the prose in E-MAILBOX to be pretty over-the-top. As I say, I think it was intended as burlesque, but its outrageousness seems forced. It comes across as the prose of a voice which is promising, but has not quite fully matured. It’s not exactly the sophomoric arrogance of something like Zero Sum Game — more an overly sincere zaniness.

Plot: The plot is so short and simple that it’s hard to tell much without giving away the ending. Basically, it centers around trying to send an email message. (See, I told you: short and simple.)

Puzzles: Well, I never found anything that I thought really qualified as a puzzle. The actions necessary are either entirely obvious, or entirely obscure but well-prompted by the parser.

Technical (writing): I found no errors in E-MAILBOX‘s writing.

Technical (coding): As I said above, the game does a nice job for something so short. The author makes an AGT game fun to play, which in my experience is no small feat. A well-implemented piece of work, short work though it may be.

OVERALL: A 5.8

My First Stupid Game by Dan McPherson [Comp96]

IFDB page: My First Stupid Game
Final placement: 26th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Let’s see: boring, juvenile, bad coding, irritating descriptions, dumb goals. That pretty much covers it. Basically everything about the game was at a pre-adolescent level, from the obsession with Barney the dinosaur to the fact that urinating was the game’s primary objective. It’s games like this that give AGT such a rotten reputation.

Prose: The author wisely didn’t write very much, so there isn’t that much to slam. The middle-school level of diction (“piss”, “eyeballs oozing gore,” etc.) was extremely annoying.

Difficulty: Thankfully little. The less time spent in this game the better.

Technical (coding): How about a turkey sandwich you can’t call “turkey”? How about a wooden door you can’t call “wooden”? How about a snide rejection to “get all”?

Technical (writing): Remarkably, I noticed no errors. Perhaps when this writer has something to say he’ll be able to do a creditable job of it.

Plot: I can’t see any such thing.

Puzzles: The main puzzle is “Why did he enter this in the competition?” That one is pretty hard to solve. The rest were complete clich├ęs. Feed a hungry monster. Unlock a door. Overcome the time limit with which the game started. I can’t decide which is worse.

OVERALL — A 1.6