Off the Trolley by Krisztian Kaldi [Comp05]

IFDB page: Off the Trolley
Final placement: 20th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Off the Trolley has a pretty arresting premise. You play a 65-year-old trolley driver on his last day at work. It’s your last day because your trolley line is going to be closed tomorrow, and no wonder — the line just goes back and forth between a grassy hill that used to be a movie theater and a cafe that seems to serve mainly trolley staff. But you’re obsessed with a mirror-windowed building just beyond the cinema stop, convinced that they’re building something in there “against humanity, morality, and
you.” The puzzles are all about figuring out how to crash the trolley into the building, and the game even makes a point of noting that in the last movie you saw at the now-gone theater, “Robert De Niro was acting great driving that taxi, solving all those matters so frankly.” So basically, you’re pensioner Travis Bickle in Trolley Driver.

Or at least, maybe you would be if the game hung together better. Unfortunately, it undermines its own effectiveness through a combination of awkward language, muddled tone, broken implementation, and a baffling, inconclusive ending. As you might have divined from the De Niro sentence, there are some significant problems with the English in the game. It’s not that it’s entirely broken all the time, though there are certainly plenty of broken moments. It’s more that the writing lacks grace and ease, using words in not-quite-right ways and making infelicitous diction choices throughout. For instance, here’s a sentence you’re likely to see often in the game: “Looking out, the trolley strolls steadily on its level route.” I believe what’s intended here is that you can see the landscape going by through the window, and you know that the trolley is moving at a steady pace. But “looking out” seems to apply to the trolley in the sentence, and by itself (without the addition of “the window”) it means scanning for danger. Not only that, “strolling” is not something that wheeled vehicles do — it’s a synonym for walking, with a connotation of casualness. It’s certainly possible to understand what the sentence wants to mean, but taking the journey from what it says to what it intends kicks you right out of the story.

The puzzles are enjoyable despite the language issues — well-cued and logical. However, I turned to the walkthrough after the game started spitting “[TADS-1010: object value required]” at me every turn. After that, things got stranger than I expected. Throughout the game, it’s unclear whether Off The Trolley wants to be a gentler version of Taxi Driver, revealing the psychosis of its protagonist, or whether in fact we would find something horrible within the mirrored building. But after I followed the walkthrough to avoid the TADS errors, I reached the ending, which resolves into… neither option? Instead, it suddenly shifts point-of-view for an Aisle-ish one-move experience, leading to various endings that ignore the protagonist’s arc altogether, stepping outside it to resolve absolutely nothing. These endings are all pretty much variations on a theme, and none of them are satisfying at all, instead leaving us hanging… sometimes literally.

Rating: 6.4

PTBAD 3 by Jonathan Berman as “Xorax” [Comp04]

IFDB page: PTBAD 3
Final placement: 35th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I saw the title, I thought this game was going to be a sequel to Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die. Because the acronym seemed to be missing a number of letters, I thought it was going to be a badly-done, amateurish sequel, but a sequel nonetheless. For those unfamiliar with this long-standing IF in-joke, in 1996 Rob Noyes released a very simple game called Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die. The title is more or less also the walkthrough.

There are other ultra-minimalist joke games, but PUTPBAD attained iconic status because of the humor of its writing and the sheer ludicrousness of its premise. The joke inspired one sequel by Noyes, which fleshed out the simplicity of the original by adding some more funny stuff. It also inspired a much better joke, Pick Up The Phone Booth And Aisle, in which a huge number of IF authors collaborated to combine the original with the “one-move IF” concept pioneered by Sam Barlow in his game Aisle.

Well, if this game was meant to connect to any of those, it fails completely, and consequently, I have no idea what the title is supposed to represent. In fact, representation is a vexed issue for the entire game, which bears more resemblance to gibberish like Comp2000’s Stupid Kittens in that all of it seems like offhand, random, unconnected thoughts that make no sense whatsoever. To borrow a phrase from the game itself: “Rather disgusting dada surealist [sic] foolishness.” PTBAD 3 offers a badly-spelled, creakily-coded trip through what purports to be someone’s mind, perhaps someone who was the victim of a severe closed head injury. It’s got a maze, toilet humor, and a complete lack of proofreading. It’s quite a waste of time, though it’s short enough that it at least doesn’t waste much of it.

I wonder, though: why does PUTPBAD work when this game doesn’t? After all, in Baf’s Guide, Carl Muckenhoupt dismisses the original PUTPBAD in almost the same terms (“Would be a waste of time, were it not so short as to be almost nonexistent.”) They’re both tiny, nonsensical games that discard nearly all IF conventions. The difference, I think, is craft. Even though it only consists of maybe 200 words beyond the standard Inform libraries, PUTPBAD is clever, solidly coded, and impeccably written. PTBAD 3, on the other hand, seems as though it couldn’t care less about its prose or its code. And because of that, neither could I.

Rating: 2.9