Here we have what has to be the most audacious game idea in the 2000 IF competition. OTOS reverses the typical roles of game and player — it asks you where it is, what it can see, and where the exits are, and then issues you a command based on that information. Then you’re supposed to respond to the command, then it gives you another command, etc. — the game takes the role of the player and the player takes the role of the game.
Now this is a gutsy idea. Crazy, but gutsy. It blurs the line between the pleasures of playing IF and the pleasures of writing IF in ways that weren’t a lot of fun to experience, but might make excellent fodder for an entry to that academic journal that Dennis Jerz has posted about once or twice in the last few months. I was initially so taken aback by the idea that I just kept feeding blank lines to the game — its response commands were along the lines of “scream”, “sleep”, “xyzzy”, and finally, “quit.” Then, trying to get into the spirit of things, I typed “Kensington Gardens” and a bit more Trinity stuff from memory. The game, to my surprise, did not follow a pre-scripted routine, but tried things like “open Gardens” and “talk to Gardens” and such — still fairly nonsensical, but at least somewhat adapted to what I had typed.
In fact, it appears I could have done some fancier stuff, but I found the instruction manual (not to mention what few other sentences the game provided) pretty incomprehensible, so I didn’t even try it. Even if I had, though, I think I would still have quickly found myself bored, because the game so radically alters the balance I’m used to feeling when playing IF. Now that I was in the position of outputting the majority of the text, knowing that the only one listening was a brainless automaton, the whole thing started to feel like a major waste of time.
So playing OTOS wasn’t something I enjoyed. However, it occurs to me that a program like this has the potential to be an excellent beta-testing tool, precisely because it is so brainless. In fact, I tried feeding it a little bit of information from Being Andrew Plotkin, and it found a bug almost instantly! (You can pick up the copier in the initial scene. Who knew?) In its current form, this game still wouldn’t even be all that useful for that purpose, because it expects output in much too rigid a form, and because it is ill adapted to sudden changes in circumstance, or even to things like finding objects inside other objects. Still, it might catch a few things that humans wouldn’t catch, because most humans (Michael Kinyon and a few blessed others excepted) wouldn’t think to try the sort of senseless commands that OTOS attempts.
In the past few years, the last comp game I’ve played has always been one of the best entries in the entire competition. 2000 broke that streak, but it also established the greatest volume of quality output I’ve ever seen in an IF comp. Even many of the games that I didn’t personally care for, I found interesting or worthy as ideas. So perhaps it’s appropriate that my long and frantic road of judging ends with this game, whose idea is so daring and out there that I can’t help but respect it a little, even though it didn’t really show me a good time.