Lock & Key by Adam Cadre [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2003.]

IFDB Page: Lock & Key

Death Becomes You

[NOTE: Lock & Key has a twist right at the beginning, and I’m going to give it away because it’s not practical to discuss the game without doing so. So if you haven’t played it yet and you want to be surprised, go play it before reading this, at least up to the twist anyway.]

I love editing SPAG, but the job does have its down-sides. For instance, I’m frequently obliged to read reviews of games I haven’t played yet. Most of the time, this isn’t much of a problem, since SPAG reviews are required to be spoiler-free. However, there is a small, occasional section of the ‘zine called SPAG Specifics, wherein reviewers are allowed to spoil as much as they like in the interest of promoting specific, detailed discussion about particular games. When I get a review for this section, I need to read it whether I’ve played the game in question or not.

That’s exactly what happened to me with Lock & Key — I’d played the game enough to get beyond the initial twist, see the setup, say “Cool”, and vaguely resolve to play it whenever I found the time. Shortly afterward, Eytan Zweig submitted a thoughtful, fairly critical review of the game for SPAG Specifics, and I decided that I wanted to wait a while to play the game after that, so that the review would fade enough in memory that it wouldn’t color my perceptions. Now it’s been about a year since that issue, Lock & Key has just won a handful of XYZZY Awards, and I have a new laptop I needed to test this past weekend; the stars were aligned, and I finished the game.

I wasn’t disappointed. Cadre’s writing shines as usual, as does his knack for giving every game a fresh angle. In this one, you play a prison designer and security expert in a mildly jokey pseudo-medieval milieu. Your job is to craft the perfect sequence of death-traps for the King’s dungeon, enough to defeat even the hardiest adventurer who might try to escape it. If you succeed, you’ll make a fortune and be able to retire. If you fail, well, you get beheaded. Those medieval managers really knew how to motivate their employees.

The meat of the game is its one and only puzzle, the one for which it earned the XYZZY for Best Individual Puzzle: setting the traps. It’s not that setting the traps themselves is all that difficult, but choosing the right ones… ah, that’s another matter. See, once you’ve finished constructing your ideal dungeon, it is put to the test by Boldo, a thick-thewed adventurer who, in the best IF fashion, seems to have an endless inventory of items that happen to counteract your traps perfectly. Every time he encounters a death-trap, you get to see exactly how he defeats it, and this in turn allows you to begin scheming about how you might deprive him of that method. Like Varicella, the game is highly iterative — the chances you’ll beat it the first time through are virtually nil, and this is by design. Instead, Boldo’s many triumphs allow you to make your own advances towards building the perfect dungeon upon restarting.

It’s a deeply rewarding puzzle of marvelously interlocking elements. Not only does it operate on several levels to begin with, it builds on itself to make lots of little “aha!” moments combine into a greater experience of overall insight. In addition, the game’s use of graphics do it a great service, presenting a clean and attractive game board to help players to see exactly what choices they’ve made.

My favorite part of the puzzle, though, is the hinting. The prose that describes Boldo conquering your traps is funny and enjoyable to read on its own merits, but it also frequently contains wonderfully subtle hints about how the dungeon might be better constructed. For the sake of spoiler-avoidance, I won’t quote any of those hints here, but I will say that they capture the feel that Infocom at its best was able to provide, of prose that is just as good on a game level as it is on a story level.

So Lock & Key wholly deserved its XYZZY for Best Puzzle. The other awards, I’m not so sure about. At the end of the XYZZYs, Lock & Key went away with the prizes for both Best Individual NPC (Boldo) and Best NPCs in general. The fact that it won these accolades for NPCs with whom (for the most part) the player cannot directly interact AT ALL is rather astonishing. I’m not sure what to make of it. Perhaps writing is just much, much more important than coding when it comes to NPCs, at least as far as the XYZZY voters are concerned. Certainly Boldo reacts to the traps placed by the player, and the descriptions of his reactions are all great and funny, but that’s a very limited sort of interaction, nothing at all like the dozens and dozens of responses that make up the typical fully-fleshed IF NPC. I wonder: can great writing alone make a great NPC?

Maybe sometimes it can, but I’ve yet to see it. Certainly this game’s excellent writing didn’t make Boldo an excellent NPC. He’s simply a cipher, an intentionally broad cliche whom the PC never meets, instead only watching cut-scenes of him on a sort of magic TV. He’s entertaining enough for the purpose he serves, but he hardly feels like a deeply implemented NPC, though he’s the deepest of the bunch. The other NPCs — the King, a gladiator named Musculo, and a host of others who appear in brief cameos — are present only in cut-scenes. The only exception to this, the only NPC who even responds to “ASK”, is the guard at the beginning. His response: “No talking in the dungeon!”

I would contend that the really remarkable character in Lock & Key is the player character. What’s remarkable about him? [1] Why, his cleverness, of course — his ability to string together just the right combination of traps to defeat Boldo. More to the point, what’s remarkable is the way in which the game constructs this cleverness. Like Primo Varicella, the PC of Lock & Key is what I’ll call an accretive PC, meaning that he becomes more and more himself with each iteration of the game, as the player’s knowledge accretes.

In most IF games, your character will never live up to you — it will never be able to do most of the things you can think of, nor say most of the things you can say. This is still true of Lock & Key and Varicella, but in an important way, what’s also true of those games is that you must live up to your character. You’re told a salient quality about the PC at the outset of the game — his expertise in dungeon design, or his Machiavellian plan to take over the regency — and then you must take him through one iteration after another until you yourself have attained enough of that quality to guide the PC to a successful conclusion. When you finally do reach that conclusion, it’s as if you’ve finally learned the real story, and all the failed attempts leading up to it exist only in shadowy parallel universes. This is who the character was all along — it just took you a while to catch up with him.

Of course, the case could be made that all IF PCs are like this to some degree. That may be true, but then again it’s de rigueur in most other IF to avoid game designs in which the PC must learn something by dying. Graham Nelson even made it Rule Number Three in his Player’s Bill Of Rights. [2] Of course, when a player must be able to step successfully into the PC’s viewpoint without any previous knowledge whatsoever, it becomes rather hard to give that PC any sort of expertise in the game world, which is why we so frequently see PCs who suffer from amnesia, or are fish-out-of-water, or other such tricks. Lock & Key and Varicella break this rule so brilliantly that it doesn’t even seem like a valid rule anymore. Why shouldn’t the player learn from past lives? After all, unless the PC is placed in some sort of contrived situation to deprive her of all her natural knowledge, she’ll inevitably know more than the player does the first time that player begins the game.

After a while, the requirement to match the PC’s knowledge with the player’s can begin to feel like a bit of a cage, and the most common contortions an IF game goes through to live inside it (such as amnesia) have long since lost their appeal. Even the freshest ones can still feel a bit tired and gimmicky unless done exactly right. The accretive PC is one key to this cage — it’s wonderfully refreshing to play a character who’s really good at something, and even better to become good at it yourself. Of all the jail-breaks that happen in Lock & Key, this one is the most satisfying.

[1] I’m referring to the PC as a male for convenience’s sake — I don’t recall its gender ever being specified in the game.

[2] See his excellent article The Craft Of Adventure, available in the info directory of the IF Archive.

Identity by Dave Bernazzani [Comp04]

IFDB page: Identity
Final placement: 15th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Man, what did I say about the doomed starships with the cryogenic pods? Just two reviews ago I was talking about how they’re the hot new comp game setting, and now here comes another one. Crazy zeitgeist. No doubt each of these authors is bummed to have somehow locked into the concept that’s freakishly dominating the comp this year, because the games are inevitably going to be compared to each other, and when there’s a comparison, somebody suffers. In this case, the game doing the most suffering will certainly be Getting Back To Sleep, but between the two remaining contenders, Identity and Splashdown, the contest is much closer.

They’re both implemented solidly enough to be quite playable, but then again they’re both plagued with numerous typos, formatting errors, and minor bugs. Neither one manages to do anything particularly original with the “crash survivor” plot, though both provide a series of relatively enjoyable (if rote) puzzles. In the end, though, I’m afraid I have to give the nod to Splashdown, because that game just seems to be a little more interested in telling a coherent story than Identity is. Splashdown‘s comparative richness of story and setting arises from fillips like its PDF feelie, but also from the choice of story elements like a more interesting origin for its craft’s demise.

One of the weakest points of Identity is actually one of its main points: the PC’s amnesia. Even setting aside the fact that the amnesiac IF PC is an exhausted cliché, there is no reason that I can see for this PC to be thus stricken. From the first 30 seconds of the game, we can piece together that the PC is a guy who was on a starship in cryogenic sleep, and that the starship has now crashed. After playing through the whole thing and encountering several scenes where the game tries to fill in more memories, what we know about the PC by the end is… that he’s a guy whose starship crashed.

In contrast to a game like Square Circle, where the revelation of the PC’s identity puts something at stake due to the memories and knowledge about him possessed by various characters in the game’s milieu, Identity‘s PC wanders around on a planet full of strangers who seem actively and unnaturally disinterested in who he is. His true name matters to no one, even himself, and thus concealment of it buys the story nothing. The game would have worked exactly the same way if the PC’s memories had been complete and intact at the beginning of the story, and I’m not sure why the game gives him amnesia at all, except to conform to some misguided notion that all good PC’s don’t know who they are.

Either that, or perhaps the original plan for the game included some subplot in which the character’s identity mattered, a subplot that may have been cut to meet the comp deadline. In this latter case, though, the amnesia should have been excised. It wouldn’t have been too hard — just the removal of a few extra bits of prose and a retitling.

I’m more inclined to suspect that the amnesia was introduced in order to conform to a sort of 80’s old-school blueprint, because the game itself feels like a direct descendant of some of the sub-Infocom work from that decade. Everything feels very mechanical, including the people and animals. For instance, there’s a yak in the game, but the writing does very little to evoke anything yak-like about it, and instead it behaves somewhat like a horse, somewhat like a cat, but mostly like a yak-shaped car whose ignition key must be obtained (naturally) by solving a puzzle.

This puzzle, like many of the puzzles in the game, involves observing what few things are implemented and figuring out how they might interact with each other in game-logic. Not natural logic, of course, or else the solution to the yak puzzle would have worked equally well in another puzzle with a virtually identical objective. This approach isn’t my favorite — I prefer the realism that’s come in with the best IF of the last decade. Still, it’s enjoyable enough for what it is, and one area in which this game deserves praise is in its handling of unexpected verbs.

For instance, as an antidote to amnesia I tried REMEMBER, and was quite pleased to see that the game handles it (albeit with a default response.) Elsewhere, I found myself in a chair with some safety straps I could fasten, and smiled when SECURE STRAPS worked as expected. This game has clearly been tested, and that counts for a lot with me. Unfortunately, the testing didn’t quite weed out all the bugs, both in coding and in prose mechanics, so another round is required. Identity isn’t an unpleasant way to spend an hour or so, but for me it felt mostly like a missed opportunity.

Rating: 7.8

Zero One by Edward Plant [Comp04]

IFDB page: Zero One
Final placement: 31st place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Because I am a whiny malcontent who is never satisfied, I’m beginning this review with another complaint about Alan‘s transcripting capability, or lack thereof. Last year, I moaned about the fact that Alan doesn’t offer a SCRIPT command, and therefore I was having to periodically copy and paste from the Glk scrollback window into a text editor in order to have a transcript for reference while I wrote my reviews. In response, a few friendly people informed me that if I start the Alan interpreter from the command line with a “-l” switch, it will indeed log a transcript.

This, though a little annoying, is happy news. I tested the method this year, and it works! Sort of. For no reason that I can ascertain, the transcripts are saved in an extremely goofy format, with one line per turn, a line that begins with output generated by the game, then lists the name of the current room, and ends with whatever I type at the prompt. Thus, the slightly more readable parts of the transcript look like this:

There is nothing special about the door.Cell> x walls
‘walls’? I don’t know that word.Cell> n
The door’s closed.Cell> open door
It’s locked.Cell> unlock door
You can’t unlock that!Cell> knock on door
You knock on the door.Cell> z

The less readable parts, which are predominant, occur when the game has anything substantial to say — they stretch off into the distance or wrap (depending on the text editor) to form a busy jumble of unformatted verbiage. Also, on a more minor point, I don’t get to choose the filename for the transcript, and Alan uses an inexplicably super-funky naming convention that gave my log files titles like “011100149966.log.” This transcripting capability is better than nothing, but the quality is still unacceptable. Come on, Alan. Transcripting is kind of a basic IF function, going way back to the 80s. Help a critic out.

Now with that screed out of the way, on to the game. I’m afraid that I don’t have many good things to say about it either. Zero One (or 01, as it likes to nickname itself) is an extremely silly game, cliche-hampered, lacking any sort of logical story, bug-ridden, and incomplete. If you were setting out to write a totally hackneyed IF game, what would be the starting location and situation of the PC? If you said “stricken with amnesia and locked in a cell,” you are today’s winner! That’s exactly the story with the PC of 01, but unlike, say, Square Circle, which builds an honest-to-gosh story around this situation, this game is totally uninterested in revealing the PC’s actual identity or the circumstances the led up to his incarceration.

Oh, it makes a couple of halfhearted gestures at explanation, but these are totally insufficient to actually build any real understanding, and besides, they’re totally overwhelmed by the weight of random events and situations. A good example is the kitchen drawer, in which you’ll find a dead fish along with the cutlery. Why? Aw, who cares? What bits of information do exist are burdened by a juvenile fascination with weapons and gore, like the pool of blood and splattered head that awaits the PC just outside his cell, or like this, after you find a handgun (complete with make and model info) and magazine of ammo:

> put magazine in beretta
Lock and Load!

Bro-THER. Throw in a little queer-baiting, and you’ve got a game that just screams “12-year-old male.”

The game is good for a few unintentional laughs, though, due both to its harebrained shadow of a plot and to its buggy implementation. A great example is the doors to the prison, which are secured by a padlock that, to the game’s own surprise, can be unlocked with the first key you find (the bracketed comment is from me):

> unlock green door
There is a padlock on the door and you don't have a key. [Actually, I

> unlock green door with key
The green door is now unlocked.

Sadly, this change just makes the game channel one of the maze rooms from Zork — going through the door will just loop you back into the current room. Oh, and I also managed to crash the interpreter entirely, though I’m not sure whether this was 01‘s fault or Alan’s. I write comments at the prompt as I go through the game, and after a particularly long line, the interpreter itself just up and shut down, much to my surprise. Luckily, I’d just saved my game, so I didn’t lose much.

Actually, I wouldn’t have lost much if I had just stopped right there and never opened the game again. The ending text insists that “ZERO ONE is not yet finished… Expect a return!”, but given the quality level of this game, that seems more like a threat than a promise.

Rating: 2.8

Square Circle by Eric Eve [Comp04]

IFDB page: Square Circle
Final placement: 5th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’ve been an IF Comp judge for a long time now, and the autumn events of my last ten years are all tied up with comp games. I’m pretty much always playing an IF game on Halloween — I particularly remember the supremely un-spooky Mystery Manor. Similarly, I have a strong memory of playing and reviewing Castle Amnos on Election Day 2000. Now it’s November 4th, 2004, two days after an election whose results disappointed me very much, and the game that marks the occasion is Square Circle.

It’s fitting, really, because the game’s theme feels both political and timely. The PC awakens in a cell, his memory wiped clean (yes, it’s YAPCWA, Yet Another PC With Amnesia), imprisoned for no reason that he can remember. Further exploration reveals that in the PC’s world, criminal justice has adopted a Kafkaesque tone: criminals are defined as those people being punished for a crime, and therefore if you are in jail, you are by definition a criminal. With my government using a holding pen on foreign soil to detain alleged “enemy combatants” who have been charged with no crime and who have no access to due process, and with the authority behind this plan having been swept back into office by the popular will, the game feels eerily relevant.

The difference, of course, is that the Guantanamo prisoners won’t win their release with puzzle solutions, no matter how clever. Then again, the game’s “justice” system is meant to be based on pure rationalism (though of course it’s a through-the-looking-glass kind of rationalism), and nobody ever accused George Bush of being overly beholden to rationality. In any case, Square Circle ties its themes together quite neatly, with the emphasis on rationalism gone horribly awry reflected both in the PC’s imprisonment and in the paradoxical geometry puzzle that holds the key to his escape.

The game’s design is similarly good overall. The geometry theme carries over into the design of rooms and objects, with squares and circles repeating all over the place, not to mention cubes and spheres. The rhythmic echoing of these shapes helped me begin to wrap my mind around the game’s titular problem, and while I stumbled into the beginning of my solution by dumb luck, I was thrilled to figure the rest of it out by myself. I was even more surprised to discover that I hadn’t solved the game’s central puzzle, but in fact opened up a much larger vista of puzzle and story. Many of those puzzles had multiple solutions available, all of which made at least some sense. Options like that always make a game more fun.

The plot unfolded satisfyingly, teasingly doling out hints about the PC’s identity. By now, the amnesiac PC is a hoary cliche, but Square Circle felt a bit fresher than the average YAPCWA game by virtue of a couple of little plot twists. Unfortunately, one weaker puzzle undermined the game’s totalitarian feel by enlisting the elements as co-conspirators against the PC. It’s one thing when other people create a maddening environment for a character, but unless those people have a weather-control device, bringing something like the wind into the equation is a dirty trick.

The other serious issue with the game’s design has to do with one of its dead ends. I quite liked the way that Square Circle allows you to do utterly dumb things, and the consequence is generally instant death. However, there’s one path that puts you into an unwinnable situation which does not announce itself as unwinnable in any way, and in fact teasingly offers a repetition of the solvable opening scenario. I wasted precious time flailing around here before turning to the hints and finding that I needed to restart. I don’t care for this sort of design — if you’re going to end my game, just end it.

Speaking of that hint system, it was generally quite well-done. The hints were menu-based and Invisiclues-style, with enough contextual awareness to only offer hints on the problems currently facing the PC. I certainly leaned on the hints quite a bit, and found them quite adept at providing just enough nudge. Unfortunately, I did run into a problem at the very end of my game session, where I was faced with a roadblock and the game failed to offer me any hints about it. A couple of other glitches afflicted the game, too, including some typos, and a bit of freaky parsing:

>draw square around circle
What do you want to draw that on?

What do you want to note?

>get note

What just happened? I still don’t know. On the other hand, the game pulls off some amazing parsing tricks when it gives the PC a marking pen and some paper. In his attempt to create a square circle (as demanded by the entity holding him prisoner), the PC can draw a square, and a circle. Even better than that, he can draw whatever he likes. For instance, the game responds to DRAW CARTOON with “You draw a cartoon on the note,” and from that point forward, CARTOON becomes a synonym for NOTE. I thought that this was really an amazingly cool bit of parser trickery.

Lots of other little conveniences were on hand as well, though I suspect many of the ones that reach for player-friendliness are already built into TADS 3. I particularly liked X WALLS, which provided an actual description for each wall of a room, creating a wonderfully complete feeling for the game’s world. In fact, some of the game’s description levels go intoxicatingly deep:

>x guardian
The guardian is a lithe, athletic-looking man in his mid-thirties,
with short fair hair and a hard, unsympathetic face. He’s dressed in
a pale grey uniform [...]

>x grey
It’s a drab, though reasonably smart, uniform consisting of pale grey
trousers and a tunic of the same colour. The tunic has a pair of
breast pockets, with a badge above the left one.

>x badge
The badge bears the inscription NEW ENLIGHTENMENT PUNISHMENT SERVICE
and depicts a set of prison gates and a sword.

>x sword
The highly stylized sword is depicted hilt up and to the left, with
its blade interlacing the prison gates.

Wow. I mean, wow. I just adore that kind of thing. I also love when that kind of largesse is applied to a game’s overall design, providing a nice long playing experience… except when the game gets entered in the comp. Square Circle suffers from being oversized for a comp game — not heinously so, but I think I was only about 75% through when the two-hour bell rang. So that’ll hurt its rating with me. Otherwise, though it’s a little unpolished in places, this game offers an intriguing scenario and some enjoyable puzzles, and I recommend it, especially if it sees a revised post-comp edition.

Rating: 8.1

Bio by David Linder [Comp03]

IFDB page: Bio
Final placement: 25th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

NOTE: I’m going to be spoiling the first puzzle, but don’t worry, you’d never have solved it without the walkthrough anyway.

Somebody please MST this game. It’s just so perfect for it — terrible but in very entertaining ways. Take, for instance, the first puzzle. You awaken inside your room in the scientific complex (yes, it’s a scientific complex game. I was so worried Comp03 wouldn’t have more than one!) to find gas seeping in under the door. What kind? Hard to tell when the game doesn’t know the word “gas”. There’s a bandage handy, but the bandage can’t be stuffed under the door (“I don’t see any door here.”), nor can it be worn on the face, mouth, or nose (because the game doesn’t know any of those words.) Simply entering WEAR BANDAGE yields the mystifying response, “You put the bandage on your arm and wrap it around the cut.” Cut? X ME shows no sign of injury — turns out that you acquire the cut much later in the game, but the bandage always assumes you have it already.

Anyway, back to the gas problem. Here’s the room description:

Your Room
Your standing in your room or apartment (whichever you want to call it). It's about the size of a large bedroom, complete with all the furnishings. There's a small bed in the southwest corner with a nightstand next to it. On the other side of the room is a small TV. There is a dresser along the west wall. The exit lies to the north.

Rather than focus on the non-contraction in the first word, I’ll try to concentrate on the puzzle. “I don’t know the word ‘dresser'” tells us that the dresser isn’t implemented. The nightstand and bed are no help. Examining the TV gives us this very amusing response:

>x tv
On the screen, you can see that it's a Fastlane rerun. Since it's
your favorite episode, you watch for a few minutes.

The room is nearly filled with gas!

Man, the PC must really love that show! HOLD BREATH predictably fails. (“I don’t know the word ‘hold’.”) Oh, and just walking through the exit engulfs the PC in a cloud of lethal gas. Well, guess we’d better consult the walkthrough.

Hey, the first command in the walkthrough is OPEN ARMOIRE. Now, the question must be asked: WHAT FREAKING ARMOIRE?! It wouldn’t be this dresser, would it? No, of course not, since the game never refers to it as an armoire. The PC must just be so familiar with the armoire that he no longer notices it when he looks at the room, instead just thinking of it as “all the furnishings,” and therefore it is known only to those players who have read the walkthrough. Those lucky people can open it and find — how convenient! — a gas mask. No clothes or anything, but sure enough, this janitor is well-prepared for gas attacks, thanks to the gear he keeps inside the rustic antique that he’s somehow hauled into his onsite living quarters, which presumably are necessary due to the remoteness and/or secrecy of the scientific complex, 25 long miles away from the nearest town.

Later we find out that somebody else in the complex also has an armoire. Maybe this complex devotes itself equally to scientific discovery and antiquing. Anyhow, that entertaining exercise in puzzle-solving is entirely emblematic of the level of gameplay on offer in Bio, where slipshod coding, dreadful spelling, simplistic themes, juvenile imagery, and ghastly design all jostle for pride of place at each moment.

I dunno, though. Compared to some of the games in this comp, Bio just charms me a little. I mean, yeah, it’s sort of fascinated with blood and disease, and heaven knows it’s loaded with clichés, but it’s not outright nasty like Lardo was. And yeah, maybe its prose is in serious need of proofreading, but it’s nowhere near as dire as that of Amnesia. It’s at least nominally interactive, unlike RPG, and has a modicum of story, unlike Little Girl.

It’s the right size for the comp, and while it certainly lacks any sort of testing, it is finishable (with the walkthrough, anyway.) Don’t get me wrong, Bio is nothing like a good game, but it feels well-intentioned to me, more or less. I think it’s possible that some future work from this author may end up being pretty good. That’ll go some ways towards living down the hilarious MSTing of this game that simply must happen.

Rating: 3.5

Risorgimento Represso by Michael Coyne [Comp03]

IFDB page: Risorgimento Represso
Final placement: 2nd place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, first things first. It’s time to welcome a talented new author. Michael Coyne has made a great game, so well-written and well-implemented that it’s almost always a joy to play. It’s on a par with most Infocom games, and exceeds them at many points. There’s cleverness and panache to spare, and the puzzles are mostly interesting and fun. It’s not perfect, of course. There are a couple of under-implemented commands (like LOOK BEHIND), a hackneyed puzzle or two, and some jokes (like the cheese one) are pressed rather too hard. It also could use a more compelling title.

Still, on the whole, this is a satisfying and enormously fun game. Well, what I saw of it, anyway. And therein lies the problem. I spent the last review (of Domicile) bemoaning games that are entered in the competition when they’re unfinished, undertested, and unproofread. Now, of course, I’m immediately hit with the opposite problem: a game that is exquisitely finished, betatested, and error-checked, but is still inappropriate for the competition, because it does not even come close to fitting within a two hour play session. When my two hours with RR ran out, I think I was maybe a third of the way through, and that was with a lot of leaning on the hints towards the end. Sure, it was fun while I played it, but I knew almost from the beginning that there was no way I would solve it in the allotted time, and I felt annoyed and disappointed by that. In my opinion, this game is no more appropriate for the competition than was the unfinished Atomic Heart, or the excruciatingly poor Amnesia. It’s too big. It is just too big.

I’ve written out and rehearsed my objections to overlarge comp games so many times that they almost feel self-evident to me now. But I realize that my experience doesn’t match with most people’s, so for those just tuning in, here are a few of my problems with giant comp games. First of all, the comp is a high-pressure playing time. I really try to finish all the games in the judging period, and to write a substantial review after each game. Plus, I have a life, so that means that my IFComp time is squeezed in at the edges of my life — lunch hours, laptop time on the bus to and from work, or late nights after my wife has gone to bed. It’s frustrating to carve out this time and then realize that it’s still not even close to sufficient for the game I’m playing.

Secondly, there’s a more insidious problem with trying to squeeze a big game into two hours. When I had only a half-hour left and huge swaths of the game left undiscovered, I turned to the hints. I did this not because I couldn’t have solved the puzzles on my own. Maybe I could have. But not in half an hour, and I wanted to see more of the game. Turning to the hints, though, does a disservice to a game like this. Well-constructed puzzles ought to be experienced fully, relished, and a well-written world should be enjoyed at leisure rather than rushed through. Trying to play this game in two hours will ruin it for many players, players who could have enjoyed it to its fullest potential were it released outside the comp.

Moreover, how many people are likely to come back and finish the game after the comp period is over? For all the comp games I’ve meant to do that with, I’ve almost never followed through, because after the comp is a frenzy of reviewing excitement, and then come the holidays, and busy times at work, and… whoosh. The game is well off my radar by the time I actually have time to play it. Then there’s the fact that I find it difficult to give a reasonable evaluation to a game that remains mostly unseen by me — it’s like trying to review a movie after watching the trailer and the first 20 minutes. These aren’t the only reasons I don’t like huge comp games, but that’s enough for now.

Still, with all that said, can I understand why somebody, especially a first-time author, would enter their huge game in the comp, even knowing all of the attendant problems? Of course I can. The fact that RR is a comp entry perfectly illustrates the problem with the current IF scene. The annual IF Competition is simply too important, too powerful. It’s become a cynosure whose glare eclipses everything else in the IF world. I love the competition — I think that much is clear from my ongoing participation in it — but I have come to really hate the way it’s turned into a gravity well for games. If you enter your game in the competition, it’s bound to get at least a dozen reviews, be played by the majority of the community, and maybe even become a talking point in IF discussions for years to come. Widespread familiarity in the community also may give it an edge in the XYZZY voting.

If you release your game outside the comp, what happens? Usually, almost nothing. Some games get released to not even a single, solitary post in the newsgroups, let alone reviews or discussion. Even humongous, excellent games like 1893, the products of hundreds of hours of work, sometimes cause hardly a ripple. So of course tons of games get into the competition that aren’t finished, or are way too big. How else to reap in attention what you’ve sown in work? I try to remedy the situation somewhat by continuing to release SPAG and hassling people to write reviews for it, but games routinely go a year or more without a SPAG review, and some games (Bad Machine comes to mind) seem never to get reviewed at all. It’s maddening to me, and I don’t know what to do about it, but I have to say I’m at the point where I’m seriously considering no longer writing comp game reviews, turning my review energies instead to non-comp games so that they’ll at least get attention and evaluation from somebody.

For this year, though, I’m committed, which brings me to the problem of score. From what I saw of this game, I thought it was outstanding, worthy of a 9.5 or above. But I just cannot bring myself to give it that score, if for no other reason than because I don’t want games that shouldn’t be in the comp to do well, since all that will do is encourage more of them. On the other hand, can I really justify giving a low score to such an obviously high-quality product, especially when I’ve already given Scavenger, another too-big game, a high score? Well, the difference between this and Scavenger is that with Scavenger, I felt like I’d seen the majority of the game, that the major puzzles were solved or almost-solved, and that most of what remained was denouement. With RR, though, I felt like I’d eaten the appetizer but had to leave before the entree.

My compromise is this. I’ll make it clear in my review that this is a great game, worthy of any IF devotee’s attention. Play it sometime when you can really enjoy it, linger over its many pleasures, and let the puzzles percolate in your head. Play it without a time limit. Savor it like I couldn’t today. Don’t let my low score fool you — it’s eminently worth playing, but I saw a third of it, and so I’m giving it a third of the score it probably would have gotten from me had it been the right size for the comp.

Rating: 3.2

Amnesia by Dustin Rhodes as crazydwarf [Comp03]

IFDB page: Amnesia
Final placement: 27th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Wow. Well. This one was… painful. Just abysmal. Really, really bad. When I played Curse Of Manorland, I kept having the urge to MST it in my comments, but my comments for this one mostly just looked like, “Aaaahhhh! The PAIN!” I mean, I don’t even know where to begin. It seemed almost like one of those joke games, you know, the ones where the joke is, “Look how bad this game is! Isn’t that hilarious?” I never really thought those joke games were very funny, but I don’t think this one is even joking. Here’s the first room:

A cool beach where you should have washed ashore and not have been
able to remember anything because you where supposed to have amnesia,
which you didn't, which completly ruins the whole storyline this game
was going to have, so now the auther will have to make a game up on
the spot, enjoy. By the way if you want to learn about me just type
about. Their is a huge rock sitting here innocently.

See what I mean about not knowing where to begin? The author says he’s in high school, and in fact writes, “I might I win the award for youngest IF writer, maybe that will get me a couple of points from the voters.” Sorry, dude. David Glasser wrote VirtuaTech at 14, and it’s miles better than this. Hell, Ian Finley wrote Babel at 17. Besides, my reaction to this game wasn’t “Oh, it’s pretty good for a high schooler,” but rather, “Holy crap, something this subliterate came from somebody who’s made it all the way to high school??”

Here are some things this game needs: Spell-check. Proofreading (to catch things like “Their is a huge rock,” which spell-check will miss.) Descriptions that care enough to actually, y’know, describe, and to write out their words instead of “the center of the town with houses NE, NW. To the W is a volcano, to the N is a mountain, and to the E is a jungle.” Even the game itself knows it sucks, because it mentions the fact every couple of rooms. Well, games that suck… suck. They shouldn’t be released. Show a little self-respect, and a little respect for the people you’re asking to spend time on your work. Damn.

Rating: 1.6

Shattered Memory by Akbarr [Comp01]

IFDB page: Shattered Memory
Final placement: DISQUALIFIED from the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition for not being an original work — it’s a translation of the Spanish language game Olvido Mortal.

The basic idea behind Shattered Memory is a sound one. The game starts off with an amnesiac PC waking up to an unfamiliar situation, and although this is one of the most hackneyed tricks in IF, the game comes up with a unique reason for it, which counts for a lot. The point of the whole exercise, predictably, is to find out why your memories are gone, and then resolve your situation once that reason is uncovered. Towards this end, the game provides a couple of special verbs: RECALL and SUMMARY. RECALL by itself may bring back some sort of recollection, but it may not; more often, RECALL <topic> is what’s necessary.

Even then, the things you can recall are few and far between (as it should be for an amnesiac), though sometimes you can remember more about the same topic once you’ve found out more on other fronts. SUMMARY provides a rundown of the various things you’ve been able to recall, and may provide some clues on its own. So as amnesia games go, this one isn’t too bad, doling out information at a reasonable pace and providing an interesting enough reason for the lack of memory. The game also provides a fairly useful conversation system, with SPEAK TO <npc> prompting a menu-based discussion while ASK <npc> ABOUT <topic> behaves in the expected way. A more problematic element is SAY TO NPC “<anything>”, which seems built for guess-the-magic-phrase puzzles, and indeed becomes just that at one or two points in the game. Still, so far so good, more or less.

The problem here, and it’s a considerable problem, is the writing. The prose feels like a bad translation from some other language, or perhaps like a writing sample from someone for whom English isn’t a first language. For example, after addressing an NPC with the SPEAK TO verb and selecting “Ask her if she knows you” from the menu, the game puts these words in the PC’s mouth: “Excuse me… Do you casually know who am I?” In one memory, he says, “I go down for having breakfast, Carmen is at the kitchen.” One half-expects the PC to whip out a phrasebook and carefully enunciate, “My hovercraft is full of eels.”

Unfortunately, everybody (including the game’s narrative voice) speaks in this sort of broken English. The game is reluctant to let you leave a queue because “you don’t know how important is what you are waiting for,” and says that you see “wealthy people together to beggars” in that queue. A guard asks, “do you think you’ve always acted the better you could?” In my favorite example, that same guard chides you, “If you had any good reason to leave yor place, you should have said it to me firstly.” He’s not yor frend!

There are probably people for whom mangled syntax, crippled spelling, and broken grammar don’t ruin a game, but I don’t think I’ll ever be one of them. In my opinion, if you’re not fluent in the language you’re using, you must have someone who is fluent proofread your game before you release it. You must fix all the errors that person finds, no matter how many there are. You wouldn’t expect a publisher to disseminate a novel, short story, or essay written so poorly, so why is it reasonable to expect gamers to enjoy a game with equally weak English? It’s basic logic: if an IF game is equal parts prose and programming, both must be bug-free before the game can be any good.

Rating: 4.6

The City by Sam Barlow [Comp98]

IFDB page: The City
Final placement: 13th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

The City gave me a very strong sense of deja vu. So many parts are hauntingly familiar. Here’s the story: You wake up, not knowing who you are, where you are, or why you are wherever you are. Sound familiar yet? If not, here’s more: You seem to be trapped in a surreal and inescapable institution. (This institution is called “The City”, hence the name of the game. Yes, that’s right. It’s not about an actual city.). Does this ring any bells? OK, here’s more: your situation is iterative, bringing you back to the same point over and over again. No? Well, how about this: at one point during the game, when you give a command that goes against the narrative’s wishes, the parser replies, in bold letters: “That’s not how you remember it.” This should definitely sound familiar to anyone who’s played the latest Zarf offering. Plotwise, it’s as if somebody chopped up Mikko Vuorinen’s Leaves (another escape-from-the-institution game whose name had only tenuous relation to its contents), added two tablespoons of Andrew Plotkin’s Spider and Web, garnished with a sauce of Greg Ewing’s Don’t Be Late, threw in a pinch of Ian Finley’s Babel, put the mixture into a crust made from tiny pieces of various other text adventures, stirred, baked for 45 minutes at 350 degrees, and served it up for this year’s competition. Now, I’m not entirely convinced this is a bad thing. I think that lots of great works of art, interactive fiction and otherwise, are really just inspired melanges of things that had come before, so I’m not particularly opposed to such derivation on principle. For me, though, some of the derivative aspects of The City didn’t work particularly well. This was especially true for the Spider and Web stuff — I felt that the game crossed the line between homage and rip-off, heading the wrong direction. In addition, the convention of waking up with no idea of who you are or where you are, despite how well suited it is to IF, is starting to feel very tired to me. Perhaps I’m just jaded, or burnt-out, but when I saw the beginning I said “Oh, not another one of these!”.

Now, this is not to say that the entire game was derivative. The plot certainly didn’t break any new ground, but certain aspects of the interface were imaginative and innovative. The City does away with status line and score, not to mention save and restore. Abandoning the first two precepts did lend the game a greater sense of rawness, of the interactive experience being immediate and unmediated by any artificial tracking devices. The absence of save and restore, on the other hand, was a pain in the neck. See, as much as IF might want to emulate real life, it’s never really going to be real life. Consequently, there will be times when I only have 15 minutes to play a game and want to at least get a start into it. Or when a fire alarm goes off and I have to shut things down. Or when my wife wants to go to sleep, and I need to turn off my computer (which is in our bedroom.) You get the idea. At those times, I want to preserve the progress I’ve made. I don’t want to have to start from scratch, and I don’t care how short the game is, I don’t want to waste my time typing in a rapid series of commands to get to where I was when I had to leave the game last time. Especially since with my memory, I’m likely to forget one or two crucial actions which will then oblige me to start over again. Here is the lesson for game authors: please do not disable interface conveniences in the name of realism. It will not win admiration from your players, at least not from this one.

One innovation I did like in The City was its expansion of the typical IF question format. The game allowed not only the typical ASK and SHOW constructions, but also questions (both to the parser and to other players) like “Why am I here?”, “Where am I?”, or “Who are you?” Now, it didn’t allow question marks, which made the whole thing look a bit strange syntactically, but I found it did have a pretty good record of responding realistically to reasonable questions. I can imagine how much work must have gone into this feature, and I think it really made a difference — I felt much freer to question NPCs in a much more lifelike way. Even when I bumped into the limits of this realism (with questions like “what is going on here?”) I still felt outside of the bounds of traditional IF. Unfortunately, the energy that went into this innovative question system must have been leached out of other technical parts of the game. There were a number of bugs in the game, including one that rendered the game completely unwinnable, forcing me to, you guessed it: restart. Since I couldn’t save, and since the bug happened about 2/3 of the way through the game, I had to completely restart and type in all the commands that had brought me to that point — you can be certain I was grinding my teeth the whole time. In a non-competition game I almost certainly would not have bothered, choosing not to finish rather than to waste my time in such a manner. If anybody needs another reason not to disable save and restore, it’s this: when bugs in your code force the player to go backwards, that player will not appreciate having to back all the way up to the beginning. In addition to the bugs in the game’s coding, there were also a number of mechanical errors with its writing as well. These were not egregious, but they were there, and wore on what little patience remained after the bugs, the disabled conveniences, and the ultimately frustrating nature of the plot itself. I think the question system from The City is a valuable tool that could be well-used elsewhere (though I’d appreciate the ability to punctuate my questions with question marks). I would be very happy to see that system integrated into a game with an original plot, working code, and error-free English.

Rating: 5.5

Babel by Ian Finley [Comp97]

IFDB page: Babel
Final placement: 2nd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Babel is not only one of the best competition games I’ve ever played, it’s one of the best pieces of interactive fiction I’ve ever seen, period. The game starts from a well-worn IF trope: you awaken alone, with no memory of your identity. Then, Babel unfolds into a breathtaking, emotional story. The work of exposition and plot development is performed through the protagonist’s enhanced powers of tellurgy, which the game defines as “the ability to experience past events by touching objects present when the event occurred.” The clarity of these visions varies according to the emotional intensity of the event being witnessed. This device, reminiscent of that in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, is the central convention of the game, and it allows a degree of character development very rare in interactive fiction. Certainly other games (most notably Zork: Nemesis) have used this device in the past, but none have brought it about so convincingly and so effectively as does Babel. The tellurgic episodes gradually bring an awareness of the character’s identity, and how he came to be in his amnesiac state, as well as tell a chilling story of scientific arrogance and attendant disasters.

Another interesting aspect of Babel is the moral ambiguity of its main character. Typical IF heroes (or heroines) have few ethical shades: they are either unambiguously on the side of good, working to save the universe or some version thereof, or basically self-interested seekers of wealth or fame. The hero of Babel falls into neither of these convenient categories. Instead, he appears first as a victim, then eludes that simple assignation as well, becoming a character of depth and complexity very rarely realized in IF. The experience of playing such a character was a powerful one, especially as the story gradually revealed just how willing a participant he was in his own undoing.

Finally, I think it’s worth noting that after playing only three games from the ’97 competition, I’ve already seen two that deal with a metallic research station where the player discovers the frightening results of unbridled scientific inquiry run amok. The meaning of this thematic fascination in a community devoted to the supposedly “archaic” text form is a speculation for another essay, but I feel safe enough asserting this: Babel is an outstanding treatment of the theme, the best I have ever seen in IF, and one of the best I’ve ever seen in any medium anywhere.

Prose: Babel‘s prose was nothing short of outstanding. It unerringly conveyed the experience of being stranded in a deserted Arctic outpost, addressing all the senses and the emotions as well. Powerful turns of phrase abounded, and extreme experiences (such as being out in the Arctic winter wearing only a hospital gown) were vividly rendered. The characterization and dialogue in the cut-scenes of the tellurgic visions was sharp and effective, outlining strongly defined and complex characters. Small touches like tiptoeing across the cold floor in bare feet, or the equation of the cold-hearted scientist’s eyes with the Arctic ice (notice the pun), combined with broader strokes for an astonishingly realistic and well-written whole.

Plot: The game’s plot unfolds masterfully, revealed in dribs and drabs by the tellurgic episodes. The author provides a chronology for all these events with the (rather forced) device of giving the character a calendar on which he “instinctively” jots down the date of each occurrence. As the story develops, the tension becomes greater and greater: the unfolding mystery of the character’s origin serves to heighten the power of the story’s eventual climax. Some of the Biblical imagery is just a tiny bit heavy-handed, but the whole is strong enough to overpower any objection of didacticism or triteness.

Puzzles: The puzzles almost effortlessly achieved the ideal of blending seamlessly into the narrative. There were no arbitrary puzzles, and the artfully gradual revelation of the plot was served elegantly by simple but logical obstacles. There were no puzzles that were particularly ingenious or unique, but that wasn’t the point of this game. The puzzles were there to provide some control over the narrative flow, and in this they served their purpose just right.

Technical (writing): The prose mechanics were excellent. I only noticed a couple of proofing errors in this very word-heavy game.

Technical (coding): Coding was equally strong. I found a couple of very minor bugs, but there were many, many touches that made it clear that a great deal of thought, foresight, and effort went into the coding of this game.