Eragon by Unknown [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2006.]

IFDB Page: Eragon

Eragon Vs. Bygone Era

IF aficionados have often made the argument that the medium could have a commercial comeback if marketed in the right way. Forget gamers, the line of reasoning goes. Instead, interactive fiction should be sold in bookstores, right alongside the books, appealing to an educated, literary audience that sees “all words no pictures” as an advantage rather than a drawback. After all, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was one of Infocom’s biggest hits, and it seems reasonable to conclude that that game drew much of its audience from people who loved the books. (Leave aside for a moment the tremendous overlap between fans of those books and computer nerds.) Perhaps the beginning of this IF resurgence might be text games appearing on author websites, inviting fans of that author to experience their favorite fictional world interactively, possibly re-enacting some key scenes, or filling in some narrative gaps from the paper stories.

I’m not sure I believe that IF will ever experience a commercial comeback on any significant scale, but I love the idea of skilled authors with large fanbases creating text adventures. Consequently, I was excited to learn that Christopher Paolini, author of the “Inheritance Trilogy” of young adult fantasy novels, had placed a text adventure on his site, set in those books’ universe. I’ve never read Paolini’s work, but his books seem to be popular with the kids, what with the first one spending months on the New York Times’ bestseller list and having over a million copies in print. The fact that such a popular author was offering interactive fiction based on his books seemed quite promising to me, and I was eager to check it out. A web browser is a lousy place to play a text adventure of any size, given that Zplet doesn’t provide for SAVE and RESTORE, so once I found the game I dug the zcode file out of my browser cache and played it locally. It would be nice if the author’s web site had provided an easier option for downloading the game file, but that’s a forgivable lapse. I fired up the game, all energized about the bright possibilities.

Unfortunately, that energy evaporated almost immediately. The first thing I did was turn transcripting on, and saw this:

Start of a transcript of
Eragon
Eragon.
Release 1 / Serial number 050712 / Inform v6.30 Library 6/11 SD
Standard interpreter 1.1 (4F) / Library serial number 040227

Uh-oh. Debugging verbs left on: not a good sign. Also, what’s with the subtitle being just the title with a period added in? Finally, where’s the author credit? Did Paolini actually write this game, or did he leave his name off because some employee or fan of his is the real author?

Having played the game, I’d put my money on the latter. Both in terms of design and prose style, Eragon feels like the product of a member of its intended audience: readers in their early teens. At the very least, given the number of comma splices and grammatical missteps in the game, I think it’s safe to say that this prose has never seen the services of a professional editor. The milieu of the game itself feels like Tolkien with just a few of the serial numbers rubbed off — apparently you’re a dwarf in the tunnels under “Farthen Dûr”. Your quest is to warn the “Varden” (i.e. the good guys) that an “army of Urgals” (i.e. orcs) is approaching. In the process, you’ll come across some magic dust that makes people fall asleep, mysterious runes concealing hidden rooms, huge underground chambers, and so forth. It’s bog-standard stuff.

As for the game itself, well, I wish the news was better. It’s not that this game is out-and-out terrible. Worse games get submitted to every single IF competition. However, it suffers from some very serious flaws. The worst of these is the way it deploys a kind of “selective parsing” that makes it feel like a product of 1983, despite having been produced with Inform 6. Several times throughout Eragon, I found that the parser would claim not to understand a particular formulation, only to specifically require that formulation at a later point. This kind of thing is simply unacceptable in a text adventure — if you tell me a command is not understood, don’t expect me to try it again. A variation on this is the way that at certain junctures I found myself wrestling with the parser, trying to communicate a specific idea, only to learn that the game would only accept the most generic command possible, doing all the rest of the heavy lifting itself. Here’s an example, altered to remove spoilers:

>X TRAP DOOR
The stone trap door is covered with finely carved runes and etchings
of intertwined dragons. There is an empty space in the center, just
about the size of the marble orb.

>PUT ORB ON DOOR
Putting things on the Trap Door would achieve nothing.

>PUT ORB IN CENTER
I do not understand your command. Doublecheck your spelling or refer
to the commands list for help.

>OPEN TRAP DOOR
The door is locked, and simply impassable.

>PUT ORB IN STONE
You can't put something inside itself.

>X CENTER
I do not understand your command. Doublecheck your spelling or refer
to the commands list for help.

>USE ORB
The orb slips perfectly back into place, becoming one with the door.
The door, now unlocked, automatically begins to slide open, dragging
heavily along the floor.

The puzzles themselves are pitched at a good level for kids, but any kid would be driven crazy by how frequently this game fails to parse.

Alongside the technical failures is some highly irritating design, the centerpiece of which is a large maze. This maze isn’t terribly challenging — the game is kind enough to give each location a distinctive name, like “Maze M18”, “Hallway H6”, and so forth — but it is so, so dull. Wandering through one empty location after another, following the left hand wall, is not my idea of a good time. Hilariously, the game helps orient you by telling you that you hear singing, loudly or faintly, from a particular direction, but when you get to the source of the sound it seems to forget that it ever mentioned singing. There’s a person there, but I never saw her sing. In addition, there are several spots where I flummoxed the game by doing things in a different order than it expected. For instance, there’s a library section where I thumbed through the books and was told, “Upon realizing that this is not the book you are looking for, you return the book to its place on the shelf.” Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet met the character who told me what book to look for, which made that message rather nonsensical. I’d venture to guess that the game was written to a walkthrough and not playtested thoroughly enough to uncover its hidden assumptions. Tons of formatting errors, capricious capitalization, and logical lapses add to the unpolished feeling.

I realize that all this criticism is negative, and I don’t mean to be too discouraging, especially if Eragon was written by some young Paolini fan as a labor of love. I think the lesson that emerges from this game is that although it would be great for popular writers to offer interactive fiction based on their works, they should probably do so in collaboration with experienced IF authors if they’re unfamiliar with modern IF themselves. After all, even Douglas Adams didn’t try to write the Hitchhiker’s game himself — the participation of Steve Meretzky helped ensure that the game would not be a hash of bugs and mainframe-era game design cliches. Similarly, modern authors would do well to avail themselves of the knowledge contained within the modern text adventure community. Combining a popular writer’s skill and imagination with the technical expertise and experience of an established IF creator would be most likely to result in a game that puts both the author’s works and interactive fiction itself in the best light. Without that creator’s insight, you run the risk of games like Eragon, which makes IF fans want to avoid more Paolini and Paolini fans want to avoid more IF.

The Fat Lardo and the Rubber Ducky by Somebody [Comp03]

IFDB page: The Fat Lardo and the Rubber Ducky
Final placement: 29th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Call this game “Insultatron.” Its purpose is to insult you in as many ways as possible, though not with a great deal of creativity. If that sounds like fun to you, than you’ll probably love the game. If not, then you’re like me.

Well, actually, there’s a minute or two of fun to be had. I kind of enjoyed the way the game got more and more exasperated with describing the setting, and finally just gave up on the whole thing. Also, a couple of the library default replacements were a bit funny, though most were just dumb and vile, sometimes extremely vile, so searching through for the funny ones isn’t a very rewarding activity. It is a bit amusing to see the genteel Graham Nelson library responses poking through on occasion — they sound very odd in this context.

In the end, this game is pretty dull. Actually, it’s pretty dull all the way through. Also, insults don’t really carry the same punch when they’re misspelled. But at least the game knows it’s stupid. Doesn’t that count for something? Actually… no.

Rating: 1.8

Coffee Quest II by Anonymous [Comp02]

IFDB page: Coffee Quest II
Final placement: 32nd place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Before I started playing this game, my thought was, “What happened to Coffee Quest I?” After I started playing it, my thought was, “I really really hope I never find out.” Lord, but this game is bad. It’s so depressingly bad that the thought of spending three paragraphs enumerating its faults fills me with a yawning despair. I do care about the constructive criticism thing, but at this point in the comp judging, I find it hard to stick to that ideal when faced with a game like this.

Add to this the fact that the game knows it’s bad — it calls itself a “travesty” in its ABOUT text, and says, “you are welcome to distribute it as long as you can find someone who’s willing to take it.” So what’s the point of constructive criticism, anyway? Why bother offering suggestions for improvement when quality is so clearly not valued? So instead, a randomly selected cornucopia of bad moments:

  • Utterly unresponsive NPCs who only act as ATMs or door-locks.
  • Zillions of mechanical errors, including lots of my archenemy, the it’s/its error.
  • Writing that frequently fails to explain (or even mention) basic points.
  • Made-up, unexplained words, or perhaps specialized slang words that I’ve never encountered and aren’t in my dictionary, which amount to the same thing. (“Maureen is the office bint.”)
  • Terrible, half-assed room descriptions. (“You are in the aisle. It’s quite dull here.” Yeah, no kidding.)
  • Bugs, bugs, bugs:
    >ask technician about drive
    'It ate my disk' complains the techyThe techy is scared that it may
    be his round.That's far too technical for him.That's far too
    technical and executive for him.The techy seems unable to grasp the
    concept of .
  • A completely pointless sleep timer.

I guess that’s enough. This game is what Little Blue Men would have been if it had been poorly written, poorly coded, and poorly designed. In fact, entire sections of it seem swiped directly from that game, but in such a way as to drain them of everything that made them interesting. There are a few grins here and there, several of which are apparently unintentional, but overall it’s a pretty grim experience. Just pray there’s no Coffee Quest III.

Rating: 3.1

Four Mile Island by Chris Charla as Anonymous [Comp02]

IFDB page: Four Mile Island
Final placement: 33rd place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: I can’t really think of a way to review this game without including one major spoiler. So one major spoiler is included. Just FYI.

In Comp2000, Chris Charla entered a game called Infil-Traitor, which purported to be a rickety BASIC game from 1982, but was in fact a rickety BASIC game he had programmed himself the month before the comp started. I didn’t play that game because the compiled version had a fatal bug, so it fell to the bottom of my list and I never got around to actually recompiling it in order to try the playable version. Given that I only found out after the comp was over that the entry was submitted under false pretenses, I kinda thought I’d dodged a bullet there.

I was wrong, because he did it again. Four Mile Island comes with a long and detailed readme which tells the story of how the author used to work in a warehouse that some computer magazines had used as office space and found an old, never-published type-in computer game, typed it in and entered it in the comp with the permission of the author. Even if all this was true, it’d hardly make for a promising comp entry, but of course it isn’t true, it’s just a made-up cover to allow the author to create a near-perfect facsimile of an early Eighties magazine type-in adventure game.

Of course, the question that leaps to mind here, and I’m sure I’m not the only one asking this is: why? Those who played Infil-Traitor are no doubt asking, “For God’s sake, man, why twice?” I mean, sure, it plays just like a game whose source code might appear in a 1984 computing magazine. Yeah, it’s written in BASIC. Yeah, it’s got a two-word parser. Yeah, the plot is something about the Cold War and nuclear bombs. Yeah, it’s pretty buggy. Yeah, it’s got an annoying maze. I grant all these things.

But are they virtues? They were the best we could do at the time, but are they worth recreating? Not to me, they aren’t. I actually like being able to save my game. I think UNDO is a good thing. I think it’s kind of cool how a game can end now and I can actually read the ending text because it’s not running in a DOS window that shuts down after the program exits. An exact replica of a primitive game is no more fun to play than an actual primitive game. I think that’s one of those Zen aphorisms, or something.

Of course, that’s just me. We all have our preferences. And I’m quite sure that to some, my fascination with Infocom-style text adventures and their modern descendants would be just as quirky as someone else’s fascination with type-in games. So let’s hear it for the IF competition, which allows even the strangest retro-text-gaming passions some outlet. If somebody’s idea of a good time is to write up a BASIC two-word parser game that feels just like one I might have typed into my Atari 800 when I was 14 years old, more power to ’em. It just doesn’t happen to be my idea of a good game. Tastes vary.

Rating: 4.1

Koan by Esa Peuha as Anonymous [Comp02]

IFDB page: Koan
Final placement: 35th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

In 1998, there was In The Spotlight, a tiny but enjoyable game whose entire purpose was to embody one clever puzzle. Then, last year, there was Schroedinger’s Cat, a less enjoyable (though competently produced) game whose sole reason for existence was to embody a completely baffling puzzle. Now we have Koan, a fairly irritating and badly programmed game that embodies one more-or-less nonsensical puzzle. Clearly, we’re on a downward slope here.

I don’t have any particular objection to the genre of one-puzzle games; as I said, I liked In The Spotlight well enough. However, when the entire game is a tiny environment based around one puzzle, that puzzle had better be well-implemented. As you might have guessed, this is not the case in Koan. Even setting aside the fact that most of the writing is nothing but placeholders (like the room whose description consists only of “This is the middle location in this game.”), there are several fundamental problems with the puzzle as it is coded. Example: you have to retrieve a clay pot from a high place, and there are several objects in the game that may help you retrieve it without damaging it. However, before I even saw any of those objects, the first thing I did was this:

>x pot
This clay pot has a severe fracture. Other than that, the only
noticable feature is the writing that says, "When intact, this pot
will break the stone slab."

So the pot already has a severe fracture? Kind of takes away my motivation to try not to damage it. There’s nothing around to fix it with, either, which really makes me wonder how I’m supposed to make it intact. This is not the way to do a one-puzzle game. Also: noticeable.

As for the solution, I can’t say it really made much sense to me. From the game’s title, I take it that this puzzle and its answer are supposed to represent some kind of deep spiritual truth. Now granted, I’m not a Buddhist, but I failed to find any meaning in this game beyond “Well, that was surreal.” I dunno, maybe somebody else found it profound. To paraphrase Dennis Miller: of course, that’s just my opinion — I could be unenlightened.

Rating: 3.0

Colours by J. Robinson Wheeler as Anonymous [Comp01]

IFDB page: Colours
Final placement: 32nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Colours comes out of an IF impulse I’m starting to recognize. The game has no interest whatsoever in story or characters, and instead uses the tools of IF to build a large, complicated, inhabitable puzzle. If Games Magazine had an interactive edition, this game might be included. I think it shares a kinship with games like Ad Verbum, or the less satisfying Schroedinger’s Cat, but I’m not sure what to call games like these — perhaps “plotless IF”, since they’re so unconcerned with telling a story.

I don’t think that quite covers it, though. Even the venerable Zork series could be considered plotless IF, given that its PC is a complete cipher, and that the game’s skeleton mainly exists to support a variety of clever puzzles, but I don’t think it’s in quite the same species as something like Colours. For one thing, one of the pleasures of Zork (and its imitators) is the wonderful landscape descriptions provided throughout. That’s in stark contrast to this game, where most of the rooms (at one point or another), are described along these lines:

Clear Room
The walls of this room are made of a sheer, shiny substance that is
neither wood nor metal nor plaster nor plastic. They have become
completely transparent. Exits lead north, east, south and west.

There’s a kind of purity to this aesthetic that Zork doesn’t even approach. It’s as if the game wants to provide the barest possible structure on which to hang its puzzles, and the puzzles themselves tend to be rather abstract exercises in pattern-matching. There’s another difference too: Colours (and games of its ilk) offers a cohesiveness that’s absent from more freewheeling games like Zork. The entire gameworld hews to a unified set of rules, and the puzzles tend to be variations on a theme — in the case of this game, that theme is (you guessed it) colors. (Well, there’s also a word theme, but that’s subservient.) This is the sort of genre to which Colours belongs, but I really need to come up with a name for it so that I don’t have to spend a paragraph each time I find one. Suggestions welcome.

Because I come to IF looking to be immersed in a story and a setting, These Sorts Of Games aren’t exactly my cup of tea, but I can still enjoy them when they’re done well. Once I recognize that the crossword has utterly defeated the narrative (in Graham Nelson’s terms) and adjust my expectations accordingly, I’m ready to indulge in the pleasure of pure puzzle-solving. Of course, what that means is that an entirely different set of expectations falls into place. Games whose sole purpose is their puzzles had better provide interesting challenges, problem-free implementation, and clear solutions in case I get badly stuck.

On many counts, Colours doesn’t disappoint. I found its puzzles entertaining for the most part, and found no errors in its prose. On the other hand, I also encountered one serious flaw that drastically reduced my enjoyment of the game. Without giving too much away, the problem is that there are some game states where crucial items appear to have vanished, when in fact they are present but totally undescribed. This sort of environment manipulation is a big no-no in IF — I’m relying on the text to present an accurate picture of the world, especially in pure puzzle games (hmmm, “pure puzzle games”… might work.) When it doesn’t, an element critical to pleasure in puzzling has disappeared.

I went through Colours twice, because due to the apparent absence of vital items, I thought the game had closed itself off without warning. When I encountered the same problem a second time, I trundled desperately over to ifMUD, where someone kindly told me that the items really are there, contrary to what the descriptions might have me believe. As a result of these travails, my experience in playing the game went from being a fun cerebral exercise to being an exercise in frustration.

The other area in which Colours didn’t quite come up to snuff was in the solutions it provided. Two bits of help accompanied the game: some vague hints appear when the player types HELP, and then a complete walkthrough exists as a separate text file. The problem is that the HELP text gives suggestions that are just flat wrong. In fact, for those who haven’t yet played the game, here’s my advice: ignore what the help text tells you to start with. You don’t yet have to tools to deal with that. Instead, start with exploration, and with a close look at the text on the game’s accompanying jpg image.

Then there’s the walkthrough, which is very helpful on some points, and not at all helpful on others. The walkthrough’s approach is to explicate the concepts behind the game, and to tell how to accomplish the puzzle goals, but not to provide a step- by-step solution. Consequently, due to the “hidden items” problem described above, I found myself staring at the walkthrough and thinking, “but how am I supposed to do that?” I certainly understand the impulse not to just lay everything flat in the walkthrough — I didn’t even provide a walkthrough with my own comp entry, a decision I’m beginning to fret about now — but the danger in not laying out a stepwise answer is that if there are problems in the game itself, the walkthrough becomes pretty useless. Luckily, this problem probably won’t be very hard to fix, and if Colours sees a post-comp release, it will probably end up as an enjoyable puzzle-box for those who like that kind of thing. In its present incarnation, however, I found that its charm faded quickly into confusion.

Rating: 6.5

Cracking The Code by Gunther Schmidl as Anonymous [Comp00]

IFDB page: Breaking The Code
Final placement: 53rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Thank god for Stephen Granade. Without him, not only would I think that Cracking the Code is completely pointless, I’d also be totally confused as to what it’s even about. However, thanks to a handy post he wrote on his About.com IF site, I’ve been educated on the controversy surrounding the DeCSS code for decrypting DVD output.

For those of you not in the know, apparently eight big movie studios won a lawsuit against a hacker newsletter for posting code known as DeCSS, code that allows you to decrypt the data on a DVD. This code allows you to write your own DVD player without paying royalties, and to copy the information on a DVD. The law that supported the suit is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which forbids dissemination of information about how to bypass copyright security. According to the judge, you can’t post the code or even link to the code.

Lots of people are up in arms about this perceived restriction of free speech. Somebody even wrote a very funny song about it, with the code in the lyrics — the argument goes like this: if the US First Amendment protects freedom of expression, doesn’t that take precedence over the courts’ suggestion that the code is illegal under the DMCA? And if so, isn’t it legal to spread the decryption code via a legally protected form, such as songwriting?

I suppose the argument goes the same way for this “game”. Really, though, this piece of work does virtually nothing to wrap any kind of creative content around the DeCSS code. It’s more or less an unadorned room with a stub description, containing two pieces of paper that have the code written on them. That’s it. Other than what I just mentioned, it’s an Inform shell game. Minimalist, yes. Entertaining, no.

It’s hard to even call CTC subversive, as it is so clearly uninterested in IF and therefore fails to subvert IF in any interesting way. In my opinion, it also doesn’t do much for making the First Amendment case. I mean, at least the song had a tune, and some lyrics outside the code, and whatnot. CTC, on the other hand, offers nothing at all in the way of IF. It’ll come in handy, though, when I decide to write my own DVD player. That’s on my list right behind sewing my own clothes and authoring an IF game with a homebrew parser.

Rating: 1.2

Only After Dark by Gunther Schmidl as Anonymous [Comp99]

IFDB page: Only After Dark
Final placement: 17th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Seems like just a few reviews ago I was positing that the trend of the 1999 competition is non-interactive games, those games which give you only one choice of how to proceed, whether subtly or overtly. And now, as if only to vindicate my trendspotting ability, here comes Only After Dark. This game moves along like a teenager learning to drive a stick shift — lurching forward, then halting, then lurching forward again. The lurches are at points where the game shoves you into the plot without giving you much choice in the matter, and the halts are when it waits for you to find the one and only way out of the situation it just forced you into. Now, to be fair, I should say that the game is a little more interactive than, say, Life on Beal Street or A Moment of Hope. It does have a parser. There are no moments (at least, not as far as I could tell, anyway) when it just flat-out ignores what you type. However, there are several scenes where the game absolutely will not let you do anything but what the rigidly linear plot calls for.

Actually, this description fits almost every moment in the game — the advancement of the plot is enforced by meeting any deviation with either an abrupt ending to the game (usually via the death of the PC) or with some variant of “You can’t do that.” For example, there is one scene where the PC is in jail. The plot calls for him to go to sleep. Therefore, there is absolutely nothing you can do but go to sleep. Every other attempt at action is blocked, and the game gives intermittent hints along the lines of “There’s nothing else to do but go to sleep.” Mess around long enough, and the game puts the PC to sleep by force. Now, my question is this: if all I was going to be allowed to do is sleep, why even give me a prompt at all? Why not just say “You’re hustled into a jail cell, and although you attempt to escape, your attempts are thwarted. Deciding there’s nothing to do but sleep, you settle down into the uncomfortable bed, awakening the next day to a very strange scene…” Sometimes there’s a perfectly reasonable answer to this question, something along the lines of wanting the player to identify with the PC’s sense of imprisonment. But when every scene plays like this, and the game forces the player into really stupid decisions because it has made no provision for alternatives, the whole story starts to feel like a prison.

The other way in which the game enforces its plot is to present the player with situations in which there is one correct move, and any other action leads to death. Again, this sort of thing has its place as a technique, and can often be effective when used wisely. However, its vulnerability is that it tempts the designer toward guess-the-verb situations and save-and-restore puzzles — sometimes even both at once. Just as vexing is the fact that dying over and over again fails to be entertaining rather quickly. Only After Dark, sadly, neither resists the temptation nor finds a way around the boredom. Take the initial puzzle, for example. I won’t give away the situation or the solution, but the structure is this: the PC’s life is in danger. There’s only one thing he can do to save himself. If he doesn’t do that one thing he will die. You have one move to make the correct choice. The action is vaguely clued before the choice must be made, but I still ended up with a dozen death messages before I hit on the solution, simply because there is so little time to solve the puzzle. Reading the same death message ten times is pretty dull. Later on, there’s a puzzle in which a certain verb must be used, and the only way I could determine to figure out what that verb ought to be was to closely scrutinize the death message that comes from using the wrong verb. This is the worst of both worlds in IF puzzles.

All this bitching probably does very little to explain why I gave Only After Dark a higher rating than some of the other non-interactive entries in this year’s comp, so let me try to clear that up. First of all, the writing and coding were error-free, which I am really appreciating recently. Yes, the game may railroad you through the plot, but at least it does so correctly. Also, the subject of the game is lycanthropy, which is a fascination of mine. I really enjoyed the malleable aspect of the PC, and while this isn’t the ideal werewolf game, it’s a much better werewolf game than, say, Strangers In The Night was a vampire game. I thought the milieu was interesting, if a little confusing, and there were some nice little touches, like the game’s occasional use of color. Perhaps the only reason it was so linear was to fit the short format of the competition. If that’s so, I dearly hope that an expanded version is forthcoming. I would really like to play a game set in the Only After Dark universe, written and coded as well as the competition entry but offering the player an actual choice once in a while.

Rating: 6.3

Life On Beal Street by Ian Finley as Anonymous [Comp99]

IFDB page: Life on Beal Street
Final placement: 26th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

One of the things I love about the IF competition is that its emphasis on shorter lengths of work allows and encourages experimentation. Life on Beal Street, if nothing else, is certainly an interesting experiment. It’s a different kind of computer-aided fiction, one in which the computer starts with a preset opening paragraph, then randomly chooses a second paragraph from a set of five available, then a third from a different set of five, and so on until it randomly chooses an ending. Together, these paragraphs make up a narrative arc whose plot couldn’t be simpler (protagonist walks down a street and arrives at a house) and the majority of whose action takes place inside the PC’s head. This action always follows the same pattern — start walking, think about person X, think about person Y, think about yourself, arrive at your destination and see what happens. The player’s role is to prompt the computer to make its next random selection, ostensibly by choosing to continue walking down the street.

The game’s greatest asset is that all of the paragraphs in the various sets are written very well indeed. The author does an excellent job of capturing that feeling of reverie, of walking down a street while thinking intensely about one’s own life, the very features of the street triggering and shaping the direction of the thoughts. The descriptions of the characters on whom the protagonist ruminates, and what those descriptions imply about the PC itself, are evocative and well-judged. Moreover, the delicate balancing act of providing an ungendered PC, onto which the player can project his or her own gender and sexual orientation, is done very well here, especially considering the fact that the game deals directly with interpersonal and even sexual subject matter. At its best, Life on Beal Street provides a sort of kaleidoscopic effect after a few playings, giving us a glimpse of the myriad ways in which we might understand our own lives, ourselves, and our relationships with others. There are some flaws, of course. I wish the game hadn’t chosen “Beal” as the name of its street, as it is distractingly reminiscent of the famous Beale Street in Memphis. I would have had similar problems with “Life on Rudeo Drive” or “Life on Madeson Avenue”. Also, there is one point where the computer unexpectedly says “* NO CHOICES DEFINED *”, though as far as I could tell there were as many (or as few) choices defined as ever.

And in fact, that brings up the game’s largest flaw of all. It isn’t, in any meaningful sense, interactive fiction. Yes, the author works hard to emphasize that the choice between continuing to walk the street and turning back is a real one, just like those we make in everyday life. This is true enough in itself, but as a claim for interactivity, it’s a crock. What it amounts to, more or less, is a choice between reading the next paragraph and quitting the game. These limited options make Life on Beal Street no more interactive than a book. There is one more possibility, which is the opportunity to say “no” to a chosen paragraph and have the computer spit out a new one, but that turns to be the equivalent of continuing to draw paragraphs from a hat until you realize that the hat is empty. Thus, in the final analysis the appeal of Life on Beal Street is quite fleeting. There’s a wonderful sense of openness and excitement in the first few plays, one which quickly contracts as paragraphs start to repeat, and finally shuts down entirely as you search through the whole thing brute-force to find any text you haven’t yet seen. Once you’ve done this, the game becomes just an interesting novelty whose possibilities have been exhausted. It’s definitely worth the download, but don’t expect to keep it long.

Rating: 6.1

Sylenius Mysterium by Christopher E. Forman as “whomever wrote it” [Comp97]

IFDB page: Sylenius Mysterium
Final placement: 18th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

[Because of the nature of Sylenius Mysterium, any or all of this review could be considered a spoiler. In addition, spoilers are present for Freefall and Robots. You have been warned.]

There seems to be this strange impulse in the text adventure community to recreate the experience of graphical arcade games using the Z-machine. The first evidence I ever saw of this trend was Andrew Plotkin‘s “Freefall”, a z-machine Tetris implementation using realtime opcodes to reproduce the geometrical game with ASCII graphics. Others have followed, including Torbjörn Andersson’s “Robots”, which recreates one of the earliest video games, and a DOOM implementation which I haven’t played. I have to say that this notion baffles me. When I first saw “Freefall”, I thought it was good fun. It struck me as a typically amazing Plotkin programming exercise which showcased the versatility of the z-machine. But it didn’t become an arcade staple on my machine. As a text adventure, it was pretty wild. As Tetris, it was pretty average. I played it once or twice to see what it could do, then deleted it. “Robots” I kept, but I don’t play it.

Now here’s Sylenius Mysterium (hereafter called SM), the bulk of which is a textual emulation of a horizontally scrolling run-and-jump game, a la Pitfall or Super Mario Brothers. This kind of thing used to come up as a joke on the IF newsgroups from time to time, and now here it is, a real game. Unfortunately, SM demonstrates the reason that those games were implemented graphically in the first place. Namely, it’s silly to implement an arcade game in descriptive mode. (“You begin walking right.” “You execute a running jump.” “Beneath you is a low wall.”) These types of structures are what graphics are best at doing, and they were being done 15 years ago. It’s both more fun and less confusing to see an arcade environment in graphics, and if even ancient computers are capable of doing so, what’s the point of making a text adventure which simply produces an inferior copy of the original? Playing SM just made me wish that the author had sacrificed portability and implemented the arcade section in graphics. Hell, even cheesy ASCII graphics would have made for a more fun experience than one long room description reading “A panoramic landscape, parallax layers of empty, ruined buildings, scrolling by with your movements.” It seems to me that text is good at certain things and so is graphics, and to make a text version of Pitfall makes about as much sense as a joystick-and-fire-button version of A Mind Forever Voyaging. It’s great to know that the z-machine has realtime capabilities to produce a text arcade game, but surely those capabilities can be put to better use.

SM does have a prologue which operates in a traditional text adventure mode, and this section of the game is quite well-done, with the exception of a number of problematic bugs. The game does a very nice job of defining an engaging and convincing setting and characters, as well as creating a sense of nostalgia for the old gaming consoles. The Atari system was my first introduction to videogames that could be played at home, and I have many fond memories of days spent at friends’ houses playing Missile Command or Donkey Kong or Pitfall. In fact, the game evoked nostalgia so well that my disappointment was all the sharper when I realized that its “arcade” section was nothing more than realtime text.

Prose: The prose in the IF section of the game was really quite accomplished, so much so in fact that it sent me to the dictionary a couple of times to confirm the meaning of unfamiliar words. All the game’s elements, from the sterile quiet of a mall after-hours, to the almost exaggerated “skate punk” main character, to the loving descriptions of the old-time game consoles, were written in a style that I found quite rich and absorbing.

Plot: The plot in SM is mainly a device to whisk the player to the arcade section. The plot of that section is (intentionally, I think) extremely pure and simple: find the bad guy and undo his evil deeds.

Puzzles: Again, the puzzles outside the arcade section were few, and those inside the arcade section can’t really be called “puzzles” in the traditional sense, though I would argue that the game does propose an interesting juxtaposition between the challenges of a Mario Brothers-style arcade game and IF puzzles — the two are closer than they are sometimes thought to be. Those puzzles within the IF section were usually quite simple, though from time to time bugs arose that made the simplest actions seem unintentionally like puzzles themselves.

Technical (writing): The writing was technically excellent.

Technical (coding): Here there were a number of problems. I was keeping a text file of all the major bugs I found until I realized that the author had provided no email address (not even an anonymous remailer for comp97) to which bug reports could be sent. Suffice it to say that there were a number of situations, both inside and outside the arcade section, that needed much improvement. That being said, however, I’m willing to forgive quite a bit from someone who takes on a project as ambitious (even though I personally don’t find it to be very interesting) as the arcade section of SM. That section suffers from game-killing bugs of the “FATAL: No such property” variety (or at least it does under WinFrotz), but the working sections of it seemed to work quite well, and I salute the serious effort it must have taken to create them.

OVERALL: A 6.8