No Time To Squeal by Mike Sousa and Robb Sherwin [Comp01]

IFDB page: No Time To Squeal
Final placement: 4th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Sometimes two heads really are better than one. Take Robb Sherwin, an author with writing ability and panache to spare, but whose comp games have traditionally been major-league bugfests. Combine with Mike Sousa, whose Comp2000 entry At Wit’s End proved that he was capable of thorough, polished implementation and taut pacing, though his prose didn’t particularly draw attention to itself (for good or bad.)

The result is a game that uses each author’s strengths to its best advantage. NTTS had me on the edge of my seat almost immediately, invested in the characters and sweating through the rapidly mounting tension. That sick, scared, hollow-stomached feeling isn’t one I tend to enjoy, even when it’s produced by fiction — that’s why serial killer horror is a genre I usually avoid — but I have to admit, this game did an excellent job at producing it. Very short scenes, whose interactions are limited to a few, very obvious moves, pile rapidly atop one another, screaming towards a conclusion that left me breathless, saddened, and a little confused.

Right about then, the game did something that really pissed me off. Of course, I didn’t know at the time to be pissed off about it — I only found out later, after spinning in frustrated circles, trying to make progress. And even though this move is one of the major surprises in NTTS, I’m going to spoil it now, because to my mind, it’s a terribly unfair trap lying in wait for people who approach IF like I do. You’ve been warned.

What happens is that NTTS appears to end tragically. It then offers the standard “Please enter RESTORE, RESTART or QUIT” prompt, and indeed, you can restore or quit from this prompt, and those functions will work as advertised. RESTART, however, doesn’t really restart the game but instead moves it to its next section. Now, it’s true that this is not a new idea. At least one other game pulls a similar trick, but in that game, no matter what you type at the question’s prompt, the letters RESTART appear. NTTS, however, offers a system prompt at which some responses will generate system actions and other responses will generate game actions.

This is a very, very bad idea. You know why? Because I chose RESTORE, that’s why. I restored my game, trying to “win” that first section, and failed, not knowing that failure was the only option. I was about to restore again, but I just couldn’t think of anything new to try, so I checked the walkthrough, and found out that the way to solve this “puzzle” was to type RESTART at a system prompt that really wasn’t. This is dirty pool. If you’re going to sneakily integrate system prompts with the game, at least have the courtesy not to make the feature into a puzzle, because solving a cheating puzzle isn’t any fun.

I approached the rest of the game with wariness and caution, unwilling to get too drawn in, which is too bad because NTTS apes Photopia‘s viewpoint-fragmentation (though not so much its time-fragmentation) to great effect, in the service of telling an interesting, multi-layered story. Of course, it was a story that still left a few major plot danglers swinging even when it reached its real conclusion, not to mention threw in cultural references from Jack The Ripper to Lewis Carroll without much to support them. Still, it was engaging stuff, and was peppered with one or two really clever puzzles. The overall design was solid, save for the one flaw, but that flaw was so glaring, I really can’t ignore it. No Time To Squeal demonstrates that great things can happen when two IF authors combine their strengths, but unfortunately, it also shows that even teams still have their weaknesses.

Rating: 7.4

At Wit’s End by Mike Sousa [Comp00]

IFDB page: At Wit’s End
Final placement: 17th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

“Expect the unexpected” may be a cliché, but there are a few things for which it is the perfect description. At Wit’s End is one of these things. This game’s plot has more twists and turns than a mountain road, and most of these surprises consist of various misfortunes for the hapless PC. In some games (e.g. Bureaucracy), I think this kind of plot could be intensely aggravating, but in this one, I thought it worked beautifully — each new twist injected drama and suspense into the situation, but the combined weight of all of them gave the story a comic feel which counterbalanced nicely against all the cliffhanging turmoil.

Of course, since the surprises are half the fun of AWE, I certainly won’t give them away here, but suffice it to say that the game strings together one fairly plausible situation after another, ending up with a string of bad luck that’s so unlikely it’s funny, even though it’s hard to laugh while you’re frantically trying to think your way out of the latest mess. In fact, the one thing I was worried about during my initial time with the game was that the whole thing would be too linear: “something bad happens — solve it. OK, something else bad happens — solve that…” for 10 or 15 bad things in a row. Luckily, after an admittedly lengthy opening sequence of linear puzzles, the game wisely broadens into a more traditional middle section, where several puzzles must be solved in order to bring about one overall result.

Speaking of puzzles, most of them worked quite well for me. Certainly the opening sequence presented situations that were quite logical — I found I sometimes needed to think a bit before I could come up with the right answer, but when I did come up with it, it felt right and made sense. Because of the tightly timed nature of some of these puzzles, I did come up against the death/failure message a bit more often than I’d have liked, but this is more my own fault than the game’s.

AWE isn’t one of those games that give you one move to figure out the right action and kill you if you don’t do it; some of the puzzles have four- or five-move time limits, but these limits make sense in the context of the puzzle situation, and they did succeed in creating a strong sense of urgency in me, whereas shorter time limits tend just to annoy me. There’s a time limit for the midgame, too, but it’s quite generous, and I found that it wasn’t necessary to motivate me — I was already frantic from the initial string of puzzles. I think this is a smart design choice on the game’s part, one that lent a sense of tension to a midsection that might otherwise have sagged. Rather than feeling a letdown at having to explore and put together multi-step processes, I continued to feel on edge, as befit the character’s situation.

Unfortunately, these multi-step processes comprise the game’s one significant flaw. Sometimes, in its fervor to crank up the puzzle intensity along with the story intensity, the game overloads certain puzzles, thrusting them into the Babelfishy realm of the ridiculous. One puzzle in particular, probably the most byzantine of them all, really strained the bounds of believability for me. It’s one thing to have a plot where misfortune piles upon misfortune, but when consistent, ongoing bad luck is a key feature of a puzzle, it’s hard not to feel that the game has unfairly stacked the deck against you.

I guess the lesson is that, for me anyway, when rotten luck is part of the plot, it still feels like the game is playing fair, because really bad days happen, but when the rotten luck is part of a puzzle (especially the kind of rotten luck that makes you think “but that wouldn’t really happen!”), it feels like the game is cheating. This quibble aside, AWE is an excellent piece of work. The writing, though nothing special, is serviceable, and the coding is really outstanding. The game notices and comments on lots of little things, which really deepens immersion, as does AWE‘s thorough implementation of all first-level nouns. The best part, though, is the plot. At Wit’s End has one of my favorite plots of any competition game from this year, one that kept surprising me even after I had figured out to expect the unexpected.

Rating: 8.8