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

A Day For Soft Food by Tod Levi [Comp99]

IFDB page: A Day for Soft Food
Final placement: 4th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, I suppose it was inevitable. Ever since the 1996 competition entry Ralph, which was narrated from the point of view of a family dog, the idea has been just sitting out there, waiting to be used. Actually, I’m surprised it took this long. But it’s finally here: a game written from the point of view of a family cat. As far as the writing goes, Soft Food actually does its job rather well. Its mood is quite different from that of Ralph — there is no jokey blundering about, no excretion gags. Instead, the tone is serious, even formal, as befits the dignified feline. Descriptions are well-turned; your owner is “the Provider”, the sofa is a “lumpy mountain”, cars are “glinting beasts.” The game also provides responses to most logical kitty verbs like “meow”, “purr”, and “jump on “. Unfortunately, the response to “purr” is “You’re not especially happy” — the game’s protagonist is not a contented cat. Its owner is suffering from an illness, and has been surly and unhelpful. The food bowl is empty, and the world outside deadly with oncoming traffic and a powerful Rival. Sickness, injury, and even death have roles in this game. The writing does a fairly good job of conveying the seriousness of this cat’s world, and the starkness of the dilemmas it faces.

I’m sorry to say that the coding is not quite so strong. I stumbled across a number of outright bugs in my two hours with the game. For example, you can get inside an open cupboard, and when you try to close it, the game responds “You lack the dexterity.” Fair enough, but when you try to leave, the game protests “You can’t get out of the closed cupboard.” Look around, and the room description has somehow evaporated, leaving just “The cupboard.” Another problem occurs with a pile of similar objects, from which you may take one and drop it anywhere in the game. However, if you return to the pile and take another, you’ll find that the one you dropped has disappeared, which stretches the bounds of plausibility. Moreover, there are a number of commands in the game (for example, “examine me”) to which the parser does not respond at all.

These are all fairly basic errors, nothing fatal, and I expect that they will be cleaned up in the next release of Soft Food. However, the problem that will be more difficult to fix is that of the puzzles. My Lord, these puzzles are difficult. They’re not so much “guess-the-verb” — I rarely found myself in a situation where I knew what to do but just couldn’t figure out how to phrase it. Instead, I found that most of the time I hadn’t the faintest idea of what to do, and the game kept ending in unpleasant ways as I stumbled about trying to figure out the solution. One puzzle in particular rivaled the Babel fish in complexity, but where the latter puzzle was enjoyable because of the absurdity of necessary actions piling atop one another, this game’s equivalent seemed frustratingly arbitrary, and the game’s serious tone did little to make the puzzle’s fiendishness more bearable. A disturbingly high percentage of the puzzles felt like members of the “guess-what-I’m-thinking” genre. I’m willing to concede that perhaps I wasn’t in a properly feline state of mind for them, and certainly I’ll admit that I’m not the world’s greatest puzzle solver, but I don’t think that’s sufficient to explain the problem. I think they’re just way too hard, and that the writing isn’t specific enough to give the player all the nudges necessary to solve them. It’s a good lesson in puzzle design though — if lots of players experience the same frustration I did, Soft Food will give designers an example of what to avoid in gonzo puzzle-crafting. I may even be able to use the lesson myself. See, I have a great idea for the 2000 comp: you play this pet goldfish…

Rating: 6.4