Order by John Evans [Comp04]

IFDB page: Order
Final placement: 24th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

At this point, I feel like I could really save myself a lot of time and energy by just writing up a template for reviews of John Evans games. The basic gist of the template would be “This game has some cool ideas and a lot of potential, but it’s not really finished and it seems untested, so it sucks.” Then I could just fill in the blanks with some specifics about the game, and be done. Evans has submitted games to the last five IF competitions, and they’ve all fit this mold, so why shouldn’t I just keep writing the same review over and over again? I kinda have to.

I mean, I guess they’re improving. The first couple (Castle Amnos and Elements) were way too big for the competition, and that problem got corrected. Unfortunately, it got corrected by switching to total unfinishability due to scores of heinous bugs. I gave a rating of 1.0 to Evans’ last couple of games because they were just totally incomplete. Order isn’t as bad as that. It’s the right size for the comp, and it is finishable. But it is still not finished. See, if you’ve got a command called BUGS that lists out the bugs in the game, your game’s not finished. Actually, one of the funnier parts of Order is that even the BUGS list is buggy, as some of the things listed actually do work (though plenty don’t.) Also, if a crucial puzzle in your game rests on a piece of scenery that you don’t mention anywhere, your game’s not finished. A tester would catch that. That’s, y’know, what testers are for. Use them.

Actually, beta-testing seems particularly critical for a game like Order, because the game revolves around coming up with actions quite spontaneously, and the better sample you have of what actions people are going to come up with, the better you’ll be able to implement them. (Here’s where I start filling in the “cool ideas” part of the template.) I love the basic concept of this game — you’re some kind of magical spirit, and you’ve been set a series of tasks by your summoner. So far, still pretty bland, and strongly reminiscent of J.D. Berry’s The Djinni Chronicles. But the nifty twist that Order puts on things is that you have a CREATE verb at your disposal, and you must use it to solve every puzzle.

So, for instance, you find yourself faced with a locked door, and must CREATE a key. Done right, this could be an amazingly powerful device, giving the game a feeling of almost limitless possibility. And indeed, there are times when Order feels like that. Of course, there are way more times that it’s disappointing, and not just because I was trying crazy commands like CREATE PHASER and CREATE WETSUIT. Lots of much more reasonable attempts aren’t implemented, and I can’t help but think that some beta-testing would have greatly improved the game’s range of options. Still, there are multiple solutions to each puzzle available from creating various objects, and that aspect of the game is really fun. Too bad the other parts are such a drag.

Oh, there is one more good part — the hint system. These hints are nicely implemented, InvisiClues style, and it’s a good thing too, because nobody is finishing this game without the hints. As I alluded earlier, there’s a critical puzzle in the game’s midsection that is simply not solvable without hints, because its main components aren’t mentioned anywhere. Remember Bio, from Comp03, the game that starts out with gas seeping into your room and you have to get a gas mask out of an armoire, except the only place that says anything about an armoire is the walkthrough? Pretty tough puzzle, right? Well, Order takes inspiration from it with a puzzle where you must perform an action on an orb encased in a steeple. Problem is, nowhere in any room or object description are the orb and steeple mentioned. There is a dome mentioned, but like many of the scenery objects in room descriptions, it’s not implemented. Actually, even for some of the objects that are implemented, the descriptions aren’t exactly superb:

You are carrying a set of white robes (being worn).

>x robes
A set of white robes.

Ooo, spellbinding. So okay, I’ve almost got my template ready. The only thing left is to figure out how to wind it up. I’m leaning towards a plea for the future: please help your cool ideas reach their fullest potential by finishing and testing your games! Please! I may have to edit that part out though, as its refusal becomes more and more certain.

Rating: 4.9

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 clich├ęs, 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