an apple from nowhere by Brendan Barnwell as Steven Carbone [Comp01]

IFDB page: an apple from nowhere
Final placement: 37th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Last year’s comp gave us Stupid Kittens, which I called dadaist IF. an apple from nowhere (caps intentionally omitted, as they are in the game) is perhaps a cousin to that game. It’s avant-garde, certainly, but where Stupid Kittens‘ stream of non sequiturs was snide and aggressive, this game’s barrage of scenes feels more distinctly dreamlike, less a pointed attack than just the random firing of synapses, aggregating elements from life to stretch them and collide them.

The game skirts some taboo areas, drug use and pedophilia among them, but it seems to do so more out of an attempt to directly channel the subconscious than out of an explicit desire to shock. Perhaps I’m giving it too much credit — there is an awful lot of in-your-face subject matter here — but the dreamlike atmosphere felt genuine, if overly charged. Perhaps it’s the dream world of a somewhat mentally ill person.

The question it brings up for me is this: what happens to IF when logic is removed? There are plenty of bad games that lack logic unintentionally, and some of these can be as surreal as anything in apple, but they are unsatisfactory, because we can sense that their incongruencies are a bug rather than a feature. When the illogic is intentional, the IF prompt carries a different sort of subtext. Normally, the presence of interactivity tells us that the game wants to shape itself around our commands, and challenges us to enter into a dance with the text whereby we both lead and are led. When a game makes it clear that its responses to our commands may only be tangentially related to what we type, and may not be related at all, it has taken the lead in that dance and turned it into more of an amusement park ride. Now, amusement park rides can be a wonderful thing, and I’d even suggest that there is some room for exploring the ways in which participation can enhance surreality — Shade is an excellent example of this sort of thing done right.

apple, however, has a different agenda than Shade. At the core of Shade, there was still a story being told; all its unreal occurrences were very clearly included with a purpose in mind. In this game, such a purpose is harder to discern. It’s awfully brief, for one thing, so we don’t get much of a chance to make the connections that might lead to a story. For another, it jumps, Fusillade-style, through a variety of characters, settings, and even writing formats (a few scenes are written as a sort of interactive screenplay.) It was well-written enough, and certainly well implemented. There was very little interactivity, but that’s hardly the point in a piece like this.

Ultimately, I think it was apple‘s lack of cohesion that failed me. When I reached the end of this game, I blinked, and then I shrugged. Some people can look at a Pollock and see emotion made visible. Other people just see chaos. This game may be similar, and while I enjoy surreality and even randomness, I don’t think there’s much here that will be sticking with me.

Rating: 7.1

Stick It To The Man by Brendan Barnwell as H. Joshua Field [Comp01]

IFDB page: Stick it to the man
Final placement: 40th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oh man, what a bummer. Here’s this game — I’m playing it, exploring the first scene. It doesn’t take me long to realize that I love the writing. I only wish I could write dialogue and point-of-view descriptions that sound as natural as this. So I spend about a half hour exploring that first scene as thoroughly as I can: checking out all the rooms, talking to all the characters, really digging it. My IF time is up for the night, so I save my game.

Next day, I restore. Things seem a little stranger. Some paragraphs are repeating, weirdly. Some of the dialogue doesn’t exactly seem appropriate to the scene, and some of the scenes appear to lack the appropriate dialogue. About then is when I choose an option and — bang. Interpreter crash. Oh, no! So I restart, try another route. Another crash. Another restart. El crasho.

Oh, NO! Oh, yes. Oh, man. Oh well.

Rating: 1.0

Comp00ter Game by Brendan Barnwell as Austin Thorvald [Comp00]

IFDB page: Comp00ter Game
Final placement: 49th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’m pretty sure that Comp00ter Game wants to be a parody of bad games, or bad authors, or something. At least, let me put it this way: I really really really hope that’s what it wants. It is (again, I hope) far too bad not to be intentionally bad. You know, misspelled words, broken code, leaving debug mode on, that kind of thing.

Here’s the thing about satire, though: you can’t satirize stupidity just by acting stupid yourself. You’ve got to have something, somewhere, that indicates that you and your target are separate things. Otherwise, it’s kind of like the prose equivalent of imitating somebody’s words in a high, nasally voice. That’s not satire. It’s not even funny. It’s just sort of irritating. Even if you make a few offhand references to Joyce or something.

That’s the deal with Comp00ter Game. It made me laugh a couple of times, but as far as I can tell, it is as awful a game as has ever been produced. Now, this being interactive fiction, it’s entirely possible that I missed some proper action or magic word or something that puts the whole terrible part into some clever perspective. The file is 150K, after all, and I spent a fair bit of time trying to figure out what could possibly be taking up all that space. I finally concluded that it must be the Infix stuff, which the author left in — I haven’t started a new Inform project since Infix was introduced, so I’m not sure how much it bloats a file, but it seems logical that it would add a fair amount.

I did type “tree”, and managed to crash the whole game with a fatal error, so that left me pretty convinced that the game isn’t clever, just very very broken. It certainly didn’t come with any walkthrough, and I don’t have access to the net at the moment (to check Deja for rgif postings), nor to txd, so that’s the conclusion I’m resting with. The upside is that I didn’t spend much time playing it, nor writing this review, which brings me that much closer to my goal of actually finishing all the games by the deadline. That’s worth something, at least.

Rating: 1.1

The Big Mama by Brendan Barnwell [Comp00]

IFDB page: The Big Mama
Final placement: 20th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Big Mama is an ambitious work with an intriguing structure and a strong sense of place. Somehow, though, it just didn’t work for me, and I think there are a few reasons why. For one thing, the protagonist has the same first name as me, which produced a strange experience that I don’t think any other piece of IF has given me. It’s an odd feeling to have the PC introduce himself as “Paul” and be addressed as such in a game that hasn’t asked for my name explicitly. I suppose that I wouldn’t find this offputting in and of itself if the PC was a character I could relate to. Unfortunately, he isn’t — I found him pretentious and grandiose. One of the most prominent examples of this pretentiousness is the PC’s insistence on constantly referring to the ocean as “the big mama” — one or two references of this sort would be fine, but when the game hammers at it over and over again, flying into rhapsodic soliloquies about how “It’s like some caring, artistic superior being has crafted this little coastline as an experiment in environmental beauty,” I start to get the feeling it’s trying to impress me with how deep and soulful the PC is, and I wasn’t that impressed.

Those kinds of details tend to make me roll my eyes a bit, and they’re everywhere in the game. Another example is the room description in which the PC reacts to a sign reading “Private beach: next 1.5 miles” by snorting “Stupid imperial measurement!” This is the sort of behavior trait that would annoy me if I found it in a real person — it strikes me as contrariness for the sake of it rather than for any rational reason, and when it’s divorced from any explanatory context, as it is with this PC, my initial response remains as my lasting impression. Meanwhile, the game is not only ascribing all these traits to me in the second person voice, it’s actually using my name to do so. Weird.

Oddly, the game’s very open-ended structure only served to underscore this feeling for me. At one point (when you type “score”), the author himself intrudes to insist that “it’s all up to you.” In fact, however, it isn’t. If you try to swim in the ocean, for instance, you are told “You’re a stand-on-the-shore-and-watch-the-waves-roll-in kind of guy, not a frolic-in-the-crashing-surf kind of guy.” When this happens, the game forcefully reminds me that despite its proclamations of freedom, the PC is never going to act like anything but the rather pompous character I was trying to steer away from. I can understand that there need to be some limits on what’s implemented in a game, but I’d rather not hear any claims like “it’s all up to you” unless those limits are very wide indeed.

That complaint aside, however, TBM‘s structure is absorbing. The game sports at least 39 endings (at every ending you reach, you are told “You have reached ending #[whatever]”, though the game rather coyly avers that “The total number of endings is a secret.” Anyway, I got to ending number 39, so I know that there are at least that many.) I played through the game about 20 times, and was impressed by the number of possible branches to take, though again I still felt disappointingly straitjacketed by the character’s consistency. If I had liked the character, I think would have spent even more time chasing down the various possibilities.

The writing in the game was well proofread — I think I only found one error (an it’s/its mixup) — and it was very effective at producing a strong sense of place for me. TBM provides quite a few vivid details for its beach setting, and when I closed my eyes after playing the game for an hour or so, I nearly felt transported. The actual style of the prose, on the other hand, felt just a little over-the-top to me at times, but this may have been a further outgrowth of my reaction to the PC’s perspective. In addition, TBM suffers unfairly in my mind because I can’t help comparing it to Sunset Over Savannah, one of the best-written IF games out there and certainly the best one to be set on a beach. I think another thing that deflated the power of the writing for me was that the game begins with a series of “light-hearted” admonishments by way of introduction, and I found this sequence irritatingly precious. That’s pretty much the story with me and TBM — there’s nothing wrong with it, particularly, but it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

Rating: 7.2

[Postscript from 2020: This game inspired one of my all-time favorite reviews ever written for a piece of IF, Adam Cadre’s review from, which I subsequently reprinted in SPAG. The whole thing still sends me into fits of helpless laughter. Also, the big mama.]

Lomalow by Brendan Barnwell [Comp99]

IFDB page: Lomalow
Final placement: 21st place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Ever feel like you’re first reader for the slushpile? I get that feeling sometimes as I near the end of a long list of competition entries, and I definitely had it playing Lomalow. It’s sentences like this that produce such a feeling: “The sheer mountain cliffs end abruptly at and are ended abrutply at by a dense forest of tall evergreens.” Huh? The author announces at the outset that the game’s only puzzle is “how to get to read all the text that you possibly can.” The implication is that reading the text is its own reward. This is a nice concept, but works better when the text is actually well written. There’s a fair amount of prose in this game, and seeing it can be rewarding, but often not for the reason the author intended. For instance, at one point, a wind howling above the pit you’re in is compared to “a giant child puffing across the top of a Coke bottle.” This comparison may have been intended to inspire awe, but for me it was a very comic image. Somehow the idea of a kid blowing on a Coke bottle failed to evoke the fury of nature.

My favorite passage, though, was a room description, and I can’t resist quoting it in full:

This area seems to be filled with abrupt ends. To the east,
the mountain ends abruptly at the forest you came from, and vice versa.
The forest also ends abruptly at the cliff which you are standing on.
It's about ten feet wide and ends abruptly in midair. Far above, a
riverbed abruptly ends at the abrupt end of the mountain, generating an
incredibly long but relatively narrow waterfall. From the roar that
emanates from below, you presume that this waterfall ends abruptly at
some flat surface, creating high-intensity sound waves which end
abruptly at your ears, which end abruptly at the side of your head,
which ends abrutply at your shoulders, and so on and so forth.

By the time I got to the end of this passage, I almost fell out of my chair I was laughing so hard. The problem is, I’m not at all certain it was meant to be funny. The contrast suggests to me that the game’s prose has escaped its control — the same word is repeated 10 times in 6 sentences, sounding sillier each time (it doesn’t help that the final occurrence is misspelled) and jarring badly with the overall tone of the story.

The mounting ridiculousness of the repetition in the above passage is echoed by the repetitive nature of the game itself. Lomalow is designed so that the only way to win is to ask the two characters the same questions over and over and over again. A typical interaction might be to type “ASK WOMAN ABOUT BOOK.” She will give a very short answer, trailing off with an ellipsis. Then, the player must type “G” again and again until the old woman starts to repeat herself. After that, the player must repeat the process with a different noun substituted in place of “book.” Then, repeat all of the above with the game’s other character, an old man.

After going through the cycles a few dozen times, the whole thing starts to seem really funny. I kept imagining what life would be like if all conversations had to be carried out this way. I’d have to ask my wife about the store 29 times to get the entire shopping list down. You’d have to ask the cop about the ticket 8 times before finally receiving it. When the final climactic scene came, my main emotion was relief that the characters could bring themselves to utter more than a few sentences at a time without being prompted. Relief was followed closely by amusement when the old man screamed at me, “We’re magic BIRDS, aren’t we? What do BIRDS do, guy?” Of course, it took me a while to get to this scene, because I kept running out of nouns to substitute in the conversations.

I turned to the hint system for help, but all it tended to give me were cryptic suggestions along the lines of “Don’t be dense. You’ve already seen 14220. Why haven’t you talked to the old woman about it?” My suspicion is that these odd messages are the result of a bug in the hint system caused by having Inform print an object’s number rather than its name. The numbers may have been intentional, but if so, the decision to use them makes the hint system pretty useless.

So Lomalow is a very flawed game, hampered by its overblown prose and its numbingly iterative design. That’s what I have to say as a critic. Now, here’s what I have to say as an author. The thing I liked about Lomalow, and the thing that kept it from becoming a purely irritating experience, was the obvious sincerity that was driving it. Yes, it’s the product of a novice writer. But every writer is a novice at some point, and I’m quite certain that almost every respected writer (of interactive fiction and regular fiction too) started out writing passages that were just as silly as, if not sillier than, the ones I quoted in my first paragraph. It’s a necessary thing, and I know from my own experience that fear of looking foolish in public can hold a writer back from going through that stage. Since it’s a stage that is almost always one of the first steps on the path to real skill, the fear stops many writers from reaching their true potential.

So even though, from a critical standpoint, I can’t see Lomalow as a success, I applaud its author for having the courage to overcome that paralyzing fear. I could see the promise of improvement shining through much of the text, and the game’s very existence suggests that the author is committed to pursuing that promise. These thoughts allowed me to play through Lomalow with a smile rather than a grimace.

Rating: 5.0