Sophie’s Adventure by David Whyld [Comp03]

IFDB page: Sophie’s Adventure
Final placement: 16th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Here are some things about this game: It is cute. It is buggy. It is huge.

About “cute”: the whole thing is written from the perspective of 8-year-old Sophie, the daughter of a couple of retired magic-users, both of whom seem sunk well into strangeness now, but then again perhaps they’d look a little different through someone else’s eyes. There were many moments in the game that brought a smile or a chuckle, and much of the writing found a place between overly edgy and overly twee. Sophie has a rather hardheaded perspective, or so she seems to think anyway, and while she’s really rather spoiled, she does have some valid points about the foibles of those around her.

For instance, her mother has an inexplicable predilection for decorating in bright colors, and Sophie quite reasonably finds things like her painfully bright quilt rather difficult to stomach:

> x bed
It's hard to look at your bed with the colourful quilt lying across over it like that but you know there's nothing very interesting in it because you were lying there only a few minutes ago. You remember when you were a kid (well, a younger kid than you are now anyway) you used to worry that there was an evil gremlin that lived under the bed who would creep out after nightfall and eat you. But when you got a bit older you realised that no self-respecting gremlin would be seen anywhere near a bed with a quilt like that.

> look under bed
You look under the bed, searching for the gremlin you were convinced as
a child was under there.

Nope, no sign of him.

Writing like this lends a wonderfully strong personality to Sophie as a PC. The NPCs, too, are distinctive and interesting, and the menu-based dialogue can be a source of great amusement. On the basis of the writing (leaving out, for now, the issues of “buggy” and “huge”), I’m strongly inclined to recommend this game for kids, except for the fact that there are several parts that are outright gruesome. Sophie encounters gory battlefields, piles of corpses waiting to be burned, and dead bodies lying in pools of blood.

Now, I don’t have kids, and haven’t read children’s books for a while, so I don’t have a good sense of what are considered “appropriate” levels of gore and violence in those stories. I’m also a believer that what’s appropriate for kids isn’t so much determined by their ages as their personalities. Nevertheless, just because Sophie is 8 doesn’t mean the game would be great for any 8-year-old. Personally, I was able to ignore the gore, and so found it charming, though it would have been a lot more charming were it not so buggy and huge.

About “buggy”: Sophie’s Adventure breaks frequently, and often in the most unexpected ways. For instance, this exchange:

> n
You can't go in that direction, but you can move north, northwest,
west, southwest and down.

> north
You can't go in that direction, but you can move north, northwest,
west, southwest and down.

> go north
You move north.

I’ve had games forget to implement exits before, or forget to mention them in the exits list, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game that forgets in one place to make the directional abbreviations available. I’m surprised ADRIFT even makes this possible — I can’t think how it would happen in a more robust development system. Speaking of ADRIFT, all its parser deficiencies are still hanging around like unwelcome guests: the way it pretends to understand more than it does, the way it asks questions but doesn’t listen to the answers, and the way it totally ignores prepositions (LOOK UNDER = LOOK BEHIND = LOOK IN = EXAMINE, except when it doesn’t.)

Another bizarre way that Sophie’s Adventure frequently breaks is in its menu-based conversations; once out of every 20 or so times, the game just wouldn’t understand when I’d enter a number to choose a menu option. There wasn’t any pattern to this that I could discern — the broken choices might be first, middle, or last entries in the menu. It was always very aggravating when it would happen. The game is broken in larger ways, too, or at least it seemed so to me. Several times, I’d get information that suggested a roadblock puzzle — you know, the old “you can’t go this way until you perform this task for me” routine. However, if I simply walked in the forbidden direction: success! No puzzle-solving required. This is either a bug or head-scratchingly odd design. There are also tons of typos throughout the game, some quite hilarious (“It also looks remarkably similar to Golem in Lord of the Rings.”) All in all, the game is a couple of betatesting rounds away from being ready for release, and maybe more, given that it’s probably difficult to test because it’s so huge.

About “huge”: there’s no maximum score listed in Sophie’s Adventure, so I’m not sure how many points are possible, but after two hours with it, I’d scored two points. There’s also apparently a “niceness” score, which not only never changed, but never even seemed to offer any opportunity to change. Also, even after circumventing quite a few puzzles via the bugs mentioned above, I still think I’d only seen a fraction of the game’s locations. I already gave my spiel on too-big-for-the-comp games in my review of Risorgimento Represso, and most of those points apply here as well. However, where that game felt disappointing because I hated to rush through something created with such skill and care, Sophie’s Adventure evinces sort a flip side to that problem, which is that gigantic games are much harder to get right.

I boggle at the amount of work that must have gone into this game, and so I don’t mean to badmouth it, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel it would be a much better game if it were much smaller in scope. Fewer locations, fewer puzzles, fewer things to go horribly wrong. It goes without saying that this game is totally inappropriate for the comp because of its size, but I wonder if it’s simply the wrong size full stop. I say this because frequently, object and room descriptions seemed freighted with resentment for even having to be written:

As cracks go it's not a very interesting one and you kind of wonder
why you're even taking the time to examine it.

Somehow you doubt the fate of the world relies on you examining rat
droppings.

East Road
The land from here on eastwards is desolate to the point of having a
not-very-finished look to it. If anything, it looks like whoever was
given the job of designing this landscape got bored and decided to
just scribble in a few trees and bushes and leave it at that. [...]

There’s the straightforward problem with these that I don’t know whether something is interesting until I examine it, so would rather not be chastised for wasting my time, but there’s also this: when the descriptions themselves start complaining about being boring, there’s probably too much stuff in the game.

I think the best thing that could happen to Sophie’s Adventure would be if it were scaled back considerably (say to a size that is finishable in two hours), tested and proofread much more thoroughly, and entered in the comp in that tighter and stronger form. Too late for all of that now — I won’t be returning to this game after the way it aggravated me — but these lessons can be learned for future games, by this author and others.

Rating: 3.0

Timeout by Stephen Hilderbrand [Comp01]

IFDB page: Timeout
Final placement: 35th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’m in a dilemma about this game. I played through once, found some things to enjoy about it, and reached an ending that was pretty clearly not optimal. Not having a clear idea about how to reach the optimal ending, and running short on time, I pulled out the walkthrough, and it showed me something about a particular item that I hadn’t really understood (due to the game’s vague description of that item): it had a subcomponent that could be examined to yield more information. However, when I did so, the interpreter crashed with a fatal text buffer overflow error.

Now, I’ve developed a pretty strict rule about unfinishable games — I give them a 1, write a short review explaining the problem, and move on. The question is: does Timeout fit that category or not? I did finish it, so in a sense it’s not really unfinishable, but on the other hand, it seems impossible to reach a more optimal ending. What to do?

Here’s what I’m deciding. I won’t give the game a 1. I was able to play through successfully (well, for one value of the word “successfully”, anyway), and that’s worth something. That first experience had some good points — there were some funny spots in the writing, and some sort of fun cut scenes. On the other hand, it was mostly a negative experience. Timeout‘s implementation is maddeningly shallow, leading to lots of encounters like this:

You can see a trash can (which is closed) here.

>open can
That's not something you can open.

Or this:

A steel door is set in the north wall, and a passageway heads west,
back to the hallway.

>x steel door
You can't see any such thing.

>n
The door is locked.

>unlock door
You can't see any such thing.

Trying to get immersed in such a world is like trying to scuba dive in a puddle.

There were other problems too, including a NASTY FOUL IT’S/ITS ERROR, which is becoming my version of the Olympics’ “mandatory deduction” items. And then the fatal crash. All this comes together to make a game that’s not really worth my time in its competition version.

Rating: 3.0

Wrecked by Campbell Wild [Comp00]

IFDB page: Wrecked
Final placement: 39th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

There are several points in Wrecked where the game collars you to proclaim just how awesome its development system is. For example, you meet someone who (surprise surprise!) just happens to be coding an ADRIFT game on a nearby computer. Ask her about it, and she’ll say to you, “I’m making an ADRIFT adventure. I’ve tried using Inform, TADS and Hugo, but I’d say ADRIFT is by far the best.” In another location, you can gain some points with the command “write graffiti,” something I would never have thought to do without the handy walkthrough to prod me. The graffiti the game chooses to write? “ADRIFT rocks!”

Apparently, Wrecked suspects that its own merits are not enough to convince you of ADRIFT’s supremacy, but that if it just shouts slogans at you once in a while, that might do the trick. For me, the former was true, but the latter, predictably, was not. I’ve already catalogued the shortcomings of ADRIFT in my review of Marooned, so I don’t see the need to rehash them here — the bottom line is that ADRIFT isn’t a bad system overall, and has some nifty features to recommend it, but its parser (which is MORE IMPORTANT THAN NIFTY FEATURES) is substandard, its model world needs work, and it’s still lacking in key functions like UNDO and SCRIPT. A random NPC might think it beats Inform, TADS, and Hugo, but a quick conversation with this NPC demonstrates that her powers of discernment are, after all, rather limited. The game’s self-hyping moments are offputting, as it would have been if Graham Nelson had chosen to have “Inform RUELZ!” scribbled on the side of the house in Curses, or if the spaceship in Deep Space Drifter had been named the USS TADS Is Supreme.

On the other hand, Wrecked is definitely a better showcase for ADRIFT than is Marooned. Those extraneous newlines that I blamed on the ADRIFT system in my review of Marooned turned out to be that game’s doing — they’re nowhere to be found in Wrecked. Many more first-level nouns are implemented, making the auto-complete option work much better, though it still doesn’t work flawlessly. Also, there’s no starvation puzzle in Wrecked, which sets to rest my fears that such a puzzle is standard issue in every ADRIFT game.

However, just being a better game than Marooned doesn’t make Wrecked a great game in itself. One part of the reason why I didn’t care for Wrecked is that it just feels very dated to me. It’s an old-school adventure, something that might have fit comfortably into the mainstream circa 1983 or so. You know the kind: you find a bowling ball with a button on the side, and when you push the button, the ball opens up to reveal a sapphire bracelet, which you then give to the sailor on the dock, who will reward you with a chicken pot pie that you can feed to the vicious warthog, allowing you to sneak into his lair and retrieve the bag of marbles, etc. etc. Everything is pretty much thrown together without any rhyme or reason, loosely grouped together under a threadbare rubric of plot and setting. Like I said, old-school. Unfortunately for Wrecked, the old school of IF lost its accreditation some time ago. To my mind, senseless grouping of stuff without any indication of internal consistency is something IF has outgrown, like mazes and starvation puzzles. Seeing it in a year 2000 competition entry isn’t going to score a lot of points from me.

However, even if I were willing to set aside the deep flaws in both the parser and the design of the game, there would still be the matter of the bugs. Most severe among these is the game-killing bug I encountered about an hour and 45 minutes into the game: despite all conditions being correct, I was unable to complete a critical puzzle, even though I knew from a previous play session that it was possible to complete this puzzle. Because ADRIFT makes a habit of overwriting old save files with the current save unless you explicitly tell it to do otherwise (by selecting “save as” from the menu bar — typing “save” will overwrite without prompting), I would have had to start from scratch and wind my way once more through all the nonsensical contortions required by the game’s plot, and there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t encounter the same bug again.

That bug ended my dealings with Wrecked, but there were other errors along the way. The voice was in first person, but would occasionally slip into second person. Sometimes the game failed to recognize rather important objects. In one supremely frustrating section, the game adamantly refused to recognize the word “keyhole,” despite a promiently featured keyhole in the location; it responded to all commands along the lines of “put key in keyhole” with “I can’t put anything inside the small key.” In short, between the bugs, the parser, the hype, and the lack of any kind of logic, Wrecked wasn’t a lot of fun, and it’s not likely to win many converts to ADRIFT. No matter how many times it insists that ADRIFT rocks.

Rating: 4.0

Four Seconds by Jason Reigstad [Comp99]

IFDB page: Four Seconds
Final placement: 15th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Maybe I’m just getting cranky, but I really feel that this year’s competition games are a lot buggier, on average, than in previous years. It’s drained some of the fun out of the competition for me — I’ve begun to dread starting a new entry rather than eagerly anticipate it. For each unknown game, I start to wonder whether it will be just another bugfest that I’ll sincerely try to play for 30 minutes to an hour, getting more and more frustrated with its constant errors before turning to the walkthrough. That’s not normally my approach, but this year’s games have changed my usual attitude.

Four Seconds is a case in point. It is very, very buggy, and heavily burdened with grammar and spelling errors as well. If you don’t use the walkthrough, you will find lots of bugs. In fact, there are even a few bugs in the walkthrough itself. If you type “info” or “about” in the game, you’ll find an apology from the author for the bugginess of the game. This is something for which I have zero patience. If you know your game is buggy, fix it. Fix it before you ask people to play it. Don’t waste my time.

It’s baffling to me that buggy games like this get entered, especially considering the fact that this year Lucian Smith and Liza Daly went to the trouble of actually setting up a betatesters clearinghouse on the web. Testers were available, so why weren’t they used? All I can conclude is that the authors who submitted buggy games just don’t care that much about the players’ experience. This disregard leaves the player little motivation to care about the game’s rating, and it gives me as a reviewer very little motivation to put any time or energy into giving useful feedback. In addition, playing a game so crammed with bugs feels like another version of non-interactivity, since there’s almost nothing to see outside the bounds of the path dictated by the walkthrough.

So here’s the deal with Four Seconds: it’s not worth the download. Not only is its plot a b-movie rehash of much better games (mayhem at an isolated science complex a la Delusions or Babel), but it’s pretty much unplayable. Tons of commands get no response at all from the parser. Many more get responses that make no sense. Those pieces of prose that do emerge, whether arrived at by use of the walkthrough or just dumb luck, lack the most basic proofreading. I spent an hour of my life that could have gone to something much more fulfilling on playing Four Seconds. I wish I had spent 59 minutes and 56 seconds less.

Rating: 2.7