Jarod’s Journey by Tim Emmerich [Comp00]

IFDB page: Jarod’s Journey
Final placement: 47th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

This game has one of the most startling first lines I’ve ever encountered. The line is this: “Welcome to Jarod’s Journey, a TADS-based game that will hopefully get you and Jarod closer to God.” This line brought up a couple of questions for me. The first was “Whose God?”, and the second was “What gives you the right?” I’m agnostic, but I wouldn’t scorn someone simply for their religious beliefs. I respect the desire and necessity of all people to find their own spiritual paths, and I expect to receive the same respect in return. A game that wants to bring me closer to what it calls God is violating what I see as a very personal boundary, the boundary around my soul and my spiritual life.

My agnosticism is of the stripe that objects to the notion that any human has privileged access to any sort of Higher Truth. I find it deluded and arrogant when a person claims to have all the answers to the Big Questions, even when they’re basing that claim on some kind of intense personal experience, but I respect that person’s right to believe whatever feels right to them. However, when they want to proselytize to me (or to anybody else, really), that’s when I get offended. I think people have the right to believe whatever they want, but I don’t believe they have the right to evangelize others about it — doing so runs roughshod over those others’ right to believe what they want. Consequently, I found the basic goal of Jarod’s Journey to be an offensive one.

That being said, I’ll try to set aside my fundamental personal objections to the game’s announced intent and review it simply as IF. Sadly, it doesn’t have much to recommend it, even from a pure gaming standpoint. First of all, it crossed another big bias of mine by having, you guessed it, a starvation puzzle. Actually, two starvation puzzles. Strangely, there doesn’t appear to be any actual consequence attached to the starvation. Jarod, the PC, never dies, no matter how long he starves, but the game continues to print annoying messages.

It could be argued that these are better than typical starvation puzzles since they don’t ever actually enforce a time limit, but I say that they’re just as bad, because without the time limit they become entirely pointless instead of just mostly pointless. In addition, there are a disheartening number of spelling and grammar errors in the game’s writing, which makes the whole thing seem less than divinely inspired. On top of this, there’s the fact that although the game tries to maintain a third-person voice, there are little slips of second-person throughout, as in this scene:

Jarod is in a dream, or at least he thinks it is a dream. The
angel is here and has delivered a map.
You see a map here.
There is an angel here who is slightly glowing!

If the player controls Jarod, who is the “you” that sees the map? Perhaps it’s the same “you” that the game announces in the first line that it wants to convert — that is, me? But I don’t see a map, just a computer game. Or rather, a digital sermon. (One nice thing about JJ is that next time somebody tells me that LASH is preachy, I can point at this game and say, Crocodile Dundee-style, “That isn’t preachy. THIS is preachy!”)

Setting aside the game’s deficiencies in the areas of design, prose mechanics, and coding, we come at last to the quality of the writing itself. Jarod’s Journey is written in a kind of earnest, gee-whiz tone that works best when you imagine it being read aloud by Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. (And by “works best”, I mean “is most entertaining.”) An example:

>ask angel about god
"God is wonderful. He loves you very much and created you just as you

>ask angel about grace
Jarod asks the angel about grace. The angel responds saying "Grace is
truly wonderful! You will not find a better gift!"

Jarod thinks to himself, "The angel is truly magnificent, glowing
ever so brightly."

Okeley-dokeley-do! Don’t get the impression that I scowled through this game. On the contrary, I laughed a lot, but only because it was difficult to take this wide-eyed tone seriously. On a more serious level, though, perhaps it’s worth thinking about the model of Christianity that this game constructs for us.

There’s one section that I found quite ironic — Jarod meets a pharisee who is described as “praying loudly. So loudly that everyone nearby can hear him. Even in the short time that Jarod pauses to listen, it is obvious that the man is repeating himself. Is this what pleases the Lord?” From this description, we’re supposed to realize that the pharisee’s method of prayer is Not OK. But only one location away is a Christian priest who fits this same exact description. Not only that, the game itself fits this description. The deep irony of the pharisee section made me suspect that not only is the game evangelical, its evangelism isn’t even well thought out.

Another example: at the end of each section of the game, Jarod is asked to make a spiritual choice between various methods of approaching God. If you pick the right one, you get a point. If not, you get chided with a scripture. Is the sacred realm of faith really so simple as that? Can the intricacies of individual worship really be boiled down to a multiple choice test? According to the game, apparently so. The best religious literature explores the mysteries of faith rather than handing out reductionist platitudes. Dante knew this. Chaucer knew it. Lewis knew it. Jarod… Well, Jarod still has quite a ways to go.

Rating: 3.4

[Postscript from 2020: As dire a game as this was, it did inspire a really fascinating and fruitful conversation on rec.games.int-fiction. Duncan Stevens — one of the best IF reviewers of all time — challenged my “What gives you the right?” question, saying “Why shouldn’t he have the right?” And it went on from there, with lots of other community members weighing in with thoughts and jokes.

Rereading that conversation reminds me of what a vibrant community lived in the IF newsgroups once upon a time. This competition landed during the glory days of that community, and the conversation was often as good as or better than the games themselves.

Oh, and Adam Cadre’s review of Jarod’s Journey was very funny. Man, Adam was on fire with funny reviews that year.]

Small World by Andrew Pontious [Comp96]

IFDB page: Small World
Final placement: 4th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

I really enjoyed this game a great deal, and it definitely gets points for originality. The literalized version of the game’s title made for a charming premise, and because the premise was so heavily based on setting, the brand of fantasy which resulted was perfect for interactive fiction. Wandering through the miniaturized world was really a treat, although sometimes I found it difficult to retain my suspension of disbelief, especially since some of the obstacles to my progress seemed just a little too arbitrary. For example, the inventory management problem caused by the lack of gravity in the majority of the game’s locations was a major pain in the neck. I didn’t feel that I was doing anything clever or solving an intellectual challenge when I had to trudge back to Dawn anytime I wanted to get something from the backpack. Puzzles like this, which tended toward the arbitrary, were the game’s weakness. From the weak gravity problem to the “loose ring” to the capricious magic rod, the game took advantage of its whimsical setting to create puzzles which were irrational and divorced from reality, and failed to provide enough hints and description to make them reasonably solvable. On the other hand, some puzzles (such as the satellite/snow puzzle and the lagoon) did a very nice job of exploiting the game’s scenario to witty ends. On the whole, Small World was a delightfully well-written game which has a few flaws, but is nevertheless lots of fun.

Prose: The prose which describes the world is very well done indeed, and much of the time I really felt a part of the situation because of how well the world’s Lilliputian proportions were described. The game obviously draws heavily on Gulliver’s Travels, especially in its description of the player staked to the ground by tiny people, and though it shares none of Swift’s social commentary, it does convey a distinct sense of his imaginative milieu. The main weakness in the prose related to the puzzles. In puzzles such as the loose ring and the rod, I didn’t feel that enough description was provided to allow me to reasonably predict the outcomes of my actions, and consequently I ended up solving some puzzles by force. (e.g. how would I know that something made of silver would buoy me?)

Difficulty: I found the game rather difficult, and ended up referring to the “cheat” hints a number of times (13, or so I’m told by the game). Unfortunately, much of this reliance was due to the lack of information described above or, in one case, to a lack of synonyms. When these features are improved, the game’s difficulty will be well pitched.

Technical (coding): There’s little to complain about in the coding of Small World, so I hope my quibble doesn’t receive undue focus. On the whole the game was very smoothly implemented, and I never found myself searching for the right word, except for once. Of particular note were the game’s warnings before moving to an unsolvable state, and its ingenious hinting system. The one area in which I had trouble was in receiving the “that verb isn’t implemented” response to “CLEAN SOCKS.” When that verb wasn’t available, I presumed I was on the wrong track altogether, not that I simply needed to “WASH” the socks instead. It took a “cheat” to get me out of that one.

Technical (writing): The game’s writing was technically proficient. Mr. Pontious does a nice job of eliminating errors in grammar and spelling.

Plot: The plot of the game was really quite sweetly designed, creating a childhood fantasyland which was evocative not only of Jonathan Swift, but also C.S. Lewis’ Narnia works, Lewis Carroll, and Bill Watterson. The battles between Heaven and Hell were a very nice touch, and I smiled at the gentle ending, which packs the character off to the hiking trip with a refreshed perspective.

Puzzles: This is my main difficulty with the game. As I mentioned above, some of the puzzles were really delightful and smart, while others felt a bit lazy. I think, though, that with the addition of richer descriptions for crucial objects such as the ring and the pipe (whose mechanism is mysterious to me even now), and with a closer attention to synonyms, these wrinkles will be well-ironed.

OVERALL — An 8.8