The Trip by Cameron Wilkin [Comp00]

IFDB page: The Trip
Final placement: 33rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Trip is a rather clever title, for a few reasons. Of course, there’s the obvious double-entendre: not only does the main character go on a vacation-kind-of-trip (to Utah or Arizona, the game can’t seem to make up its mind which), he also indulges in several drug trips, courtesy of the marijuana and peyote found in his inventory at various points. However, beyond that simple pun, there’s also the fact that while the character is taking these trips, he is at the same time going nowhere. He’s graduated college, but hasn’t obtained gainful employment (one gets the impression he hasn’t looked very hard), and is sinking further into depression. In fact, both kinds of trip serve to underscore how stuck the character is; the trip he takes is to just hang out with his buddy (who the game describes as “just your average happy-go-lucky stoner”) and smoke a lot of dope, which doesn’t exactly seem like a promising route to get his life on track.

Even beyond this more subtle resonance, another trip occurs in this story, one that actually does get the character unstuck — it’s a spiritual journey, and one that couldn’t have happened without the other trips. The neatest thing about this last trip is the fact that the game sets it up so that it actually happens through traversal of the landscape. The source of spiritual enlightenment is physically moving from one location to the next, and the PC has to follow it from place to place in order for the spiritual journey to happen properly. This is a lovely example of how powerful it can be to map abstract or emotional concepts onto IF conventions.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the game doesn’t live up to the promise of its artful title. Spelling and grammar mistakes are strewn throughout it, and coding errors aren’t terribly uncommon either. I’d like to be really charitable about it, and suggest that the writing errors are simply the reflection of a character who isn’t very literate, sort of a very mild example of what Adam Cadre did in his Flowers For Algernon Textfire demo. However, if this is the intention, the style isn’t strong enough to put it over, and besides, some of the errors just aren’t in line with the way people talk. For example, when examining a lighter, we are told, “You once knew a guy who insisted that white lighters were bad luck, because something bad always happened to him when he was carrying him, but this theory holds no sway with you. You’ve never been a particularly superstition person.” “Carrying him”? “Superstition person”? These come across less as mannerisms of a subliterate stoner than as grammatical slips from a non-native English speaker. Mostly, they just come across as basic proofreading errors, and the presence of bugs in the code tends to confirm this theory. In addition to these cosmetic problems, there’s the fact that the spiritual stuff in the endgame just really isn’t all that weighty. To me, it came off as sort of a weak rehash of the Simpsons episode “El Viaje Misterioso De Nuestro Homer.” In your face, space coyote!

On the plus side, however, The Trip does contain what is by far the most realistic depiction of four guys sitting around getting baked ever to appear in the history of interactive fiction. This wasn’t the most exciting moment of computer gaming I’ve ever had, but it did have its own Bill-And-Ted-ish charm. That scene, along with several choice touches like the way the stoners react to Arches National Park (“That’s a big-ass rock, dude”) had me laughing quite a lot. Not quite as much as the characters in the scene, mind you, but laughing nonetheless. In the end, this game feels a lot like some trips can be: long stretches of mild enjoyment, boredom, or even disappointment and annoyance, punctuated by flashes of beauty and brilliance. Or at least, that’s what it felt like at the time.

Rating: 6.3

Bliss by Cameron Wilkin [Comp99]

IFDB page: Bliss
Final placement: 13th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

On behalf of the argument in favor of including hints or walkthroughs in competition entries, I present Exhibit A, Cameron Wilkin’s Bliss. This is a game which gets quite interesting and noteworthy, but doesn’t actually do so until all the points have already been scored. Without the included hints, I doubt I would ever have gotten to the interesting stuff. I certainly wouldn’t have gotten there in two hours. There are enough bugs and non-intuitive puzzles in the game that without those hints I probably would have spent the entire two hours flailing about in the first section. With the benefit of the hint file, however, I was able to advance beyond the roadblocks presented by some suboptimal puzzles and coding, so that I could reach the surprise twist the game delivers in its endgame. The trip was definitely worth it. I won’t give away the surprise here, but I will say that those of you who went into spastic convulsions when you saw the words “dragon”, “village”, “orcs”, and “evil wizard” might, once you regain control of your bodies, want to give the game a second look. Perhaps even just go through it using the walkthrough. All is not as it seems, and the discontinuity provides an interesting perspective on fantasy IF and the fantasy genre in general.

The beginning of the game is pretty good too. You’re “the town hero”, and you’ve set out to capture a ferocious dragon that has been terrorizing your village. However, on the way to the confrontation you were ambushed by a group of orcs who have locked you in a dungeon. Now, with only a blanket and a tin cup, you must find a way to escape. Yes, it’s all quite cliché, but the game has two things going for it. One, the writing is strong enough that it manages to evoke the specificity of the setting, and even if each element of that setting is lifted from shopworn genre conventions, the gestalt still feels like it has a little freshness left. Second, the game displays distinct signs of being aware of its own conventions. For example, when conversing with one of your orc captors, this possibility is available:

"Yur just one big, stoopid hero cliche, aincha? I 'spect it'll be fun
watchin' yu waste away an' die!"

Such glimmers of self-awareness bode well for the rest of the game. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fully deliver on their promise. There are a number of bugs; they’re not glaringly obvious, and it’s clear that the game has been tested, but it’s equally clear that the game would benefit greatly from being tested some more, even if just to add some responses to common actions which might help steer the player in the right direction. In addition, there are a number of puzzles which, if they don’t quite reach the extreme of “guess-what-the-author-is-thinking”, are at least very non-intuitive. These puzzles would benefit from just a few tweaks. An alteration of the prose here, an alternate solution there — just a few changes would make a big difference.

Overall, Bliss is definitely worth playing. Even as I write this review, I’m still having realizations about various elements of the game that continue to revise my perspective, which is a distinct pleasure. Also, its writing is almost completely free of grammar or spelling errors, which is something I’ve recently stopped taking for granted. I very much hope that the author takes into account the feedback he receives from competition authors and possibly a second round of beta testers, and releases a revised version of the game which stomps the bugs, enriches the puzzles, and cleans up the formatting errors (there are a few, though not many.) Once the polish is on, Bliss will be a very strong piece of short IF.

Rating: 7.2