PTBAD 3 by Jonathan Berman as “Xorax” [Comp04]

IFDB page: PTBAD 3
Final placement: 35th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I saw the title, I thought this game was going to be a sequel to Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die. Because the acronym seemed to be missing a number of letters, I thought it was going to be a badly-done, amateurish sequel, but a sequel nonetheless. For those unfamiliar with this long-standing IF in-joke, in 1996 Rob Noyes released a very simple game called Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die. The title is more or less also the walkthrough.

There are other ultra-minimalist joke games, but PUTPBAD attained iconic status because of the humor of its writing and the sheer ludicrousness of its premise. The joke inspired one sequel by Noyes, which fleshed out the simplicity of the original by adding some more funny stuff. It also inspired a much better joke, Pick Up The Phone Booth And Aisle, in which a huge number of IF authors collaborated to combine the original with the “one-move IF” concept pioneered by Sam Barlow in his game Aisle.

Well, if this game was meant to connect to any of those, it fails completely, and consequently, I have no idea what the title is supposed to represent. In fact, representation is a vexed issue for the entire game, which bears more resemblance to gibberish like Comp2000’s Stupid Kittens in that all of it seems like offhand, random, unconnected thoughts that make no sense whatsoever. To borrow a phrase from the game itself: “Rather disgusting dada surealist [sic] foolishness.” PTBAD 3 offers a badly-spelled, creakily-coded trip through what purports to be someone’s mind, perhaps someone who was the victim of a severe closed head injury. It’s got a maze, toilet humor, and a complete lack of proofreading. It’s quite a waste of time, though it’s short enough that it at least doesn’t waste much of it.

I wonder, though: why does PUTPBAD work when this game doesn’t? After all, in Baf’s Guide, Carl Muckenhoupt dismisses the original PUTPBAD in almost the same terms (“Would be a waste of time, were it not so short as to be almost nonexistent.”) They’re both tiny, nonsensical games that discard nearly all IF conventions. The difference, I think, is craft. Even though it only consists of maybe 200 words beyond the standard Inform libraries, PUTPBAD is clever, solidly coded, and impeccably written. PTBAD 3, on the other hand, seems as though it couldn’t care less about its prose or its code. And because of that, neither could I.

Rating: 2.9

The Gostak by Carl Muckenhoupt [Comp01]

IFDB page: The Gostak
Final placement: 21st place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

In the proud tradition of Bad Machine, this game broke my brain. If you’ve played it, you’ll know why. If not, maybe this will give you an idea:

Finally, here you are. At the delcot of tondam, where doshes deave.
But the doshery lutt is crenned with glauds.

Glauds! How rorm it would be to pell back to the bewl and distunk
them, distunk the whole delcot, let the drokes discren them.

But you are the gostak. The gostak distims the doshes. And no glaud
will vorl them from you.

That’s the game’s introductory text, and it pretty much goes on like that the whole time. At first I thought it would be kind of a fun, Lewis Carroll-ish diversion, full of nonsense words but still easily understandable. I was wrong — the game is much more insidious than that. The linguistic displacement is deep, and it infects the game on every level, up to and including its help text and hints. In fact, I paid closer attention to this game’s help text than I probably have to any other piece of IF’s instructions, ever, since it used so many unfamiliar words, and since these words were absolutely necessary as levers to begin cracking the game’s code.

Not that I ever completely succeeded in figuring out every aspect of the game’s environment. I ended up with three pages of words, each of which held a column of nouns and a column of verbs. I didn’t even attempt the adjectives. At the end of two hours, I was pretty impressed by the amount I’d been able to grok of the game’s language, and in fact I had wrenched my head far enough into this new linguistic space that I’m having to be careful to make sure I’m writing English as I type out this review, so as to avoid louking “rask” instead of “take”. Oh, sorry. [Don’t worry, this is no more a spoiler than the little starter hints telling you that Z=E in today’s Cryptoquip.]

Putting my head into the game’s space was critical to getting anywhere at all in it — I found that to play The Gostak successfully, some significant immersion is required. The game upends IF convention so thoroughly that all the directions have different names (and abbreviations), as does almost every verb. Consequently, once I had figured out many of the fundamentals, I was able to navigate through the game with relative ease, but only during that game session. After I saved my game, ate dinner, and returned to it, my old IF habits were obstructing me again, resulting in the game rejecting or disastrously misunderstanding much of my input. Since I only had about 15 minutes left on my two hours at that point, I was unable to fully recapture all those tenuous understandings I was holding in my head during the first session, and consequently couldn’t quite finish.

I get the feeling that this game wanted to be a comp-length exercise in the kind of mental mechanisms that made The Edifice‘s celebrated language puzzle so much fun. To some degree, it succeeds. I was able to enter this game’s foreign world much more easily than that of, say, Schroedinger’s Cat, and I found the process much more enjoyable. I was shocked at how quickly and easily I found myself typing commands like “doatch at droke about calbice”.

However, the whole experience was completely cerebral, with little of the emotional catharsis I associate with successful storytelling. I felt this effect when I played Dan Schmidt’s For A Change, but it’s ten times stronger in this game, where words aren’t simply rearranged but actually replaced wholesale. Consequently, while playing The Gostak was a strange and memorable experience, one which will surely elevate the game to the rarefied level of For A Change, Bad Machine, and Lighan ses Lion, I found it a somewhat strained sort of fun. Great for a puzzle-solving mood, and certainly worth trying if you’re a cryptography buff, but not terribly involving as a story. If it sounds like your cup of tea, make sure you set aside a few hours — it’s not something you want to leave and come back to.

Rating: 8.1