Six by Wade Clarke [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2012.]

IFDB Page: Six

Delicious Icing, Even Better Cake

Six was the second step of my Best Game XYZZY 2011 journey, after Zombie Exodus, and the two games couldn’t have been more different. Where Zombie Exodus is a choose-your-own-adventure style web game, Six employs the parser, and not only that, puts the interface to use in a variety of minigames as well. Where Zombie Exodus has some shaky writing, Six is impeccably written, and not only that, it’s extraordinarily well-executed and professional on every level. And where Zombie Exodus is a horrifying gorefest, Six is utterly innocent and charming, charming, charming. I don’t think I’ve ever been so charmed by an IF game.

Heck, I was charmed before I even started playing! The game comes with a beautiful PDF manual to gently introduce new IF players to the form. It’s got a cute little map of the landscape that fits in perfectly with the tone of the game as well as eliminating any need for the player to make a map. (This document is also available inside the game by typing MAP, a typically smooth implementation detail.) After presenting an adorable frontispiece and a sprightly theme song, it takes first-time players through a breezy but concise configuration process to ensure that the player’s interpreter is prepared to handle everything that Six has to offer.

What does Six have to offer? Well, there’s an impressive library of sound effects, from rushing wind to crunching leaves to giggling children. There’s an original soundtrack of playful electronica. There are a few very cute illustrations, as already mentioned. That’s the multimedia piece of it, but in a text game, multimedia is icing on the cake. All the multimedia in the world can’t make a bad text game fun to play. Lucky for us, Six isn’t just icing — the birthday cake is great too.

That’s right, I said birthday cake. In Six, you play Harriet Leitner, a little girl celebrating her sixth birthday alongside her twin sister Demi. As a part of your birthday party, your parents have taken you and your friends to a park, where you’re playing Hide And Seek Tip. The “tip” part is to specify that this particular Hide And Seek variant incorporates a tagging aspect — once you find somebody, you have to tag (or “tip”) them in order to score a point. As Harriet, you play the searcher — once you find and tip all six of your friends playing the game, you win!

If the nomenclature strikes you as a little odd, you must not be Australian. The game is set in Australia and written by an Australian author — its small incorporations of Australian culture add to its appeal. As is typical of this game, everything that might confuse a first-time player is explained very smoothly. For instance, an entry in the HELP menu helps explain the occasional reference to “fairy bread” you might come across:

Fairy bread is white bread spread with margarine, covered in hundreds and thousands and cut into triangles. (If you don’t know what hundreds and thousands are, they might be called “sprinkles” where you live.) Fairy bread is commonly served at children’s parties.

Every aspect of the game is handled with extraordinary clarity and attention to detail. There’s text to handle first-time players and text to handle experienced players. There’s an explanation of all the game-specific commands, both within the game’s help menu and in the PDF manual. There’s the command HANDY, which lists out all the game-specific commands outside of the help menu. There’s a clever and useful innovation for player convenience: hitting Enter at the prompt repeats the last command. There’s the status line, which lists exits in ALL CAPS if the location they lead to hasn’t been explored, and in lower case when the location is familiar.

There’s an intelligent “can’t go” message, which recognizes which areas have been explored and which haven’t, like so: “You can’t go that way. It looks like you can go north, south (to the edge of the park), west or up (to the treehouse).” Those exits are also available via the EXITS command. There’s a compass rose on the status line to help players unfamiliar with navigating by compass directions, but which can be hidden by the command COMPASS OFF. The status line itself can be altered to have a different background color, or to hide the exits list. On and on it goes, and every time I found something new to provide options or clear the way for players, I got more and more impressed.

Then, partway through, the game delivered a wonderful, delightful surprise that just knocked me out. I won’t spoil it in this review — I’ll just reproduce the note I wrote to myself: “[AWESOME AWESOME A W E S O M E. Oh my god. What fun.]” As happy as I was with the game before this happened, I was more than twice as happy afterward. If I talk about it anymore, though, I’m bound to give it away, and it’s something you should really find for yourself, so let me change the subject.

I mentioned minigames earlier. At various points, the interface announces that it’s going to change, such as when you find your friend Marion, who is dressed as a pirate and challenges you to a duel. At that point, the game plays a short duel theme and announces in blue text:

<< In the duel, you should use these special commands: >>

ZAP - Type this to try to zap Marion with your wand. If you hit her, you win!
DODGE - Type this to try to run or jump out of the way of one of Marion's attacks.
BLOCK - Type this to try to block one of Marion's attacks with your wand.

If you want to let Marion make the next move, you can try to WAIT.

If you want to see these special commands again, type SPECIAL.

You can also use regular commands during this duel if you think they will help, though most of the time, they won't!

<< Press SPACE to begin the duel when you're ready >>

Thus does Six take minigames, long a staple in other video game genres, and integrate them effortlessly into interactive fiction. The game’s interaction simplifies down to a few commands, but still keeps the parser’s sense of expanded possibility available. When appropriate, the game also handles the case where an intuitive command for the minigame overlaps with a standard IF command, by offering the player a choice of how to configure the command set. That kind of exquisite implementation came as no surprise once I encountered it — I knew by then that I could trust the game to handle everything this way. For me, these subgames worked beautifully, and I’d love to see the idea taken up in future games.

With all of this customization and special effects, it’s amazing I didn’t find more bugs in the game. Of course, I did have the advantage of playing release 3 — I’m not sure what the experience was like for comp players, since I’ve tried to avoid reading reviews in order to prevent preconceptions. It couldn’t have been all that bad, as it came in second. (And boy, am I looking forward to playing the piece that voters thought was even better than this.) However, the one bug I found was a doozy: after playing the game for a couple of hours, then saving and coming back, I found I was unable to load my saved game. I’d type RESTORE and get a pop-up message box reading “Reference to nonexistent Glk object.” Given the catastrophic nature of this error, it’s hard to say at what layer it’s even occurring — game, interpreter, or Inform. Six pushes at the technical edges of IF, so perhaps it’s no surprise that it generates more opportunities for platforms to encounter conditions for which they are unprepared.

Rereading this review, I’m realizing that I might have made Six sound cutesy or cloying. It isn’t. The game presents its PC’s perspective in a very matter-of-fact way, with very little adult sentimentality attached. The NPCs are well-drawn too, feeling like real children rather than hasty stereotypes. I thought the dialog rang especially true — as the parent of a six-year-old myself, I recognized the mix of quirkiness and practicality in the game’s characters from my observations of the kids around me.

For nine straight years, I reviewed every game in the IF competition. My ratings added a decimal place to the comp’s typical 1 to 10 ratings, for a little finer calibration. In that time, I never gave any game a 10.0, because I never found the perfect game. However, I did award two games a 9.9: Adam Cadre’s Photopia and Ian Finley’s Exhibition. If I were still doing those ratings today, Six would earn my third 9.9. It’s that good.

Winter Wonderland by Laura A. Knauth [Comp99]

IFDB page: Winter Wonderland
Final placement: 1st place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Bless her, Laura A. Knauth just keeps getting better and better. Just about the time I was getting starved for a really good competition game, along comes Winter Wonderland, a charming and delightful piece of interactive fiction. By far the best thing about this game is its atmosphere. Winter Wonderland exudes a magical, storybook air that is enchanting without being saccharine. The heroine of the story is a young girl from a poor family who suddenly finds herself in a… well, you can probably guess what she finds herself in. A Winter Wonderland. The setting is just lovely, well-imagined and full of vivid, captivating images. A few of these images are present just for atmosphere’s sake, but the majority of them are puzzle components, and many of the puzzles are clever and fun. What Winter Wonderland does so well is to combine the nifty puzzles from Trapped In A One-Room Dilly with the sense of magical landscape from Travels In The Land of Erden, and adds to the combination a thematic specificity that is all its own and that works beautifully. The links between the puzzles feel very plausible because the entire setting is very consistent, and solving the puzzles rewards the player not only by allowing advancement through the plot, but often as well by presenting another appealing image to add to the already dense atmosphere. Romping around the snowy landscape encountering sprites, fairies and dryads was a great deal of fun for me, and the intricate and ingenious ways in which they presented interlocking puzzles was a real source of pleasure as well.

There are a couple of clunkers among the puzzles, unfortunately. The game has two sections that aren’t exactly mazes, but feel enough like mazes to provoke some annoyance. By the time you figure out how to solve them, you’ll have done a fair piece of mapping, and while there are no “trick exits” and everything connects to everything else in a fairly logical way, just the mapping alone is enough to make the whole area seem pretty tedious. In addition, there are a number of misspellings and a few parser problems which detract from the immersiveness of the game. I’ve emailed the author about these, and I’m optimistic they’ll be cleaned up in a future release. Even so, these flaws don’t ruin Winter Wonderland, simply because it has so many strong points alongside them. In addition, for each of the mazelike areas the puzzle isn’t the maze itself. In other words, the challenge of the area isn’t simply to map it and find the other end — each one contains its own puzzle, and both puzzles are intelligent and fairly well-clued. So for those of you who hate mazes, I recommend playing the game anyway. They aren’t all that onerous, and if you start to get frustrated, you can consult the excellent on-line hints.

The other area where the game really shines is in its technical prowess. While it isn’t a graphical game, Winter Wonderland does provide some ASCII art, much like last year’s Downtown Tokyo did. The art enhances the game’s atmosphere, but doesn’t conceal any crucial clues. Instead, it feels similar to the pictures shown at the beginning and end of On The Farm — images that enrich the text but are not necessary for enjoyment of the game. The author thoughtfully provides a “BARE” mode for those whose interpreters don’t handle such things well. In addition to its ASCII graphics, Winter Wonderland also uses the status line in innovative ways. It’s four lines high and includes score, location, and a compass rose indicating the available exits. We’ve seen the status line compass rose before, but I found myself using this on-screen mapping feature more than I ever have in any other game which provided it. The landscape is complicated enough that the compass rose feels like a real aid to gameplay rather than just a frivolous but useless feature. It actually reminded me quite a bit of the onscreen mapping in Beyond Zork, and felt about as useful to me. In addition, with an interpreter that handles color correctly the status line changes color subtly to enhance the atmosphere of the area the PC finds herself in. When she’s by a roaring fire, the status line is yellow and orange. When she’s in a moonlit snowscape, the letters are various shades of lighter and darker blues. What’s more, in some snowy scenes we actually see a few snowflakes show up in the status line, another attractive touch to embroider this already charming game. Winter Wonderland feels magical and joyous, and deserves to place highly in this year’s competition.

Rating: 8.7