To Otherwhere And Back by Greg Ewing [Comp01]

IFDB page: To Otherwhere And Back
Final placement: 28th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

For the past several years, the IF community has created a variety of “mini-comps” in the Spring of each year, competitions where the games are instructed to stick to a particular concept. These concepts can range from a required image like “a chicken crossing a road”, to the inclusion of a particular element (romance, dinosaurs, the supernatural), to a stipulation about the game structure itself (include the verb “use”, disallow the player from having any inventory.) Furthermore, for as long as there have been Spring mini-comps, they have had an effect on the Fall “maxi-comp,” because inevitably some author has a great idea that fits with the mini-comp, but doesn’t manage to finish by the Spring deadline, so instead polishes the game further and enters it in the Fall comp.

This spillover effect has given us such past treats as Downtown Tokyo. Present Day., and Yes, Another Game With A Dragon!, and now To Otherwhere and Back, a game originally intended for Emily Short’s Walkthrough-comp. The concept behind this particular mini-comp was that entrants had to produce games (or transcripts) that conformed to a particular walkthrough; as a further twist, this walkthrough was in the form of an unpunctuated telegram, containing strings of commands like “TAKE NEXT TURN SMOOTH DUCK DOWN” and “LOOK UP DRESS BOOK SHIP PACKAGE PRESENT BOWL”, which could be broken up in any number of clever ways.

To Otherwhere and Back meets the challenge ably, and in doing so, emphasizes an underrated IF technique: cueing. What we learn from games like this is that IF can prompt even quite unusual input from the player, as long as the setup has been executed with skill and the cue delivered fairly clearly. For example, in order to get me to type the first command from the walkthrough, the game presented me with this situation:

The screen of the debugging terminal is covered with code and
variable dumps. You stare at it with bleary eyes, trying to find the
last, elusive bug that you've been chasing for the last 37 hours
straight. You're so tired, you're having to make a conscious effort
to think.

That first command was, of course, “THINK.” That’s not something I’d usually type in at an IF prompt, because most games just give a canned answer to it, if they give any answer at all. This piece of text, though, was enough to cue me that in this situation, that command might produce something useful, and indeed it does. It’s not that good cueing leads the player by the nose — in fact, the first thing I typed after reading the text above was “DEBUG”, which actually put me into the game’s debugging mode, hilariously enough. But after that didn’t work, I looked at the text again, and was able to discern the right move without looking at the walkthrough. This sort of dynamic is the essence of good cueing, and TOAB does it over and over again. Of course, what’s also true is that Alan‘s heavily restricted parser and the shallowly implemented game world had me looking to cues quite a lot, but in this game that paucity of options was quite appropriate.

What TOAB doesn’t quite manage, though, is to construct a coherent plot. Granted, hewing to a deliberately challenging premise while telling a story that makes sense is quite a tall order — most of the entrants into the walkthrough-comp either came up with some arbitrary reason why those words would be strung together (as in Adam Cadre‘s hilarious Jigsaw 2), or relied heavily on the dream/surrealism/hallucination device to justify the necessary contortions. TOAB pursues the latter option, and its story ends up feeling more than a little arbitrary as a result.

Still, the game applies itself to the walkthrough’s odder moments in some very clever ways, and provides some good laughs, such as the Polish phrasebook that “contains translations of many phrases useful to a traveller in Poland, such as ‘Please develop this film’, ‘How much is the sausage?’, and ‘Am I under arrest?'”. Overall, I enjoyed TOAB, and while the fiction element of it wasn’t so great, its interactivity techniques got me thinking. That’s not a bad track record for a comp game, no matter what comp it might belong to.

Rating: 7.1

YAGWAD by John Kean as Digby McWiggle [Comp00]

IFDB page: Yes, Another Game with a Dragon!
Final placement: 9th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Two years ago, the author whose rather silly nom de plume is “Digby McWiggle” submitted his first competition game, Downtown Tokyo. Present Day. That game was a prospective entry in Adam Cadre’s ChickenComp, but it wasn’t finished by the deadline, and therefore ended up an entry in Comp98 instead. I wonder if the same thing happened with this game, because it certainly would have fit the parameters for David Cornelson’s DragonComp. You see, YAGWAD stands for “Yes, Another Game With A Dragon!”, and the cheeky spirit of that title permeates the whole game, to wonderful effect. YAGWAD has lots of spots that are very funny, and the whole thing takes a playful poke at fantasy conventions.

Sure, fantasy conventions have been tweaked a lot at this point, but YAGWAD still manages a certain freshness, as well as a few artful nods to funny fantasies like The Princess Bride. It seems the King (who, speaking of The Princess Bride, is burdened with a comic lisp) has had his daughter abducted by a ferocious dragon, and is offering sparkling rewards to anybody who can retrieve her. Naturally, every strapping adventurer in the province is instantly on the case. Then there’s you: neither strapping nor adventurer (in fact, more of a portly, sloppy drunk), you still decide to undertake the quest.

From this premise, YAGWAD unfolds into an excellent melange of puzzles in the best Infocom style. In fact, with the exception of various Briticisms in spelling and grammar, YAGWAD feels like it could have been written by an Infocom Implementor — it’s not as lengthy as the typical Zork game, but definitely partakes of the same general feel. For example, at one point in your adventures, you may come across a massive set of reference books called the “Encyclopedia Gigantica” — in the tradition of the Encyclopedia Frobozzica, this reference provides a great deal of humor, both in its actual entries and in the references to it scattered throughout the game.

Also, as often happens to me with Infocom games, I found several of the puzzles in YAGWAD rather difficult. In this case, though, I think that might be mainly because of the time limit. I was quite keenly aware of the game’s size, which is not insignificant — I’d have to be about three times the puzzle-solver I am to be able to finish this in under two hours without hints — and therefore was less restrained about consulting the hints than I would have been. If the competition is over (which of course it will be by the time anybody reads this review) and you haven’t played YAGWAD yet, let me urge you not to use the hints. For one thing, the adaptive hint system is somewhat flawed, and it sometimes fails to give hints for puzzles that you may be facing. For another thing, pretty much all of the puzzles are clever and fair, notwithstanding my inability to solve them.

In fact, one of the biggest problems I had is that there’s one particular puzzle which must be solved before a number of others, and I was stymied on this puzzle purely because of my own thickheadedness. When I finally consulted the walkthrough, I looked at the answer and thought “but I did that!” In fact, I hadn’t. I went back to an earlier save point and tried it, just so I’d know I wasn’t crazy. Turns out I am crazy — it worked at that point and at all other points. I was completely convinced I’d tried it, but I must not have. This happens to me sometimes in IF, and I sure do feel dumb when I encounter it.

To make matters worse, I had an unfortunate difficulty creating a transcript of the game, so I can’t go back to my old game session and find out what it was that I really did that made me think I had already tried that solution. Guess it’ll remain a mystery forever. In any case, there are one or two puzzles that just graze the “read-the-author’s-mind” category, but even those have solutions that are fair and logical, if not particularly easy to think of spontaneously. The writing in YAGWAD is technically excellent, and I didn’t find a single bug in the code, either. Like I said, if Infocom was a British company, they might easily have produced this game. I mean that compliment as strongly as it sounds. Anybody who likes Infocom-style IF ought to give this game a try. Even those of you who shudder at the thought of Yet Another Game With A Dragon. (And you know who you are.)

Rating: 8.8

Downtown Tokyo. Present Day. by John Kean as Digby McWiggle [Comp98]

IFDB page: Downtown Tokyo, Present Day
Final placement: 10th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Another very short (Textfire-length) game, Tokyo was originally intended for submission to Adam Cadre’s Chicken-Comp, but the author didn’t finish it in time. All the better for us, because the game is funny and entertaining, and still finds a little time to be innovative as well. With a game this short, it’s hard not to give away plot spoilers in any extended discussion, but I’ll try to be as discreet as I can. I’ll only say as much as this: Tokyo is a very funny spoof on a beloved Japanese film genre (and it’s not martial arts movies), one which often features the city of Tokyo (or the rubble thereof) as a setting. Considering this was originally intended to be a Chicken-Comp game, you can probably imagine how it works. There are several reasons why Tokyo is fun, not the least of which is the writing. Random description “events”, while having no effect on the main storyline, give the chaotic scenes an antic charm, and the depictions of movie clich├ęs should bring a knowing smile to the face of any film buff.

One interesting experiment in Tokyo is its use of a split PC. In other words, the player actually controls the actions of two characters, both a rather anonymous individual watching a movie and the hero of that movie. This is an imaginative idea, and it sometimes works very well. At its best, Tokyo evokes the kind of split consciousness that actually happens while watching a movie. We are present, in the theater, there with the plush seats, the popcorn, and the people around us. But once we become immersed in the movie, we are inside of it as well. We forget about the theater and become part of the story, at least until the baby behind us starts crying, or the teenagers in the front make a wisecrack. However, the game is not always at its best. The split focus creates some confusion as to how commands will be interpreted — you can never be sure whether your command will be executed by the viewer or the hero. This generally doesn’t cause a problem, but it might have worked better if the transitions were smooth and complete, and the only interruptions happened outside of the player’s control. In addition, the standard library has been mostly unmodified, so that its messages remain mostly in the second person voice. When that’s the voice of the entire game, this is not a problem, but Tokyo asks second person POV to take on the special duty of signaling that the viewer, rather than the hero, is reacting. Consequently, messages like “You can’t see any such thing” (rather than “Our hero can’t see any such thing”) can create a little confusion.

Finally, I can’t review Tokyo without mentioning its graphics. No, it’s not a z6 game, but Tokyo has some surprises up its sleeve. Finding them provides some of the funniest moments of the game. Tokyo does a great many things well, and is one of the better short-short games I’ve played. Again, it’s a bit disappointing when a game this enjoyable ends so soon — I think this concept had quite a bit more mileage in it than was used by the author. Still, I enjoyed it while it lasted — it won’t entertain you as long as the average summer blockbuster movie, but it will probably entertain you more.

Rating: 7.9