1-2-3… by Chris Mudd [Comp00]

IFDB page: 1-2-3…
Final placement: 42nd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

For the past few years, each competition has had one game that I found unremittingly unpleasant, a horrible experience from start to finish. Last year, it was Chicks Dig Jerks, with its pounding misogyny and seething nests of bugs. The year before that, it was Cattus Atrox, whose relentless but shallow horror and totally logic-free plot I found impossible to stomach. I was beginning to think that I’d make it through 2000 without such an experience, but no such luck: 1-2-3… wins the prize for Most Repellent Comp Game, hands down.

It doesn’t suffer from bugs, though — it doesn’t really get the chance, because it is as linear as a short story. Basically, the game is one long string of guess-the-noun or guess-the-verb puzzles. In fact, for most of the game, each move is in itself one of these types of puzzles, since the game will allow no other action than the one it’s waiting for you to guess. The most freedom it ever allows you is when it spreads seven or eight guess-the-noun puzzles in front of you, which you can do in any order, but all of which must be done before the story can proceed.

Actually, I use the word “puzzle” but that’s being rather generous. Really, the situation I mention above is that you have a couple of NPCs, both of whom must be ASKed ABOUT three magic topics each before the game will continue. These NPCs are so minimally implemented (as is pretty much everything in the game) that they only answer to those three topics — all others will provoke one of three random default responses. As if this extremely minimalist implementation didn’t make guessing the noun difficult enough, the topics you’re expected to type in sometimes verge on the ridiculous. If a character doesn’t respond to ASK HIM ABOUT ADVICE, why would I expect him to respond to ASK HIM ABOUT WHAT HE WOULD DO?

Of course, the game gives me an unsubtle shove in the right direction by having the character say, “Do you want to know what I would do?” But this is a pretty desultory form of interactivity. The game may as well just tell you what your next command should be, since it has no plans to respond to anything else anyway. If you think that’s interactivity, you probably also think ventriloquists’ dummies come up with their own punch lines.

Non-interactivity is annoying enough, but consider the context: 1-2-3… is about a serial killer. It puts you in the role of this serial killer. It won’t let the game continue until a murder is committed, then another, then another, and these murders can be triggered by rather innocuous (if unintuitive) commands. Now how much does it suck to have no choices?

The killings are horrific, misogynist gorefests, with nauseating specifics lovingly enshrined in detailed descriptions, capped by attempts at psychological pathos that would be laughable if they didn’t follow such revolting excesses. The first murder scene made me feel literally sick to my stomach, and I seriously considered quitting the game there and then, abstaining from rating and reviewing it. I’m still not sure why I didn’t do that — perhaps some overactive sense of fair play among the comp entries, perhaps a misplaced hope that the game would produce some artistic justification for its ultraviolence. In the end, I had such a horrible experience playing 1-2-3… that I almost wish I hadn’t played it, but since I did, I want at least to give others the warning I didn’t get.

Thankfully, the game doesn’t keep you in the serial killer’s role throughout. You are privy to a couple of other viewpoints, most prominently the police detective whose mission is to find and apprehend the killer. Unfortunately, the scenes from the detective’s POV are no more interactive than those from the killer’s. You must follow, more or less lockstep, exactly what the game has in mind for you, if you want to finish the story.

Is 1-2-3… a psych experiment of its own, a kind of test to see how much gag-inducing content a player can take before switching off the computer and (to steal a line from Robb Sherwin) switching her hobby to “Scattergories”? Is it the IF version of Lisa Simpson testing to see how many times Bart will grab for the electrified cupcake? Maybe it is, and if so I certainly seem to have failed the test, because I played through to the end. But my emotional engagement with the game had ended long before that, having suffered multiple stab wounds from the vicious, senseless violence that permeates the game. I was taking every one of the game’s cues, typing in what it told me to and letting the text scroll by in the vain hopes of some Rameses-like epiphany. None was forthcoming. Now excuse me — I have to go take a shower.

Rating: 2.5

A Crimson Spring by Robb Sherwin [Comp00]

IFDB page: A Crimson Spring
Final placement: 23rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

One thing that can fairly be said about A Crimson Spring is that it is one dark piece of work. It starts out with a funeral, and in the course of its plot will describe twisted psychotics, brutal beatings, murder, and rape, along with a generous helping of menacing, intimidation, and vile ideas. It’s about superheroes, but not your Saturday morning SuperFriends kind of superheroes, nor even your angsty Stan Lee/Chris Claremont kind of superheroes.

No, these are superheroes in more of a Frank Miller vein, tortured vigilantes who stalk through horrific corridors of urban decay, beating the living crap out of evildoers and anybody who looks at them funny. Though Miller is clearly their main predecessor, they’re also a bit reminiscent of the out-of-control metahumans in Mark Waid’s Kingdom Come, with elements of the anger and psychoses that bubble under Alan Moore’s Watchmen.

They even bear a passing resemblance to the characters from Sherwin’s own Chicks Dig Jerks, at least in the way that they tend to investigate crimes by cruising bars looking for trouble. In addition, they’re also likely to have somewhat more disturbing powers, especially the villains, such as AIDS Archer, who shoots disease-tipped arrows at the good guys, and Mucous Man, who suffocates his victims under lots and lots of snot.

As I’ve said in the past, I love superheroes, but this particular subgenre of them is not my favorite. The whole grim-and-gritty trend in superhero comics, which probably reached its peak towards the end of the Reagan years, was always rather unappealing to me. I found its insistence on the world’s rottenness to be just as monotonous and unrealistic as the post-Code, whitewashed Batman and Robin’s world of silly villains and cardboard heroes. Miller’s Daredevil and Punisher, and Claremont/Goodwin’s Wolverine were fine when they were the darker exceptions to the nobler rule of costumed crusaders, but when nearly every superhero suddenly became a clench-jawed desperado struggling against a poisoned culture by any means necessary, the whole thing started to seem more and more silly. [Pssst! Paul! Stop lecturing about comics and get back to the game! (The what? Oh yes, that.)]

Ahem. As I was saying, A Crimson Spring is one dark piece of work. It even displays its text as faded letters on a pitch black background. In addition, even besides the fact that its particular flavor of superherodom is not to my taste, it misses some pretty important opportunities. For instance, although the PC wears a mask and has a code name (Holy Avenger), he doesn’t have any superpowers. What does he have? A lead pipe. He’s surrounded by people who can fly, or are super-strong, or have unbreakable skin, or can morph themselves into other stuff, but his main skills are talking smack and whacking people with a big metal club. Oh, he’s got a perfect immune system, too, which doesn’t seem to me like a great superpower (“I’m Never-Get-Sick Man!”), though I have to admit it does come in handy against guys like AIDS Archer. I found myself wishing that I could play one of the real superheroes instead of this smart-aleck “detective” with the pipe in his hand. Hell, even Batman had a utility belt.

On the other hand, perhaps playing a character I liked more would have made it even more frustrating when I encountered one of the game’s many bugs. The bugs in ACS come in two varieties. One of these is the “huh?” bug, which happens when the game makes a reference to somebody or something you’ve never heard of before, and acts as if you of course know what it’s talking about. For instance, at one point the PC is asked (in reference to a villain), “Have you seen him since the incident on the bridge?” I read this and thought, “incident on the bridge?” The game had described no such incident.

Perhaps things like this were its way of building character by mentioning past “offstage” events (though some of the “huh?” references seemed clearly oriented towards things that were supposed to have happened in the plot, but didn’t, at least not to me), but even if this is the case, the game should throw in a sentence or two explaining the reference. I suspect that this kind of bug emerges when a game is written around a walkthrough and fails to account for the many paths that can be taken through the plot. Granted, this is one of the more difficult challenges in writing IF, but it is a challenge that must be met, or else the story deflates very rapidly.

The other type of bug is of the more traditional variety, the inability to refer to an important object or the nonsensical response to a reasonable command. Both types of bugs appear with depressing regularity in ACS, and they utterly defeat any sense of immersion that the game’s other nifty features strive to create. Among these features were a cool soundtrack of gritty indie rock and hand-drawn illustrations of various scenes and characters. The latter, while not exactly George PĂ©rez, were obviously the product of quite a bit of labor, and managed to give a nice visual sense to the colorful characters. I wish, though, that the time had instead gone into debugging — I would have enjoyed the game lots more had it been bug-free, even without its illustrations. A Crimson Spring puts you behind the mask of a dark superhero on a mission of justice, but in the end, it only defeats itself.

Rating: 6.1

Chicks Dig Jerks by Robb Sherwin [Comp99]

IFDB page: Chicks Dig Jerks
Final placement: 31st place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

[NOTE: There are some obscenities in this review.]

Yecch. After an hour of playing Chicks Dig Jerks, I feel like I’ve been swimming in sewage. The PC and his friends are some of the most repulsive human beings I’ve ever seen described, and spending time looking through their eyes was pretty sickening. Now, it’s clear that the author is aware of this fact. The game begins with a big banner reading, in part, “There are absolutely no role models in this game.” Fine. But if it was intended to be some sort of satire, it didn’t work, at least not for me. Perhaps some reader smarter than I am will explain how in fact the whole game brilliantly skewers the emptiness and horror of its protagonist’s life, but for me, that didn’t come across. Instead, it just felt like living some stereotyped nightmare for no particular reason. Remember those fratboys at the beginning of Photopia? This is basically an entire game from their viewpoint, with some off-the-wall supernatural stuff thrown in for no readily apparent reason. The fact that the game was loaded with bugs and writing errors didn’t give me much confidence that it had some sharp, intelligent viewpoint behind its ugly veneer, but I don’t think that’s the main reason why I found Chicks Dig Jerks so unpleasant. That reason can be summed up in one word: misogyny. The game’s fear and hatred of women starts at the title and just snowballs from there.

The game’s basic notion is that women come in two varieties. There’s the Dumb Chick, who is prey to the PC’s predator. She has no illusions about her status, and apparently likes it, because she’s attracted to men who will treat her like dirt. Then there’s the Evil Bitch, who hates all men and is out to kill them and/or drain them of their vitality, at least until she can find one strong enough to dominate her and turn her back into a Dumb Chick. The male characters wandering through this world have two basic goals: score with (i.e. fuck) the Dumb Chicks and avoid or kill the Evil Bitches. We see the former in the game’s first sequence, in which the goal is to get two phone numbers from a group of women at a bar. The PC does this by approaching them with the dumbest lines imaginable, and guess what? Because they’re even dumber then the lines, they think he’s cool and give him their numbers. Here’s what the PC has to say after accomplishing this goal: “Word up.”

Then one of the Dumb Chicks takes the PC home and they have “animal sex for the better part of the night.” Then the PC bolts, leaving “a little note” and his number. What a guy. Thus ends the Dumb Chicks portion of our show. Moving on, the PC then invades a graveyard (did I mention he makes his living as a grave robber?) where an Evil Bitch tries to kill him. He ends up killing her, which is too bad, because I was really rooting for her. Then he gets real sentimental because his best friend (male, of course) was killed in the battle. Damn those Evil Bitches and their short male accomplices! (The game also seems to have a problem with short men.) Damn them to hell!

There are two dreams described in the narrative which illustrate this dichotomy perfectly. In the first, the PC is lured into an unoccupied room by a seductive woman, and in the room he sees the dried, dead husks of all his male friends. Then the succubus drains him too, and sticks his skin to the wall with thumbtacks. You can probably guess which side of the coin she represents. Then, in the second dream, the PC is having a fight with his old girlfriend, who apparently was the one person with whom he didn’t act like total scum. She breaks up with him, and in remembering the breakup, he wishes he had given into his impulse to “rock the bitch’s world and leave her reeling and bleeding.” He also regrets all the time he didn’t spend “being an exciting, unavailable, uncontrollable asshole.” Hey Avandre, here’s a hint: if your girlfriend left you because you weren’t enough of a jerk, the answer isn’t to be more of a jerk. The answer is to FIND A SMARTER GIRLFRIEND! But that might be too much to ask of this character — a woman who he sees as a human and who is as smart as or smarter than him would just be way, way too scary.

Speaking of scary, let’s talk about this game’s code. At one point a character playing a video game exclaims in frustration, “This fucking thing has more bugs than a tropical swamp!” I had to smile at this, since the sentence (with the exception of the expletive) is lifted almost verbatim from a SPAG review of the author’s last game, Saied. The description is also apt for Chicks Dig Jerks. Unless you go through the game exactly as described in the walkthrough, you will find bugs. At one point, I was talking to a character, and one of my conversation options actually put me back in a previous scene. That scene went differently, and then I had to sit through the whole “animal sex” thing again. At another point, two characters are described as being disintegrated, then proceed to take some actions in the following paragraphs, then get re-disintegrated. There’s an item you can pick up, and no matter where in the game you pick it up, the description always indicates that you find something else under it, even if the thing you supposedly find is already in your inventory. You get the idea — examples abound. Chicks Dig Jerks is the Cattus Atrox of the 99 competition — I had a strong reaction to it, and that reaction was: I never want to see this game again.

Rating: 1.9

[Postscript from 2020: Adam Cadre wrote a contrarian review of this game in which he asserted it has “the best writing of any game in the comp.” Since then, Sherwin has proved to be one of the stalwarts of modern IF, releasing several full-sized games and even packaging them commercially. I wrote a long, appreciative review of his game Cryptozookeeper, which no doubt I’ll post here at some point. In it, I described the friendship Robb and I have developed: “Belying the outrageousness of his writing, the man himself is a gentle, witty, soft-spoken presence, a real mensch who’s done me many a good turn over the years.” Funny old thing, life.]