Nevermore by Nate Cull [Comp00]

IFDB page: Nevermore
Final placement: 7th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Nevermore calls itself “An Interactive Gothic”, and lives up to its billing with aplomb. A loose adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”, Nevermore builds on the foreboding and melancholy of Poe’s poem, injecting elements of alchemy, forbidden magic, and thematic whispers of Shelley’s Frankenstein. You play the speaker of the poem, a dejected wretch pining for his lost love, “a maiden whom the angels named Lenore.” The difference between the PC and the protagonist of Poe’s verse is that this PC is willing to challenge Death itself to retrieve Lenore, and has the mystic lore, the alchemical elements, and the dread hubris to bring about her resurrection. I thought this was a fabulous premise, and the game succeeds admirably at delivering that frisson that is an indispensable part of eighteenth and nineteenth century gothic literature. To Poe’s already powerful imagery, Nevermore adds the illicit thrill of cocaine and opium, the dark power of occult magic, and the appropriate hints of colonialism and oppression. For me, the combination worked very well at evoking the rich purple feel of novels like Frankenstein, The Monk, and the template gothic novel, Walpole’s Castle of Otranto.

The game’s writing and coding don’t let it down either. In fact, in some spots the detail is so rich that it feels like almost every noun mentioned in any room description or object description is accounted for with a description of its own. Nevermore uses Inform‘s “box quote” feature to bring up excerpts from the poem at various appropriate points in the plot, and this device adds considerably to the game’s atmosphere. Also adding to that atmosphere is the writing style of the various books discovered by the PC. These books, while not burdened with Middle English spellings like the alchemical quotes in Christminster, do an outstanding job of conveying the spooky and arcane feel that such forbidden texts should have. All in all, Nevermore builds a magnificent gothic atmosphere with a combination of well-judged plot, good writing, and bug-free code.

What a pity, then, that it all comes crashing to Earth, victim of its horrendously flawed design. For one thing, the game features the equivalent of a starvation puzzle in its first few moves. This puzzle is no less forgiving, and perhaps even stricter, than the one that used to be a standard feature of TADS games (check out something like Deep Space Drifter if you don’t know what I’m referring to.) What’s more, the “starvation” problem (it’s not really starvation, but it might as well be — it’s a timed necessity for action that kills you off if not appeased) continues to occur throughout the game, cropping up every twenty moves or so. Even if starvation puzzles didn’t bother me, this one’s fuse is way too short.

Beyond that annoyance is the far greater problem of the game’s main puzzle. This puzzle involves following a highly complex alchemical ritual, requiring dozens of steps and fairly precise actions. Multi-step puzzles in and of themselves aren’t a problem, and certainly it makes sense within the context of the plot that the PC’s actions should involve complicated magical rituals, but the way this puzzle is implemented is deeply problematic. Nevermind the fact that one particular object is required for at least four of the steps, one of which destroys it. Nevermind the fact that the instructions for the ritual are couched in highly figurative language, language that is open to multiple interpretations. Let’s even forget about the fact that some of the necessary steps aren’t particularly discernible without glimpsing into the author’s mind — the thing that sent me over the edge about this puzzle is the fact that its instructions (the figurative, abstract ones) are spread over six different books, books which only reveal their contents randomly.

That’s right, each book contains between four and ten critical pieces of information, but each time you type “READ BOOK” you get a random selection of one of those pieces. Consequently, not only can you never be sure if you’ve obtained all the information you need, you have to perform the same command over and over again, wading through dull repetitions of already-printed information in the hopes that you’ll turn up something new. Once I figured out what was going on, I turned to the hints and never looked back. This tactic allowed me to get through the game (though even that required several restarts, due to the “destroyed object” problem), but the fun had long since drained from the experience. Nevermore is IF with marvelous writing and a chilling gothic atmosphere, but until its fundamental design problems are repaired, it will remain as lifeless as Poe’s lost Lenore.

Rating: 7.4

Travels In The Land Of Erden by Laura A. Knauth [Comp97]

IFDB page: Travels in the Land of Erden
Final placement: 14th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Erden is a sprawling, ambitious game which probably does not belong in the competition. This isn’t to imply that the game is without merit; on the contrary, it seems to have the potential to become an enjoyable fantasy excursion. However, the game is huge — I played for two hours and I didn’t even visit every location, let alone solve many puzzles. Moreover, Erden could use another few rounds of testing; I found several coding bugs and a plethora of grammar and spelling errors. In my opinion, the best thing that could happen to this game is thorough testing and proofing, then release in the spring of 1998, when we’ve all recovered from our competition hangover and hunger for substantial new adventures.

I can see why there’s a temptation to submit longer games to the competition. For one thing, there seems to be ongoing debate about the meaning of the “two-hour” rule: is it that your game can be any size but will simply be judged after two hours of play, or does it mean that your game should be winnable in two hours? And if it’s the latter, what do we mean with an imprecise term like “winnable?” Hell, with a walkthrough and a good headwind even Curses is winnable in two hours — that doesn’t make it a two hour game! Then also there’s the fact that historically, the games that have won or placed high in the competition (Weather, Sherbet, Delusions… the list goes on) have strained or outright flouted the two-hour convention. According to Whizzard, the idea behind the rule is to prevent new authors from having to be intimidated by the prospect of going up against a Jigsaw or Christminster, an epic game with a huge scope, and I think that this rule still has value, despite the beating it’s taken over the years. I tend to be of the opinion that the ideal size for a competition game is something that I (an experienced IF player, but no great shakes as a puzzle solver) can see 90-100% of in a two-hour sitting. I designed Wearing the Claw this way, and I appreciate competition games that do the same. However, the way it’s worked out in practice is that the large-scope games still slip in — perhaps not epics, but much more than vignettes, and they often succeed. And perhaps that’s for the best; after all, in a competition like this one (where the works are labors of love and the financial stakes are rather low) it’s better to have fewer rules and more flexibility, thus to encourage more entrants.

Still, what Erden demonstrates is that there is another advantage of keeping your competition entry small: focus. I don’t have an accurate idea of how big Erden is (since I didn’t see the whole thing, probably not even half of it, in my two hours), but it seems to me that if the author had concentrated her energies on a game perhaps a quarter of the size of this one, she would have had time for much more extensive proofing and beta-testing, and the result might have been a tight, polished gem rather than the rough and gangly work she submitted. In addition, she’d have had the opportunity to implement a taut and crystalline design structure, which is beneficial to any game writer. I think that after serious and detailed revision, Erden could be a fantasy odyssey on a par with Path To Fortune; at the moment, however, it is neither that nor a particularly thrilling competition entry.

Prose: The prose in Erden is often awkward, and can be difficult to read. Misplaced modifiers, unmarked appositives, and endless strings of prepositional phrases abound. The author also seems to have a particular dislike for commas, stringing clause after clause breathlessly together. I often reached the end of a sentence and found myself wondering how it had started. There are times in which this turgid prose style makes for some nice effects, as it gives a baroque feel to some of the game’s ornate artifacts. Other times, it’s just confusing. Overall, Erden could be made a much more evocative game with the help of some serious editing.

Plot: One interesting aspect of Erden‘s plot is that it feels much more “in medias res” than most interactive fiction. You enter the mysterious fantasy land after the dragon has already been vanquished. Of course, there are other quests to be undertaken, but the absence of the dragon helps to give the milieu a satisfying sense of history. That being said, I’m not sure that I gleaned much more about the plot. Certainly the retrieval of a mystical ruby is your main goal, and several subquests pop up along the way, some of which I didn’t even begin before my two hours ran out. However, what the meaning of the ruby is, or whether the plot offers any twists, turns, or even character development of any kind is still opaque to me.

Puzzles: I spent enough time traversing the land that I’m not sure I even encountered any puzzles. There’s apparently a lantern to be obtained, but the parameters of doing so were so broad that I have no idea how long it would have taken to succeed. I collected several objects whose use was not immediately apparent, but I’m not sure if they ever come in handy or not. There was one area of the game that seemed pretty clearly to hide a gateway to underground caverns, but once I thought I had found the answer to opening the gate, the parser was stubbornly unresponsive to my ideas. So I have no idea whether what I was seeing was an unsolved puzzle or a red herring. What’s more, the game lacked a scoring system so I wasn’t ever sure when I had done something important, but let me put it this way: I didn’t feel like I had done anything clever. Because of all this, I can’t venture much of an opinion about the puzzles in the game.

Technical (writing): There were dozens of writing errors in the game. Beyond the awkward, overloaded prose there were any number of misspellings and misplaced modifiers.

Technical (coding): Erden suffered from many niggling coding errors, especially missing or added new_lines. Some important scenery objects are missing (for example, the game describes huge hieroglyphics carved into a cliffside, the examination of which returns “You can’t see any such thing.”). Like the writing, the coding would benefit from an attentive overhaul.


She’s Got A Thing For A Spring by Brent VanFossen [Comp97]

IFDB page: She’s Got a Thing for a Spring
Final placement: 4th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

She’s Got a Thing For a Spring (hereafter called “Spring”) is one of the most delightful and well-written games I’ve played in a long, long time. Its author is one of the few professional writers who has created interactive fiction, and his expertise shines throughout the game. Spring is set in a mountain wilderness with no magic spells, no high-tech devices, in fact no fantastical elements of any kind. Yet this game imparts a sense of wonder that is matched by only the very best interactive fiction. I found some of the scenes absolutely breathtaking in their beauty. Living in Colorado, I’ve spent a fair amount of time is settings similar to those described by the author, and I felt that the prose perfectly conveyed the both the tiny joys and the majestic grandeur of the mountains. In addition, the game’s code usually dovetailed neatly with its prose, creating at its best a seamless experience of walking in nature.

Spring also introduces an interface innovation for conversing with NPCs. The game keeps track of the last NPC with whom the player has interacted and what type of verb (e.g. “give”, “ask”, etc.) was used in that interaction. Then whenever the player is around that NPC and types in a word not recognized as a verb by the parser, the game tries to use that word to interact with the NPC, using the current verb type. It creates interaction like this:

>ask bob about woods
"Lots of aspen around here. I just love the forest."

"Aspens are my favorite trees."

This is a very smart move, and it works superbly in the game. What enhances the NPC experience even more is that the game’s primary NPC (Bob, a friendly old gent who lives alone in the woods) is coded very well. He goes about his business with or without the player’s presence, and it is possible to have a long conversation with him without breaking mimesis. The author has clearly gone to great lengths (including, I think, some close scrutiny of Gareth Rees‘ source code for Christminster) to make sure that his NPC is one of the most realistic and satisfying in IF. The depth of this NPC works along with the game’s outstanding prose to create an extremely realistic gameplay experience.

However, the intensity and power of this realism brings with it a certain burden, and it’s a burden that the game is not always prepared to handle. One problem was that some of the puzzles required me to act in a way that I felt was out of character. [SPOILERS FOLLOW (highlight to read)] For example, one puzzle required me to take the roll of toilet paper out of Bob’s outhouse and burn it. Now, a typical IF character would have no compunction whatsoever about this. But in Spring, the protagonist is supposedly a regular, kind person — for her to steal and burn the only toilet paper from a man who shows her nothing but kindness and hospitality is a significant break from character, especially since Bob does not grant permission to do so. [SPOILERS END] Other puzzles required a bit more verb-guessing than I care for, especially the walking stick puzzle. In addition, Bob is missing a few important responses, and the game also has some basic bugs. Still, the fact that these flaws are so jarring is a strong indication of what a high standard the game sets, and minor problems do not greatly detract from the fact that Spring is a wonderful piece of IF, as refreshing as a pine-scented mountain breeze after an invigorating hike.

Prose: The prose in Spring is simply first-rate. The author’s professional writing experience is clear throughout the game. In fact, the prose is of such a quality that it’s hard to talk about it without wanting to simply quote long passages and allow the writing to speak for itself. I’ll save those surprises for the game, but I have to comment on one or two favorite scenes. I remember coming upon the fireflies and gasping in awe. The author creates a mesmerizing, magical picture of these fantastic creatures. I had similar reactions to all the wildlife in the game. In fact, though I said above that the game has no fantastical elements, that’s not precisely true: the element of fantasy in the game is that it presents a nature trip as one wishes it could always be. Sighting elk clashing antlers with each other, encountering someone as nice as Bob, walking into a cloud of fireflies: these are magical moments. When they happen on a real camping trip, they are foremost among the memories you bring back home with you. In Spring, all that happens and more. Its magic is in bringing rare moments together to be experienced all in one sitting, yet never taking away the sense of preciousness carried within each moment.

Plot: Spring wasn’t really a plot-driven game. It has a relatively simple goal, and the pleasure of the game comes from exploring the milieu rather than stepping through a more complicated story. Still, there were some interesting aspects to the plot pieces that were there. One thing that sets Spring apart is that its character is set within a warm, happy marriage. The context of that relationship bubbles under all the events in Spring, and even brings a degree of sexuality in the game’s ending. Presenting sex in the context of a positive, healthy relationship is a rare thing to do in IF, especially since Spring is nature writing rather than romance. The one drawback to the plot, as I mentioned above, is that it sometimes required actions that were out-of-character. Perhaps with some fine-tuning to Bob, this problem could be remedied.

Puzzles: I thought the puzzles were a weaker part of Spring. While it was wonderful to wander around the lovingly described wilderness, it was hard to get anywhere without doing some things that I wouldn’t expect the character to do. Perhaps the answer to some of these problems is to give Bob a little different attitude. [SPOILERS AGAIN] Perhaps have him offer to give the player a hint as to how to get rid of the wasps, then offer to let her use the toilet paper. Otherwise, she’s doing something morally wrong by burning it. Again, this would not normally be a problem in most genre IF, but Spring is a different sort of beast, or it feels that way to me. [SPOILERS END] Other puzzles were rather non-intuitive, like the egg/foam connection. I used the hints for almost every puzzle in Spring, and I’m a good enough player that I think that means there’s something wrong.

Technical (writing): The writing was, predictably, flawless.

Technical (coding): I’m a lot more inclined to be forgiving when an author takes on a significant coding project such as the NPC interaction innovation in Spring. Consequently, the fact that there were quite a few bugs in the game did impact its final rating, but not as significantly as it might have.