Caffeination by Michael Loegering [Comp03]

IFDB page: Caffeination
Final placement: 14th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Caffeination (it can’t seem to decide whether it wants the middle “n” capitalized, so I’m going to forego it) starts out like a more intelligent version of last year’s Coffee Quest II. The setup is nearly identical: you’re a depressed, sleepy office worker in an oppressive, cubicle-filled corporate environment, and your object in life is to get a really good cup of coffee. Happily, the literacy level of Caffeination is several steps above that of CQ2, and at first the game seems like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Alas, it quickly sinks into a bog of misguided design, buggy code, and error-laden prose.

In addition, rather than presenting any kind of sharp or thoughtful satire of office culture, the game instead tends towards the hackneyed and the juvenile. For instance, the boss’ name is “Mr. Norom.” Ooh, “moron” spelled backwards! There’s wit for you. Norom is a walking (well, sitting) “evil boss” stereotype, and the clichés continue from there: the bimbo coworker hired strictly for the boss to leer at, the depressing and decrepit building fixtures, even the sleepy, slackerish PC himself. Instead of giving us a fresh, fully-imagined setting, Caffeination just shows us the same dull office we’ve seen a hundred times before. What’s fun about that?

This game also suffers from the same syndrome that seems to plague many entries in this year’s comp: a lack of sufficient feedback and cueing. I struggled against the constraints of the first major puzzle for quite some time before turning to the hints, but these were much less helpful than I thought they’d be. The game has a hint system with great potential — you find a notepad left by a former co-worker who had allegedly amassed all sorts of interesting tidbits about the office. Unfortunately, CONSULTing the notebook about nearly every topic gives you either no information at all (“Bill left some detailed notes, but you cannot find any info on that.”) or no more information than is present in simple object and location descriptions. A hint system in a consultable object is a great idea for integrating metagame activity into ingame mechanics, but to succeed, it must be much more deeply implemented than this.

So finally, I turned to the walkthrough and was astonished to discover that there are no fewer than three different solutions to it. The problem is that all three solutions rely on extremely improbable actions, ones I’d certainly never have thought would work, given the fairly limited implementation of most game objects. For instance, one path involves finding out about a particular bit of office intrigue through dialogue, but even very direct questions about this exact topic elicit no response whatsoever from the NPCs. In fact, most questions to the NPCs elicit the default response, which leads one to stop asking questions in fairly short order. Another path requires discovering an object hidden in a cubicle. However, an object mentioned in the room description that should be in roughly the same spot as the hidden object not only doesn’t lead the player to discovery, it isn’t even implemented, which certainly leads one to believe that searching that area of the cubicle won’t be fruitful. It’s all well and good to provide interesting and unusual solutions, but you can’t expect players to read your mind to get to them. You have to provide cues, feedback, and evidence that will lead the player in the right direction.

In a similar vein, if a game’s coding is focused on its solution path(s) rather than on making a fully interactive environment, it will almost certainly be extremely buggy to anybody who isn’t strictly following the walkthrough. I associate this problem most strongly with Robb Sherwin‘s earlier comp games — if the game was a story, it’d go pretty well, but IF isn’t a story so much as a place, and when an incomplete place tries to be a story, problems ensue — even though Caffeination provides multiple solutions to each of its puzzles, they’re all pretty hard to guess, and exploratory moves towards them founder in a morass of bugs.

This may be a problem that deserves its own category: the “walkthrough-driven game”. These games end up making me feel like one of the time travelers in Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” terrified to step off the path lest everything around me be screwed up forever. That’s certainly what happens with Caffeination. Especially after the first puzzle, I found myself confronted with one bug after another when I tried things that the game didn’t expect.

Now, like the bugs in Sophie’s Adventure, many of this game’s bugs were beneficial to me, including one that allowed me to win without solving any of the coffee shop puzzles at all. I’ve been surprised by the games in this comp that go to great lengths to explain the obstacles to you, but then don’t bother to actually use those obstacles to prevent winning actions. Still, winning lacks its usual pleasure when it’s done by exploiting a bug. I was happy enough to have the game overwith, but I wish it could have been different.

Rating: 5.5

Janitor by Kevin Lynn and Peter Seebach as “Seebs” [Comp02]

IFDB page: Janitor
Final placement: 5th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: Janitor is one of those games where you figure out what you’re supposed to be doing as you go along. It doesn’t take a terribly long time to reach this conclusion, but I’m going to talk about it, and that could quite reasonably be seen as a big spoiler.

We’re in the 8th year of the IF competition, and we seem to be at the point where we’re officially recycling stuff. Having just finished a game (Coffee Quest II) that often feels like a cut-rate knockoff of Michael Gentry’s Comp98 entry Little Blue Men, I discover Janitor, which more or less recapitulates the gimmick from Comp97’s Zero Sum Game, by Cody Sandifer. That is to say: an adventure has just happened, the score is at full, and the PC’s job is to go around unwinding all the accomplishments and setting things back to how they were.

Janitor seems more or less unaware of Zero Sum Game and its “game over” successors like Comp98’s Enlightenment and Comp99’s Spodgeville Murphy — for example, it doesn’t do anything entertaining when asked for the FULL score tally — but happily, it implements the unwinding idea in a more fun way than ZSG did. I was pretty turned off by ZSG‘s callousness towards PC, NPC, and player alike, and the way it motivated the PC to undo everything (the PC’s mother didn’t approve of killing or stealing) was undercut by the game’s taunting of the PC as a “mama’s boy” (or girl). Janitor‘s more sensible approach is to cast the PC as an employee of a text adventure company who must reset the game world so that the next player will find all the puzzles unsolved and the treasures in their original locations.

To accomplish this, the PC can use magical “access corridors” that connect to various rooms in the “proper” game scenario, along with a “mimesis disruptor” that’s good for quite a bit of nifty description-switching. The locations and objects are described with a great deal of humor, and the layout and puzzles are imaginative and clever. I wasn’t able to finish the game in the two hours allotted, which disappointed me, because it looked just about ready to open up into a new and fascinating level. I’d recommend this game to those who enjoy puzzles and IF metalevels, but I’d also recommend waiting to see if there’s a debugged post-comp release.

I say this because unfortunately, Janitor‘s implementation doesn’t quite match up to the wit of its premise and its writing. For instance, there’s a puzzle that can be solved over and over again, bringing the player’s score down to zero in a flash (which is the goal) without really accomplishing much. There’s a bucket that is supposedly full of water, but is also described as empty. What’s more, this bucket ends up being the game’s sack object, which really makes very little sense — why would I automatically store stuff in a bucket of dirty water?

In addition, there is a thin but even layer of punctuation and spelling problems in the prose, and the writing sometimes fails to mention certain critical actions that the game undertakes on behalf of the PC; I went a good long time thinking an object had disappeared, when in fact the game had actually moved it to my inventory without ever saying so. Perhaps most irritating of all, the first portion of the game doesn’t tell you what your goal is supposed to be, except for the rather vague explanation that it’s your first day as a janitor. This would be fine, except for the fact that it fails to respond well to your attempts to actually clean stuff — most such actions are either unimplemented or met with a discouraging message. I’d much rather have seen the game obligingly handle every request to clean something, and let the score mechanism clue the player in to the larger goal.

Also, while I certainly appreciated the effort put into the hints, I was frustrated by the fact that they didn’t go so far as to lay out all the necessary tasks. Consequently, I was left wandering around the game with 4 points out of 100, unable to progress to the next stage because I couldn’t figure out the last lousy task the game wanted me to perform. The hints’ reassurance that “our beta testers consistently beat the game” was the opposite of reassuring, helping me instead to feel stupid as well as aggravated.

I can most certainly appreciate the impulse to avoid giving the game away in the hints — I didn’t even include any hints or walkthrough in my entry last year, foolishly thinking that anybody would be able to stumble through it. Even this year, I wanted to just include hints and no walkthrough, but thought better of it. When somebody only has two hours to play my game, I want them to be able to see as much of it as they can, and it’s really not my place to police their “fun level” by making sure they do it the hard way.

Despite its problems, Janitor was interesting and amusing, and I wish I could have seen it through to its end in the space of two hours. A walkthrough or more explicit hints would have allowed me to do that. Instead, I’m left wondering what I missed, in more ways than one.

Rating: 8.2

Coffee Quest II by Anonymous [Comp02]

IFDB page: Coffee Quest II
Final placement: 32nd place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Before I started playing this game, my thought was, “What happened to Coffee Quest I?” After I started playing it, my thought was, “I really really hope I never find out.” Lord, but this game is bad. It’s so depressingly bad that the thought of spending three paragraphs enumerating its faults fills me with a yawning despair. I do care about the constructive criticism thing, but at this point in the comp judging, I find it hard to stick to that ideal when faced with a game like this.

Add to this the fact that the game knows it’s bad — it calls itself a “travesty” in its ABOUT text, and says, “you are welcome to distribute it as long as you can find someone who’s willing to take it.” So what’s the point of constructive criticism, anyway? Why bother offering suggestions for improvement when quality is so clearly not valued? So instead, a randomly selected cornucopia of bad moments:

  • Utterly unresponsive NPCs who only act as ATMs or door-locks.
  • Zillions of mechanical errors, including lots of my archenemy, the it’s/its error.
  • Writing that frequently fails to explain (or even mention) basic points.
  • Made-up, unexplained words, or perhaps specialized slang words that I’ve never encountered and aren’t in my dictionary, which amount to the same thing. (“Maureen is the office bint.”)
  • Terrible, half-assed room descriptions. (“You are in the aisle. It’s quite dull here.” Yeah, no kidding.)
  • Bugs, bugs, bugs:
    >ask technician about drive
    'It ate my disk' complains the techyThe techy is scared that it may
    be his round.That's far too technical for him.That's far too
    technical and executive for him.The techy seems unable to grasp the
    concept of .
  • A completely pointless sleep timer.

I guess that’s enough. This game is what Little Blue Men would have been if it had been poorly written, poorly coded, and poorly designed. In fact, entire sections of it seem swiped directly from that game, but in such a way as to drain them of everything that made them interesting. There are a few grins here and there, several of which are apparently unintentional, but overall it’s a pretty grim experience. Just pray there’s no Coffee Quest III.

Rating: 3.1

About my 2002 IF Competition Reviews

2002 was the eighth year of the IF competition, and everything was pretty firmly in place. That includes the games and authors, who occupied the usual range from ugh to wow, and in fact pushed the top of that range back up above where I found it in 2001. It also includes me.

By 2002 I’d been reviewing comp games for many years, and I was very comfortable in the critic role. Without being too egotistical about it, felt like I could write reviews that would not only explain the my reaction to game and give useful feedback to the author, but at least sometimes do so in a way that would be useful for lots of aspiring authors, not just the one who wrote the game in question.

Writing all those other reviews had also made me deeply conversant with the history of the comp, which became increasingly helpful, as more and more comp games seemed to be in conversation with their predecessors. This certainly happened on the stylistic level — for example the “pure puzzle game” flavor I’d identified in previous years’ games like Colours and Ad Verbum continued in 2002 with games like Color And Number and (to a lesser extent) TOOKiE’S SONG. Koan was a tiny puzzle game in the spirit of In The Spotlight or Schroedinger’s Cat. Janitor was a cleanup game like Enlightenment and Zero Sum Game.

Dialogue with previous IF also happened at the thematic level — A Party To Murder called straight back to Suspect, Coffee Quest II to Little Blue Men, and so forth. Finally, at the most abstract level, games like Constraints clearly functioned as meta-commentary on the medium itself.

Knowing the domain as I did helped me to feel like I could be a good teacher for newer authors. But even better, closely examining my reaction to a game and explaining it to myself by writing about it, especially informed by a long history of doing so, was the very best way of being a student. The great thing about the IF comp is that it provides such a wide variety of approaches, so in getting analytical about my own responses, I can understand what works and what doesn’t work across a whole range of styles. Particularly helpful were games like The Temple, whose approach inspired my own future work.

2002 was my third time as a competition entrant, and much to my amazement, my first time as a winner. I was genuinely shocked to win the competition — I really did not think my game was the best one. (But who am I to argue with the judges? 🙂 ) My own favorite game of the 2002 comp, by a pretty wide margin, was Till Death Makes A Monk-Fish Out Of Me!. In my meta entry about the 2001 comp, I stupidly asserted that my not reviewing All Roads because I’d tested it was “the first and only Comp where I didn’t review the winner”, but of course this is not true! I didn’t do so in 2002 or 2004 either, because my games were the winners.

Besides Another Earth, Another Sky, the only games I did not review were Buried! and Castle Maze, because they were withdrawn and/or disqualified.

I posted my reviews of the 2002 IF Competition games on November 15, 2002.