Xen: The Contest by Ian Shlasko as Xentor [Comp05]

IFDB page: Xen: The Contest
Final placement: 16th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, it took eight games, but I’ve finally hit the classic “game too big for the competition” issue. After two hours of Xen: The Contest, I had 29 points out of 63, so about halfway through the game I guess. It was enough for me to encounter the big (heavily telegraphed) plot twist, but not enough for me to understand how that twist changed the story. As usual, I’ll be reviewing the game based on what I saw of it in two hours.

What I saw, mostly, was your standard “implement a college campus” game, overflowing with stereotypes seemingly lifted from a paonply of 1980s movies, overlaid with a plot in which the PC gradually discovers he has superpowers and why. First, a word about the college stuff. I’ve had a 27-year (so far) career in higher education, moving from administrative assistant, to financial aid counselor, to Java developer, to manager and now associate director in the IT office. For a good chunk of that career, I’ve been in charge of the student portal, which has brought me in contact with nearly every part of the university, so it was with an insider’s perspective that I received the game’s treatment of the college experience.

Reader, it was not good. This game hates college. It hates the faculty. It hates the administration. It hates the students (well, the student athletes anyway.) It hates the grill chef. It hates the bookstore clerk. For crying out loud, it hates the receptionist at the student health center:

>x receptionist
Yet another minimum-wage employee who has been corrupted by the meager authority bestowed upon them, the receptionist has a permanent sneer on her face from looking down on all in her presence. In simple terms, she's a real [expletive].

(Note that the “[expletive]” is the game’s censorship, not mine.) Mind you, the PC is a freshman who has literally never walked into the University Hospital before. But for somebody who’s just showed up, boy does he have a lot of preconceived notions about everyone and everything. The snarling disdain for everything around him is evident in the majority of room and object descriptions. What’s more, there’s quite a bit of disdain set aside for the player and the basic mechanisms of IF as well. Many an object description ends with a “duh” statement, like so:

>x backpack
This is your backpack. You put things in it. Novel concept, huh?

One time, this kind of understatement can be a little bit funny. Over and over, for description after description, it communicates a resentment for even having to write descriptions at all, which causes me as a player to wonder why I’m playing this game that the author didn’t want to bother fully implementing. By the way, do you find anything in that description to suggest that the backpack would be better at extinguishing a fire than, say, a blanket? I sure hope so, because if you use the blanket to smother a fire you die, whereas the backpack is a big success!

That’s the other fundamental problem with snide non-descriptions. Not only is their tone grating, they also actively impede the play experience by failing to provide key facts that the player needs to succeed. Taken together, these qualities add up to a game that feels like a bully, calling you dumb for not knowing information that it intentionally withheld from you.

When it wasn’t making me learn stuff by dying, Xen was making me guess triggers. This is one of those games that waits for a particular command, then dumps out plot or exposition when the player enters it. These aren’t puzzles, really — most of the time the command is something like “sleep” or “sit”. When a trigger system like this is working smoothly, as it does for the majority of Xen, it can feel like traveling effortlessly through a story — just follow the very logical cues and you will make the plot happen. When it’s working badly, as it does sometimes, it can feel like wandering around in the wilderness, trying to guess the magic word that will unlock the only possible path forward. At no point does it feel like you have a choice of actions — scenes are strung together in a single linear path, and until you figure out the trigger that advances you along that path, you will make no progress in the game.

Between its truculence around describing things and its insistently single-track design, Xen: The Contest feels like a prose story whose author decided it would get more attention as an IF game. That may have been true, but it wasn’t a lot of fun for me as a reader or a player, especially given the fact that in two hours, even when resorting to the walkthrough several times to unearth a hidden trigger, I only saw about half. I suppose in a way this is the old “the food is terrible and the portions are so small” joke in action again, but I wasn’t really laughing.

Rating: 4.5

The Cave Of Morpheus by Mark Silcox [Comp01]

IFDB page: The Cave Of Morpheus
Final placement: 32nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Ah, another IF competition begins. There’s nothing quite like unzipping that big pile o’ games, firing up the random list generator, and diving into the first offering. Of course, the thing about diving is that you may find the water a bit less pleasant than you had anticipated. There’s a misspelling on the first screen. The game engine doesn’t recognize the “script” command. [I figured out later that there’s a “start transcript” command from the menu, whose functionality is happily improved from last year. I’ll keep it in mind for the next ADRIFT game I play.] Oh yes, and then there’s the wonderfully opaque ADRIFT parser:

WEAR CLOTHES
Wear what?

CLOTHES
Wear what?

AAARGH! CLOTHES! C-L-O-T-H-E-S! IF YOU DON'T RECOGNIZE THE WORD,
JUST SAY SO!
Wear what?

It’s not that The Cave of Morpheus is untested. The author’s notes claim that the game “has been beta-tested fairly extensively”, and I can believe it. Sadly, though, the testing cycles didn’t quite catch all the problems, whether they be with voice (“I slap the palm of your hand”), room descriptions full of dialogue that repeats on every “LOOK” command, or glitchy parser trouble that leads to output like this:

GET ALL
I pick up the library book and

Okay, enough bitching about the bugs. TCOM is a college game, combined with that wonderfully flexible genre, the nightmare story. Because much of the game’s action takes place in dreamspace, you’re not to take it amiss that, for example, you’re naked and can’t find any clothes in your own dorm room. Of course, once you see the game comment on the PC’s penis, then dream or no dream, your reaction may be the same as mine: “Ew.” When that comment turns out to be an extended metaphor about drooping flags… well, double ew.

TMI aside, there are a few other strangenesses about the design, but the dreamlike setting makes it hard to know whether they’re intentional or not. For example, there appears to be some random combat, and it can indeed kill you. All that’s necessary to survive is to run away, but as a player, I was still left asking, “What was up with that?” I never really found out.

Inexplicably, the game is split into two files, and right about the start of the second one, I thought it was about to take off into something really cool. The PC plays Crowther and Woods’ Adventure on his laptop, commenting along the way like so:

X BIRD
{You scratch your head. This Crowther 550 thing is getting weirder
and weirder. What the hell would a bird be doing hanging out in a
Colossal underground cave? And if it did find itself there, what
reason would it have to be happy??...}

“Wow!” I thought. What a neat concept — a mini-implementation of Adventure, but seen through the eyes of a particular character, thus shedding light on both the game and the character. Sadly, it turns out that this cool idea wasn’t the idea the game had in mind. Rather than a mini-implementation, the Adventure section is a very long non-interactive passage, one of those dismal IF moments where it doesn’t matter at all what you type; the game keeps choosing your actions even if you just sit there hitting Enter, waiting for a chance to actually do something again. The interplay between character and game still happens, but it feels rather ironic to have interactivity completely removed just as the game is paying homage to a seminal example of interactive text.

There are some pleasures available in TCOM — the character of Alice is nicely delineated, and I found the PC’s relationship with her quite believable. The spiraling, repetitive structure of the game made for some effective scenes, and the notion of some idealized version of Willie Crowther as Virgil to the PC’s Dante is well worth exploring. Though these gems are embedded deep within a bland setting and an unfriendly implementation, their simple existence makes me look forward to the author’s next game.

Rating: 4.5

Music Education by Bill Linney [Comp99]

IFDB page: Music Education
Final placement: 24th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

In Music Education, you play a college student majoring in music. The game takes place in and around a college music building, and many of the characters and puzzles involve music in one way or another. The specificity of this premise helps the game feel a little less like a generic college romp, but does not help it to transcend the genre of games which feel more or less like implementations of somebody’s (usually the author’s) fairly quotidian life. These are the kind of games that are much more fun to write than to play. Aspiring writers are given the advice that they should write what they know, and try to write for themselves, creating works that they themselves want to read. This is good advice, but I think that when it is applied to interactive fiction, it often leads to games which are more or less an interactive version of somebody’s apartment, or house, or campus. These can be fun to play, but only if the main attraction isn’t the game’s similarity to the author’s real life.

For example, A Bear’s Night Out may have been set in an implemented version of the author’s house, but the main attraction of the game isn’t the fact that you get to walk around a virtual replica of a typical house. Instead, there are specific, interesting elements to the game that put the house in the background rather than the foreground. In Music Education, the college music building occupies the foreground, and one suspects that the most fun thing about it for the author is its resemblance to that author’s lived reality. This is a type of fun in which very few players can share. I may be way off base here. Perhaps the whole building is imaginary, and the game’s scenario has no bearing on the author’s life. If so, the game fails to make the fictional scenario compelling enough to hold the player’s interest. This lack of zing arises in part from the sheer ordinariness of the scenario (with occasional lurches into absurd death scenes), but also from its curious goallessness.

The game begins at a parking meter, so it’s reasonable to think that the goal of the game is to feed the meter. However, even after you do this, the game is not won, and there are many more points to be scored. There’s no real plot to the game, so it’s difficult for players to understand just what they’re supposed to be trying to accomplish in order to win the game. There are no overt indications of exactly what the puzzles are, let alone how they ought to be solved. Consequently, I spent a good deal of time wandering around the game just doing the obvious thing with the few objects to hand, without ever understanding the purpose of such actions. After I ran out of ideas, I consulted the walkthrough and discovered that a couple of highly unlikely (though, in retrospect, more or less logical) actions are necessary to complete the game.

I still didn’t understand why any of those actions were necessary until I had performed them, and I think I’ve figured out the problem. Most of the puzzles consist of bringing things to various characters, or creating a situation that the character desires. However, the characters never give any indication as to what they want, so it’s very difficult to know what you’re supposed to be doing for them. This is why such “locked-door” characters in IF normally say things like, “Boy, I sure could go for some ice cream right now!” It’s a way of feeding the player specific information about the key to unlock the NPC’s puzzle without that NPC needing to break character. In Music Education there is one character whom you can ask about the other characters, but again there’s no motivation to do this other than trying to figure out what the goal of the game is, and even when you do ask, the character only answers on a few topics. This setup breaks mimesis, since there’s no intrinsic, character-based reason to ask such questions; the game becomes less about a music student and more about a confused player trying to figure out what the game is looking for.

Luckily, there’s an easy fix to this: just enhance the characters so that it’s easier to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing for them. This could mean tweaking their responses to various questions, or giving them a response to “hello”, or giving them opening text for when they first meet the player, or some combination of the above. Granted, “I really want a…” statements can feel rather artificial when written poorly, but wandering around wondering what to do in a simple environment feels much more artificial. Music Education is a game whose writing and coding are relatively free from errors, but whose drive is deflated by the banality of its setting and some relatively basic omissions of puzzle design. Once the latter of these problems is fixed, the former will cease to have as much effect.

Rating: 6.1

VirtuaTech by David Glasser [Comp97]

IFDB page: VirtuaTech
Final placement: 21st place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

If sword-and-sorcery fantasy was the overused genre of the 1996 IF competition, I’m beginning to believe that virtual reality will win the honors for 1997. Of course, it’s not David Glasser’s fault that Comp97 scheduled his game to be played after several other VR-themed pieces on my list, but I can say that it took away some of the thrill for me to see yet another page from the VR handbook. The other unfortunate part of this is that VirtuaTech‘s use of VR is pretty humdrum: step inside your computer a la Planetfall, or alternately “VirtuaPhone” other entities, none of whom turn out to be characters. The game’s near-future milieu was reasonably interesting (though rather cliched), but it felt like a thin science-fictional sheen over what is basically a very simple college game — fix your computer and print out your paper to bring it to class.

As such, VirtuaTech isn’t bad. It’s short, easy, and inoffensive. There is some entertainment to be had from solving the game’s puzzles and exploring its limited geography, but it doesn’t deliver much in the way of excitement or thrills. The puzzles are mainly a matter of putting the right key in the right lock, and finding numbers to type on a variety of keypads. The game’s one slightly more interesting puzzle (opening the portal) I solved just by noodling rather than through any kind of inductive reasoning, so I wasn’t able to experience the pleasure of any great flash of insight.

On the plus side, there isn’t much particularly wrong with the game. The writing could be better, but it certainly works. The design is compact and efficient, and the setting as a whole is consistent and makes logical sense. There are very few bugs in the code (I only found one real problem), and the puzzles may be unimaginative, but they’re fair. Consequently, VirtuaTech turns out to be a pleasant way to spend 45 minutes or so.

Prose: There’s certainly a level of awkwardness to the prose in VirtuaTech. Many of the sentences are rather clunky, and the whole thing could use an edit for elegance and rhythm. However, I only rarely found myself confused by descriptions or situations, so the writing did its most important job: it conveyed the scene with accuracy and clarity.

Plot: The game’s plot is very, very simple, which is probably what makes it such a short game to play. [SPOILERS AHEAD] In fact, I was rather surprised that all I needed to do was to get the paper printed and to walk out the door. [SPOILERS END] When the winning message came up, I said “That’s it?” It was.

Puzzles: As mentioned above, the puzzles are pretty garden-variety. Lots of typing codes into keyboards or pushing the right button. Still, the puzzles all make sense within the game’s world, and there are no “guess-the-verb” or “read-the-designer’s-mind” puzzles to be found.

Technical (writing): I found a couple of grammar errors in the game, but nothing too egregious.

Technical (coding): There was only one bug in the game, and its effect on gameplay was negligible. A couple of verbs could have been better implemented, but solutions to these problems were also not hard to find.

OVERALL: An 8.0

Kissing The Buddha’s Feet by Leon Lin as Anonymous [Comp96]

IFDB page: Kissing The Buddha’s Feet
Final placement: 5th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I first started this game I had that familiar “Oh no, not another one of these” feeling. But the more I played Buddha, the better I liked it. Nine times out of ten, college humor comes off as sophomoric in-jokes liberally mixed with gross-outs — this time was the tenth. Several moments in the game almost made me laugh out loud, and I related very well (perhaps a bit too well) to the game’s main character. This game also makes hilarious use of TADS‘ capability for dynamic object creation, as the cellophane, snack food wrappers, and crumpled up notepapers continue to pile around the hero’s ears. The characters were stereotypes, but they were written so well that they evoked the reality behind the generalization rather than the typical flatness of a stock type. Finally, a good word for the puzzles — not only were they clever, interlaced, and often the type to give one the “aha!” feeling as the pieces suddenly fall perfectly into place, they were also very well integrated into the story, and cleverly supported by the premise. The genre of Kissing The Buddha’s Feet may be clich├ęd, but it’s the kind of game that reminds one why people attempt the college genre in the first place.

Prose: Only once in a while did the use of ridiculous levels of exaggeration slip into the annoying; much more often it was pitched just at that level where one can enjoy the joke without endangering the suspension of disbelief. The writing is lively and its level of detail greatly increases the game’s immersiveness.

Difficulty: The game’s difficulty was just right for me. I never felt so stuck that the pleasure of working on the puzzles ceased to become fun — but it was always a little work to figure those puzzles out. I also enjoyed the feeling of never quite knowing when a puzzle would be solved, and the fact that as soon as you took care of one problem another one, gopherlike, would pop up somewhere else.

Technical (coding): Some really masterful strokes, such as all the wrappers and papers that pile up around the house. Most commands well anticipated, and in fact I look forward to returning to the game after the competition has ended and trying all of the “amusing” pieces. Only once in a great while was a logical action not anticipated in the coding (examples are putting the towel back on its rack and trying to unplug the TV while wearing the catcher’s mitt.)

Technical (writing): Grammar and spelling were both well in hand. The anonymous author is obviously a skilled writer, and I look forward eagerly to his or her next game.

Plot: Well, there wasn’t really much of a story to go through, but I never felt the lack of it. In short, the premise was clever and substantial enough to make me feel as though I really was living through a hilarious night of hell, even though I was really just solving puzzles one after another.

Puzzles: Though it’s hard to pick a favorite, I think this was the best aspect of Buddha. As I mentioned earlier, the puzzles were clever, pitched at just the right level of difficulty, and very well integrated into the overall plot. Some favorites are how to put Bob out of commission and then neutralize his snoring, as well as the problem of Alice and her radio.

OVERALL — a 9.4