Sun and Moon by David Brain [Comp02]

IFDB page: Sun And Moon
Final placement: 21st place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Sun And Moon is a strange beast. It certainly isn’t a text adventure, not even one of those multiple-choice web text adventures we’ve seen in previous competitions. Instead, it’s something altogether more interesting. After the manner of the ingenious online promotional campaign for Steven Spielberg’s movie A.I., Sun And Moon draws us into its story through a conglomeration of web sites — diaries by fictional characters, press releases by fictional companies, and so on. To a degree, this works pretty well. The weblog really looks like a weblog (it’s even on, pop-up ads and all), and the personal websites of the other characters are convincing too. They all mix links to actual sites with links that extend the fiction, thereby significantly blurring the boundary between the story and the world.

The game even provides email addresses for the characters. I tried writing to these to see if I’d at least get an autoresponse, but alas, it wasn’t to be. The company web site stretches credulity a bit, especially the “here’s where I’ll bitch about the boss, because I’m sure he’ll never read it” section — only the very confrontational or the very stupid would actually do such a thing on their own company’s website. Still, the overall effect of these narrative elements is absorbing; the fictional pieces of Sun And Moon are strong.

The interactivity is another matter. Certainly, there’s a degree of interactivity to following links from one web site to the next, but given that pretty much all the fictional content of those sites is just static text, that interactivity is only a shade greater than turning the pages of a book. Instead, Sun And Moon provides the vast majority of its interactivity in puzzles that bear almost no direct relationship to the story itself.

It seems that several of the characters in the story are puzzle enthusiasts (mazes and cryptic crosswords), and offer puzzles of their own creation via their web sites. Oh sure, some small element of the solution to these puzzles relates back to the story, but for the most part they are puzzles for their own sake. One could certainly argue that there are plenty of text adventures for which the same is true, and it’s interesting to think about where this game sits on the interactivity spectrum when compared to pure puzzle games like Color And Number. Nevertheless, it was my experience that the story and the interactivity in Sun And Moon sat alongside each other in ungainly halves, a narrative quite literally alongside a crossword, joined by tendrils that were tenuous at best.

Centaur works like this certainly add spice to in the ongoing debate about defining the term “interactive fiction.” In fact, I’m inclined to predict that Sun And Moon will spark a bit of a debate over just what sort of works belong in the competition. Personally, I wouldn’t bar works like this one from the comp — I’d rather have a wide definition of IF than a narrow one, and at several points in the game I was excited not just by its content but by the possibilities its form suggests. Then again, it doesn’t have all that much in common with a regular text adventure, and it almost seems unfair to rate it alongside TADS and Inform games.

So I’m in a quandary. On the one hand, my ratings tend to be based on how much I enjoyed the experience of a particular game, and I enjoyed the experience of Sun And Moon a fair amount. On the other hand, much of that pleasure wasn’t due to Sun And Moon itself, but rather because it introduced me to the fascinating form of cryptic crossword puzzles, and because it inspired me to think about what sort of stories might be created using these media. In addition, for me there is no way this game could have fit into two hours (though some portion of my time was devoted to teaching myself about cryptic crosswords), and consequently there’s a great deal of it I haven’t seen or solved.

What I did see provided an interesting story and some neat puzzles, but not what I would call an immersive fictional experience. Rather than being a fully realized piece of web IF itself, Sun And Moon feels more like a signpost to some very interesting territory ahead.

Rating: 7.3

Color and Number by Steven Kollmansberger [Comp02]

IFDB page: Color and Number
Final placement: 24th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Color And Number belongs to that genre of IF I’ve begun to call “pure puzzle games” — oh sure, it’s got a shred of plot, something about investigating a cult that worships colors or something, but that’s more or less overwith before the first move, and from that point forward, you’re pretty much in a pure puzzle landscape. And yes, those puzzles are keyed to a particular theme — you guessed it: colors and numbers. True to the precedent established in Comp01 games like Elements and Colours, the game even names itself after its puzzle theme.

About twenty minutes into this thing, I knew I didn’t have a prayer of finishing it in two hours, so I played until I hit the time limit and then stopped. Thus, in fairness, I don’t know whether the story makes a strong resurgence towards the end or anything, but even if it does, this game clearly belongs to the puzzles. Those puzzles are of the sort that prompts lots of note-taking, charting the correspondences between the various pieces the game teasingly doles out. I enjoyed several of these brain-twisters — they have a mathematical elegance, and some of the best ones suggest their solutions quite organically, which is a pleasure.

Others, though, are a little more imperfect. One puzzle in particular stumped me even though I had looked at all the hints for it, and I think there are several reasons for this. First, the feedback level was too low. The puzzle involved performing a string of actions, but without close investigation, the environment betrayed no particular indication about which actions were successful or useful. It’s not that this feedback was entirely absent, but it wasn’t prominent enough for me to even notice until long after I had looked at the answers.

Secondly, the sequence has a bug in it. It’s just a TADS error (one which oddly didn’t show up in my game transcripts, so I can’t quote it) — not enough to prevent the solution from working properly, but more than enough to drain my confidence in the puzzle’s correct implementation. Between that and the lack of feedback, it’s pretty clear how I ended up looking at hints, but even after I had seen them all, and ostensibly solved the puzzle, nothing happened.

I found out, through trawling Google for hint requests, that this was because I needed to do some other actions in an entirely unrelated area. This is not good puzzle design — at the very least, solving that portion should have yielded some noticeable change so that I could understand that my attempt had in fact worked, even if it wasn’t producing any useful revelations until its counterpart pieces were in place.

Critics like me talk a lot about how difficult it is to pull off combining an arresting story with interesting puzzles, but what’s becoming clearer is that even when IF eschews story altogether and focuses solely on puzzles, it presents considerable challenges to its creator. Little prose errors and formatting issues aren’t so noticeable in a work like this (unless they severely cloud meaning), but even tiny feedback or implementation errors can be devastating. Because there’s no story to distract us from game bugs, they loom very large indeed, and as soon as one crops up, it drastically affects the dynamic between player and game. Suddenly, a struggling player ceases to believe that he’s stuck because of his own inability to solve the puzzle, and starts to suspect that game defects are making the puzzle unsolvable, because after all, if bugs crop up in one place, they can be elsewhere too.

Infocom and its contemporaries had a big advantage in this area — if you bought a game off the shelf, knowing that the resources of a full-fledged company had been used to quality test it and that it had been reviewed by major publications, you could be relatively confident that whatever bugs still might lurk within it wouldn’t be enough to prevent you from solving its puzzles. No such assurances exist for an amateur, freeware IF comp game, and consequently pure puzzle games must be fanatically assiduous about debugging and testing. That’s not an easy mark to hit.

Rating: 6.7

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.