Moonbase by Mike Eckardt as QA Dude [Comp02]

IFDB page: Moonbase
Final placement: 34th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I think that comp games are a little like blind dates. For two hours or until the game ends, whichever comes first, I’m in a temporary relationship where I’m trying to evaluate every signal, from the smallest to the largest, in order to figure out how I feel. First impressions are particularly important, because the experience is going to be over shortly after the first impression gets formed. Ooh, sound clips — that’s interesting. Hmm, its/it’s error in the fourth sentence — that’s not good. Then again, looks like some effort was put into the help system, at least according to the oddly-passive sentence reading “General help may be asked for using the HELP command.” Wonder how our first conversation will go?

I said that help may be asked for... not that it would be

I don't want to help you.

It would be nice if there was help available. But there isn't.

Are you sure you wouldn't prefer to do this without help?


Very well then. [A few paragraphs of very generic "how to play IF"
info follows, though anyone who doesn't already know this information
will almost certainly never reach it.]

Oh, my. Looks like I’m in for an unpleasant evening. When Moonbase isn’t being adversarial, it mostly seems just sloppy and disinterested. There are plenty of spelling and grammar errors. The writing is flat and utilitarian, making wondrous experiences like teleportation and lunar exploration seem as humdrum as going to the corner store. Sometimes it seems like the game can hardly be bothered to describe anything at all:

This appears to be the base workshop. Various machine tools are here,
but none that would help you. The foyer is to the south, and there is
a door the the north.

Between the absence of anything at all to actually set the scene, the offhand dismissal of what scant setting exists, and the general rushed feel (“the the north?”), much of the writing feels like a conversation with someone who wishes he were somewhere else. Then there’s the instant death room and undescribed exit. The game-killing bug that sometimes prevents the PC from picking up a vital item, complaining that “Your load is too heavy” even when you’re empty-handed. The room whose description disappears completely after the first visit. The walkthrough that barely corresponds with the actual game. It’s a forest of red flags out there.

Oh sure, there are some nice touches. The sounds are well-done, understated, and enhance the action admirably. There’s a nifty background-color change upon stepping out onto the lunar surface. It talks a little about its interests, mentioning a MOO apparently hosted by the Artemis Project. (This place was populated by a number of friendly people when I briefly stuck my nose in.)

But really, what about my needs? This relationship isn’t going to work unless we’re both making an effort, you know. Where’s the fun? Where’s the immersion? Where’s the verve? A halfhearted collection of bland puzzles doesn’t make for much of a date, especially when they’re riddled with bugs and prose that sounds like it’s on Quaaludes. Actually, since these comp games are publicly rated and reviewed, maybe they’re not so much like an ordinary blind date, but instead like one of those terrible TV shows where people go out on a date and then come back later to analyze it in excruciating detail in front of an audience. In that case, Chuck, as you’ve probably already determined… this was not a love connection.

Rating: 5.0

Volcano Isle by Paul DeWitt [Comp01]

IFDB page: Volcano Isle
Final placement: 42nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’m hitting that point. It’s late in the judging period. I’m tired. I’ve just finished playing 47 other games, some of which were great but far too many of which were just sub-par. So I open up my 48th game, which has no introduction, no scene-setting, and apparently no real plot of any kind, instead dumping the PC unceremoniously on a beach with a boatload of inventory and no particular explanation about why it’s there. Most of this inventory is described as “It looks like an ordinary to me.”

There’s an ocean, but the game doesn’t know the word “ocean”. There’s a volcano, but the game doesn’t know the word “volcano”. Worse yet, I just did a long rant on sparseness in the previous review (of Crusade), so I can’t even use these problems as the theme of my review. Then the game prints, “The suspicious-looking individual enters the area from the north.” Wait. What suspicious-looking individual? Let’s talk for a moment about definite and indefinite articles in the context of first and subsequent mentions of an item or person. The indefinite article (“a” or “an”) should be used the first time a noun is mentioned, like so:

A suspicious-looking individual enters the area from the north.

Subsequent mentions can and should use the definite article (“the”), as in the following:

The suspicious-looking individual enters the area from the north.

Using the indefinite article all the time would imply that perhaps a different instance of the noun is at hand in each mention — in the case of this example, it would imply that the island might be crawling with suspicious-looking individuals. However, using the definite article each time, as this game does, is rather worse, because it insists that the noun has already been mentioned, as if the suspicious-looking individual has already been introduced (perhaps in the mysteriously absent introductory text) and that some kind of bug has prevented that mention from displaying. It is by such small omissions that sense erodes.

All that is to say: please forgive me if I seem a little impatient. It’s been a long comp, and has felt even longer than usual because I’m an entrant this year and thus have the added anxiety of worrying about how my own work is faring. Consequently, Volcano Isle, with its sparse implementation, mindreader puzzles, maze, and inventory limit, annoyed me greatly.

The game clearly wants to pay homage to Zork — that suspicious-looking individual carries a “vicious-looking stiletto”; there are various treasures to collect, and a place to deposit them; there’s a tree to climb, a rope to descend, and, of course, a maze. Unfortunately, the whole thing ended up feeling like an amateurish copy of something that was a) more than the sum of its parts because of quality implementation and writing, and b) interesting because it was doing some of these things for the first time rather than the 500th. Volcano Isle is neither. In addition, it is plagued by random messages that print every 25 turns or so in the form of “visions” supposedly experienced by the PC. There are probably two or three of these, and each is interesting the first time, then increasingly irritating on every repetition thereafter.

Just so I don’t trash the game entirely, let me point out one thing that I really liked a lot. The game puts the background color capability of HTML TADS to moderately creative use throughout, but by far the best is when the PC enters a pitch-black room. The background goes black and so does the text. The effect feels remarkably similar to what it’s really like to be in a pitch-black room — you know you’re doing something (like typing “turn on light”) and it’s having an effect, but you can’t see it happening. Then, when the action is successful, the evidence of activity is visible once more. I thought this was a pretty neat effect.

The game was also fairly free of bugs and writing errors, and has at least one entertaining puzzle. So it’s a partial success, I suppose — certainly far better than some of its competitors this year — but wasn’t what I needed to give me that burst of energy as the finish line appears.

Rating: 4.3

And The Waves Choke The Wind by Gunther Schmidl [Comp00]

IFDB page: And the Waves Choke the Wind
Final placement: 16th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

ATWCTW is, as far as I can remember, the first competition game that shares its fictional “universe” with a previous competition game. Last year’s Only After Dark featured the same protagonist, namely one Ranil Kuami, dreadlocked seventeenth-century sailor and ex-slave, a man who has the misfortune to run into one horrific situation after another. When I reviewed OAD I said, in the course of lamenting what I saw as the game’s excessive linearity, “I would really like to play a game set in the Only After Dark universe, written and coded as well as the competition entry but offering the player an actual choice once in a while.” This year, I got my wish.

Well, sort of. Apparently, the version of ATWCTW that was entered in the comp this year, despite the fact that it’s 173K and in .z8 format (a combination I confess I don’t quite understand), is actually only a preview of the real ATWCTW, which I assume is forthcoming sometime. Still, even though it ends rather abruptly, as many adventure game demos do, this version is a substantial chunk of adventuring all on its own.

For one thing, it has clearly been coded with a great deal of care. ATWCTW feels almost like a commercial graphic adventure game in terms of the number of features it offers for players. In fact, I rather got the feeling that in some spots it wished it was a commercial graphic adventure game. For instance, the game features cutscenes in several spots, all of which are nicely formatted and can be replayed at any point. It calls these cutscenes “movies”, which of course they aren’t — they’re all text. The choice of words made me wonder if ATWCTW wished it had the resources to become a graphical adventure game.

I’m glad it isn’t. Although the game might gain something from a transition into graphical mode, I think it would lose some things as well, such as the excellent options it offers at the text prompt. ATWCTW gathers nifty features from lots of previous IF games and offers them all. NOTE displays the game’s occasional footnotes. HINT offers context- sensitive hints. (Well actually, it doesn’t, apparently because this is just a preview. The game promises that this command will be available in the full version.) MOVIES brings up a list of cutscenes shown already, any of which can be replayed on command. WHAT IS and WHO IS are available, though they generally don’t offer much (with some important exceptions.) EXITS prints a list of exits from the current location.

Sure, all of these could be worked into a graphical game, but even beyond this, there’s that great sense of openness that a text parser offers. Granted, there are plenty of verbs the game doesn’t recognize, but there are lots that it does recognize, and I found, especially in the first puzzle, that most of the things I thought of doing, the game was equipped to handle.

That first scene is right out of a pulp adventure, and I had a great time solving the puzzle just the same way as any swashbuckling hero would have. Moreover, because of the particular genre of the game (the ever-popular Lovecraftian horror), text has some important advantages over graphics. A good description of horrific sights that defy the laws of nature will always be more powerful than a good movie of the same thing, both because good descriptions can involve all the senses, and because the imagination can encapsulate the idea of a sanity-shattering thing without having to constrain it to any specific visual image.

With all this going for it, I’m sorry to say that ATWCTW doesn’t quite reach its full potential. My experience may have been worse than many others’, because I played the game on my creaky old 386 laptop using DOS Frotz in monochrome mode (the machine doesn’t have a color screen.) About two-thirds of the way through the game, the entire thing apparently broke — I could see the bold header for the room description, but all other text was invisible. Experimentation demonstrated that the prompt was still there, so I restored and tried a different route into the scene, with the same result. Finally, I quit the game and looked at the transcript I had made, learning that text had in fact printed, but I couldn’t see it.

Playing a hunch, I started up the game in color mode, and discovered that not only was I now able to see the broken scene (albeit faintly), there were lots of other things I had missed in monochrome mode as well, because the game presents them in color. However, unlike other color games (such as Varicella), ATWCTW failed to test for color usage or even to warn me that it planned to use color. This failure was disappointing, especially given the level of quality attained by the rest of the game.

There were a few other flaws, such as the occasional awkwardness of the game’s prose: “And suddenly, as if a fog lifted from your eyes, you are totally clear.” The word “clear” here might be trying to convey alertness, wakefulness, visibility, invisibility, sobriety, comprehension, or a number of other things. As it is, however, the meaning is (pardon the pun) unclear. In addition, the plot up to this point still doesn’t offer that many options, its geography quite linear and many of its events quite unavoidable. Still, the preview of ATWCTW is an enticing peek at a game that shows every indication of being a major work. If its main objective was to get me interested in the full version, mission accomplished.

Rating: 8.5

Winter Wonderland by Laura A. Knauth [Comp99]

IFDB page: Winter Wonderland
Final placement: 1st place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Bless her, Laura A. Knauth just keeps getting better and better. Just about the time I was getting starved for a really good competition game, along comes Winter Wonderland, a charming and delightful piece of interactive fiction. By far the best thing about this game is its atmosphere. Winter Wonderland exudes a magical, storybook air that is enchanting without being saccharine. The heroine of the story is a young girl from a poor family who suddenly finds herself in a… well, you can probably guess what she finds herself in. A Winter Wonderland. The setting is just lovely, well-imagined and full of vivid, captivating images. A few of these images are present just for atmosphere’s sake, but the majority of them are puzzle components, and many of the puzzles are clever and fun. What Winter Wonderland does so well is to combine the nifty puzzles from Trapped In A One-Room Dilly with the sense of magical landscape from Travels In The Land of Erden, and adds to the combination a thematic specificity that is all its own and that works beautifully. The links between the puzzles feel very plausible because the entire setting is very consistent, and solving the puzzles rewards the player not only by allowing advancement through the plot, but often as well by presenting another appealing image to add to the already dense atmosphere. Romping around the snowy landscape encountering sprites, fairies and dryads was a great deal of fun for me, and the intricate and ingenious ways in which they presented interlocking puzzles was a real source of pleasure as well.

There are a couple of clunkers among the puzzles, unfortunately. The game has two sections that aren’t exactly mazes, but feel enough like mazes to provoke some annoyance. By the time you figure out how to solve them, you’ll have done a fair piece of mapping, and while there are no “trick exits” and everything connects to everything else in a fairly logical way, just the mapping alone is enough to make the whole area seem pretty tedious. In addition, there are a number of misspellings and a few parser problems which detract from the immersiveness of the game. I’ve emailed the author about these, and I’m optimistic they’ll be cleaned up in a future release. Even so, these flaws don’t ruin Winter Wonderland, simply because it has so many strong points alongside them. In addition, for each of the mazelike areas the puzzle isn’t the maze itself. In other words, the challenge of the area isn’t simply to map it and find the other end — each one contains its own puzzle, and both puzzles are intelligent and fairly well-clued. So for those of you who hate mazes, I recommend playing the game anyway. They aren’t all that onerous, and if you start to get frustrated, you can consult the excellent on-line hints.

The other area where the game really shines is in its technical prowess. While it isn’t a graphical game, Winter Wonderland does provide some ASCII art, much like last year’s Downtown Tokyo did. The art enhances the game’s atmosphere, but doesn’t conceal any crucial clues. Instead, it feels similar to the pictures shown at the beginning and end of On The Farm — images that enrich the text but are not necessary for enjoyment of the game. The author thoughtfully provides a “BARE” mode for those whose interpreters don’t handle such things well. In addition to its ASCII graphics, Winter Wonderland also uses the status line in innovative ways. It’s four lines high and includes score, location, and a compass rose indicating the available exits. We’ve seen the status line compass rose before, but I found myself using this on-screen mapping feature more than I ever have in any other game which provided it. The landscape is complicated enough that the compass rose feels like a real aid to gameplay rather than just a frivolous but useless feature. It actually reminded me quite a bit of the onscreen mapping in Beyond Zork, and felt about as useful to me. In addition, with an interpreter that handles color correctly the status line changes color subtly to enhance the atmosphere of the area the PC finds herself in. When she’s by a roaring fire, the status line is yellow and orange. When she’s in a moonlit snowscape, the letters are various shades of lighter and darker blues. What’s more, in some snowy scenes we actually see a few snowflakes show up in the status line, another attractive touch to embroider this already charming game. Winter Wonderland feels magical and joyous, and deserves to place highly in this year’s competition.

Rating: 8.7

Photopia by Adam Cadre as Opal O’Donnell [Comp98]

IFDB page: Photopia
Final placement: 1st place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

If there was a prize for “competition game most mentioned on the newsgroups before the deadline had passed,” Photopia would win hands down. Everyone was quite courteous about it, spoiler warnings and rot13 and all that, but there was a marked impatience to talk about this game, recommend it to other people, make it the test case in any number of arguments. There is a reason behind this impatience: Photopia is an amazing piece of work. It’s also very hard to talk about without giving spoilers away, so please forgive me if I’m a little vague in my language. One of the most brilliant aspects of the game is its plotting. It has what Adam Cadre, in an unrelated discussion, called a Priest plot, named for writer Christopher Priest. I don’t know if this is a term that Adam just made up, but it’s a useful term nonetheless. It refers to a plot which just gives you fragments, seemingly unrelated to each other, which coalesce at (or towards) the end of the story. When the fragments come together, and you figure out how they relate to one another, the result can often be surprising or revelatory. When they came together in Photopia, I found the revelation quite devastating. I won’t say too much more about this, except to say that it wasn’t until the end of Photopia that I realized what a truly incredible, powerful story it is. It’s the kind of thing where when you’ve played it all the way through once, you can then replay it and all the pieces fall into place, everything interlocking from the beginning in a way you can’t understand until the end. I think that this is the game that opens new frontiers of replayability in interactive fiction — I needed to play through Photopia twice in order to see all the text again, knowing what I knew after the end of the game.

Actually, I hesitate to call Photopia a game, but not because it failed to live up to a standard of interactivity. It’s just so patently clear that Photopia is not interested in puzzles, or score, or some battle of wits between author and player. Photopia is interested in telling a story, and it succeeds magnificently on this count. Unfortunately this deprives me of the use of the word “game” in describing it — perhaps I’ll just call it a work. In any case, it’s a work that anyone who is interested in puzzleless IF should try. At no point was I even close to getting stuck in Photopia, because the obvious action is almost always the right one — or else there is no right action and fated events occur with heavy inevitability. Oddly enough, this creates a strange contradiction. I was on ifMUD looking for a word to describe the plot of this work (I couldn’t think of the phrase “Priest plot”) and someone said, jokingly, “linear.” But actually, that’s true. Despite the fact that it’s completely fragmented, and despite the fact that it jumps around in time, space, and perspective, Photopia is a linear composition. There’s only one way to go through it, and the player has little or no power to make it deviate from its predestined course. I think the reason that this didn’t bother me, that in fact I liked it, is precisely because Photopia isn’t a game. Because it is a story, the emphasis is taken away from a teleological model, where the player tries to steer for the best outcome. Instead, you’re really just along for the ride, and the ride is one not to be missed.

Now, this is not to say that Photopia may as well have been a short story rather than interactive fiction. In fact, it takes advantage of the capabilities of the medium in some very inventive and almost unprecedented ways. One of the foremost of these is its use of color — each section of the game (oops, there’s that word again. Make that “the work”) is presented in a preset color, and these colors also play a part in the Priest plot. I understood their function by the end of the piece, and once I understood, I knew exactly why they were there and how much they enhanced the storytelling. Unfortunately I found the colored text a little hard to read at times, especially the darker colors on a black background, but I wouldn’t go back and play it in blue and white. The colors, like everything else in Photopia, worked beautifully, adding artfully to the overall impact of the story. The work is interactive in other important ways as well. In fact, in many aspects Photopia is a metanarrative about the medium of interactive fiction itself. Again, it wasn’t until the end of the story that I understood why it had to be told as interactive fiction. And again, to explain the reason would be too much of a spoiler. I have so much more I want to talk about with Photopia, but I can’t talk about it until you’ve played it. Go and play it, and then we’ll talk. I promise, you’ll understand why everyone has been so impatient. You’ll understand why I loved it, and why I think it’s one of the best pieces of interactive fiction ever to be submitted to the competition.

Rating: 9.9