YAGWAD by John Kean as Digby McWiggle [Comp00]

IFDB page: Yes, Another Game with a Dragon!
Final placement: 9th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Two years ago, the author whose rather silly nom de plume is “Digby McWiggle” submitted his first competition game, Downtown Tokyo. Present Day. That game was a prospective entry in Adam Cadre’s ChickenComp, but it wasn’t finished by the deadline, and therefore ended up an entry in Comp98 instead. I wonder if the same thing happened with this game, because it certainly would have fit the parameters for David Cornelson’s DragonComp. You see, YAGWAD stands for “Yes, Another Game With A Dragon!”, and the cheeky spirit of that title permeates the whole game, to wonderful effect. YAGWAD has lots of spots that are very funny, and the whole thing takes a playful poke at fantasy conventions.

Sure, fantasy conventions have been tweaked a lot at this point, but YAGWAD still manages a certain freshness, as well as a few artful nods to funny fantasies like The Princess Bride. It seems the King (who, speaking of The Princess Bride, is burdened with a comic lisp) has had his daughter abducted by a ferocious dragon, and is offering sparkling rewards to anybody who can retrieve her. Naturally, every strapping adventurer in the province is instantly on the case. Then there’s you: neither strapping nor adventurer (in fact, more of a portly, sloppy drunk), you still decide to undertake the quest.

From this premise, YAGWAD unfolds into an excellent melange of puzzles in the best Infocom style. In fact, with the exception of various Briticisms in spelling and grammar, YAGWAD feels like it could have been written by an Infocom Implementor — it’s not as lengthy as the typical Zork game, but definitely partakes of the same general feel. For example, at one point in your adventures, you may come across a massive set of reference books called the “Encyclopedia Gigantica” — in the tradition of the Encyclopedia Frobozzica, this reference provides a great deal of humor, both in its actual entries and in the references to it scattered throughout the game.

Also, as often happens to me with Infocom games, I found several of the puzzles in YAGWAD rather difficult. In this case, though, I think that might be mainly because of the time limit. I was quite keenly aware of the game’s size, which is not insignificant — I’d have to be about three times the puzzle-solver I am to be able to finish this in under two hours without hints — and therefore was less restrained about consulting the hints than I would have been. If the competition is over (which of course it will be by the time anybody reads this review) and you haven’t played YAGWAD yet, let me urge you not to use the hints. For one thing, the adaptive hint system is somewhat flawed, and it sometimes fails to give hints for puzzles that you may be facing. For another thing, pretty much all of the puzzles are clever and fair, notwithstanding my inability to solve them.

In fact, one of the biggest problems I had is that there’s one particular puzzle which must be solved before a number of others, and I was stymied on this puzzle purely because of my own thickheadedness. When I finally consulted the walkthrough, I looked at the answer and thought “but I did that!” In fact, I hadn’t. I went back to an earlier save point and tried it, just so I’d know I wasn’t crazy. Turns out I am crazy — it worked at that point and at all other points. I was completely convinced I’d tried it, but I must not have. This happens to me sometimes in IF, and I sure do feel dumb when I encounter it.

To make matters worse, I had an unfortunate difficulty creating a transcript of the game, so I can’t go back to my old game session and find out what it was that I really did that made me think I had already tried that solution. Guess it’ll remain a mystery forever. In any case, there are one or two puzzles that just graze the “read-the-author’s-mind” category, but even those have solutions that are fair and logical, if not particularly easy to think of spontaneously. The writing in YAGWAD is technically excellent, and I didn’t find a single bug in the code, either. Like I said, if Infocom was a British company, they might easily have produced this game. I mean that compliment as strongly as it sounds. Anybody who likes Infocom-style IF ought to give this game a try. Even those of you who shudder at the thought of Yet Another Game With A Dragon. (And you know who you are.)

Rating: 8.8

The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm Und Drang by Neil DeMause as Anonymous [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm und Drang
Final placement: 13th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Here’s my confession: I love superheroes. Ever since my first Marvel comic at age six, I’ve always been a fan. Even now, well into my twenties and possessing a Master’s degree in English Lit, I still make sure I get my monthly superhero fix. Yes, I know that violent revenge power-fantasies do not great works of literature make. Yes, I love comics and I know that the comics market is overcrowded, to the exclusion of other quality works, with bulging musclemen in tight spandex. Yes, I know that the constant deaths and resurrections of the superhero set strain plausibility to the breaking point. (Though really, who cares about plausibility? We’re talking superheroes, here!) And yes, I’m disturbed by the almost grotesquely idealized bodies (especially women’s bodies) relentlessly depicted in superhero comics. But what can I say? No matter how guilty it gets, it’s still a pleasure.

Consequently, I was anxious to start playing The Frenetic Five, and gave a small cheer when Comp97’s magic shuffler put it towards the front of the line. I’ve always thought that the whole superhero genre would make a great one for IF — if it’s a great power fantasy to watch some comicbook character shoot fire out of his hands, how much greater to actually play the character that does it! I quickly learned that FF is in fact a superhero spoof (seems that very few people who think of themselves as sophisticated can enter the superhero genre without wearing the bulletproof bracelets of satire and ridicule), and a very funny one too, in the tradition of Superguy. You play Improv, whose power is the ingenious use of household objects, and other members of your team include a boy who can see tomorrow’s headlines, and a woman who can find lost objects by clapping her hands (named, of course, The Clapper). The prose maintains a consistently high quality, from the characters’ dialogue with one another to the snappy responses provided for some unlikely actions (“>GET HOUSE” brings “You can count the number of superheroes you know who can lift an entire house on one finger: Forklift Man. (Come to think of it, Forklift Man could lift an entire house with one finger.)”) It’s hilarious.

Sadly, there are some problems as well. For lack of a walkthrough, I was unable to complete the game, and this frustrating experience revealed most of the game’s shortcomings. First of all, I was disappointed that my supposed super-power was not implemented, as it would have been one of the most natural (and coolest) hint systems ever devised. Anytime I needed help with a puzzle, I could have just drawn on my “super Improv power” to help me make the intuitive connections between those ordinary household objects. Instead, the game left me to hope that I (as a player) developed those MacGyver talents on my own. Not likely, I’m afraid. In addition, the game did not meet the challenge of allowing me to use even this setup, because it did not allow alternate solutions to puzzles by using objects in unconventional ways. Very few alternate solutions were implemented, and few are even anticipated with a snarky response. For example, when tied up, I tried many unconventional ways to escape my bonds (cut them with my shard of glass, put eyeglasses into sunlight to focus the light into enough heat to burn the ropes, blow on the eyeglasses to put them in the right place, bite the ropes, wrap duct tape on my fingers to get more than one object at a time, etc.) Each attempt was met with one of two (equally lame) responses: either very clumsy non-recognition of the verb (“You can’t see any bite here.”) or “That’s not really possible in your current state.” I got the impression that the author hadn’t really thought about all the clever things that could be done with the inventory objects provided, just the one clever thing that would solve each puzzle. Finally, there were a number of just plain bugs in the game, which always decreases the fun factor. The Frenetic Five has an excellent premise and, on the level of prose, an excellent execution. However, interface design and implementation are too important to be treated the way this game treats them, and it suffers for it. I’m still waiting for the game that does superheroes just right.

Prose: As mentioned above, the prose was excellent throughout all of the game that I saw. The dialogue and characterization for each member of the team was sharp and funny, and room descriptions (which adapted somewhat to the character’s mental state) were both concise and vivid. Even some of the most everyday IF responses were considerably enlivened by the superhero treatment — for example, saying “Down” in a locale where that direction is not available evokes the response “Sadly, you’re not equipped with the ability to tunnel through solid ground.”

Plot: Since I wasn’t able to complete the game, I can only report on as much of the plot as I saw, which was basically pretty middle-of-the-road superhero cliché. Since this was a spoof, of course, clichés were a good thing, and many of the touches (like having to take the bus to the supervillains’ hideout) were quite funny. The landscape, the premise (SuperTemps, whose logo is a muscled forearm holding a timesheet), and the spoofing of venerable superhero tropes (a mission interrupts relaxation, the villains explain their nefarious scheme to the bound heroes, etc.) were all very cleverly done. There were some coincidences which strained even the generous boundaries of satire, but I’ll discuss those below.

Puzzles: In fact, I’ll just discuss them right here. The puzzles were a weaker part of this game. I found basically two types of puzzles in the game. One group was the puzzle based on extremely contrived circumstances — for example, the door to the villains’ hideout uses a “guess-the-big-word” lock, and what do you know, I happen to have someone on my team whose superpower is guessing big words! Lucky me! The other type of puzzle was supposed to have drawn on my character’s superpower, the ingenious use of household objects. However, since this power wasn’t implemented (as a hint system) within the game, I was left to think of these ingenious uses by myself, the problems of which have already been discussed above.

Technical (writing): I found no errors in grammar or spelling in this game.

Technical (coding): I think the main failure of the coding was the one I’ve already discussed: the lack of depth in coding alternative uses for inventory items. When a game’s main character is someone whose primary trait is the ingenious use of objects, it is incumbent on that game to provide specific code for as many of those ingenious uses as possible. Frenetic Five fell well short in this regard. The game also had a few regular bugs, including the most egregious occurrence of the typical TADS disambiguation bug I’ve ever seen — when I and my team members were tied up, and I tried to do something with the ropes, I was asked “Which ropes do you mean, the ropes, the ropes, the ropes, the ropes, or the ropes?”