A New Life by Alexandre Owen Muñiz [Comp05]

IFDB page: A New Life
Final placement: Tied for 2nd place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

It’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the world of A New Life. In the standard manner of high fantasy, the text is littered with names of lands, kingdoms, rulers, saints, legendary figures, and so forth, none of which seem to have any reference outside the fictional milieu. Examining a coin can give you a paragraph-long infodump about how the local economy has been affected by the waxing and waning power of a particular merchant league over the last three hundred years.

Not only that, it becomes obvious early on that the people of this world can change genders, or rather biological sex — not quite at will, but gradually over time in ways that exist on a spectrum of voluntary to involuntary. We see the implications of this trait appear everywhere from the children’s stories we encounter to the answer to “X ME”:

In your month of travel you have allowed yourself to slip into the neutral gender as a practical matter; as a result of the changes in the shape of your body, your clothes fit you poorly.

For the most part, I found this fictional realm pretty impressive — I particularly enjoyed the user’s manual for a Bag of Holding, which explains how important it is to tend to the item’s emotions. And yeah, there’s a Bag of Holding (though not exactly with that name). There are goblins. There’s a dragon. There’s a magic staff, and a charm that senses danger, and a fancy sword, and in general a whole adventurer’s-packful of Dungeons and Dragons tropes, albeit frequently with some changes rung on them, like the bag’s sensitive ego, or the goblins who turn out to be adorable and wise rather than disposable low-level mooks.

Still, for as thorough as the worldbuilding generally is, those D&D-isms sometimes get in the way of logical sense. For instance, we learn that the PC is a refugee, on the run from battles and press-gangs, about which you can learn plenty by use of the REMEMBER verb. Yet, when this refugee comes across an “Adventurers Wanted” sign, the game’s story demands that we show interest. As I was playing the character, they were not an adventurer, and getting involved in some dangerous lark is the last thing they’d want to do. The goal was just to get to a new city and establish, as the game’s title suggests, a new life.

Yet when I tried to do so, here’s the message I got: “Soon, you will follow the road and go on to start a new life in Isult. But your curiosity is not yet satisfied.” Really… curiosity? I’m on the run from a war, having tragically lost my brother (whose decision not to change genders may have led to his death), bartering my possessions along the way in a long and difficult journey, but I’m not allowed to continue that journey until I satisfy my curiosity about the mysterious and vaguely hostile peddler-woman I met along the way?

Yep. That’s the story, and it’s an example of how very convincing worldbuilding can actually work against quest-plot design. With a less defined character, I’d feel far less resistance to just getting on with exploring the spooky caves. Once I started to explore those caves, that’s when the next design flaw kicked in.

I found myself drawn into a beguiling story, with excellent NPCs, an intriguing background, and a clear goal. The problem was, as I realized about 80 minutes into the game, I was in a dead branch. I’d gotten to where I was by going through a dark place with a guide. I needed to get back through that dark place, but my guide was gone, and no light was available. Even more frustrating, although there were plenty of plausible ways I could have acquired such a light, the game hadn’t implemented any of them, and the main information-giving NPC had nothing to say about it. The hints were no help, the walkthrough was no help, and so I was forced to restart, but with considerably less engagement than I’d had the first time.

So I finished the story, but with far less emotional impact than I think was intended, due both to its insistent disconnection from the PC’s own characterization and the way the game had locked me out of a valid narrative the first time. Even at the end, when I seemed to have checked all the boxes, the game didn’t seem to respond. I ended up checking the walkthrough, only to find out that all I needed to do was travel in the direction that my “curiosity” had cut off the last time. Without a cue that I was ready to go, I had no reason to believe that command would work again. But work it did, and the game ended with an epilogue that didn’t land for me, because as detailed as the world and the story were, the game’s style of interactivity had let them down.

Rating: 8.0

Distress by Mike Snyder [Comp05]

IFDB page: Distress
Final placement: 4th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Say you’ve got an idea for a story. It’ll be thrilling, fast-paced, and ingenious. Say, just for illustrative purposes, it’s a story about the survivor of a crashed spaceship, who has to help injured crew members, signal for a rescue, and figure out why the ship crashed in the first place, all while being hunted by a hostile creature on the unexplored planet. You know what all the beats are, and how your protagonist gets from beginning to end by making clever use of nearby resources and surviving tightly timed encounters like chases and medical emergencies. You know there’s going to be a twist at the end, how you’ll foreshadow it, and how it will finally manifest.

Now, you could just go write that story! Who knows if it’d get published anywhere — it’s pretty cliché-heavy — but if you wrote it you’d be able to shape it exactly to how you imagined it. But what if you wanted to make that story into a game? It would seem to fit an IF milieu pretty well, with the protagonist being alone in an unfamiliar landscape, and having to piece together information and objects to get to the best ending. How do you take your story, which is specific and clear in your head, and turn it into an interactive experience that is — and this part is important — fun and enjoyable for players?

Well, this is where things get dangerous. When you make a story interactive, you are now obligated to create sufficient margin around the ideal plotline that players can experience the game’s world and its events without feeling like they’re inside some kind of narrative lab experiment where electric shocks are applied anytime they step off the prescribed path. At one extreme of this continuum, any command that doesn’t adhere to the ideal walkthrough results in a losing ending. At the other end, the player could depart from the story entirely and still be supported by the game to eventually reach a satisfying conclusion.

Guess which end of this continuum is easier to code? Lots of authors fall into the trap of forcing their players to adhere too closely to a specific string of commands, either by failing to implement anything outside of it or by lowering the boom immediately on any deviations. Very few authors create a world so rich that new and different stories can emerge from it autonomously, because doing so is unbelievably difficult. Finding a satisfying middle ground between these extremes is the essence of the IF designer’s craft. That’s why it’s often said that the best IF doesn’t offer unlimited interactivity but rather a very convincing illusion of unlimited interactivity.

So back to our crash survivor story, which, yeah, is the plot of Distress. You might implement this by creating lots of ways for the protagonist to survive, and in some ways, Distress attempts this. However, its flexibility tends to be around more trivial tasks such as what verbs can be used for one step of a first aid process. It has zero flexibility on more important things, like how many turns you have to complete that first aid process, and heads up — if you don’t complete it correctly, you are locked out of a winning ending without knowing it.

Some games might handle a situation like this by providing a generous time limit, and ending the game upon failure to complete the task, which would cue players that this is a puzzle whose outcome is crucial to success. Other games might give you clearer and clearer nudges towards the right solution, and then end the game on a failure, or even outright force a success. Distress, on the other hand, makes it seem like the failure is a valid outcome, and maybe even inevitable, only to silently prevent success even after many more steps are completed.

The author makes a telling comment in the text file accompanying the game: “To some degree, I think we as IF players have grown soft.” This comment suggests a view of interactive fiction in which the players battle the authors for dominance over the experience, and longs for the good old days in which authors would sharpen their knives and players would hope not to bleed too much. That’s one view of this medium. It’s not mine. I play IF because I want to experience a world and a story, and while I enjoy a challenge, I do not enjoy repeated electric shocks.

So it was with Distress, whose name seemed more and more apt the longer I played it. The writing is good, the coding is strong, and the premise is solid, and I found it fun and compelling at first, but it quickly became apparent that there was many an electric shock to be had. I lost over and over and over again. Finally I turned to the hints, and despite following their cues, even the one that “solved the puzzle”, I still lost. Then I turned to the walkthrough, and lost. Then I started over, adhered closely to the walkthrough, and finally got past the point that had been battering me. Was I having fun? Reader, I was not.

Distress set out to punish me for my deviations from its ideal route, and it certainly succeeded, but repeated punishment is not my idea of a good time. Even valid ideas for how to solve a puzzle, even ideas that actually are the solution to that puzzle, aren’t allowed unless you carefully shepherd the PC’s mindset through them. So, for example, there might be a battery to be found right next to you, but you’re not allowed to find it until you demonstrate to the PC that a battery is needed. To make matters worse, the many tightly timed sequences pretty much guarantee you’ll be replaying parts of the game many times, so while you learned about the battery problem 10 playthroughs ago, you still have to pretend it’s your first time.

Distress may well appeal to a certain kind of player, one who agrees that we’ve all gotten too soft. It wasn’t for me.

Rating: 6.8

PTBAD6andoneeighth by Jonathan Berman as Slan Xorax [Comp05]

IFDB page: PTBAD6.5: The URL That Didn’t Work or Have You Seen the Muffin Man? He Is Quite Large
Final placement: 35th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

So, I guess this game technically has a much longer and different title than appeared in comp05.z5, but honestly PTBAD6andoneeighth is bad enough. Remember when I was cataloging the different kinds of bad comp games and I mentioned “the obnoxious bad ‘joke’ game where the joke is on you for playing”? This is one of those.

The winning move is mildly amusing — it’s actually one of the first things I typed in, and in response the game gave me a winning message, then implored me to play more. “Of course, you COULD restart and poke around a bit,” it said. “I mean, how could it hurt? Its just a few more minutes of your time.”

So I spent a few more minutes of my time. It did hurt. Then I stopped, and was glad.

Rating: 2.1

Son Of A… by C.S. Woodrow [Comp05]

IFDB page: Son of a…
Final placement: 15th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

If you’ve read many of my comp game reviews, than you probably know that while I certainly notice and dislike all kinds of mechanical prose errors, there is one error that consistently tops my enemies list: the NASTY FOUL ITS/IT’S ERROR. There’s a moment in this game where you can be stung by thousands of wasps until you eventually have an allergic reaction and die. Well, my its/it’s allergy had pretty much that experience while playing Son Of A…. A NFIE in the introduction was rapidly followed by two NFIEs in the first room description. Yet another one starting the very first object description I looked at (the wallet) had me commenting “ahhhhhhhhh IT IS killing me with the many errors BELONGING TO IT”.

It just kept going, and for a while there, I began to theorize that the author just always uses “it’s” no matter the occasion, which made me feel… a little better? But then, nope, there are correct uses of “its” sprinkled throughout the text, sometimes right alongside incorrect uses of “it’s”, as in this description of a ladder: “It’s thick structure has turned a silver-grey from sitting in the weather. Despite its age, it appears to have held up well.” There are also occasional correct usages of “it’s”. Sigh.

Aside from this swarming pestilence, and a few other mechanical bugs, the game’s writing is actually pretty strong. Son of a… does a nice job of setting an effective scene and layering the PC’s point of view with humor. In addition, the game implements nouns at a satisfying level of depth — players are often rewarded for inspecting every detail of a scene.

Other implementation details are a bit more peculiar. For instance, the game clearly states in its help text:

1. Entering important places or taking important things will increase your score.
2. Completing puzzles will not increase your score.

But… why? I’m guessing perhaps this is the foible of a first-time author who found it too difficult to make Inform recognize when a puzzle was solved, and just gave up on the whole idea. This approach does lead to an odd gameplay experience, though, in which you can be wandering around with full points but several more puzzles to solve before completing the story.

As for the puzzles themselves, they’re a pretty pleasant diversion. Just as the writing does a good job of setting the scene, the structure of the scenario is intriguing and offers lots of opportunities for logical barriers solved by logical means. There is a pretty gaping plot hole — wouldn’t a long-abandoned motel have had its power cut off? For the most part, though, I enjoyed finding ways to resolve the PC’s predicament, and even had a few satisfying “aha” moments when I hit upon clear solutions that had initially eluded me.

What a pity, then, that a fundamentally enjoyable game is badly flawed with simple, fixable mechanical errors that simply were not fixed. Here’s an oldie but a goodie: Bob’s Guide to Its and It’s, You Idiots. Print it out, hang it up, and avoid those mandatory deductions.

Rating: 5.0

Cheiron by Sarah Clelland and Elisabeth Polli [Comp05]

IFDB page: Cheiron
Final placement: 26th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, first I want to tell a little story about me that I promise will be at least marginally relevant to my experience of this game. I’m in the fifth grade, and we’re taking a class field trip to some hospital, I guess so we can learn about how hospitals work. We go to a few different places, and then are shepherded to the lab. There, a medical researcher shows us a centrifuge, and explains how they use it with blood to separate out the red blood cells, platelets, and plasma. He holds up a test tube of blood (not a sight I wanted to see), swirls it, and… next thing I know I’m looking up at a bunch of concerned faces. (And some amused ones.)

I had passed out, directly in reaction to seeing that blood swirl. Lucky me, I got to do the rest of the tour in a wheelchair, with my classmates competing for who would get to push me. That’s about how I do with medical stuff. (Ironic, given that my mom had a 43-year career as a nurse.) In fact, years later — after 9/11 — I tried to give blood, and had such an extreme reaction to the process that I was asked not to come back. So it’s fair to say I am not in the audience for a game that tries its hardest — including usage of images and sounds — to simulate the experience of being a medical student. I felt woozy and icky for much of the time I made my way through Cheiron.

That said, the fundamental premise of Cheiron is quite cool! If pilots can hone their skills through flight simulator software, maybe medicos could have training simulations too. If nothing else, this game taught me some of the initial steps in a medical consultation — greeting, wash hands, ask for consent. Or at least, those are apparently to be the steps in the UK, where this game seems to have been produced.

Unfortunately, nifty though the concept may be, the implementation is problematic, though not due to lack of effort on the part of the authors. This exchange encapsulates the experience of the game pretty well:

>take pulse
Which do you mean, the jugular venous pressure, the left dorsalis pedis pulse, the right dorsalis pedis pulse, the left posterior tibial pulse, the right posterior tibial pulse, the left popliteal pulse, the right popliteal pulse, the left femoral pulse, the right femoral pulse, the left carotid pulse, the right carotid pulse, the left brachial pulse, the right brachial pulse, the left radial pulse or the right radial pulse?

Aaah! There is a lot going on here, most of it not so good. First of all, for a lay player like myself, this disambiguation question is laughable, as it reads mostly as gibberish to me. How am I supposed to make a choice between 15 different options, none of which I know what they mean? Second, does it really make sense to offer the player 15 different options at this point? Is there any world in which it would make sense to reach around the patient’s left knee rather than using, like, the wrist? This feels like an instance where the game should have just done the obvious and not made a big deal of it, unless somehow the obvious course is not available, in which case the game could either make a challenge of figuring out how to take the pulse despite an obstacle, or defaulted to the next most obvious thing.

And yet, the inclusion of all 15 of those options is a perfect emblem of how earnestly the authors approached this game. Clearly, an enormous effort was made to provide an incredible number of options for the player, which makes a lot of sense for conversations and examinations that are meant to focus in on a diagnosis. The hints for inquiring about the patient’s history list no less than 79 topics you can query, ranging from mood to pets to vomiting to rheumatic fever. It’s incredible!

Because I’m not a medical student, I ended up using Dr. Google to try to put together diagnoses based on the information the game gave me. This actually worked pretty well! I don’t really understand much about acromegaly, but given a set of lab results and a physical exam, I can put together enough clues to come up with it on a web search. Frustratingly, though, there’s no way to validate a diagnosis in this game except to look at the answers, which lists all 4 patients’ diagnoses at once. I think it would have been fine to implement fewer conversation topics in order to make room for this kind of mechanic.

All in all, this felt like a fundamentally flawed attempt at what could be a pretty interesting educational piece, though the dizzying breadth of it (at the expense of consistency and depth) demonstrated just how difficult a task the authors had set themselves. I love them for trying, though — Cheiron is a fascinating failure that feels more worthwhile than many of the weak-tea fantasy and argumentative rants I’ve played in my Comp05 list thus far.

Rating: 6.5

Phantom: caverns of the killer by Brandon Coker [Comp05]

IFDB page: Phantom: Caverns of the Killer
Final placement: 31st place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Right up front this game starts sending out the red flags. There’s the fact that its title isn’t in title case. There’s the fact that the debugging verbs are left on. (Not that I remember how to use them decades later.) And then there are the opening sentences:

Legends speak, of a great egyption warrior. Who rose in the military ranks faster that any other.

So, whew, just very rough right away. I dialed my expectations down, way down, and kept playing. Here is an advantage to playing the comp games outside the comp period — it had been about 6 months since I played Dreary Lands. Consequently, my patience account had built back up, enabling me to battle through the terrible writing and nonsensical milieu, looking for some things to appreciate.

The impression I got was of a very, very young author (or at least one who hadn’t done a lot of writing or received a lot of feedback), more attuned to the programming part of IF than the writing part. This is a demanding medium, in that it requires authors to be skilled in two traditionally separate areas — prose storytelling and coherent code. Phantom has its problems with the latter (though much less so than, say, Dreary Lands), but falls down very badly on the former.

The result is a game that tries to horrify, but keeps stumbling into unintentional comedy. Horror in particular is a tough genre for an author lacking basic skills, though it’s apparently an attractive one for such authors as well — see Exhibit A, Rybread Celsius. In order for a reader to be scared or creeped out by a fictional world, she’s got to be able to suspend disbelief about that world, and under an avalanche of prose errors, it’s pretty difficult to suspend disbelief.

Another obstacle to believing in Phantom‘s world lies in the weird numbers that occasionally pepper the text. For example:

>open black box
The box opens but a hand comes out grabs your face and squeezes the blood from your veins.1

“1”? I mean, the death message is a little comical as it is, what with the way a hand to the face somehow causes circulation problems, but the “1” afterwards is clearly just a mistake, or maybe a debugging leftover. Given that there’s a “2” that appears after the winning ending, I’m guessing this has to do with the game setting Inform’s death message flag, and maybe printing it out either by mistake or as a way of making sure the right message prints, or something.

Then again, it’s not just death messages — there’s also this:

You can see a Large emerald here.

>x 1
(the Large emerald)
A very large finely cut emerald.

Really not sure what’s going on here, but it did give me a good chuckle.

In any case, Phantom seems like a well-intentioned attempt by someone who does not have control of his tools. I’d prescribe some intense focus on learning basic English mechanics, hopefully with instructional support, and a lot of beta-testing to root out weird code behavior, in order to produce a much improved next game. Or at least, that’s what I would have prescribed 17 years ago — I guess now I’ll just call it general advice.

Rating: 3.6

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

Escape to New York by Richard Otter [Comp05]

IFDB page: Escape to New York
Final placement: 11th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

I had to swim through some choppy technical waters to even get to this game. Apparently ADRIFT’s latest version isn’t backwards-compatible with games generated by previous versions, or at least it didn’t appear so — the interpreter squawked something about generator libraries at me, giving me an instruction it wasn’t capable of letting me carry out. (I’m guessing the instruction was for authors?) So back I went to a previous version, which required a full windows install and when run complained about how it didn’t have the right permissions to update the registry (surely something the installer could have taken care of?) Anyway, I fought through that — let’s chalk it up to me trying to play this game 16 years after it was released, and move on.

Escape to New York has an intriguing albeit somewhat odd premise. You play a thief who has boarded the Titanic. Now, the game is extremely coy about actually acknowledging the fact that you’re on the Titanic — the name isn’t mentioned anywhere in any of my game transcripts or the supporting materials. In the game, it’s just a big fancy ship that happens to leave Southampton for New York on April 10, 1912. Oh, and it also sinks. Hey, just like the Titanic! I’m not sure why the game is so reluctant about naming the ship — you can even find a pamphlet that tells you a million facts about it (perhaps somewhat anachronistically expressed in metres and metric tons?]… but not the ship’s name. A strange choice. Another strange choice: it names its protagonist “Jack Thompson”, which is really awfully close to Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Jack Dawson” from the massively popular 1997 film. Why?

In any case, placing the PC on the Titanic creates a weird sense of dramatic irony — we know the ship’s going to sink, but he doesn’t, and therefore it’s a little odd to be running around trying to liberate loot from the passengers on a ship you know is doomed. Apparently the game’s idea of a successful run is to steal as much as possible and make it to a lifeboat, but it’s not clear from the outset that this is your goal. I kept expecting a big twist to happen where suddenly you forget about being a thief and just try to make it out alive, but nope. The game’s insistence on petty goals when the player knows a life-or-death situation is coming made for an offputting dissonance.

The other offputting part is the underimplementation. Some aspects of the game are quite lovingly crafted — it provides lots of good descriptions and creates a fine sense of place, but just as often it frustrated me with its seemingly arbitrary requirements and boundaries. For example, the first section of the game requires you to wander around the ship’s corridors until you find the mailroom. Fair enough, but sometimes travel directions are closed off with the message, “Something tells you that wandering around the corridors of the ship is not the best use of your time.” Well, maybe not, but it certainly is what the game requires! You can’t succeed without doing that, so “something tells me” the PC’s intuition is a little off in that regard.

There are also several learn-by-dying or learn-by-undo puzzles scattered throughout the game. You might enter a room in which someone suddenly pounces on you based on something you’re wearing or carrying, with no warning whatsoever. In another section of the game, you require a disguise to get past a watchful policeman. The only ways to get through this are to either try it and fail with a game-ending message, or to finally acquire enough disguise-ish items that the game tells you, “That lot should make a good disguise.” Mind, it’s given messages before about individual items, saying that they’d make a good disguise on their own, only to snatch the rug out when you try to actually use them. It seems to me that if the PC is capable of assessing how complete a disguise needs to be, he should also be capable of assessing whether or not to assay an attempt at passing a policeman with an incomplete disguise, but the game provides no such internal monologue.

At some point I got annoyed enough with this bait-and-switch behavior that I switched over to using the walkthrough, and once I did I started having a reasonably good time. For one thing, it helped me understand what sort of playthrough the game had in mind — run around gleefully nicking stuff and stuffing it in a suitcase, so that you can escape to boat with your big prize (a stolen painting you connived to get into the mailroom) and a bunch of other loot as well. Strip away the historical scaffolding and it’s essentially a Zorky treasure hunt, albeit with far less clever puzzles — you mostly get stuff via LOOK ON [object] or LOOK UNDER [object].

I also found myself really appreciating ADRIFT’s autocomplete feature, which surprised me a bit. I’m sure it’s been at least 15 years since I played an ADRIFT game, and having recently reposted all my previous comp reviews, my memories of it are not kind. This time, though, I enjoyed the way that its autocomplete let me type just one or two letters of verbs and nouns, really smoothing the playing experience. It was also a useful (though not entirely reliable) way to see if the game had implemented something — it yielded some false negatives, but if you saw it autocomplete something, you knew it was in the game somewhere. It did have a downside, sometimes anticipating nonsensical input and leading me to accidentally enter commands like “put parcel in baggage slip” when I meant “put parcel in bag”, but overall it was a feature I found myself wishing were in other games.

Overall this was a pretty flawed game, with mild issues in premise, writing, and implementation, but once I allowed myself the walkthrough I found it fairly enjoyable, and I appreciated the chance to be in a story that takes such an unusual approach to the hoary set-piece of “You are on the Titanic.” Once I knew it was a treasure hunt, I could gleefully romp through the ship ripping off valuables, in hopes that me, my giant suitcase, and my stolen painting could end up safe on a lifeboat while the rest of my luckless fellow passengers scrambled for their mere lives.

Rating: 7.4

Internal Vigilance by Simon Christiansen [Comp05]

IFDB page: Internal Vigilance
Final placement: 10th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

So first, let’s acknowledge that when it comes to libertarian-flavored political stories, there’s quite a large contextual difference between 2005, midway through the Bush-43 presidency with its wars and its USA-PATRIOT Act, and 2021, the year of an attempted coup against the American government and a devastating pandemic that continues to kill tens of thousands despite the wide availability of highly effective vaccines, because a significant portion of the population refuses to get vaccinated. I will also acknowledge my own bias, which is that while I have some sympathy with the sentiment behind libertarianism, I find its real-world application tends toward the simplistic and absolutist, an indignant sputtering about freedom and rights, with very little attention to necessity and responsibilities. Certainly in the case of the insurrection, the people screaming about freedom under “thin blue line” flags were the same ones beating up cops in the name of a would-be authoritarian. Consequently, I was the wrong audience at the wrong time for this game. Nevertheless, I am who I am and it is when it is, and since I’m the one writing this review I’m here to report that I found Internal Vigilance thudding and exasperating rather than the thought-provoking exercise I’m sure it was intended to be.

You play a generic government agent (seriously, your email domain is “agency.gov”) in an apparently repressive regime which nevertheless seems to take very few prisoners — your charge in the game is to interrogate “prisoner no. 6”. Perhaps the agency is very new? Or maybe they number prisoners out of order. In any case, this guy’s crime was to write a libertarian-leaning book, whose argument you sum up as follows:

Freedom is more important than safety. It is not hard to understand why he is supected of having terrorist connections.

Uh-huh. Apparently the old “.gov” hates freedom now and equates it with terrorism, and so do you. (Or at least, you “supect” such a connection.) I had to look again to make sure this game isn’t titled YOU Are a STRAW MAN!, but nope. Internal Vigilance is both the name of the game and this guy’s book. So after examining all the stuff in the PC’s office, I steered him down to interrogate the guy. The game uses an enhanced version of the ask/tell conversation system, where you can abbreviate ASK to “A” and TELL to “T” if there’s only one interlocutor in the room, and can add extraneous text which the parser will sift for keywords. The game’s example is “ASK JONES ABOUT HIS VIEWS CONCERNING THE RIGHTS OF THE INDIVIDUAL”, because of course it is.

Using this system, I questioned the prisoner, and that’s when I started to discover that not only is the game too lazily imagined, it’s too lazily implemented as well. The dialogue is riddled with errors, including the baffling repetition of a lower-case “i” for the first-person singular nominative pronoun — quite ironic for a game about individualism. My conversation hit so many dead ends that I eventually looked up the hints and found that while “ASK ABOUT FAMILY” was a fruitless line of questioning, “ASK ABOUT MOTHER” hits the jackpot! Okay. Once I break through and get the intel I need, the prisoner glares at me and I’m told, “If looks could kill, you would be death by now.” I would be death?

Anyway, that scene ends and then a new chapter starts, in which the PC is flying. Flying! The glorious freedom of flight! He’s got “a pair of large majestic wings with white feathers, held together by wax”, which are also somehow a part of his body that would have to be removed surgically, we find out. DANGER, METAPHOR AHEAD. In this chapter, you can fly too close to the sun and have your wax melt, or you can fly too close to the ground and get shot down. In all cases, you end up in a cell with somebody telling you your wings will need to be removed “for your own good.” DO YOU GET THE METAPHOR YET? If not, the game will throw you a C.S. Lewis quote about how “of all tyrannies a tyranny exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive.” Of course, the original quote had more words and a comma, but this game is free of repressive rules about accurate quotation!

So the wings scene turns out to be (surprise!) a dream, and then you get to investigate the case, basically figuring out whether the prisoner is connected with domestic terrorists. There are a number of ways this can go. The way mine went found me chatting with the prisoner’s sister, or someone purporting to be her. She served me some tea. I drank it and found that it had “a interesting spicy taste”, from which I immediately concluded I’d been drugged. (And that the author is blissfully free from the fascist rules about indefinite articles.) Here’s what happened next:

You feel sleepy.

>get up
In the middle of the conversation? That would be pretty rude.

>shoot allyson
Your gun feels much to heavy to lift...

>throw tea at allyson
(first taking the cup of tea)
You carefully pick up the teacup, making sure not to spill the hot contents.

You struggle to keep your eyes open.

>a tea
You don't believe that question will get you anywhere at the moment.

In other words, the game wants to let me know the PC has been drugged, but is not prepared for me to actually try to do anything about it. As with the lower-case “i”, I had to take a moment and soak in the fact of how this libertarian game keeps taking away my freedom to act. In fact, in the very next scene it pretty much ties the PC to a chair to shout the plot at him.

My game ended shortly after this, as the terrorists shot the PC in the head. I decided to give it another try, this time following the hints, and what I found was a puzzle having to do with a book code and a passphrase, which could allegedly get me into the terrorists’ hideout without being drugged. Following the hints exactly, I looked up the code and tried the phrase. (The phrase is, sigh, “Freedom from protection.”) The game did not accept this phrase. I tried again, making sure I had all the numbers and words right. The game did not accept it. Apparently the hints had steered me into a game-breaking bug.

At this point, I decided to quit the game and never come back. The word I would use to describe this decision is: liberating.

Rating: 4.4

Snatches by Gregory Weir [Comp05]

IFDB page: Snatches
Final placement: 8th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Snatches is a very ambitious game whose reach ultimately exceeds its grasp. It’s got some great things going for it: a compelling structure, vivid writing, and powerful drama. Unfortunately, it also has an uneven and railroady design, and it’s generally underimplemented, lacking the commitment to fully execute on its premise. Consequently, I kept wanting to be engaged by the game, but generally ended up frustrated instead.

The game starts off immediately arresting, with a distinctly IF version if in medias res — the parser prints out the response to the command it was just given, albeit not by the player: “Taken. The scotch inside the glass glows golden.” I thought this was quite cool, and only later did I realize that it also sets the stage for the lack of choice to come. Turns out the game does not want to let you leave the room until you drink that scotch. I tried to avoid it, because I’m contrary like that. I spent lots of time examining things, including some curtains which seem to just be hanging on a blank wall, because when I tried to examine the window I was told I couldn’t see any such thing. I tried to smash the glass, but was stymied. I tried pouring out the scotch but the game didn’t know the word “pour.” I tried another tack:

>empty drink
You toss the scotch back, and it burns as it goes down. Now you're ready to head to town.

Ha! If only Inform had printed “[into yourself]” that response would have been perfect. Anyway, having alcoholically unlocked my prison, I moved into quite a large landscape — a manor house with lots of rooms and hallways. I explored all over, but most things seemed pretty locked and deserted. Still, I wandered around examining and moving things for about 30 minutes before concluding that the game was patiently waiting for me to do the one thing that would results in my character’s demise, and that there was nothing else I could do.

So I did that thing, the character died, and things got wilder – suddenly I was another character, seeing the aftermath of another just-completed command. The same pattern played out again, but with much less exploration this time — I stumbled into death pretty quickly. Then it happened again, and again, and again many times over, a different character each time. The game’s writing really shone in these sequences — it very deftly employed the multi-POV IF trick of describing the same set of locations in completely different ways to illustrate a character’s viewpoint. Brief as my encounter with each character was, I frequently found myself caring about them, and that’s down to the strength of the writing.

Sadly, that was also what made the game frustrating, because there seems to be no way to save any of these characters from their fate. So the game continues repeating the pattern of thrusting you into a PC’s shoes, making you care about that PC, then disposing of the PC. Well after it’s clear what’s going on, it’s also clear that there’s no fighting it, even though the game also jumps around in time, giving you (what would logically be) opportunities to prevent the whole thing from happening, if not for the fact that the parser curtly shoves back at any attempt to do so. In this process, I kept trying things that made sense from a world-modeling point of view, but just weren’t implemented, much like that absent window in the first room. I couldn’t even SCREAM. (Really, a horror game that doesn’t implement SCREAM?)

So the experience of the game is of failing over and over, until you finally get incarnated into the one character who has any real agency. By that time, with the various frustrations of the game having piled up, it’s pretty hard to care anymore. I somehow found myself able to kill off the scary menace that had picked off all my earlier selves, but it felt like a pretty pyrrhic victory. I then followed the walkthrough to a different ending, which was also pretty unsatisfying. Maybe there’s an ending out there that lets you revive the victims and see the sunrise on a hopeful new day, but after struggling against the game’s tight restrictions for a couple of hours, I really didn’t feel like seeking it.

Rating: 7.6