The Big Scoop by Johan Berntsson [Comp04]

IFDB page: The Big Scoop
Final placement: 13th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

And so the Great Conversation System Experiments continue. The Big Scoop has found a way to combine the open-ended ASK X ABOUT Y system with the focus of Emily Short‘s topic-based systems — the game still uses the ASK ABOUT command diction, but there’s also a TOPICS verb available, which tells you most of the topics you can plug into the formula. As a bonus, it also tells you what you can plug into TELL ABOUT. This system intrigued me, but I ended up feeling a little disappointed with it.

At first, I was excited by the prospect of not having to play hunt-the-noun, but my reaction upon seeing a list of nouns to try was that I needed to try them all. Immersion drained quickly as an exchange between two characters turned into an administrative task, and not a very rewarding one at that, since the NPC generally only had a line or two at most about any given topic. Moreover, Scoop was implemented deeply enough that the list included most of the verbs I would have thought of, but I never needed to try to think of them, which lessened my engagement with the game.

In a way, Scoop‘s system is the worst of both worlds. It retains the cumbersome ASK ABOUT form but removes all of the feeling of mystery and possibility that comes along with thinking of new things to ask about; it provides Short’s unwieldy TOPICS list, but loses all her handy abbreviations and her menu options for conversational gambits. In addition, the list sometimes shows topics that the PC has no way of knowing about yet, which effectively constitute plot spoilers. So in the end, I found Scoop‘s conversation system to be a failed experiment, albeit a noble one.

Happily, there’s better news about the rest of the game. The Big Scoop has an engaging story that starts off with a dramatic situation that could have come right from a Hollywood thriller. The PC awakens, disheveled and disoriented, in a friend’s apartment. Stumbling into the kitchen, she finds her friend’s dead body, and a voice on her cellphone says that the police are on their way; she’s about to be framed for murder.

It’s not easy to escape from this grim situation, but when she does, the perspective shifts: now the PC is a reporter investigating the murder, and it becomes clear that the first scene was simply a swollen prologue. This structure worked well for me — the urgency of the initial scene carried over nicely into the rest of the game, and having played the victim of the framing, I never had any doubts that she was innocent, which helped me buy into the reporter’s quest to clear the victim’s name.

In addition to a good story and an inventive structure, Scoop also sports some wonderfully deep implementation. It provides descriptions for most all first-level objects, and it frequently surprised me with what verbs those objects could handle. For instance, when the PC awakens in room with a red stain on the carpet, I tried something a little unusual:

>smell stain
The sweet smell makes you feel sick.

The game was completely prepared for that command, and used the results to further the prologue’s ominous mood. Bravo. Finally, Scoop does some nice work with NPC interaction. This is perhaps no surprise from the author of The Temple, a Comp02 game whose best feature was its main NPC, who behaved like an actual person and worked as a team with the PC. The NPC in this game fills a similar role, and the added bonus is that since she serves as the PC in the prologue, her character comes that much more alive.

Sadly, there are a few things that mar the experience, the first of which is Scoop‘s sometimes wobbly English. This game was apparently simultaneously developed in Swedish, and there are some rough patches in the translation:

>ask cop about blood
"He bleed over the whole place," the policeman says grumpily.

Like most of the English errors in Scoop, this one could be down to a simple typo, which makes it much stronger than The Temple was, not to mention far better than some of the translated games I’ve already played in this comp. However, the accumulation of these blunders, along with telltale missteps like calling an office break room a “breakout area,” make the writing feel just a bit off-kilter.

Similarly, though the game has clearly been extensively tested, I still found a few bugs and missing verbs. The worst one, unsurprisingly, involves an object that functions as a rope — the game has difficulty keeping track of just where this object resides once it’s been tied to one thing. Finally, Scoop suffers from an occasional lack of clarity. The most glaring example is in the game’s climactic scene, in which something critical happens that is never actually described, and must instead be inferred from subsequent events. It seems clear that this lacuna isn’t part of some artistic effect, but is rather just an oversight, and quite a severe one at that. Still, the good far outweighs the bad in this game — it tried something new in its conversation system, and it kept me interested with a compelling story and canny puzzles. I enjoyed my time with it.

Rating: 8.7

Shadows On The Mirror by Chrysoula Tzavelas [Comp03]

IFDB page: shadows on the mirror
Final placement: 6th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Every story is a slice of a larger story. That is to say: to some degree, beginnings and endings are just the arbitrary points that the storyteller has decided feel right as the story’s boundaries — stuff has happened before the beginning, and more stuff will happen after the ending. The idea, I think, is to provide a large enough slice that the story doesn’t crumble from its thinness, but not so large that it bores or overwhelms the reader (especially in a comp game, where the reader is working under a time limit.)

For me, Shadows On The Mirror sliced things a little too thin. I could sense that the game was the product of some thought. I glimpsed quite a bit of backstory through oblique references and offhand comments, and certainly the main event of the plot, such as it was, implied that a great deal had already happened offstage. There were also hints of some stuff that seemed pretty interesting and that I wanted to see more of — occult overtones, mysterious forces, an oddly powerful object or two, and some apparent PC superpowers. I didn’t get to see more of it, though. All I got were a few references, and after just a little bit of action, the game ended. Even after having seen a few endings, I felt frustrated, finished before I’d really begun.

As for what the game does provide, I think it’s pretty good overall. Shadows (sorry, for a Stevie Nicks fan like me, SOTM always means “Sisters Of The Moon”) is more or less a one-room game, but unlike most one-room games, the focus here is on character and conversation. The game uses an abridged version of a conversation approach pioneered by Emily Short: ASK and TELL abbreviated to “a” and “t”, with a special “topics” command that can provide a nudge to players who’ve run out of things to talk about. However, it makes what I consider to be a tactical error, in that it keeps many topics locked until a leading topic has been broached, or perhaps until a particular item has been examined.

There are a few problems I can think of with this strategy. First, when I attempt a topic and get one of the game’s default “no answer” messages, I take that response as a signal that the topic has not been implemented. I don’t expect it to be successful later on, so I probably won’t try it. Second, closing off some topics is particularly misguided in an extremely small game like this one. When I’m restarting often, I’m not really keeping track of which session has revealed which tidbits, and more than once I was flummoxed by getting a default response to a topic I knew I’d seen implemented. Finally, even if this were a larger game and even if I were able to constantly keep in mind that failure didn’t necessarily mean non-implementation, the “explicit branching” model used in Shadows forecloses the player’s ability to make intuitive connections.

To use an analogous example not from the game, say the NPC has a picture of apples on his wall, I ask him about apples, and he says, “Apples remind me of home.” My next thought might be to ask him about an orchard, but in this game’s model, he would just look away, not answer, or shrug. That doesn’t mean he can’t talk about orchards, but rather that the game wants me first to ask him about home, to which he’ll reply, “I spent lots of happy times climbing the trees in my Dad’s orchard,” and then it’ll let me ask about orchards. That’s wrong — give me the chance to make the leap myself.

I see I just said the game was pretty good, then went on a long discourse about one of its flaws, so let me turn now and praise Shadows for a moment. The game’s writing really worked for me — it described the scene vividly and with judicious use of metaphors. The NPC’s diction felt appropriately mysterious and foreboding, and I thought that many of the details were well-chosen to paint a picture of a PC whose life combines the ordinary and the extraordinary in a plausible way.

The implementation was reasonably deep, though it could have been deeper for such a small environment. The same goes for the NPC; he seemed to have some very basic emotional modeling, but the game didn’t provide verbs like THANK or APOLOGIZE to let me interact enough with that emotional state. Still, he was able to answer a generous set of topics, and I felt intrigued and tantalized by the answers he gave. At the end, though, I felt like I still hadn’t really gotten the point, which I suppose is another way of reiterating that the game just didn’t provide enough to feel satisfying. I guess the fact that I wanted a lot more of Shadows proves that what was there was a very good start.

Rating: 8.0

Photograph by Steve Evans [Comp02]

IFDB page: Photograph: A Portrait Of Reflection
Final placement: 3rd place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

If “Steve Evans” isn’t a pseudonym, then what we have here is quite an auspicious debut indeed. Photograph is a carefully crafted tale, executed in prose that is both transparent and strong. Well-chosen symbols underpin the game’s unfolding story of a man obsessed with what he perceives to be the big mistake in his past. Normally, this sort of thing isn’t really my cup of tea — I have a pretty low tolerance threshold for characters maundering over their memories or floundering in bad relationships. I get impatient for them to just take some action, move on and claim the present day, and I certainly felt some of those twinges of annoyance as I tried to guide the PC of Photograph into a less passive approach to life. However, the game made two choices that helped considerably to redeem these problems.

First, although the PC is certainly stuck in his mental processes, the writing introduces some blessed complexity into its depiction of his life, making it clear that his obsessed interpretation of events isn’t the only available point of view on them. There are some really beautiful details in this game, and their shine helps to illuminate the PC as a passionate but fallible character rather than some objectively correct observer. The game’s other saving grace is in its choice to cast this story as interactive fiction. Something really appealed to me about an IF character who wishes for nothing more fervently than a SAVE and RESTORE function for his own life. Choices, and how we are shaped by them, really works for me as a theme in IF.

Photograph also uses some rather clever narrative techniques, though I don’t think they quite lived up to their potential in practice. The first of these is the addition of a CONSIDER verb (conveniently abbreviatable to “C”). Objects, and even concepts, can be CONSIDERed, and doing so may yield anything from a stock response, to some additional information, to a major advancement in the plot. I thought this was an interesting idea, but too often in Photograph, the CONSIDER verb became just another, more superfluous version of EXAMINE. I ended up CONSIDERing almost everything I could think of, on the off chance that it might yield something, but most of the time it didn’t. In fact, I soon discovered that “CONSDIDER <any old gibberish>” would still yield the stock response, which encourages rather than discourages flailing at nothing with this verb.

Moreover, it seems to me that examining things and considering them aren’t exactly mutually exclusive processes; in my own experience, anyway, when I’m examining something I’m almost always considering it simultaneously. Still, despite the simultaneity, I agree that there is a qualitative difference between physically looking at something and thinking about it — for one thing, the latter can be done even when the object isn’t available, and it also applies to abstract concepts in a way that EXAMINE just can’t. Consequently, I think that the CONSIDER verb does have potential in games that want to preserve this difference.

Perhaps one way to better integrate it, and to reduce lots of useless CONSIDERing, is to print the CONSIDER text (if any) the first time an object is examined, making that text repeatable by using the CONSIDER verb on its own. Then CONSIDER could be better devoted to its more appropriate uses (out of scope items and abstract concepts), since players could be certain that they’re not missing out on anything by not CONSIDERing everything in sight.

Photograph‘s other major deviation from standard IF is in its addition of further conversation verbs beyond ASK ABOUT and TALK ABOUT, such as MENTION X TO Y or DISCUSS X WITH Y. In the words of its help text, “if you think something should provide a sensible response even though the verb is not standard issue, then try it. If it doesn’t work, then please send me a bug report.” This is an extremely ambitious approach, and unsurprisingly, it fails. That isn’t necessarily cause for shame — I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an IF game that really succeeded at providing reasonable coverage for all the various ways in which conversational impulses can be expressed. When a game presents itself in such an open-ended way, it’s just waiting for players to trip it up with phrases like REMIND X OF Y or ASK X WHAT’S ON HER MIND.

I’m all for expanding the palette of conversational verbs available, but in my opinion, it’s far better to just lay out what verbs are implemented and then to make sure that those are implemented quite thoroughly. This approach helps the player avoid seeing a lot of unhelpful responses from a game that isn’t equipped to handle the full range of human articulation. Still, these blemishes aside, Photograph is a fine game — I hope it heralds the beginning of a bright career from an excellent new author.

Rating: 9.2

Best of Three by Emily Short [Comp01]

IFDB page: Best of Three
Final placement: 7th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

It’s a common conceit in romance novels: Girl meets Boy; Girl takes an Immediate Dislike to Boy because he’s aggressive, arrogant, insufferable, etc.; under Girl’s influence, Boy sheds his Gruff Exterior; Girl falls for Boy and they end up Happy Together. I love Pride and Prejudice as much as the next Jane Austen fan, but I’ve always had a few problems with this structure, since it seems to reinforce the idea that jerky guys are really sweethearts underneath, so long as they meet a sufficiently [sweet/nurturing/independent/fiery] woman — these fantasies rarely come true in real life, despite the people who go through their lives trying to make that story happen to them. Maybe having the Girl fall for somebody who was kind from the beginning might make for a duller story, but it’d be a less pernicious story, too.

No doubt these objections all arise from my own High School Issues, but this is the mindset I brought to Best Of Three. In this case, we see the Boy being an ass at the very beginning of the story, only to learn later that he was the Girl’s high school crush, both of them now having graduated and, theoretically, put the past behind them. The game consists mostly of an extended conversation between these two, with the Girl as the PC, and although the text kept prompting me to feel charitable and affectionate feelings towards the Boy, it was a hard role to step into. It probably didn’t help that I found the Boy himself to be a rather pretentious, pompous git, and I distrusted him, even after he apologized, even after he revealed his own demons to me, and even after his Gruff Exterior was history. What the experience reminded me is that in IF, things the player actually experiences happening to the PC are orders of magnitude more powerful then things the player is told that the PC is feeling.

Of course, the beauty of IF, especially that written by Emily Short, is that there really are choices available. In a romance novel, the Girl has no choice but to tread the path that has been prescribed for her by the author, but IF offers the dizzying freedom to say exactly what we wish we could say to the story’s haughty twit, or at least to find a closer approximation to it. The first time I played through this game, I meekly obeyed its prodding, making nice with the Boy and moving to rekindle the romance between the characters. Even then, I found myself having the PC speak much more bluntly and honestly than she was comfortable with, and the Boy reacted with predictable standoffishness. Still, at the end, the spark had been fanned, but the result felt strangely hollow to me.

So I restarted the game — it doesn’t take long, perhaps 45 minutes at most — this time ignoring its tenderhearted hints and pulling out the reactions I had wanted to take the first time around. In a testament to Emily Short’s formidable skills as a designer, the game handled this direction with considerable grace and flexibility, despite its being against the fairly obvious grain of the text. I arrived at an ending that the game clearly didn’t view as optimal, but that, thanks to some exquisite writing, felt far more satisfying to me, and even let the PC off the hook somewhat in its final words.

Having had both of these experiences made me appreciate the game much more than I would have had I not replayed, and there is much to appreciate here. The game’s goal — to create a conversation that feels authentic, and that moves the player, the PC, and the NPC to new emotional states — is an ambitious one, but one well worth chasing. On several levels, the game succeeds. At many points, the conversation does indeed feel authentic, and it’s clear that the underlying code is quite sophisticated; I noticed, for example, that the NPC would observe and comment when I’d change the subject, or be taken aback if I said something he wasn’t expecting.

There are still a few bugs in the system. Some of the same problems I noticed in Pytho’s Mask were present here as well: there were times when the conversational options didn’t seem to fit the situation, for example replies offered when no question had been asked; there were times when the game didn’t respond to a command at all, just printing a blank line; there were times when the NPC responded to my change of subject, then brought the conversation back to his own interests, resulting in a seeming non sequitur (well okay, maybe that’s a good simulation of real life. 🙂 ) Still, glitches aside, the conversation felt real more often than it felt artificial, and that is a significant achievement. The writing is superior throughout, and achieves pure brilliance on occasion. I may have had some issues with the storyline, and I may have encountered some bugs, but I enjoyed Best Of Three very much nonetheless.

Rating: 8.8

She’s Got A Thing For A Spring by Brent VanFossen [Comp97]

IFDB page: She’s Got a Thing for a Spring
Final placement: 4th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

She’s Got a Thing For a Spring (hereafter called “Spring”) is one of the most delightful and well-written games I’ve played in a long, long time. Its author is one of the few professional writers who has created interactive fiction, and his expertise shines throughout the game. Spring is set in a mountain wilderness with no magic spells, no high-tech devices, in fact no fantastical elements of any kind. Yet this game imparts a sense of wonder that is matched by only the very best interactive fiction. I found some of the scenes absolutely breathtaking in their beauty. Living in Colorado, I’ve spent a fair amount of time is settings similar to those described by the author, and I felt that the prose perfectly conveyed the both the tiny joys and the majestic grandeur of the mountains. In addition, the game’s code usually dovetailed neatly with its prose, creating at its best a seamless experience of walking in nature.

Spring also introduces an interface innovation for conversing with NPCs. The game keeps track of the last NPC with whom the player has interacted and what type of verb (e.g. “give”, “ask”, etc.) was used in that interaction. Then whenever the player is around that NPC and types in a word not recognized as a verb by the parser, the game tries to use that word to interact with the NPC, using the current verb type. It creates interaction like this:

>ask bob about woods
"Lots of aspen around here. I just love the forest."

"Aspens are my favorite trees."

This is a very smart move, and it works superbly in the game. What enhances the NPC experience even more is that the game’s primary NPC (Bob, a friendly old gent who lives alone in the woods) is coded very well. He goes about his business with or without the player’s presence, and it is possible to have a long conversation with him without breaking mimesis. The author has clearly gone to great lengths (including, I think, some close scrutiny of Gareth Rees‘ source code for Christminster) to make sure that his NPC is one of the most realistic and satisfying in IF. The depth of this NPC works along with the game’s outstanding prose to create an extremely realistic gameplay experience.

However, the intensity and power of this realism brings with it a certain burden, and it’s a burden that the game is not always prepared to handle. One problem was that some of the puzzles required me to act in a way that I felt was out of character. [SPOILERS FOLLOW (highlight to read)] For example, one puzzle required me to take the roll of toilet paper out of Bob’s outhouse and burn it. Now, a typical IF character would have no compunction whatsoever about this. But in Spring, the protagonist is supposedly a regular, kind person — for her to steal and burn the only toilet paper from a man who shows her nothing but kindness and hospitality is a significant break from character, especially since Bob does not grant permission to do so. [SPOILERS END] Other puzzles required a bit more verb-guessing than I care for, especially the walking stick puzzle. In addition, Bob is missing a few important responses, and the game also has some basic bugs. Still, the fact that these flaws are so jarring is a strong indication of what a high standard the game sets, and minor problems do not greatly detract from the fact that Spring is a wonderful piece of IF, as refreshing as a pine-scented mountain breeze after an invigorating hike.

Prose: The prose in Spring is simply first-rate. The author’s professional writing experience is clear throughout the game. In fact, the prose is of such a quality that it’s hard to talk about it without wanting to simply quote long passages and allow the writing to speak for itself. I’ll save those surprises for the game, but I have to comment on one or two favorite scenes. I remember coming upon the fireflies and gasping in awe. The author creates a mesmerizing, magical picture of these fantastic creatures. I had similar reactions to all the wildlife in the game. In fact, though I said above that the game has no fantastical elements, that’s not precisely true: the element of fantasy in the game is that it presents a nature trip as one wishes it could always be. Sighting elk clashing antlers with each other, encountering someone as nice as Bob, walking into a cloud of fireflies: these are magical moments. When they happen on a real camping trip, they are foremost among the memories you bring back home with you. In Spring, all that happens and more. Its magic is in bringing rare moments together to be experienced all in one sitting, yet never taking away the sense of preciousness carried within each moment.

Plot: Spring wasn’t really a plot-driven game. It has a relatively simple goal, and the pleasure of the game comes from exploring the milieu rather than stepping through a more complicated story. Still, there were some interesting aspects to the plot pieces that were there. One thing that sets Spring apart is that its character is set within a warm, happy marriage. The context of that relationship bubbles under all the events in Spring, and even brings a degree of sexuality in the game’s ending. Presenting sex in the context of a positive, healthy relationship is a rare thing to do in IF, especially since Spring is nature writing rather than romance. The one drawback to the plot, as I mentioned above, is that it sometimes required actions that were out-of-character. Perhaps with some fine-tuning to Bob, this problem could be remedied.

Puzzles: I thought the puzzles were a weaker part of Spring. While it was wonderful to wander around the lovingly described wilderness, it was hard to get anywhere without doing some things that I wouldn’t expect the character to do. Perhaps the answer to some of these problems is to give Bob a little different attitude. [SPOILERS AGAIN] Perhaps have him offer to give the player a hint as to how to get rid of the wasps, then offer to let her use the toilet paper. Otherwise, she’s doing something morally wrong by burning it. Again, this would not normally be a problem in most genre IF, but Spring is a different sort of beast, or it feels that way to me. [SPOILERS END] Other puzzles were rather non-intuitive, like the egg/foam connection. I used the hints for almost every puzzle in Spring, and I’m a good enough player that I think that means there’s something wrong.

Technical (writing): The writing was, predictably, flawless.

Technical (coding): I’m a lot more inclined to be forgiving when an author takes on a significant coding project such as the NPC interaction innovation in Spring. Consequently, the fact that there were quite a few bugs in the game did impact its final rating, but not as significantly as it might have.