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.