Caffeination by Michael Loegering [Comp03]

IFDB page: Caffeination
Final placement: 14th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Caffeination (it can’t seem to decide whether it wants the middle “n” capitalized, so I’m going to forego it) starts out like a more intelligent version of last year’s Coffee Quest II. The setup is nearly identical: you’re a depressed, sleepy office worker in an oppressive, cubicle-filled corporate environment, and your object in life is to get a really good cup of coffee. Happily, the literacy level of Caffeination is several steps above that of CQ2, and at first the game seems like it’s going to be a lot of fun. Alas, it quickly sinks into a bog of misguided design, buggy code, and error-laden prose.

In addition, rather than presenting any kind of sharp or thoughtful satire of office culture, the game instead tends towards the hackneyed and the juvenile. For instance, the boss’ name is “Mr. Norom.” Ooh, “moron” spelled backwards! There’s wit for you. Norom is a walking (well, sitting) “evil boss” stereotype, and the clich├ęs continue from there: the bimbo coworker hired strictly for the boss to leer at, the depressing and decrepit building fixtures, even the sleepy, slackerish PC himself. Instead of giving us a fresh, fully-imagined setting, Caffeination just shows us the same dull office we’ve seen a hundred times before. What’s fun about that?

This game also suffers from the same syndrome that seems to plague many entries in this year’s comp: a lack of sufficient feedback and cueing. I struggled against the constraints of the first major puzzle for quite some time before turning to the hints, but these were much less helpful than I thought they’d be. The game has a hint system with great potential — you find a notepad left by a former co-worker who had allegedly amassed all sorts of interesting tidbits about the office. Unfortunately, CONSULTing the notebook about nearly every topic gives you either no information at all (“Bill left some detailed notes, but you cannot find any info on that.”) or no more information than is present in simple object and location descriptions. A hint system in a consultable object is a great idea for integrating metagame activity into ingame mechanics, but to succeed, it must be much more deeply implemented than this.

So finally, I turned to the walkthrough and was astonished to discover that there are no fewer than three different solutions to it. The problem is that all three solutions rely on extremely improbable actions, ones I’d certainly never have thought would work, given the fairly limited implementation of most game objects. For instance, one path involves finding out about a particular bit of office intrigue through dialogue, but even very direct questions about this exact topic elicit no response whatsoever from the NPCs. In fact, most questions to the NPCs elicit the default response, which leads one to stop asking questions in fairly short order. Another path requires discovering an object hidden in a cubicle. However, an object mentioned in the room description that should be in roughly the same spot as the hidden object not only doesn’t lead the player to discovery, it isn’t even implemented, which certainly leads one to believe that searching that area of the cubicle won’t be fruitful. It’s all well and good to provide interesting and unusual solutions, but you can’t expect players to read your mind to get to them. You have to provide cues, feedback, and evidence that will lead the player in the right direction.

In a similar vein, if a game’s coding is focused on its solution path(s) rather than on making a fully interactive environment, it will almost certainly be extremely buggy to anybody who isn’t strictly following the walkthrough. I associate this problem most strongly with Robb Sherwin‘s earlier comp games — if the game was a story, it’d go pretty well, but IF isn’t a story so much as a place, and when an incomplete place tries to be a story, problems ensue — even though Caffeination provides multiple solutions to each of its puzzles, they’re all pretty hard to guess, and exploratory moves towards them founder in a morass of bugs.

This may be a problem that deserves its own category: the “walkthrough-driven game”. These games end up making me feel like one of the time travelers in Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder,” terrified to step off the path lest everything around me be screwed up forever. That’s certainly what happens with Caffeination. Especially after the first puzzle, I found myself confronted with one bug after another when I tried things that the game didn’t expect.

Now, like the bugs in Sophie’s Adventure, many of this game’s bugs were beneficial to me, including one that allowed me to win without solving any of the coffee shop puzzles at all. I’ve been surprised by the games in this comp that go to great lengths to explain the obstacles to you, but then don’t bother to actually use those obstacles to prevent winning actions. Still, winning lacks its usual pleasure when it’s done by exploiting a bug. I was happy enough to have the game overwith, but I wish it could have been different.

Rating: 5.5

Elements by John Evans [Comp01]

IFDB page: Elements
Final placement: 26th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Elements is another pure puzzle game, and now that I’m recognizing this subgenre of IF (see my review of Colours), I’m starting to come to a stronger understanding of just what that genre requires. For instance, a pure puzzle game must be constructed with only the most minimal attempt at a story, if any at all. Elements certainly fills the bill here, even mocking the idea of narrative by setting up a false one in the introduction, then immediately snatching it away. The pure puzzle game must also key many of its puzzles and landscape ingredients off a particular theme, and Elements fulfills this one as well, making its theme, predictably enough, the elements. Apparently, naming your game after its puzzle theme is another requirement, though perhaps that one’s optional. On these aspects, Elements is strong, but alas, although they are defining aspects of the genre, they aren’t the most important parts of a pure puzzle game.

More important than plotlessness and theme, for example, is solid implementation. In a story-heavy game, a few bugs don’t derail things as long as they don’t impinge on the plot. In a puzzle game, however, the player is relying on the game to provide a fair, unambiguous, and bug-free setup within which to work, and without this, even the best puzzles lose their charm almost immediately. On this count, Elements is laden with problems.

Despite the help text’s exhortation to “examine the scenery”, a great many scenery objects are completely unimplemented in this game, including some that good sense would indicate ought to at least have a description. For instance, there are carvings on the wall in one room — unimplemented. There are holes in the wall of another room — unimplemented. In a pure puzzle game, these things are just distractions.

More serious problems lurk here, too. There’s a room with no description at all. There’s a room whose description is flat-out wrong, gives away the solution to a puzzle, and makes that solution seem impossible, all at once. There are severe guess-the-verb issues in lots of places. Even the pointless inventory limit is one more needless frustration among many. A pure puzzle game with implementation failures like these is like a crossword puzzle whose black squares are misplaced in the grid.

So good implementation is a must, but a pure puzzle game could probably get by with a few minor bugs, so long as they don’t ruin the puzzles the way the bugs in Elements do. I would argue that the most important piece, the one overriding quality that a pure puzzle game must have in order to succeed, is good puzzle design. Sadly, Elements lacks this crucial factor as well. I suppose it’s just barely possible that someone might struggle through this game without recourse to hints, but I doubt such a person exists. They would need to be the sort who retains faith in a game despite very buggy implementation, and whose authorial telepathy is exceedingly strong. And even they certainly wouldn’t solve it in two hours.

I found that when I finally looked at the hints in bewilderment, my reaction was: “How in the hell was I supposed to guess that?” The game routinely demands highly unlikely actions without providing enough cueing towards those actions. For instance, certain objects in the game possess uncanny powers, though only in very specific contexts. No clue is given as to what these contexts are, and the rest of the time the objects are useless, except as treasure. In addition, there are instances where the most obvious solution is not only unimplemented, its lack of availability isn’t even given a perfunctory explanation. In one of the most egregious moments, putting one thing on another is a solution to a problem, despite the fact that the latter object’s default message remains “Putting things on the <object> would achieve nothing.”

Players cry foul at moments like this, and they are right. Oh, did I mention the game’s way too big for the competition? The game’s way too big for the competition. Just one more problem element to be found in Elements.

Rating: 3.6

To Otherwhere And Back by Greg Ewing [Comp01]

IFDB page: To Otherwhere And Back
Final placement: 28th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

For the past several years, the IF community has created a variety of “mini-comps” in the Spring of each year, competitions where the games are instructed to stick to a particular concept. These concepts can range from a required image like “a chicken crossing a road”, to the inclusion of a particular element (romance, dinosaurs, the supernatural), to a stipulation about the game structure itself (include the verb “use”, disallow the player from having any inventory.) Furthermore, for as long as there have been Spring mini-comps, they have had an effect on the Fall “maxi-comp,” because inevitably some author has a great idea that fits with the mini-comp, but doesn’t manage to finish by the Spring deadline, so instead polishes the game further and enters it in the Fall comp.

This spillover effect has given us such past treats as Downtown Tokyo. Present Day., and Yes, Another Game With A Dragon!, and now To Otherwhere and Back, a game originally intended for Emily Short’s Walkthrough-comp. The concept behind this particular mini-comp was that entrants had to produce games (or transcripts) that conformed to a particular walkthrough; as a further twist, this walkthrough was in the form of an unpunctuated telegram, containing strings of commands like “TAKE NEXT TURN SMOOTH DUCK DOWN” and “LOOK UP DRESS BOOK SHIP PACKAGE PRESENT BOWL”, which could be broken up in any number of clever ways.

To Otherwhere and Back meets the challenge ably, and in doing so, emphasizes an underrated IF technique: cueing. What we learn from games like this is that IF can prompt even quite unusual input from the player, as long as the setup has been executed with skill and the cue delivered fairly clearly. For example, in order to get me to type the first command from the walkthrough, the game presented me with this situation:

The screen of the debugging terminal is covered with code and
variable dumps. You stare at it with bleary eyes, trying to find the
last, elusive bug that you've been chasing for the last 37 hours
straight. You're so tired, you're having to make a conscious effort
to think.

That first command was, of course, “THINK.” That’s not something I’d usually type in at an IF prompt, because most games just give a canned answer to it, if they give any answer at all. This piece of text, though, was enough to cue me that in this situation, that command might produce something useful, and indeed it does. It’s not that good cueing leads the player by the nose — in fact, the first thing I typed after reading the text above was “DEBUG”, which actually put me into the game’s debugging mode, hilariously enough. But after that didn’t work, I looked at the text again, and was able to discern the right move without looking at the walkthrough. This sort of dynamic is the essence of good cueing, and TOAB does it over and over again. Of course, what’s also true is that Alan‘s heavily restricted parser and the shallowly implemented game world had me looking to cues quite a lot, but in this game that paucity of options was quite appropriate.

What TOAB doesn’t quite manage, though, is to construct a coherent plot. Granted, hewing to a deliberately challenging premise while telling a story that makes sense is quite a tall order — most of the entrants into the walkthrough-comp either came up with some arbitrary reason why those words would be strung together (as in Adam Cadre‘s hilarious Jigsaw 2), or relied heavily on the dream/surrealism/hallucination device to justify the necessary contortions. TOAB pursues the latter option, and its story ends up feeling more than a little arbitrary as a result.

Still, the game applies itself to the walkthrough’s odder moments in some very clever ways, and provides some good laughs, such as the Polish phrasebook that “contains translations of many phrases useful to a traveller in Poland, such as ‘Please develop this film’, ‘How much is the sausage?’, and ‘Am I under arrest?'”. Overall, I enjoyed TOAB, and while the fiction element of it wasn’t so great, its interactivity techniques got me thinking. That’s not a bad track record for a comp game, no matter what comp it might belong to.

Rating: 7.1