Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis by Adam Thornton [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2012. Mark is the source for editor’s notes in the text.]

IFDB Page: Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis

File Under: Classic Knob

Note: Due to the nature of the game being reviewed, this review contains what the MPAA would probably call “pervasive language and strong sexual content.” Also, mild spoilers, both for this game and for Nabokov’s Lolita.

From the “sentences I never thought I’d write” department: I don’t think I’m well-educated enough to fully appreciate this Stiffy Makane game. With Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis (MMA), Adam Thornton brings us what might be one of the most erudite and wide-ranging IF games ever, and what is certainly the most erudite and wide-ranging IF porn parody ever. Thornton has been talking about Mentula Macanus for quite a long time now — since 2001 at least, when he released his previous foray into Stiffiana, Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country (SM:TUC). Hell, maybe longer, given that Google’s Usenet archive search leaves much to be desired. It always sounded to me like a gag — I mean really, a Stiffy Makane game all in Latin? Not even the guy who created an elaborate and technically accomplished science fiction Stiffy parody, complete with graphics and sound, would undertake such a thing, right?

Right. He didn’t. Instead, he spent a decade crafting an enormous, sprawling classical epic, with an expanded mission. Where SM:TUC was a gleeful takedown of so-called “Adult” IF, MMA sets its sights on a bigger target: IF itself. With tremendous innovation, technical polish, and abundant humor, Thornton upends the medium with a work that’s simultaneously traditionalist and transgressive, a layered and richly allusive delivery system for some highly demented and depraved content. It’s a hugely impressive achievement, and I can’t imagine anyone else pulling it off. I can’t imagine anyone else even trying.

But before I dive deeper, let me offer a little background, for those who need it and haven’t quit reading already. Way back in 1997, those innocent days when AGT didn’t yet signify “America’s Got Talent”, a guy named Mark Ryan unleashed upon the world a game called The Incredible Erotic Adventures of Stiffy Makane, which he apparently wrote in BASIC in the eighth grade, then inexplicably ported to AGT and uploaded to the IF Archive. Adam Thornton played it, and wrote a funny review, in which he called it “easily the most amusingly horrible work of IF I’ve ever seen.” (By the way, anybody who wants to witness how delightful the IF newsgroups were back in the days before their troll-induced decline could do worse than to read the ensuing thread. The Graham Nelson comment in particular made me laugh out loud.) This review pointed out the terrible writing, the repellent ending, the freaky non-sequiturs, the risible implementation (including, famously, the ability to DROP PENIS), and so forth. It helped propel the game to “legendarily bad” status, but even so, Stiffy would likely have been soon forgotten if not for what happened next.

Exactly one year and one day after the review, a pseudonym-cloaked Thornton and a still-anonymous co-author released a MST-ing of the game (remember Mystery Science Theater 3000?). A few years later, Adam entered the 2001 IF Comp with Stiffy Makane: The Undiscovered Country, a game which, as I said in my review at the time, “[makes] its PC the object as well as the subject of penetration (and penetration by a moose, no less.)” At this point, Stiffy and his stiffy had entered into the community lexicon as a shared in-joke, with Adam always in the vanguard. In fact, at this point, I’d say that Adam Thornton has made a career out of Stiffy Makane, which sounds much less promising than it’s actually turned out to be. Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis is the zenith of that career.


From the beginning, the game lets us know the territory it intends to cover. A rotating dedication name-checks people from the world of literature, like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, as well as people from the IF world like Robb Sherwin and Graham Nelson. Then follows a bit of untranslated Italian — Thornton quoting Eliot quoting Pound quoting Dante. After that, the game throws you into a scenario in which you battle “the Gostak chief”, which will certainly remind some of us of Carl Muckenhoupt’s game The Gostak, which itself grew from a seed planted by C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards, in their book The Meaning Of Meaning. Confused yet? MMA has a helpful bibliographic referencing system to help you along:

The Gostak chief [reference 2] [reference 3] is a giant of a man, with lank, thinning blond hair [reference 4]. He carries an enormous mace, which he wields as if it weighed nothing at all.

The Gostak chief aims a vicious blow at your head. You twist away desperately, skidding on the wet flagstones. The mace smashes into the stone, throwing a shower of sparks.

>REF 2
[Reference 2]: Ogden, C.K. and Ian Richards. The Meaning of Meaning, (citation unknown).

>REF 3
[Reference 3]: Muckenhaupt, Carl. The Gostak, passim.

>REF 4
[Reference 4]: Wolfe, Gene. The Sword of the Lictor, Chapter XXXVII, Terminus Est.

As if that weren’t enough, the game provides a parallel system of footnotes to complement its references, like so:

Curia Interior
The Curia is still under reconstruction; renovations won't be completed for quite some time [footnote 1]. For the time being, the Senate still meets over at Pompey's porch. Frankly, this place is basically just a construction site. Steps to the Forum lead down to the south.

An olive-colored velvet bag rests empty on the ground here.

[To look up a footnote, use FOOTNOTE number-of-footnote]

[To disable poncy footnotes, you can type PONCY OFF]

[Footnote 1]: The Curia Hostilia burned in 52 BC; Julius Caesar started its renovation, but the Curia Julia (named in his honor) was not completed until 29 BC during the reign of Augustus. I hope you now feel better-educated.

Keep in mind: this is a porn parody IF based on a character created by a horny 14-year-old [ed. note: That phrase seems redundant somehow.]. It keeps a sense of humor about itself, but at the same time, there’s a clear delight in classical history and the ancient world. Observe:

Cocceio's Cave
Cocceio's Cave runs arrow-straight from the town of Cumae, to the west, to the shore of Lake Avernus, to the east. It is a kilometer long and wide enough for two wagons to pass one another. It has recently been excavated on Caesar's orders [footnote 9], but it also makes for a very convenient road for petitioners seeking the Sybil. Regularly spaced torches light your way.

[Footnote 9]: Lake Avernus is a volcanic crater filled with water, which makes it an ideal protected harbor. Julius Caesar began construction of the port here, connecting Avernus to Lake Lucrino with a canal and thence to the sea. Cocceio's Cave was excavated to allow easy access by chariot to the war fleet housed in Avernus. The port (Portus Julius) became fully operational in Octavian's reign. Thus, it is probably slightly ahistorical to have Cocceio's Cave in this story, as it is likely an Augustan, not a Julian work; nevertheless, it's not badly out of place, and it's a really nifty Roman military construction, so in it stays.

The game’s erudition extends beyond Roman history and modernist poets. For instance, at one point there’s a hotel register you can examine, which yields entries like “Johnny Randall, Ramble” and “Harry Bumper, Sheridan.” Those entries don’t have a footnote or reference citation, but by that point I knew that there were very few arbitrary choices in the game, so I googled them. Turns out they’re from Nabokov’s Lolita — Humbert Humbert uses various false names in hotel registries as he searches for Lolita in the latter part of the book. Over and over, MMA rewards research and demonstrates an impressive range of literary reference. In fact, I’d say this game sent me to Google more than any other IF game I’ve ever played. Sometimes even that was fruitless, as in the time when Stiffy (under my control) attempted to venture into avian bestiality, making amorous advances toward a duck named Anas:

You, sir, are no Henry Miller [footnote 24].

>NOTE 24
[Footnote 24]: Hey, you know, it's kind of odd that "Anas" is so close to "Anaïs", isn't it? D'ya think?....nah, couldn't be.

Did Miller have some kind of sexual inclination toward waterfowl? Even Google couldn’t tell me, unless perhaps my Google-fu wasn’t up to par, which is always a possibility. I know that Miller had a passionate sexual relationship with Anaïs Nin, but whether the game’s Miller reference extended beyond the superficial similarity of names, I couldn’t tell. Again, that nagging feeling: I may have a Master’s degree in English Literature, but I don’t think I’m well-read enough for this Stiffy Makane game.

MMA‘s breadth of IF reference is equally impressive. Besides the fact that it expends herculean effort to expand the mythos of an otherwise extremely minor IF character, and the aforementioned Gostak shout-out, MMA touches on everything from Adventure to Scott Adams to Infocom to Losing Your Grip to Kallisti. In fact, at one point it even scores a two-for-one by including Madame Sosostris, who figures prominently in both Eliot’s The Waste Land and Graham Nelson’s Curses. Nelson, another IF author with an Eliot fixation, comes up again in a late-game scene, one that I thought really encapsulated MMA‘s humor:

Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter noon [reference 30]. A graveyard, of sorts, is to the south. A rather fetching garden lies to the west. A low, blocky palace, built of obsidian, looms to the east. A plaza stretches to the north under the towering bulk of an obelisk.

Identical men in dark suits and bowler hats scurry to and fro.

>REF 30
[Reference 30]: Eliot, T.S.. The Waste Land, III.208.

Each identical man (for they are all men) wears an identical dark suit and an identical bowler hat, carries an identical black umbrella [reference 31], and, incongruously, sports an identical nametag proclaiming, in bright red letters, "HELLO MY NAME IS GRAHAM." I had not thought death had undone so many [reference 32].

>REF 31
[Reference 31]: Rowson, Martin. The Waste Land, I.31.

>REF 32
[Reference 32]: Eliot, T.S.. The Waste Land, I.63.

You see no Nelson's Column here.

A barrelful of Eliot references, several of which (the Unreal City, the bowler-hatted army) overlap again with Curses, collides with a British geographical/historical reference which also serves as a hilarious anatomical double-entendre about a founding father of modern IF. Deep respect jumps into bed with profound irreverence, and the result is quite satisfying. That’s Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis.


Thornton’s 2001 Stiffy game (SM:TUC) was deeply, rightly scornful of its main character. As in the game that spawned him, Stiffy was an projection of a boneheaded eighth-grade boy’s sexual mentality, albeit this time seen from a more adult perspective: unsatisfying as a lover, profoundly clueless, misogynist, and homophobic. His ideal sexual encounter is with a Holodeck robot — “jump through some hoops, get to fuck the girl. If only real life were so easy!” — and even she is less than enthusiastic about the experience. SM:TUC demolishes the ludicrous tropes of terrible “adult” IF in part by demonstrating that mechanical sex is the opposite of eroticism.

MMA is a different story. The Stiffy of MMA doesn’t have a trace of homophobia, and is enthusiastically omnisexual (within limits, and even those are played for laughs.) He’s still an eager lover, but this time he’s a good one, as we can tell by the reaction of his partners. His encounters often have a joke at their center (as when Stiffy fucks some version of Archimedes, who teaches him the true meaning of “Archimedes’ Screw” and who exclaims, “My lever’s big enough. Just give me a place to stand and I’ll rock your world!”), but the joke isn’t at Stiffy’s expense. The descriptions embrace sensuality, in direct contrast to SM:TUC‘s anti-erotic prose.

What changed? The mission changed, that’s what. AIF was always an easy target, albeit a fun one, and between his review of the original Ryan game, his MSTing of same, and SM:TUC, Thornton seems to have said his piece about it. Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis moves on to satirizing IF in general, especially the classic Infocom style. The game’s writing and design echoes this style — for all its transgressiveness, MMA‘s puzzles and prose are often quite traditionalist. Descriptions are generally concise, even terse, and there’s no attempt whatsoever to sidestep the artificiality of IF puzzles awkwardly grafted to a big long quest plot. There are no mazes, dragons, hunger puzzles, or other such tired figures, but there are heaping helpings of item-fetching, locked-door NPCs, and actual locked doors. The game is unapologetically an epic, old-fashioned puzzlefest, albeit one with a few differences.

Just the carnality itself is a major difference, really. Infocom was writing for a mass market which included children, so their games were necessarily quite chaste, even when they were trying to be otherwise. Credit to them for attempting something a little racy with Leather Goddesses of Phobos, but compared to MMA, even the “lewd” mode in Leather Goddesses of Phobos is ridiculously tame. Thornton’s game is IF sex comedy with the restraints taken off, and it works. It’s genuinely funny and sometimes even genuinely sexy.

It also uses its taboo subject matter to hilarious effect, blending perversity into IF as skillfully as I’ve ever seen. Take the puzzles, for instance. In 2002, I released a game called Another Earth, Another Sky, in which you play a super-strong PC and the solution to many puzzles is some variation of SMASH [object]. I thought of that game a lot when playing MMA, in which you play a super-virile PC, and the solution to many puzzles is some variation of FUCK [NPC]. The number of times that Stiffy’s stiffy is in some way the solution to a puzzle is both a great running gag and a great subversion of standard-issue IF object and NPC interactions. (MMA‘s version of the common light-source puzzle is particularly memorable.)

Sometimes, instead, the penis is the puzzle rather than the answer, as in the episode when Stiffy gets the clap and has to seek out a cure. The solution involves a regular IF activity — a mini-quest to seek out a medicinal herb and bring it back to the local doctor — but the context is something you don’t see in many other games. Not only that, the actual resolution of the quest turns IF convention its ear too, as we discover that the herb isn’t the cure at all, but simply serves to distract while the doctor administers a much more violent and unpleasant remedy.

Sex and gross-outs aside, MMA also provides a few great anti-puzzles, in which the obvious action is the correct one, but the game manages to make you think otherwise with persuasive writing. Take, for example, this bridge across a chasm:

A rickety footbridge — really, little more than flimsy-looking boards laid across twisted vines — spans the canyon to the west, swaying sickeningly in the breeze.

Makes you want to look for another way across the chasm, doesn’t it? I certainly did, based on my memories of a thousand other rickety IF bridges. They always collapse — that’s why they’re described as rickety. Plus, I’d already died many a death in MMA getting to this point. So I found a place to jump across the chasm, and failed. I failed tantalizingly, and thought I might succeed with a different approach. Nope. After a few more attempts, I returned to the bridge and decided to cross it, hoping I might get a clue from the inevitable death message. Instead, Stiffy crossed it. The end. The anticlimax was hilarious, and I loved the way the game played a joke on me by exploiting my IF experience. I realized later that I was also holding a set of instructions which explicitly told me to cross the bridge, but it had been so long since I’d looked at those, I forgot all about them. D’oh!

Alongside these are more typical IF puzzles, ranging from the simple (follow a recipe and get the desired result) to the rather clever (dress up as a prophet to fool a god into taking you into a new location.) MMA skewers IF, to be sure, but it isn’t just taking the piss — it’s a genuinely fun IF game on its own merits.


Along with its transgressions and subversions, MMA brings a number of excellent IF innovations to the table. One of my favorites is how it handles repeated questions to an NPC. One of the weaknesses of the ASK/TELL conversation system (which MMA uses) can be a tendency toward repetition. The first time you ASK MIKE ABOUT FISH, Mike should tell you about the fish. But what happens if you repeat the command? Lots of games just would repeat Mike’s dialogue, which makes the NPC obviously robotic. However, that robotic behavior serves a gameplay purpose — if the player forgets some crucial nugget of information, the ability to retrieve that information shouldn’t be sacrificed in the name of character realism, or else you’re just trading one annoyance for another. In addition, topics sometimes have aliases, so the player may not even realizing that from the game’s point of view, she’s asking the same question twice. MMA comes up with a solution to this conundrum which I thought was rather ingenious:

"To seize the Golden Banana is a mighty deed, but the Son of Aeneas must look to the Son of Abraham to release it from its sheath."

The Cumaean Sybil has already told you that you will need the help of a Jew to unsheath
[sic] the Golden Banana.

By having the parser intervene when a question is repeated, the player gets the needed information without the NPC having to behave like a tape recorder.

MMA also innovates at the design level, with an intricate story structure surrounded by a clever series of framing layers. It’s not uncommon for an IF game (or a traditional story) to start in the middle of some action, advance to a point where it looks pretty bad for the hero, and then flash back to tell the story leading up to that point. It’s quite a bit more unusual for the hero’s death to actually occur. Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis solves this dilemma brilliantly, with a perfect marriage of its classicism and its game-nerd geekery. Not to mention that the response to “X ME” in this section is one of the funniest parodies I’ve seen of a standard Inform library message.

On top of this, there’s still another layer of narrative complexity, as seen in a section where the available range of action has drastically narrowed to only two possible commands, and very boring ones at that. Just when I was thinking “man, fast forward,” this happened:

[Here the original text is badly damaged and illegible for many pages. What we can piece together from the extant fragments of this section and the remainder of the work, however, is that Stiffy somehow becomes accepted as one of the Vikings. He wins his toga and the Banana back, acquires the honorific "Sven Stiffy" for his deeds, and meets up with a Druid leading a Pictish revolt. A brief and curious fragment from this last section survives.]

Thus the action shifts out of the previous trap, and MMA piles on yet another inventive application of scholarly mechanics to gameplay mechanics, letting us know that not only does the game have narrative layers in itself, there’s also a metanarrative outside of the story, in which the whole of MMA is in fact some kind of ancient text in translation, which has not survived in its entirety. Employing this device not only allows Thornton to skip past some of the boring or illogical sections (always with a comic purpose) and also reinforces the erudite side of MMA‘s ongoing juxtaposition.

These layers are great for comedy, but I think my favorite comedic innovation in MMA is its running gag of warned deaths. Insta-death is all over the place in IF, especially old-school IF, but MMA takes an approach which allows the whole thing to be a lot funnier: every time the player enters a command which will lead to instant death, the game issues a warning first. Then, if the action is repeated, the game delivers the insta-death:

It is pitch black in there. Your cock is likely to be eaten by a grue [reference 6].

Chomp! A grue bites your dick completely off, as was foretold.

*** You have been emasculated by a grue ***

There are dozens of these scattered throughout the game, leading to all manner of horrendous demises. Instant IF death is annoying (though UNDO mitigates it a lot), but I thought this was wonderful. Every time I saw one of these warnings, I gave a little tiny cheer inside, because I knew that the next thing I would get to do is steer Stiffy into another hilarious Wile E. Coyote calamity. The more of these there were, the funnier it got, as is the nature of the running gag. (The other great running gag: the game’s responses to failed attempts to fuck people. Or things.)

Also funny and clever was the CAST command, which lets us know the models for various characters in the game. These models spring from reality (Ron Jeremy as Stiffy), literature (Baldanders from Gene Wolfe as the Gostak chieftain), TV (Dr. Nick Riviera from The Simpsons as the aforementioned clap-curer), and Dungeons & Dragons (Froghemoth makes an appearance.) I particularly enjoyed seeing Thornton’s dogs expressing their separate personalities as the heads of Cerberus.

Finally, I have to mention the ending. I won’t give too much away, except to say that it’s one of the more entertaining ways I’ve ever had the plot shouted at me while tied to a chair. A fitting topper to this epic and bizarre game, it partakes of the epic and the bizarre on a grand scale, justifying the game’s subtitle and winding up with an excellent closing joke.


Of course, smart references and clever ideas only get you so far — it’s in the execution that an IF game is made or broken. It should probably come as no surprise at this point in the review that I found Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis to be outstanding in this department as well. The game isn’t completely bug-free — it would be very surprising indeed to find a game of this size that had no bugs or errors whatsoever — but it credits multiple rounds of testers, and their efforts shine through. The writing is similarly error-free. It rarely aspires to poetry, but it excels at finding that perfect word to make a graphic detail really vivid, whether you’re being splattered with filth in the sewers of Ostia or inhaling the mephitic vapors of a pit that leads to Hades.

Many many actions are accounted for with proper verbs and witty responses. Most first-level objects are described, albeit sometimes rather curtly. There are many fun surprises embedded for the curious to find, including one of the better XYZZY easter eggs I’ve seen in a while. (Actually, come to think of it, that only seemed like an Easter egg — it’s actually necessary to solve a puzzle.) There’s even the occasional spate of runic and/or Greek writing mixed in with the prose, thanks to Inform libraries written by Thornton himself.

MMA also pays good attention to detail and logic within the confines of its model world. For instance, Stiffy is often obliged to disrobe, whether for the purpose of solving a puzzle or just for a pleasant diversion to pass the time. Either way, it’s easy to forget to put his toga back on him, but invariably the other characters in the game notice when Stiffy is parading around naked, and usually have some witty remark to make about it.

Finally, in case I haven’t made this clear, Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis is quite the extensive game. Every time I thought it was ending, it would instead open up a new vista of plot and setting, with more surprises and more hilarity. In addition to being long, it’s quite deep as well. I noticed this particularly in the Great Library of Alexandria, in which you can learn not just the key fact that helps the plot along, but all about much of the game world and even the greater historical context of its setting.

Glancing at the source code (which Thornton includes in the game package), I can see that there are many more responses I never even uncovered. The expansiveness of the game gives it great access to callbacks, both comedy kind and the IF kind (returning to a location or situation after time has passed and things have changed.) MMA wears its influences on its long, long sleeves, and by the end, it can count itself as an influence. It’s a bit like the question Stephen Colbert asked when he interviewed the band Rush: “You’re known for some long songs. Have you ever written a song so epic, that you were being influenced by your own song, because it happened so much earlier in your career?” This is a game that took a decade to produce, and it’s clear the time wasn’t wasted.

Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis was the perfect finish to my mini-journey of reviewing all the 2011 XYZZY Best Game nominees. I rolled the dice and reviewed those games in random order, but the sequence turned out just right. Zombie Exodus was an oddball nominee, unfinished and not my cup of tea, while Six was an utterly charming comp entry. Cryptozookeeper beat them both with music, graphics, spectacular writing, and an epic scope. It took home the XYZZY award, and it deserves all the recognition it’s gotten, but for my money Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis has the edge over even Cryptozookeeper. Its careful coding, clever design, thematic boldness and overflowing intelligence have made it my favorite game of the bunch. I look forward eagerly to whatever Adam Thornton has cooking for 2021.

Interview from SPAG [Misc]

[Duncan Stevens interviewed me in SPAG #31, the 2002 IF competition special. It’s rather odd to be interviewed in one’s own zine, but SPAG has a tradition of interviewing the top three finishers in the IF comp, and I won that year. However, when I won the next time, SPAG interviewed finishers 2-4. As with the other interviews, I’ve edited the text and added links as appropriate. The first paragraph is in my voice.]

For the annual competition issue, SPAG traditionally interviews the highest-placing authors in the comp, but I faced some rather unprecedented challenges when putting together this issue’s interviews. For one thing, since I won the comp, there really ought to be an interview with me, but for me to interview myself would be a little… unseemly, as Primo Varicella might say. As he has so often in SPAG‘s history, Duncan Stevens came to the rescue, crafting a set of interview questions which I could then answer without feeling too much like I had multiple personality disorder. Thanks, Duncan…

Paul O’Brian, author of Another Earth, Another Sky

SPAG: Well, you often ask SPAG interviewees to tell a bit about themselves, but SPAG‘s readers may not know much about you, so — out with it. Name, rank, and serial number?

PO: Okay, fair enough. I’m 32, which put me in my teen years during the Infocom boom — just about the perfect age to be, since I was old enough to understand and succeed at the games and young enough to have lots of free time to devote to them. I’ve lived in Colorado all my life, save for one ill-starred year in New York City, and I currently work in Boulder at the University of Colorado, where I got my degrees. My job there is in the Financial Aid office, as an “IT professional,” which basically means that I do all sorts of technical stuff, from programming to maintaining the network to creating queries that pull data from the university’s mainframe.

I’ve been married for a little over six years, to someone who isn’t an IF aficionado but who is wonderful about supporting my work and my ambitions. I’m very verbally oriented (you may have noticed) and love the complex uses of language. I also really enjoy programming, so of course I’m a perfect candidate to love IF. Aside from that, my other passions are music and comics, the latter of which has made the Earth And Sky series such a fun project to do.

SPAG: How did you get interested in IF, and what led you to start writing your own IF?

PO: The long answer to this question is the editorial I wrote for my first issue of SPAG, number 18. In a nutshell: my dad is a computer enthusiast, and we were sort of “first on the block” with a home computer — initially an Atari 400, then upgrading to the sooper-big-time Atari 800. The first games I played on those machines either came in cartridge form or on cassette tapes, but shortly after he acquired a disk drive, he brought home Zork I for us to try together. He loves to bring home the coolest new things, and that was especially true when I was a kid; at that point the cool new thing was Zork. He lost interest in it before too long, but I was enchanted, and became a major Infocom devotee for as long as the company existed.

I learned about the Internet right around the same time I was writing a paper about IF for a graduate class, and so of course some of my first Gopher searches were on “Infocom” and “interactive fiction.” That led me to Curses, and once I figured out that there was a freely available language that would let me write Infocom-style games, suddenly a childhood fantasy was within reach. Being an Infocom implementor is still my dream job — pity about living in the wrong time and place for it.

SPAG: You’ve written four games now. What keeps you writing IF?

PO: Well, in the case of the last game and the next one, it’s the fact that I’ve made a promise to myself and to the audience that I won’t leave the storyline hanging. Other than that, I suppose it’s just the fact that I seem to have an unflagging interest in the medium. My first game was written to fulfill my dream of writing an Infocom-ish game, as I said above. LASH was just an idea that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go, and I knew that IF was the perfect medium for it. A lot of the drive to write the Earth And Sky games has to do with the fact that I really, really wanted to play a good superhero game, and I wasn’t entirely satisfied with any of the ones that had been released up to that point. So I wrote it because I wanted to play it.

SPAG: Another Earth, Another Sky is the second in a series. What led you to make a full-blown series out of this story, rather than a single self-contained game?

PO: One of the things I loved about superhero comics as a kid was their episodic nature. I really dug the way the stories just kept going and going, with characters and themes woven through the whole thing, disappearing and reappearing as the saga unfolded. Now, with the emphasis on story arcs that can be collected into trade paperbacks, that’s becoming less true in comics, but when I decided to write a superhero game, I knew it needed to be episodic. Besides, I really wanted to take another shot at the competition, and didn’t want to write something so big that it wouldn’t be appropriate for the comp. Also, as a corollary to that, I guess, I really wanted more and faster feedback than writing the whole thing as an epic would have given me. LASH took a very long time to write, and I wanted my next piece to be a bit smaller in scope.

SPAG: The first installment was essentially a superhero game, but Another Earth, Another Sky has sci-fi elements along with the superhero aspect. Is the series becoming a sci-fi series, or are there more genre twists ahead?

PO: I wouldn’t say it’s becoming science fiction, really, and I didn’t set out to do any genre blending with this game. What is true, though, is that these games are heavily influenced by the old Marvel comics from the 1960s, particularly The Fantastic Four — one of the reasons I chose “Lee Kirby” as my pseudonym for the first game was to acknowledge my debt to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who wrote many of those early comics. The tropes of alien invasion and Big Science were intrinsic to many of Lee and Kirby’s stories, probably as an outgrowth of the science fiction comics that preceded that period’s big superhero revival, so that’s why you see those themes reflected in my games. Ultimately, though, I see superheroes as more a subgenre of fantasy than of science fiction, if the division has to be made.

SPAG: There seem to be allusions to other IF games here and there in AEAS — the setting for a large part of the game is reminiscent of Small World, the dome in the desert evokes So Far, the underwater scene has echoes of Photopia, and the touchplates reminded me of Spider and Web. Or am I imagining these connections?

PO: I wouldn’t say you’re imagining them, but I also didn’t consciously try to pay homage to any of those games with the elements you mention. However, I have played all of them, and there’s no question that everything that goes into my brain has an influence on me. Lots of people have mentioned the Small World connection, and I certainly remember feeling delighted with an IF landscape that formed a sphere, but the idea of having the PC be able to travel between disparate locales by means of superhuman leaps came more from old issues of The Hulk than from any particular IF game.

SPAG: The game is sprinkled with Emily Dickinson quotes. Any particular reason for relying on that particular poet?

PO: Well, aside from the fact that she’s pretty much my favorite canonical poet, Dickinson was also part of the genesis of the series. I went through a period where I decided to read every Dickinson poem, but I found it too exhausting to just read them one after another, so I interspersed them with comics. Indulging in this weird combination while thinking about what I wanted to write next gave birth to this superhero series where the codenames are some of Dickinson’s favorite touchstones, and the protagonists are named after the poet and her brother. The title and part of the inspiration for Another Earth, Another Sky came from the Dickinson poem that begins “There is another sky.”

SPAG: Will the third installment wrap up the series?

PO: That’s the plan at this point. I love writing these games, but it’s a little disheartening to realize that each episode takes about a year to complete. I certainly wouldn’t rule out further Earth And Sky games somewhere down the line, but I’ll be ready for a break from them once the third episode is finished.

SPAG: Any other plans for more IF writing?

PO: Beyond the third Earth And Sky game, I’m not sure. I think I’ll probably want to turn towards writing static fiction for a while, but I plan to keep editing SPAG, and I don’t see myself leaving the IF community unless it seriously deteriorates. So I’d say there’s an excellent chance I’ll find myself struck with some great IF idea and banging out code again sometime in the future.

IF Haikus [misc]

[Inspired by a haiku movie reviews site, I posted some IF haikus to the newsgroup, which started a fun thread. These could be construed as a bit spoilery, in a certain light.]

Zork I

I’m in a dark place
Without a lantern. I hear
the footsteps of grues.

Zork II

All my things are here
But I’m floating above them,
helpless. Damn wizard!


I can’t find the map.
I never knew my house was
so complicated!

Spider and Web

Yes. No. Yes. Oh, I
thought you were telling the truth.
Let’s try it again.


Oh, I’m starting to
understand it all now. That
means I — stop. Stop. Stop!!

Wrecked by Campbell Wild [Comp00]

IFDB page: Wrecked
Final placement: 39th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

There are several points in Wrecked where the game collars you to proclaim just how awesome its development system is. For example, you meet someone who (surprise surprise!) just happens to be coding an ADRIFT game on a nearby computer. Ask her about it, and she’ll say to you, “I’m making an ADRIFT adventure. I’ve tried using Inform, TADS and Hugo, but I’d say ADRIFT is by far the best.” In another location, you can gain some points with the command “write graffiti,” something I would never have thought to do without the handy walkthrough to prod me. The graffiti the game chooses to write? “ADRIFT rocks!”

Apparently, Wrecked suspects that its own merits are not enough to convince you of ADRIFT’s supremacy, but that if it just shouts slogans at you once in a while, that might do the trick. For me, the former was true, but the latter, predictably, was not. I’ve already catalogued the shortcomings of ADRIFT in my review of Marooned, so I don’t see the need to rehash them here — the bottom line is that ADRIFT isn’t a bad system overall, and has some nifty features to recommend it, but its parser (which is MORE IMPORTANT THAN NIFTY FEATURES) is substandard, its model world needs work, and it’s still lacking in key functions like UNDO and SCRIPT. A random NPC might think it beats Inform, TADS, and Hugo, but a quick conversation with this NPC demonstrates that her powers of discernment are, after all, rather limited. The game’s self-hyping moments are offputting, as it would have been if Graham Nelson had chosen to have “Inform RUELZ!” scribbled on the side of the house in Curses, or if the spaceship in Deep Space Drifter had been named the USS TADS Is Supreme.

On the other hand, Wrecked is definitely a better showcase for ADRIFT than is Marooned. Those extraneous newlines that I blamed on the ADRIFT system in my review of Marooned turned out to be that game’s doing — they’re nowhere to be found in Wrecked. Many more first-level nouns are implemented, making the auto-complete option work much better, though it still doesn’t work flawlessly. Also, there’s no starvation puzzle in Wrecked, which sets to rest my fears that such a puzzle is standard issue in every ADRIFT game.

However, just being a better game than Marooned doesn’t make Wrecked a great game in itself. One part of the reason why I didn’t care for Wrecked is that it just feels very dated to me. It’s an old-school adventure, something that might have fit comfortably into the mainstream circa 1983 or so. You know the kind: you find a bowling ball with a button on the side, and when you push the button, the ball opens up to reveal a sapphire bracelet, which you then give to the sailor on the dock, who will reward you with a chicken pot pie that you can feed to the vicious warthog, allowing you to sneak into his lair and retrieve the bag of marbles, etc. etc. Everything is pretty much thrown together without any rhyme or reason, loosely grouped together under a threadbare rubric of plot and setting. Like I said, old-school. Unfortunately for Wrecked, the old school of IF lost its accreditation some time ago. To my mind, senseless grouping of stuff without any indication of internal consistency is something IF has outgrown, like mazes and starvation puzzles. Seeing it in a year 2000 competition entry isn’t going to score a lot of points from me.

However, even if I were willing to set aside the deep flaws in both the parser and the design of the game, there would still be the matter of the bugs. Most severe among these is the game-killing bug I encountered about an hour and 45 minutes into the game: despite all conditions being correct, I was unable to complete a critical puzzle, even though I knew from a previous play session that it was possible to complete this puzzle. Because ADRIFT makes a habit of overwriting old save files with the current save unless you explicitly tell it to do otherwise (by selecting “save as” from the menu bar — typing “save” will overwrite without prompting), I would have had to start from scratch and wind my way once more through all the nonsensical contortions required by the game’s plot, and there was no guarantee that I wouldn’t encounter the same bug again.

That bug ended my dealings with Wrecked, but there were other errors along the way. The voice was in first person, but would occasionally slip into second person. Sometimes the game failed to recognize rather important objects. In one supremely frustrating section, the game adamantly refused to recognize the word “keyhole,” despite a promiently featured keyhole in the location; it responded to all commands along the lines of “put key in keyhole” with “I can’t put anything inside the small key.” In short, between the bugs, the parser, the hype, and the lack of any kind of logic, Wrecked wasn’t a lot of fun, and it’s not likely to win many converts to ADRIFT. No matter how many times it insists that ADRIFT rocks.

Rating: 4.0

Letters From Home by Roger Firth [Comp00]

IFDB page: Letters From Home
Final placement: 12th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Graham Nelson once described interactive fiction as “a narrative at war with a crossword.” Letters From Home takes a definite side in this battle by being an interactive narrative where the main goal is to complete a crossword, and whose entire purpose is structured around puzzle-solving, the “crossword” part of the metaphor.

The explicit connection with that metaphor is just one of the many pieces of Nelsoniana scattered throughout the game. From the introductory text, to the Jigsaw (grandfather clock and Titanic mementos) and Curses (sprawling mansion filled with relics of distinguished ancestors) references, to the somber traces of wartime, the whole thing comes across as a loving tribute to Graham. Being a Nelson admirer myself, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the various clever nods to him peppered throughout this game. There’s also a hilarious Zork allusion in a throwaway parser response and even a passing reference to the author’s own Cloak Of Darkness demonstration page for the various IF languages.

The main attraction in Letters, though, is the puzzles. This is one of those games whose plot is thin to nonexistent, and whose mimesis gets shattered (literally) in the course of puzzle-solving. The game isn’t particularly straightforward about announcing what your objective is supposed to be, but it comes clear after a bit. At first, Letters seems to be a standard-issue “collect your inheritance by solving puzzles” game a la Hollywood Hijinx, but the plot and the mimesis both evaporate rather quickly as it becomes clear that the real point of the game is collecting the letters of the alphabet by finding things that represent or resemble them in some way.

For example, you find a cup of tea, and sure enough, it represents the letter T. Once you get the hang of it (hint: leave your sense of realism at the door), most of these puzzles are fun, and a few are quite remarkable. Some, though, are marred by ambiguous writing. For example, one of the necessary objects is described as stuck to a skylight. Perhaps because of architectural styles where I live, I don’t expect that I’ll be able to reach up and touch a skylight — they tend to be placed in high ceilings. Consequently, I thought that the puzzle was to find a way to reach this object — I climbed stuff, searched for a ladder, tried to haul furniture into the room, all to no avail. Finally, I turned to the hints, which just said to… take it. I did, and it worked.

Now, part of the problem here was no doubt my fault: I should have just tried taking the item. However, I’d submit that if you’re writing descriptions (especially terse descriptions like those in this game) where critical puzzle pieces depend on how the player envisions the room, there had better be a lot of clues in place to make sure that you’re communicating clearly. Letters From Home sometimes fails to do this.

I didn’t finish the game in the two-hour judging period — no great surprise since I’m guessing there are twenty-six letter puzzles, some of which require multiple steps. In addition, there’s a time limit, which I blithely exceeded. So I don’t know much about the ending, and probably missed half the puzzles. I doubt the ending has much of a punch — there’s virtually no narrative in this game, and solving the puzzles is its own reward. As for the half I missed, if they’re anything like the half I found, I’ll bet they’re a lot of fun, though occasionally needlessly frustrating.

Letters was coded quite well — I only found one bug, though a rather amusing one. The game’s time limit is 12:00 noon, and it creates atmosphere by having the village chimes toll on the hour. However, once it gets past noon, the chimes toll thirteen times, then fourteen times, and so on. The funny thing is, the game is so unrealistic that at first I didn’t even notice the oddness of the extra chimes. In a world where everything keeps turning into letters of the alphabet, and abstract concepts like letters can be carried around in your inventory, what’s a little extra chiming?

Letters From Home is a fun, lexicographically oriented puzzlefest that needs a bit more work on writing and coding before it can reach the Nelsonian level to which it aspires. This review has been brought to you by the letters “G” and “N”.

Rating: 8.2

Unnkulia X by Valentine Kopteltsev [Comp00]

IFDB page: Unnkulia X
Final placement: 27th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

In the beginning, there was the 1995 IF competition. This competition had but One Rule: all entries must be winnable in two hours or less. The competition has gotten grander and more complex since then, but it has remained a competition for short games, not Curses-length epics. Somewhere along the way, though, the One Rule got mutated a little. I quote from this year’s rules: “Judges must base their judgement of each game on at most the first two hours of play… Authors may write a game of any length they desire, but should keep this rule in mind when determining the length of their entry.” This rule has been in this form, more or less, since 1998. Still, the competition has remained oriented towards short games.

There are some obvious reasons for this. For one thing, it takes less time to write a short game. The more objects, locations, NPCs, plot points, and such you cram into your game, the more work your game will be to produce, at least if you want to maintain a reasonable level of quality. I would argue, however, that there are other reasons to keep long games out of the competition. From a judging standpoint, I don’t feel comfortable evaluating a game unless I’m reasonably confident that I’ve seen most or all of it. If A Mind Forever Voyaging, for instance, were to be entered in an IF competition, I know for certain that I wouldn’t have an accurate picture of it after only 2 hours of play. I felt differently about Zork III before and after the Royal Puzzle. I could go on, but you get the idea. Consequently, the ratings given to a large game don’t really reflect the game as a whole, just its beginning sections. Also, it’s really comparing apples to oranges to put something like Worlds Apart up against something like, say, Winter Wonderland. Even if two games have a similar tone, or similar puzzles, or a whole raft of other similarities, length does matter. Ahem.

Nowadays though, the competition has become, to use a worn-out but apt phrase, a victim of its own success. Authors enter anything they write into the competition just because it’s so high-profile and receives so much ink (or electrons, or whatever.) They figure that even in the worst case, they’ll get a whole bunch of people playing and writing about their game, so why not enter it? I feel a rant coming on about this. The first part of my rant is directed at authors. Look, people, entering a game that is too long (or too buggy, or too poorly proofread, or otherwise inappropriate for the competition) is an abuse of the judges’ time. The feedback and recognition you get this way are ill-gotten.

Moreover, I would contend that especially in the case of overlong games, you’re not really benefiting that much, because whatever recognition and feedback you get are only based on the first two hours, not your game as a whole. You created an entire game, but if it’s just one of fifty entries, and it’s quickly apparent that two hours ain’t gonna cover it, not by a long stretch, how many of those players do you think will return to your game? How many people will see and give you feedback about the other three-fourths of the game that they didn’t get to during the comp? How much are you really benefiting from all that comp attention?

And while I’m on the topic, let’s move to the second part of my rant, which is directed to the community at large. Listen, I love the competition. It’s one of my favorite things about the IF community. But let’s face the problems that it has. The magnetism of the competition, the idea that it’s the best place for every game, is something we all need to work harder to address. Do your part. Release a long game (or a short one) outside of the competition. Write a review of a non-comp game for SPAG or XYZZYNews. Participate in things like the IF Review Conspiracy and the IF Book Club. Most importantly, post post POST about non-comp games. Make a commitment to post a reaction to any non-comp game you play. It doesn’t have to be a review. It doesn’t have to be thorough. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be smart. It just has to be done, because if it doesn’t get done, the authors who don’t abuse the competition will end up losing out, and that’s not right. So please — do it. Your efforts will benefit yourself and everybody else in the IF community.

Just to be democratic, the third part of my rant is addressed to myself, and people like me, people who write long, thorough reviews of every comp game. We are part of the problem. I recognize that consistency is important to us, and that’s why we devote more or less the same amount of space to each comp game. However, there can and should be limits. Don’t even play games that have catastrophic bugs, let alone review them. Any attention those games get contributes to the perception that it’s better to release a buggy game in the comp than a polished game in the Spring. We must work to prove that this perception is fallacious and untrue. As for overlong games, review them if you feel you must, but don’t feel obligated to spend much of the review talking about the game itself — spend it instead on some adjacent topic like the problem of inappropriate games in the competition.

I mean, for god’s sake, Unnkulia X is 865K! The thing is only 45K smaller than Once and Future! It’s freaking huge! Yes, it’s fairly well done, implemented with care and only a few lapses in English. (There’s a lot of unfamiliar diction, which I assume is attributable to the author’s first language being something other than English, but most of these alien word choices are rather refreshing instead of jarring.) Of course, I only got 60 points out of 300 after two hours, so these assessments are based on what I have to assume is the first fifth or so of the game. If it were the whole game, I’d probably give it about a 9. Considering it’s a fifth of the game, I think that works out to about a…

Rating: 1.8

Acid Whiplash by Anonymous (a.k.a. Rybread Celsius Can’t Find A Dictionary by Rybread Celsius and Cody Sandifer) [Comp98]

IFDB page: Acid Whiplash
Final placement: 23rd place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

“This is terribly, terribly unfair. I’m really sorry. But I just started laughing hysterically, and it’s not what the author intended. In the middle of an intense ending sequence, I read the line:

‘My blood pumper is wronged!’

I just lost it. It’s a very ‘Eye of Argon’ sort of line.”
— Andrew Plotkin, reviewing “Symetry”, 1/1/98

“It takes guts to do *anything* wearing a silver jumpsuit.
My point:
I bet Rybread wears *two* silver jumpsuits while he writes IF.”
— Brad O’Donnell, 1/6/98

I hope my title line isn’t too big a spoiler. I guess I can’t feel too guilty about giving away something that’s revealed in the first 3 seconds of the game. Anyway, it would be impossible to talk about this game without talking about Rybread Celsius. Yes, Rybread Celsius. The man, the myth, the legend. There are those who have called him “A BONA FIDE CERTIFIED GENIUS” [1]. There are those who have called him “the worst writer in interactive fiction today” [2]. There are even those who have called him “an adaptive-learning AI” [3]. Whatever the truth behind the smokescreen, opinion is clearly divided on the Celsius oeuvre. He appears to have an enthusiastic cult following who look at his works and see the stamp of genius, paralleled by another group who look at those selfsame works and see only barely coherent English and buggy code. I have always counted myself among the latter. Works like Symetry and Punkirita Quest set my English-major teeth on edge. I have never met a Rybread game that I’ve liked, or even halfway understood. But Acid Whiplash is different.

First of all, I need to say that I’m going to call it Acid Whiplash, for several reasons:

  1. I’m not sure what the game’s real name is supposed to be.
  2. The other name, while it may be (is!) perfectly true, is just too long to write out.
  3. Acid Whiplash is just such a perfect name for this game.

I’ve never dropped acid myself, but I’m guessing that this game is about the closest text game equivalent I will ever play, at least until my next Rybread game. The world spins crazily about, featuring (among other settings) a room shaped like a burning credit card (???), nightmarish recastings of Curses and Jigsaw, and your own transformation into a car dashboard. Scene changes happen with absolutely no warning, and any sense of emerging narrative is dashed and jolted about, hard enough and abruptly enough to, well, to give you a severe case of mental whiplash. Sounds like a typical Celsius game so far, right? But here’s the best part: stumbling through these hallucinogenic sequences leads you through a multi-part interview between Cody Sandifer and Celsius himself, an interview which had me laughing out loud over and over. Sandifer is hilarious, striking the pose of the intensely sincere reviewer, taking each deranged Celsius word as gospel, and in the process manages actually to illuminate some of the interesting corners of his subject, and subject matter. And Rybread is… Rybread, no more or less than ever. Perhaps being changed into a dashboard while listening makes the whole thing funnier — I’m not sure.

As usual, my regular categories don’t apply. Plot, puzzles, writing — forget about it. Acid Whiplash has no real interaction or story in any meaningful sense. (There is, however, one very funny scene where we learn that Rybread is in fact the evil twin of a well-known IF author). If you’re looking for a plot, or even something vaguely coherent, you ought to know that you’re looking in the wrong place. But if you aren’t familiar with the Way of the Rybread, or even if you are, I recommend giving Acid Whiplash a look. It might shed some light on what all these crazy people are talking about… but don’t expect to understand the next Celsius game.

[1] Brock Kevin Nambo

[2] Me. (Nothing personal.)

[3] Adam Thornton

Rating: 5.2 (This is by far the highest rating I’ve ever given to Rybread. In fact, I think it beats his past 3 ratings from me put together!)

Travels In The Land Of Erden by Laura A. Knauth [Comp97]

IFDB page: Travels in the Land of Erden
Final placement: 14th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Erden is a sprawling, ambitious game which probably does not belong in the competition. This isn’t to imply that the game is without merit; on the contrary, it seems to have the potential to become an enjoyable fantasy excursion. However, the game is huge — I played for two hours and I didn’t even visit every location, let alone solve many puzzles. Moreover, Erden could use another few rounds of testing; I found several coding bugs and a plethora of grammar and spelling errors. In my opinion, the best thing that could happen to this game is thorough testing and proofing, then release in the spring of 1998, when we’ve all recovered from our competition hangover and hunger for substantial new adventures.

I can see why there’s a temptation to submit longer games to the competition. For one thing, there seems to be ongoing debate about the meaning of the “two-hour” rule: is it that your game can be any size but will simply be judged after two hours of play, or does it mean that your game should be winnable in two hours? And if it’s the latter, what do we mean with an imprecise term like “winnable?” Hell, with a walkthrough and a good headwind even Curses is winnable in two hours — that doesn’t make it a two hour game! Then also there’s the fact that historically, the games that have won or placed high in the competition (Weather, Sherbet, Delusions… the list goes on) have strained or outright flouted the two-hour convention. According to Whizzard, the idea behind the rule is to prevent new authors from having to be intimidated by the prospect of going up against a Jigsaw or Christminster, an epic game with a huge scope, and I think that this rule still has value, despite the beating it’s taken over the years. I tend to be of the opinion that the ideal size for a competition game is something that I (an experienced IF player, but no great shakes as a puzzle solver) can see 90-100% of in a two-hour sitting. I designed Wearing the Claw this way, and I appreciate competition games that do the same. However, the way it’s worked out in practice is that the large-scope games still slip in — perhaps not epics, but much more than vignettes, and they often succeed. And perhaps that’s for the best; after all, in a competition like this one (where the works are labors of love and the financial stakes are rather low) it’s better to have fewer rules and more flexibility, thus to encourage more entrants.

Still, what Erden demonstrates is that there is another advantage of keeping your competition entry small: focus. I don’t have an accurate idea of how big Erden is (since I didn’t see the whole thing, probably not even half of it, in my two hours), but it seems to me that if the author had concentrated her energies on a game perhaps a quarter of the size of this one, she would have had time for much more extensive proofing and beta-testing, and the result might have been a tight, polished gem rather than the rough and gangly work she submitted. In addition, she’d have had the opportunity to implement a taut and crystalline design structure, which is beneficial to any game writer. I think that after serious and detailed revision, Erden could be a fantasy odyssey on a par with Path To Fortune; at the moment, however, it is neither that nor a particularly thrilling competition entry.

Prose: The prose in Erden is often awkward, and can be difficult to read. Misplaced modifiers, unmarked appositives, and endless strings of prepositional phrases abound. The author also seems to have a particular dislike for commas, stringing clause after clause breathlessly together. I often reached the end of a sentence and found myself wondering how it had started. There are times in which this turgid prose style makes for some nice effects, as it gives a baroque feel to some of the game’s ornate artifacts. Other times, it’s just confusing. Overall, Erden could be made a much more evocative game with the help of some serious editing.

Plot: One interesting aspect of Erden‘s plot is that it feels much more “in medias res” than most interactive fiction. You enter the mysterious fantasy land after the dragon has already been vanquished. Of course, there are other quests to be undertaken, but the absence of the dragon helps to give the milieu a satisfying sense of history. That being said, I’m not sure that I gleaned much more about the plot. Certainly the retrieval of a mystical ruby is your main goal, and several subquests pop up along the way, some of which I didn’t even begin before my two hours ran out. However, what the meaning of the ruby is, or whether the plot offers any twists, turns, or even character development of any kind is still opaque to me.

Puzzles: I spent enough time traversing the land that I’m not sure I even encountered any puzzles. There’s apparently a lantern to be obtained, but the parameters of doing so were so broad that I have no idea how long it would have taken to succeed. I collected several objects whose use was not immediately apparent, but I’m not sure if they ever come in handy or not. There was one area of the game that seemed pretty clearly to hide a gateway to underground caverns, but once I thought I had found the answer to opening the gate, the parser was stubbornly unresponsive to my ideas. So I have no idea whether what I was seeing was an unsolved puzzle or a red herring. What’s more, the game lacked a scoring system so I wasn’t ever sure when I had done something important, but let me put it this way: I didn’t feel like I had done anything clever. Because of all this, I can’t venture much of an opinion about the puzzles in the game.

Technical (writing): There were dozens of writing errors in the game. Beyond the awkward, overloaded prose there were any number of misspellings and misplaced modifiers.

Technical (coding): Erden suffered from many niggling coding errors, especially missing or added new_lines. Some important scenery objects are missing (for example, the game describes huge hieroglyphics carved into a cliffside, the examination of which returns “You can’t see any such thing.”). Like the writing, the coding would benefit from an attentive overhaul.