Research Dig by Chris Armitage [Comp98]

IFDB page: Research Dig
Final placement: 17th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Research Dig has pieces of a good story, inexpertly handled so that they don’t reach their full potential. In fact, the experience of the game was a bit like a real research dig — you have to mine through some errors, clichés, and unclear writing, but you can come away with some pretty good pieces. So let me first focus on the positive. The game has an intriguing premise — you are a beginning archaeology student, sent on a minor dig on behalf of your research center to an old abbey where the groundskeeper has uncovered “something old.” When you arrive, you meet the groundskeeper’s daughter, who whispers to you that the old piece belongs “to the Little People,” who live underground. (Exactly how little these Little People are remains in question, but I’ll get to that in a bit.) From this interesting start the game lays out a sensible map which delivers mystery and magic in reasonable proportions, never so much that it seems like a simple dungeon crawl or D&D knockoff. The writing can be rather atmospheric in several sections and some of the design contributes to this feeling, such as some important red herrings which lead nowhere but help to flesh out the game world. Overall, Research Dig feels like it was written by a beginner, but a beginner with good ideas and a passion for interactive fiction.

That being said, it’s also important to note that the game has a number of problems as well. Though the map was logical, it also felt quite a bit clichéd, with underground tunnels, spooky crypts, mysterious rune-encarved stones, etc. There wasn’t anything that felt very unique once the game got to this point, and it felt like a game with a lot of potential had devolved into another ho-hum underground excursion. In addition, the writing suffered at several points from basic proofreading errors. Spelling and grammar mistakes were not legion, but there were enough of them to be seriously distracting, especially since they sometimes turned up in places that would be read over and over again. For example, from the beginning of the game you find that you have a “referance book” in your inventory. After 10 times reading the misspelled word, my patience started to wear thin. It’s the kind of error that could have been avoided so easily, I have a hard time understanding why it’s there. The same is true for some key coding errors, like the key whose short name is “a key labelled ‘Shed’.” The problem with a short name like this is that Inform already provides articles for objects, so in the inventory the key is listed as “an a key labelled ‘Shed’.” Compounding the problem, there are two keys with this same error. The glitch is all the more aggravating because it comes up almost every time the game tries to refer to the keys. My favorite example: “Which do you mean, the a key labelled ‘Shed” or the a key labelled ‘Conservatory’?”

These mistakes were small, but sometimes small mistakes can make a big difference, and this game had the perfect example. However, before you read it, I should warn you that in order to explain my example, I have to spoil part of the endgame. Read on if you so choose. OK, so at one point you find an urn in the groundskeeper’s house with a piece missing. Then later on you find a rune-encarved “slab of stone, about 2′ square.” That’s two feet square. That’s way too big to be a piece of an urn. However, at the end of the game, you find out that it is in fact the missing piece of the urn. Meanwhile, you see the groundskeeper defeated by “a small person, you guess at about 3″ high.” That’s three inches high. That’s mighty small! However, by this time you begin to suspect that the game confused its notations, and is using ‘ for inches and ” for feet. This may seem like a minor error, but it changes the meaning of the things it affects so completely that it ruins any possibility of building the mystery. There’s something to be learned here: in some ways writing (I mean creative writing) and programming aren’t so far apart. Just as a missing semicolon can cause you no end of misery during compilation, so can a very small change completely deflate your story. Also, in both disciplines the semantic and syntactic errors are easiest to find, and your work is unacceptable until it is free of these. Logic errors are more difficult to detect, and take much more sweat to ferret out. Unfortunately for would-be writers, there is no automatic proofreading service for fiction that provides the error-checking of a good compiler. You have to do it yourself.

Rating: 6.2

Temple of the Orc Mage by Gary Roggin [Comp97]

IFDB page: Temple of the Orc Mage
Final placement: 26th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Temple of the Orc Mage does not bring new meaning to the term “dungeon crawl”. It’s a generic, Dungeons & Dragons style quest for a magical gem. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and Temple doesn’t do it exceptionally badly. However, it doesn’t do it exceptionally well, either. The game occupies a sort of limbo between a bland interactive story, with little plot (besides “find the treasure”) and character development, and a bland RPG, with arbitrary magic items and valuables strewn around a dungeon setting so conventional that anyone who’s read a few D&D prefab modules could recite its elements before ever seeing the game (an underground river, a ruined bedchamber, deep pits, tapestries).

This is not to suggest that the game is altogether bad. In fact, it often succeeds at some of the things that an RPG is best at: creating a sense of atmosphere, providing the thrill of vicariously handling fabulous wealth and magic, and giving the feeling that each obstacle overcome simply draws one’s character deeper and deeper into the difficulties. However, there are many important things missing as well, not least of which is any sense of logic to the dungeon and the items found within. For example, how is it that you find fresh meat in a kitchen strewn with cobwebs? How is it that you are the first one to seek after this treasure? Or if you’re not, what happened to everyone else? The game starts with a strong sense of story, and several nice narrative touches, then rapidly devolves into a sort of “just because” logic that poisons any sense that the eponymous Temple is anything more than an arbitrary collection of rooms and magic items. It’s as if the game wants to be a hybrid of IF and RPG, but adopts the least interesting conventions of each category while ignoring the best, making itself a rather dull concoction.

I think that there’s a place for such a hybrid. I’ve always liked Rogue and Rogue-like games, and I think that there’s something to be said for the idea that it’s much easier to find a computer game to provide an immersive RPG experience than it is to find a lot of like-minded peers to provide it. I can envision an IF/RPG game which combines the best elements of IF, including strong story, interesting puzzles, and the feeling of “being there”, with the joys of Rogue — abundant magic and mystery, a strong sense of score, ever-increasing risk and reward, and the feeling that there’s always a possibility of finding some ultra-rare artifact, hidden away in the code for discovery by the lucky and the strong. Recent discussions about RPG-style combat in IF have even tempted me to believe that such a system could exist without being boring or pointless. Now, I admit that I’m much more of an IFer than an RPGer, so there may be such a product out on the market right now which I’m missing simply because I never sought it out. However, one thing is quite clear to me: Temple of the Orc Mage is not it.

Prose: I thought that the prose was actually one of the best features of Temple. More often than not it succeeded in drawing vivid portraits of places and items. The intro is captivating (though it could stand to be broken up a bit), and some of the room descriptions have nice atmospheric touches, bringing in temperature or quality of light to engage the senses. Sometimes the style can become a bit overly utilitarian (listings of exits) or terse (“The ceiling is low and wet. Light filters in from cracks in the wall and ceiling. Water drips slowly from stalactites above. The air is cold.”), but overall I didn’t find it too jarring.

Plot: There was only the most rudimentary of plots: you have decided to brave the scary dungeon to find big money and become a hero! This is a tried-and-true IF convention, so much so that it has become a bit of a cliche. Sometimes cliches can work to an author’s advantage. Not this time.

Puzzles: Too often, the puzzles were either simple (try all your keys until you find the one that opens the locked chest/door) or required just examining the right object. OK, well, maybe those two are the same thing. Still, I generally felt that the puzzles had no rhyme, reason, or thought behind them. They felt generally tacked-on, and on the few times I got stuck, I discovered that the solution to the puzzle is something I would never have guessed, because there were no hints to suggest it. Example: [SPOILERS AHEAD (highlight to read)] There’s a twenty-foot wide pit blocking your way. The solution? Jump over it, and the game tells you “Propelled by the boots, which you now believe to be magical…”[SPOILERS END]

Technical (writing): There were a number of technical errors in the writing, but many (though not all) of these are attributable to typos rather than actual ignorance.

Technical (coding) I found no serious bugs in the game, but there was a distinct lack of implementation for nouns and synonyms. For example, the game describes water in at least a third of its rooms (in fact, there’s a room called the Dry Room, notable simply for its absence of water), but doesn’t know the word “water.” Also, a number of times in the game “examine” will turn up a hidden artifact while “search” returns “You find nothing of interest.”