MythTale by Temari Seikaiha [Comp02]

IFDB page: MythTale
Final placement: 11th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

MythTale is a mixed bag, with weaknesses alongside its strengths in every area. The writing, for instance, can be effective — the opening scene, of a PC struggling up a freezing cold mountainside, works well, involving the senses and evoking the feeling of numbed exhaustion. There are a number of good jokes, and several places where well-chosen words made me smile in appreciation.

In other areas, the prose is far worse. Punctuation seems to be a particular problem, with comma splices rampant and periods frequently missing from the ends of sentences. There are plenty of other mechanical errors, too. Then there are those troubles that may be cultural, but are quite confusing nonetheless. Foremost in my mind among these is this sequence, found outside the PC’s house in a vegetable patch.:

You can see a bonfire and a metal barrel here.

>x bonfire
A tumbled pile of hawthorn branches. Odd though, in the middle of the
bonfire is something that appears to be your coolbox!

Now, for me, a bonfire is a big, raging fire, used to burn lots of items or to light up the night in a celebration of some sort. Consequently, I was quite surprised that the PC left a huge fire burning just outside his house. Then I read the description, and figured that the “coolbox” was either a freezer or an air-conditioner of some sort, and that it had shorted out and set fire to the pile of branches. Strangely, though, even though the metal barrel is full of water, pouring water on the fire doesn’t seem to put it out, just dampen the branches.

After a while, I finally figured out that when the game says “bonfire”, what it actually means is “pile of fuel for a bonfire, not actually burning.” For me, it was one of those instances when a game’s language is so opaque that figuring out what the heck the words meant became a puzzle in itself. I don’t really enjoy those sorts of puzzles too much.

The coding was similarly uneven. For one thing, the game is full of cats, but it doesn’t understand the command PET. This may be another cultural difference, because it does understand STROKE. Nevertheless, I hereby serve notice that I am officially sick of games that offer dogs and cats that can’t be petted. Game authors, if you’re going to give us a cute, fuzzy animal, let us pet the animal. Thank you.

Also, just a little reminder here to Inform authors: turn off the debugging verbs. To do this, compile with -~S -~X -~D set. Otherwise, your game will do things like this:

What do you want to tie?

[game lists out every single fricking object it contains]

Speaking of tying, if you implement a rope that you want me to use to tie something to something else, please implement the syntax “TIE <object> TO <object>.” This seems only sensible, especially compared to MythTale‘s method, “TIE ROPE TO <object>. TIE ROPE TO <other object>.”

Glitches like this aside, the game seemed pretty well-tested, and there was a good hint system for the inevitable times I got stuck. I didn’t find anything that was just broken, and lots of nicely judged custom responses were present, especially when dealing with the cats.

Those cats provided some of the game’s best design moments. There were a couple of puzzles that were both logical and entertaining, and the entire conceit of searching the house for items hidden by the cats was one I enjoyed quite a bit. Also, some of the re-enactments of Greek myths were good IF vignettes, bringing the stories to life in an exciting way. I liked the concept of the multiple endings, too, though the game’s implementation underwhelmed me enough that I wasn’t interested in exploring them.

Predictably, alongside these good design choices, there were some pretty bad ones too. One puzzle is just excruciating, a fiddly device whose workings are not only boring to test and extremely tedious to solve, but which also requires some pretty farfetched guesswork to even arrive at the correct answer. You’ll know the one I mean when you get to it — I recommend turning to the hints without hesitation. Also, some of the puzzles require fairly unmotivated actions, forcing the player to get in a text-adventurey frame of mind rather than acting in character. Overall, despite the fact that it has some fun moments, MythTale is pretty much hit or (must… resist… cheesy… pun…) miss.

Rating: 6.3

BOFH by Howard Sherman [Comp02]

Final placement: 26th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

So here’s an interesting one: this game assigns background reading. In fact, the author caused a bit of a dustup on the newsgroups by posting a “background reading recommended” (or, as the post put it, “reccomended”) message that some people felt was tantamount to releasing part of the game prior to the judging period. Apparently, BOFH is based on existing material, a series of stories created by Internet humorist Simon Travaglia. As per the comp rules, the author obtained permission from the copyright holder, thus slipping through the barrier that keeps this sort of thing from happening most of the time. Like the Usenet post, the game’s readme file suggests brushing up on the who, what, why, and how of the BOFH by visiting Travaglia’s web page and reading some of those stories before playing the game.

My decision on how to handle this was first to ignore the Usenet post — I’m not going to do “background reading” for one of 37 comp games I’m judging before the game is even released. Next, once I got to the game in my judging order, I decided to go ahead and read some of the material on the web page, but to count the time spent doing that as part of the two hours I’m spending on the game, as if the web archive were just one gigantic, very detailed set of feelies. Of course, one could easily spend all of two hours perusing the material, so I just took 15 minutes or so and read a few things to get the general feel.

These researches yielded the fact that BOFH stands for Bastard Operator From Hell, and that the stories are the fictional exploits of a nameless network administrator with a decidedly cruel streak. From what I could glean in a short period, the BOFH’s raison d’etre is to punish stupidity (or even ignorance) with extreme prejudice, delighting in the damage and anguish he causes, and gleefully reveling in the loot that accrues from his malicious prowess. The IF version of BOFH, then, casts me as an apprentice Bastard, eager to wreak havoc on the deserving.

Thus forearmed, I fired up the game. The very first thing I noticed was that the debugging verbs are left on. Not a good sign. Shortly after that, I discovered that the game suffers from grammar problems, and some rather poor implementation, like the laptop that can be neither opened nor switched on. Also, the writing fails to explain critical points, such as the fact that after somebody magically appears, he also apparently magically disappears without notice. It seems that newlines also frequently disappear (or rather, never appear to begin with), which looks ugly. Shortly after all that, I found the room where an NPC repeats the same exact speech over and over again, because that speech is apparently implemented as part of his “initial” property, and since he never acquires the “moved” attribute he never switches from using this attribute to a more reasonable description.

It was at about that point that I decided, “Hey, I’m a BOFH, right? It’s my job to punish stupidity with cruelty, right? Let’s go, then.” I typed TREE to get a look at the game’s object tree, then PURLOINed any items that looked interesting. I PURLOINed the NPC, which shut him up quite handily. A SHOWOBJ confirmed that indeed, his speech was implemented in his “initial” property. Tsk tsk.

After a while, the charm faded from this activity, so I just restarted the game and went through according to the walkthrough, still employing the occasional judicious PURLOIN or GONEAR when something looked like too much trouble to bother with. It doesn’t get any better. Rather than mutating entirely into the Bastard Reviewer From Hell, I’ll just say that it would seem Mr. Travaglia should have requested editorial control rather than just giving permission carte blanche, since I’d be rather surprised if this is the game he wants representing his work as IF.

My advice is to spend your time reading the stories on his archive if cruel humor is your cup of tea. They’re sure to be more entertaining and less frustrating than this game, which turns out to be less of a Bastard and more of a luser.

Rating: 3.4 (so close, but ah well, there you are)

[Postscript from 2021: This game was my first introduction to Howard Sherman, a name that lives in infamy for me. A fine explanation of him is available at the archived version of Dave Gilbert’s blog, to which I’ll just add one thing: the guy he threatened to sue for daring to publish a negative review was ME. Pathetic.]

Rent-a-Spy by John Eriksson [Comp02]

IFDB page: Rent-a-Spy
Final placement: 15th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Actually, in terms of design, Rent-A-Spy is pretty good. If you think I sound surprised, you’re right, because in plenty of other areas, this game seems thrown together rather carelessly. For instance, it leaves the Inform debugging verbs turned on. Now, granted, ever since Inform started keeping them on by default, it takes a more conscious effort to avoid this problem, but on the other hand, Stephen Granade did send an email to all authors reminding them to turn these off, and explaining exactly how to do it. As he said in his message, “there’s nothing quite as fun as being able to purloin like a madman in a competition game.”

Consequently, seeing those verbs left on is usually a telltale sign of a bad game. There were other portents, too. The introduction is lumbered by some awkward writing, and the whole “rent-a-spy” premise feels shaky, an uneasy mix between the espionage and private eye genres. Also, the game is compiled to .z8, even though it’s only 140k (and that’s with strict mode left on!), which is really rather odd.

Having seen these signs at the beginning, my expectations for the rest of the game were rather low. Perhaps that’s why I felt so pleasantly surprised by the first puzzle, an interesting, realistic bit of infiltration, broken up into several believable steps. Several of the other puzzles felt pretty fresh to me, too. I especially enjoyed the way the PC must cover her tracks as she progresses in order to achieve the best ending. Opened doors must be closed, keys stolen must be returned to their original spot, documents are duplicated rather than filched, and so on. I thought this was a fun twist on the usual adventurer tendency to rummage through the landscape looking for treasure, leaving everything a shambles behind him.

Of course, many of these puzzles were quite thinly implemented. There were some extremely severe guess-the-verb problems, and plenty of other areas where clues were minimal or absent, and the environment too sparsely described. Consequently, lots of Rent-A-Spy‘s good ideas are badly obscured by its lack of polish.

I can’t help but wonder if this was a situation where the oncoming deadline prevented the game from being as complete as it could be. This is the very situation that Adam Cadre’s Spring Thing is meant to address, and I hope that for every unfinished game I’m seeing in this comp, there are two more whose authors are holding back in order to make sure that the games are as good as they can be before releasing them.

For this game, it’s too late to enter any more comps, but I still hope it sees a subsequent release. With some editing, further testing, and some premise doctoring (perhaps making the PC something like a reporter, which would be quite a bit more believable than a spy you can look up in the phone book), this could be a pretty enjoyable piece of IF. For now, it’s more an example of unfulfilled potential.

Rating: 6.1