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

YAGWAD by John Kean as Digby McWiggle [Comp00]

IFDB page: Yes, Another Game with a Dragon!
Final placement: 9th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Two years ago, the author whose rather silly nom de plume is “Digby McWiggle” submitted his first competition game, Downtown Tokyo. Present Day. That game was a prospective entry in Adam Cadre’s ChickenComp, but it wasn’t finished by the deadline, and therefore ended up an entry in Comp98 instead. I wonder if the same thing happened with this game, because it certainly would have fit the parameters for David Cornelson’s DragonComp. You see, YAGWAD stands for “Yes, Another Game With A Dragon!”, and the cheeky spirit of that title permeates the whole game, to wonderful effect. YAGWAD has lots of spots that are very funny, and the whole thing takes a playful poke at fantasy conventions.

Sure, fantasy conventions have been tweaked a lot at this point, but YAGWAD still manages a certain freshness, as well as a few artful nods to funny fantasies like The Princess Bride. It seems the King (who, speaking of The Princess Bride, is burdened with a comic lisp) has had his daughter abducted by a ferocious dragon, and is offering sparkling rewards to anybody who can retrieve her. Naturally, every strapping adventurer in the province is instantly on the case. Then there’s you: neither strapping nor adventurer (in fact, more of a portly, sloppy drunk), you still decide to undertake the quest.

From this premise, YAGWAD unfolds into an excellent melange of puzzles in the best Infocom style. In fact, with the exception of various Briticisms in spelling and grammar, YAGWAD feels like it could have been written by an Infocom Implementor — it’s not as lengthy as the typical Zork game, but definitely partakes of the same general feel. For example, at one point in your adventures, you may come across a massive set of reference books called the “Encyclopedia Gigantica” — in the tradition of the Encyclopedia Frobozzica, this reference provides a great deal of humor, both in its actual entries and in the references to it scattered throughout the game.

Also, as often happens to me with Infocom games, I found several of the puzzles in YAGWAD rather difficult. In this case, though, I think that might be mainly because of the time limit. I was quite keenly aware of the game’s size, which is not insignificant — I’d have to be about three times the puzzle-solver I am to be able to finish this in under two hours without hints — and therefore was less restrained about consulting the hints than I would have been. If the competition is over (which of course it will be by the time anybody reads this review) and you haven’t played YAGWAD yet, let me urge you not to use the hints. For one thing, the adaptive hint system is somewhat flawed, and it sometimes fails to give hints for puzzles that you may be facing. For another thing, pretty much all of the puzzles are clever and fair, notwithstanding my inability to solve them.

In fact, one of the biggest problems I had is that there’s one particular puzzle which must be solved before a number of others, and I was stymied on this puzzle purely because of my own thickheadedness. When I finally consulted the walkthrough, I looked at the answer and thought “but I did that!” In fact, I hadn’t. I went back to an earlier save point and tried it, just so I’d know I wasn’t crazy. Turns out I am crazy — it worked at that point and at all other points. I was completely convinced I’d tried it, but I must not have. This happens to me sometimes in IF, and I sure do feel dumb when I encounter it.

To make matters worse, I had an unfortunate difficulty creating a transcript of the game, so I can’t go back to my old game session and find out what it was that I really did that made me think I had already tried that solution. Guess it’ll remain a mystery forever. In any case, there are one or two puzzles that just graze the “read-the-author’s-mind” category, but even those have solutions that are fair and logical, if not particularly easy to think of spontaneously. The writing in YAGWAD is technically excellent, and I didn’t find a single bug in the code, either. Like I said, if Infocom was a British company, they might easily have produced this game. I mean that compliment as strongly as it sounds. Anybody who likes Infocom-style IF ought to give this game a try. Even those of you who shudder at the thought of Yet Another Game With A Dragon. (And you know who you are.)

Rating: 8.8

Winter Wonderland by Laura A. Knauth [Comp99]

IFDB page: Winter Wonderland
Final placement: 1st place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Bless her, Laura A. Knauth just keeps getting better and better. Just about the time I was getting starved for a really good competition game, along comes Winter Wonderland, a charming and delightful piece of interactive fiction. By far the best thing about this game is its atmosphere. Winter Wonderland exudes a magical, storybook air that is enchanting without being saccharine. The heroine of the story is a young girl from a poor family who suddenly finds herself in a… well, you can probably guess what she finds herself in. A Winter Wonderland. The setting is just lovely, well-imagined and full of vivid, captivating images. A few of these images are present just for atmosphere’s sake, but the majority of them are puzzle components, and many of the puzzles are clever and fun. What Winter Wonderland does so well is to combine the nifty puzzles from Trapped In A One-Room Dilly with the sense of magical landscape from Travels In The Land of Erden, and adds to the combination a thematic specificity that is all its own and that works beautifully. The links between the puzzles feel very plausible because the entire setting is very consistent, and solving the puzzles rewards the player not only by allowing advancement through the plot, but often as well by presenting another appealing image to add to the already dense atmosphere. Romping around the snowy landscape encountering sprites, fairies and dryads was a great deal of fun for me, and the intricate and ingenious ways in which they presented interlocking puzzles was a real source of pleasure as well.

There are a couple of clunkers among the puzzles, unfortunately. The game has two sections that aren’t exactly mazes, but feel enough like mazes to provoke some annoyance. By the time you figure out how to solve them, you’ll have done a fair piece of mapping, and while there are no “trick exits” and everything connects to everything else in a fairly logical way, just the mapping alone is enough to make the whole area seem pretty tedious. In addition, there are a number of misspellings and a few parser problems which detract from the immersiveness of the game. I’ve emailed the author about these, and I’m optimistic they’ll be cleaned up in a future release. Even so, these flaws don’t ruin Winter Wonderland, simply because it has so many strong points alongside them. In addition, for each of the mazelike areas the puzzle isn’t the maze itself. In other words, the challenge of the area isn’t simply to map it and find the other end — each one contains its own puzzle, and both puzzles are intelligent and fairly well-clued. So for those of you who hate mazes, I recommend playing the game anyway. They aren’t all that onerous, and if you start to get frustrated, you can consult the excellent on-line hints.

The other area where the game really shines is in its technical prowess. While it isn’t a graphical game, Winter Wonderland does provide some ASCII art, much like last year’s Downtown Tokyo did. The art enhances the game’s atmosphere, but doesn’t conceal any crucial clues. Instead, it feels similar to the pictures shown at the beginning and end of On The Farm — images that enrich the text but are not necessary for enjoyment of the game. The author thoughtfully provides a “BARE” mode for those whose interpreters don’t handle such things well. In addition to its ASCII graphics, Winter Wonderland also uses the status line in innovative ways. It’s four lines high and includes score, location, and a compass rose indicating the available exits. We’ve seen the status line compass rose before, but I found myself using this on-screen mapping feature more than I ever have in any other game which provided it. The landscape is complicated enough that the compass rose feels like a real aid to gameplay rather than just a frivolous but useless feature. It actually reminded me quite a bit of the onscreen mapping in Beyond Zork, and felt about as useful to me. In addition, with an interpreter that handles color correctly the status line changes color subtly to enhance the atmosphere of the area the PC finds herself in. When she’s by a roaring fire, the status line is yellow and orange. When she’s in a moonlit snowscape, the letters are various shades of lighter and darker blues. What’s more, in some snowy scenes we actually see a few snowflakes show up in the status line, another attractive touch to embroider this already charming game. Winter Wonderland feels magical and joyous, and deserves to place highly in this year’s competition.

Rating: 8.7

Calliope by Jason McIntosh [Comp99]

IFDB page: Calliope
Final placement: 23rd place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

I had a sinking feeling when I read the “info” text for Calliope. Some dreaded phrases were dropped: “My prime goal in writing Calliope was to get comfortable with the Inform language…”, “…autobiographical portrait of myself confusedly hacking away at a going-nowhere Inform program…” The whole thing sounded uncomfortably like it was describing a combination of my two least favorite competition entry genres, the “I wrote this game to learn Inform” game and the “this is an IF version of my house” game. Previous entries of this nature have, on the whole, not been stellar, so after I read the description of Calliope, my expectations were decidedly low. But I guess that’s the beauty of the Low Expectation Theory, isn’t it? Because once I expected Calliope to stink, I discovered that it’s not such a bad little game after all. Sure, it’s a trifle, but that’s OK. It’s done reasonably well, is not redolent with references only the author could understand, and its idea is (I can’t believe I’m saying this) actually pretty clever. Yes, despite the fact that you begin the game sitting at your desk, in your apartment, on your chair, staring at your computer and your proposed competition entry therein, Calliope turns out to be pretty fun rather than really boring. It seems that exhaustion is approaching for you, the prospective author, and that your previous efforts whacking away at that competition entry have been rather uninspired. But the Muse (the game’s title is a whopping hint) can strike at unexpected times…

One of the things that makes the game an unexpected pleasure to play is that unlike most of its learning Inform/house simulation brethren, it is relatively free of errors in both coding and writing. The prose is nothing special, but it did give me a vivid picture of the setting, through little details like your desk showing its age “by the camouflage patterns of divers dark beverage stains covering… its cheap white Formica surface…” “Divers” looked like a typo to me, but something in the dim recesses of my brain is suggesting that it may just be a culturally specific spelling of “diverse.” Actually, what it really looks like is a Renaissance spelling, but since my wife is a grad student in Renaissance lit., the boundaries tend to blur for me. The game’s one puzzle makes sense and is well-clued, and its multiple endings are enough fun that I went back and played through all of them. Many first games feel like prologue, and Calliope is no exception. Where it differs from the pack, though, is that the prologue it provides is promising and exciting. I’d be very interested in seeing a full-length game (or even a full-length competition entry) by the author based on the ideas presented in Calliope. Heck, I wouldn’t mind seeing three such games. Jason McIntosh shows enough promise in Calliope that his next release should be highly anticipated.

Of course, none of this means that the game is worth keeping long. You’ll probably spend a few minutes noodling around, a few more solving the puzzle, and the rest of your time will go to replaying through to see the various endings. Perhaps if you’re really dedicated, you’ll try out the author’s suggestions (provided in the walkthrough) for all the various ways to lose the game. The whole thing shouldn’t take much more than a half-hour, after which Calliope goes into the recycle bin. These “short-short” games are becoming a more and more prominent competition trend. They make sure to meet the “two-hour” rule by ducking far under it — so far, in fact, that you can exhaust most of their options in a quarter of that time. The first time I remember seeing a comp entry of this ilk was Jay Goemmer’s E-MAILBOX in 1997, which consisted of about four moves and no puzzles. The trend continued in ’98 with games like In the Spotlight and Downtown Tokyo. Present Day. Now it’s so prevalent that out of the six comp games I’ve played so far, three are of the “short-short” variety. Of course, this may just be the vagaries of Comp99’s randomizer, but I suspect it goes a little deeper than that. Tiny games like this allow an author to get exposure and experience without making a huge time investment. They create an evolving example which pushes the author’s developing knowledge in an IF language, both by providing a space to try out examples and by nudging research into the manual to implement that latest and greatest idea. Perhaps most important of all, tiny IF makes for one more line in that all-important “Things I’ve finished” list. Thankfully for its audience, Calliope does it right.

Rating: 6.8

Downtown Tokyo. Present Day. by John Kean as Digby McWiggle [Comp98]

IFDB page: Downtown Tokyo, Present Day
Final placement: 10th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Another very short (Textfire-length) game, Tokyo was originally intended for submission to Adam Cadre’s Chicken-Comp, but the author didn’t finish it in time. All the better for us, because the game is funny and entertaining, and still finds a little time to be innovative as well. With a game this short, it’s hard not to give away plot spoilers in any extended discussion, but I’ll try to be as discreet as I can. I’ll only say as much as this: Tokyo is a very funny spoof on a beloved Japanese film genre (and it’s not martial arts movies), one which often features the city of Tokyo (or the rubble thereof) as a setting. Considering this was originally intended to be a Chicken-Comp game, you can probably imagine how it works. There are several reasons why Tokyo is fun, not the least of which is the writing. Random description “events”, while having no effect on the main storyline, give the chaotic scenes an antic charm, and the depictions of movie clich├ęs should bring a knowing smile to the face of any film buff.

One interesting experiment in Tokyo is its use of a split PC. In other words, the player actually controls the actions of two characters, both a rather anonymous individual watching a movie and the hero of that movie. This is an imaginative idea, and it sometimes works very well. At its best, Tokyo evokes the kind of split consciousness that actually happens while watching a movie. We are present, in the theater, there with the plush seats, the popcorn, and the people around us. But once we become immersed in the movie, we are inside of it as well. We forget about the theater and become part of the story, at least until the baby behind us starts crying, or the teenagers in the front make a wisecrack. However, the game is not always at its best. The split focus creates some confusion as to how commands will be interpreted — you can never be sure whether your command will be executed by the viewer or the hero. This generally doesn’t cause a problem, but it might have worked better if the transitions were smooth and complete, and the only interruptions happened outside of the player’s control. In addition, the standard library has been mostly unmodified, so that its messages remain mostly in the second person voice. When that’s the voice of the entire game, this is not a problem, but Tokyo asks second person POV to take on the special duty of signaling that the viewer, rather than the hero, is reacting. Consequently, messages like “You can’t see any such thing” (rather than “Our hero can’t see any such thing”) can create a little confusion.

Finally, I can’t review Tokyo without mentioning its graphics. No, it’s not a z6 game, but Tokyo has some surprises up its sleeve. Finding them provides some of the funniest moments of the game. Tokyo does a great many things well, and is one of the better short-short games I’ve played. Again, it’s a bit disappointing when a game this enjoyable ends so soon — I think this concept had quite a bit more mileage in it than was used by the author. Still, I enjoyed it while it lasted — it won’t entertain you as long as the average summer blockbuster movie, but it will probably entertain you more.

Rating: 7.9