Phantom: caverns of the killer by Brandon Coker [Comp05]

IFDB page: Phantom: Caverns of the Killer
Final placement: 31st place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Right up front this game starts sending out the red flags. There’s the fact that its title isn’t in title case. There’s the fact that the debugging verbs are left on. (Not that I remember how to use them decades later.) And then there are the opening sentences:

Legends speak, of a great egyption warrior. Who rose in the military ranks faster that any other.

So, whew, just very rough right away. I dialed my expectations down, way down, and kept playing. Here is an advantage to playing the comp games outside the comp period — it had been about 6 months since I played Dreary Lands. Consequently, my patience account had built back up, enabling me to battle through the terrible writing and nonsensical milieu, looking for some things to appreciate.

The impression I got was of a very, very young author (or at least one who hadn’t done a lot of writing or received a lot of feedback), more attuned to the programming part of IF than the writing part. This is a demanding medium, in that it requires authors to be skilled in two traditionally separate areas — prose storytelling and coherent code. Phantom has its problems with the latter (though much less so than, say, Dreary Lands), but falls down very badly on the former.

The result is a game that tries to horrify, but keeps stumbling into unintentional comedy. Horror in particular is a tough genre for an author lacking basic skills, though it’s apparently an attractive one for such authors as well — see Exhibit A, Rybread Celsius. In order for a reader to be scared or creeped out by a fictional world, she’s got to be able to suspend disbelief about that world, and under an avalanche of prose errors, it’s pretty difficult to suspend disbelief.

Another obstacle to believing in Phantom‘s world lies in the weird numbers that occasionally pepper the text. For example:

>open black box
The box opens but a hand comes out grabs your face and squeezes the blood from your veins.1

“1”? I mean, the death message is a little comical as it is, what with the way a hand to the face somehow causes circulation problems, but the “1” afterwards is clearly just a mistake, or maybe a debugging leftover. Given that there’s a “2” that appears after the winning ending, I’m guessing this has to do with the game setting Inform’s death message flag, and maybe printing it out either by mistake or as a way of making sure the right message prints, or something.

Then again, it’s not just death messages — there’s also this:

You can see a Large emerald here.

>x 1
(the Large emerald)
A very large finely cut emerald.

Really not sure what’s going on here, but it did give me a good chuckle.

In any case, Phantom seems like a well-intentioned attempt by someone who does not have control of his tools. I’d prescribe some intense focus on learning basic English mechanics, hopefully with instructional support, and a lot of beta-testing to root out weird code behavior, in order to produce a much improved next game. Or at least, that’s what I would have prescribed 17 years ago — I guess now I’ll just call it general advice.

Rating: 3.6

Dreary Lands by Paul Lee [Comp05]

IFDB page: Dreary Lands
Final placement: 29th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

There are lots of different ways to write a bad comp game. There’s the Rybread special — terrible spelling and coding in a bizarre world. There’s the dreaded bad homebrew. There’s the obnoxious bad “joke” game where the joke is on you for playing. There’s the promising but badly unfinished (or broken) game. There’s the “here’s my apartment” (or house, or school, or aero club) game. There’s the simpleminded bad religious evangelism game. There’s the “first game” that seems intent on making a bad first impression. There’s the game with puzzles so broken they can’t be solved without a walkthrough. There’s the exasperating “I’ve never heard of spellcheck and can’t write in English” game. And of course, there are the games that check more than one of these boxes. I’ve played all the flavors, many times over, but sometimes I get fooled as to which is which. Dreary Lands, for example, looks at first like it’s going to be a surreal Rybread whirlwind, but turns out to be a first game not only broken in English and puzzles but also seemingly attempting some clumsy evangelism as well.

Sure, the writing is bad, and I mean awful. Here’s a sampler, in response to the command “CLIMB TREE”:

You lock your legs about the wet distusting trunk; but it is far to slippery to get a hold on, and you fall backwards into the marsh, getting soked in the vile mire a bit more than you’d have thought acceptable.

When I first started playing this game, I was noting all the blatant writing errors — in this case “distusting”, “to slippery”, and “soked”. I had to stop almost immediately because those errors are constant. Even where we get past spelling/typo issues, there are questions like, “exactly how much ‘soking’ in the vile mire would I have found acceptable?” Some games with terrible writing feel like they’re produced by someone for whom English is a second (or later) language. Dreary Lands didn’t really feel like that to me — it has more of a “very young writer who has a lot to learn about proofreading” vibe, combined with a generous helping of “can’t really express myself articulately yet.”

The coding errors aren’t quite so constant, but when they happen, oh boy are there some doozies. Here’s my favorite:

You can also see (which is currently burning., (which is currently burning., (which is currently burning., (which is currently burning., (which is currently burning. and (which is currently burning. here.

I have no idea what is supposed to be happening here, nor what went wrong to turn it into what it has become, but wow. I know I just used a “literally” joke in my last review, but it is hard to avoid thinking of this as the flaming wreckage of some poor attempt at Inform code. What’s definitely true about it, though, is that it presents a puzzle that’s pretty much unsolvable without the walkthrough, concealing as it does an object crucial to that solution.

I used the walkthrough to get out of that jam, and then tried to continue on my own but almost immediately became ensnared in other illogical object behaviors, so between the writing and the coding I decided to just type straight from the walkthrough the rest of the way. Even then, I had to restore from an earlier point because somehow I’d gotten the game into an untenable state. With the help of the walkthrough, though, I was able to finish the game, which is how I figured out it was trying to be sneaky evangelism.

Mind you, I understand that all games evangelize something, consciously or not, and usually a whole raft of things. This game, for instance, argues against the value of comprehensible writing, promotes D&D-style medieval cliches like walking around with a sword, shield, and bow, and makes the case that games should be entered in the comp whether they work or not. But alongside all that, it starts to introduce religious imagery that by the end shows a clear proselytization agenda. When it turns out you’re fighting a fallen angel (rebelling against both Satan and God) and that your sword-strike against it gets a little boost, “Footprints in the Sand”-style, by “two more hands, large and mighty, cupped around your own”, it seems pretty clear that the game is arguing for the Christian beliefs.

And just like Jarod on his Journey, its alignment with those beliefs lets it feel super-smug towards the rest of the world, so that the PC can wander out into traffic and then shake his head at “the poor frenzied soul driving the pickup” that nearly ran him down. Tsk tsk mister driver, can’t you see I’m elevated? But this game to me was more like that pickup driver, “a big middle finger… shoved toward you,” and after its absolutely dismal presentation its smugness is deeply, deeply misplaced.

Rating: 2.9