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

E-MAILBOX by Jay Goemmer [Comp97]

IFDB page: E-Mailbox
Final placement: 27th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, if there’s a prize for shortest competition game, E-MAILBOX will win it hands down. Clocking in at just under ten minutes, it barely gets off the ground before telling you either that you’ve won or that you’ve just met your death by having your body’s cells torn apart from one another. Not much of a menu, but at least either way the end comes quickly. The game purports to be “A true story based on actual events that occurred to a real individual,” but is written in a broad, exaggerated tone that is probably meant to be burlesque. It’s funny, in a limited kind of way, but it’s hard for the game to do very much when it ends so quickly.

One thing that it does do well is proves that an AGT game can hold its own in a modern competition. E-MAILBOX is short, yes, but it’s fun while it lasts. I used Robert Masenten’s AGiliTy interpreter for the first time, and found that it produced output that was well-formatted, easy-to-read, and even sometimes (gasp!) aesthetically pleasing. The game achieves a few nice special effects — nothing that couldn’t have been done with Inform or TADS (I don’t know enough about Hugo to say one way or the other) but nothing to sneeze at either — and generally works imaginatively with the text format. Of course, one wonders whether E-MAILBOX was kept so short in order to disguise the limitations of its programming system. There is virtually no navigation within the game, and the very linear design prevents most parser experimentation. Thanks to the handy AGT counter, I know that E-MAILBOX has a grand total of 4 locations, some of which only respond to one command. This game is a brief bit of fun, but the jury’s still out on whether AGT can match up to more modern systems when it comes to more substantial works.

There are some interactive fiction games that are epic, and may take even a great player a three-day weekend to complete (without looking at any hints, of course). Then there are those which could take up a day or two, and those (many of the competition games, for instance) which might fill a long lunch break. Play E-MAILBOX over a 15 minute coffee break. You’ll have some fun and still have time for a brisk walk.

Prose: I found the prose in E-MAILBOX to be pretty over-the-top. As I say, I think it was intended as burlesque, but its outrageousness seems forced. It comes across as the prose of a voice which is promising, but has not quite fully matured. It’s not exactly the sophomoric arrogance of something like Zero Sum Game — more an overly sincere zaniness.

Plot: The plot is so short and simple that it’s hard to tell much without giving away the ending. Basically, it centers around trying to send an email message. (See, I told you: short and simple.)

Puzzles: Well, I never found anything that I thought really qualified as a puzzle. The actions necessary are either entirely obvious, or entirely obscure but well-prompted by the parser.

Technical (writing): I found no errors in E-MAILBOX‘s writing.

Technical (coding): As I said above, the game does a nice job for something so short. The author makes an AGT game fun to play, which in my experience is no small feat. A well-implemented piece of work, short work though it may be.