Well, a game subtitled “my first stab at Interactive Fiction” doesn’t inspire much confidence. CASK is another one of those “I wrote this game to learn Inform” games that seem to be so popular this year. None of the other languages, even AGT, have inspired this particular genre of competition entry this year (with the possible exception of Mikko Vuorinen’s Leaves, written in ALAN), and I think it’s worth ruminating on the reasons for that. Inform is a sophisticated system, and there certainly have been no dearth of complaints on the IF newsgroups about how difficult it is to write programs with its C-like, object-oriented structures. Nonetheless, many people (including some of the people complaining on the newsgroups) have been able to use Inform well enough that they felt the results of even their first efforts were worthy for submission to the competition.
I think that part of the reason for this is that Inform’s libraries are comprehensive and detailed enough that even the barest shell .z5 game seems rich with possibility — dozens of verbs are implemented and ready to use, and creating simple rooms and objects is quite easy. The depth to which the Inform libraries are crafted allows even a designer’s first efforts to seem, at first blush, on a par with simpler Infocom adventures. Moreover, Inform enjoys a special place in the ftp.gmd.de hierarchy: besides being lumped in with all the good, bad, and indifferent systems in if-archive/programming, it also resides in if-archive/infocom/compilers. Consequently, anyone who came to IF by way of Infocom can stumble upon it in their first visit to the archive, simply through connecting to the most familiar word and then saying “Wow, the Infocom compiler is here?” I know that’s how it happened for me. Inform’s .z5 format is a nice piece of wish-fulfillment for all of us who wish that we could still get a job at Infocom. So just because Inform is granted this privileged association with Infocom, does that mean that a certain set of its users feel that their first efforts are on Infocom’s level, without a substantial amount of effort on the part of the author? Perhaps, but all these pieces combined don’t explain the trend I’ve seen this year. I’m not sure what the rest of the explanation is, but I do know this: I hope the trend won’t last. It doesn’t add a lot of quality interactive fiction to the archive, just a lot of shoddy Inform examples.
Which brings me up to CASK. The idea here is that you’re trapped in the basement of a winery, abducted for no apparent reason by your new employers. You must use your wits and the objects about you to make your escape. However, the real truth is that you’re trapped in a below-average interactive fiction game, which was entered in the contest for no apparent reason by its author. You must decipher vague prose, evade coding bugs, and defy logic to escape. Luckily, it doesn’t take too much time as long as you have help. Bring your walkthrough! CASK helped its author learn Inform. Let’s see that knowledge applied to the creation of a quality IF game.
Prose: There were a number of areas in which the vagueness of the prose contributed rather unfairly to the difficulty of the puzzles. [SPOILERS AHEAD] For example, at one point in the game you find a rusty saw, whose description reads “It is a rusty saw.” (Oooh! Now I understand! Glad I examined that!) When you try to cut something with the saw, the game tells you “You cut your fingers on the saw. Ouch!” Now, I’m no genius, but I do know which end of a saw to hold. It’s the handle, right? There’s nothing in the description suggesting that this saw doesn’t have a handle, so how would I cut my fingers? Is the handle sharp? Turns out you have to wrap a cloth around the saw then cut a hole with it. Though it seems to me a saw with a cloth wrapped around it isn’t going to have much cutting power. [SPOILERS END] Dealing with prose like this makes me feel like the character is supposed to be woozy and probably blind and pretty clueless as well. I hope the effect is unintentional.
Plot: Oh, I’m sorry. I gave away the plot earlier. You have to escape from a basement.
Puzzles: There are really only a few puzzles in this very short game, several of which involve having a switch in the right position (though figuring out which position is right is largely a matter of guesswork. Luckily the switch has only two positions, so even the brute-force solution doesn’t take long). There’s also a bit of outfox-the-parser, some find-the-bug, and a good deal of figure-out-what-the-hell-the-prose-means.
Technical (writing): The writing featured several entertaining errors. In one room (of the three total in the game) you can see that the room “has relatively few noteworthy” aside from “an old heavy machinery”.
Technical (coding): This game could definitely have used a great deal more testing. Object descriptions repeat when they shouldn’t, and some trapped responses behave in bizarre ways.
OVERALL: A 3.1