A New Life by Alexandre Owen Muñiz [Comp05]

IFDB page: A New Life
Final placement: Tied for 2nd place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

It’s clear that a lot of thought has gone into the world of A New Life. In the standard manner of high fantasy, the text is littered with names of lands, kingdoms, rulers, saints, legendary figures, and so forth, none of which seem to have any reference outside the fictional milieu. Examining a coin can give you a paragraph-long infodump about how the local economy has been affected by the waxing and waning power of a particular merchant league over the last three hundred years.

Not only that, it becomes obvious early on that the people of this world can change genders, or rather biological sex — not quite at will, but gradually over time in ways that exist on a spectrum of voluntary to involuntary. We see the implications of this trait appear everywhere from the children’s stories we encounter to the answer to “X ME”:

In your month of travel you have allowed yourself to slip into the neutral gender as a practical matter; as a result of the changes in the shape of your body, your clothes fit you poorly.

For the most part, I found this fictional realm pretty impressive — I particularly enjoyed the user’s manual for a Bag of Holding, which explains how important it is to tend to the item’s emotions. And yeah, there’s a Bag of Holding (though not exactly with that name). There are goblins. There’s a dragon. There’s a magic staff, and a charm that senses danger, and a fancy sword, and in general a whole adventurer’s-packful of Dungeons and Dragons tropes, albeit frequently with some changes rung on them, like the bag’s sensitive ego, or the goblins who turn out to be adorable and wise rather than disposable low-level mooks.

Still, for as thorough as the worldbuilding generally is, those D&D-isms sometimes get in the way of logical sense. For instance, we learn that the PC is a refugee, on the run from battles and press-gangs, about which you can learn plenty by use of the REMEMBER verb. Yet, when this refugee comes across an “Adventurers Wanted” sign, the game’s story demands that we show interest. As I was playing the character, they were not an adventurer, and getting involved in some dangerous lark is the last thing they’d want to do. The goal was just to get to a new city and establish, as the game’s title suggests, a new life.

Yet when I tried to do so, here’s the message I got: “Soon, you will follow the road and go on to start a new life in Isult. But your curiosity is not yet satisfied.” Really… curiosity? I’m on the run from a war, having tragically lost my brother (whose decision not to change genders may have led to his death), bartering my possessions along the way in a long and difficult journey, but I’m not allowed to continue that journey until I satisfy my curiosity about the mysterious and vaguely hostile peddler-woman I met along the way?

Yep. That’s the story, and it’s an example of how very convincing worldbuilding can actually work against quest-plot design. With a less defined character, I’d feel far less resistance to just getting on with exploring the spooky caves. Once I started to explore those caves, that’s when the next design flaw kicked in.

I found myself drawn into a beguiling story, with excellent NPCs, an intriguing background, and a clear goal. The problem was, as I realized about 80 minutes into the game, I was in a dead branch. I’d gotten to where I was by going through a dark place with a guide. I needed to get back through that dark place, but my guide was gone, and no light was available. Even more frustrating, although there were plenty of plausible ways I could have acquired such a light, the game hadn’t implemented any of them, and the main information-giving NPC had nothing to say about it. The hints were no help, the walkthrough was no help, and so I was forced to restart, but with considerably less engagement than I’d had the first time.

So I finished the story, but with far less emotional impact than I think was intended, due both to its insistent disconnection from the PC’s own characterization and the way the game had locked me out of a valid narrative the first time. Even at the end, when I seemed to have checked all the boxes, the game didn’t seem to respond. I ended up checking the walkthrough, only to find out that all I needed to do was travel in the direction that my “curiosity” had cut off the last time. Without a cue that I was ready to go, I had no reason to believe that command would work again. But work it did, and the game ended with an epilogue that didn’t land for me, because as detailed as the world and the story were, the game’s style of interactivity had let them down.

Rating: 8.0

Fort Aegea by Francesco Bova [Comp02]

IFDB page: Fort Aegea
Final placement: 8th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I have more thoughts about Fort Aegea than I’ll be able to fit into these few paragraphs, and I’m a little concerned about it. See, I think this game’s shortcomings may be more interesting than its successes, but if I spend more time talking about flaws than strengths, I may give the mistaken impression that I didn’t enjoy it. So let me clear that up right now: I liked Fort Aegea quite a bit. Most of the game is really fun — it has several good puzzles and action sequences, a nice propulsive plot, and some surprising and well-drawn details.

In addition, the game employs spellcasting, which is a kick — there are lots of moments that measure up to anything in Enchanter, and the spells have the added virtue of being particularly well-suited to the character and thus helping to further define her. The game felt quite well-tested and proofread to me — I found a few syntactical errors here and there, and maybe one or two bugs, but on the other side there are a number of rather complicated effects that the game produces with admirable smoothness.

Oh, and lest I forget, Fort Aegea has some of the most gorgeous feelies I’ve ever seen with an amateur game, hand-drawn maps that positively exude Tolkien. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this game to anyone who enjoys Dungeons-and-Dragons-influenced fantasy IF, especially games in the Enchanter vein.

Very well then, now that that’s out of the way, I want to look more closely at a few things that tarnish this game’s shine. First, let’s talk about that D&D influence. I’ve been on a yearlong Bioware jag, so the D&D rules are fresh in my mind, and this game hews so closely to them that it may as well have a Wizards Of The Coast logo in its banner. The main character is a druid, with spells like “Entangle” and “Warp Wood”, who cannot use edged weapons but carries a mace and plate armor into battle. The game explains the philosophy of her order as one that strove to be “one with the world and viewed good and evil, and law and chaos as balancing forces of nature which were necessary for the continuation of all things.”

For anyone familiar with AD&D rules, this material will ring a churchful of bells. This, in itself, is not a terrible thing, though it feels a bit boilerplate, as if the story’s characters don’t really live and breathe in their own fictional universe but are cookie-cut from prefab templates. Where things really break down is when the characters start speaking as if they themselves are D&D players:

“He’s the fabled Green Dragon, and he’s not been seen or heard from
in over a century! What we know of him we’ve gathered from the Great
Book of the Dragons and here are the specifics: He’s vicious and he
has a ferocious breath weapon; one that unfortunately we don’t have a
defence for.”

It strains the limits of my belief to think that a person who actually coexists with dragons would talk about their “breath weapons” — it’s just a little too close to saying something like “take a look at this fine sword — it’s +2!”. In addition, there are linguistic anachronisms sprinkled throughout the text, such as the adventuring expedition that a history book characterizes as a “public relations nightmare.”

The net effect of these choices is to drain the scenario of fictional credibility. Every D&D reference, every anachronism makes the game feel less like a story and more like an exercise — instead of drawing us into its world, Fort Aegea keeps reminding us of ours. Instead of breaking, mimesis simply stretches thinner and thinner until it’s nearly transparent.

Here’s another way that happens: for much of the game’s plot, the PC’s objective is to stay alive until nightfall, while being hunted. In the course of trying to do this, she finds several spots that would make outstanding hiding places, where one could easily wait out a day, emerging victorious after the sun sets. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t allow any actual time to pass while the PC sits in these places, no matter how many times the player may type “z.” I know, because I tried.

It was one of the slowest mimesis breaks ever — the more I saw the “Time passes” message, the more convinced I became that no time was passing. Once I knew that I needed to conform to the game’s puzzly expectations in order to complete the scenario, my emotional involvement evaporated — probably a good thing given that several horrible, unstoppable events occur in the course of play. Fort Aegea has a great deal of fun to offer as a game, but as a story, I found it a pretty inhospitable place.

Rating: 8.5

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

Travels In The Land Of Erden by Laura A. Knauth [Comp97]

IFDB page: Travels in the Land of Erden
Final placement: 14th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Erden is a sprawling, ambitious game which probably does not belong in the competition. This isn’t to imply that the game is without merit; on the contrary, it seems to have the potential to become an enjoyable fantasy excursion. However, the game is huge — I played for two hours and I didn’t even visit every location, let alone solve many puzzles. Moreover, Erden could use another few rounds of testing; I found several coding bugs and a plethora of grammar and spelling errors. In my opinion, the best thing that could happen to this game is thorough testing and proofing, then release in the spring of 1998, when we’ve all recovered from our competition hangover and hunger for substantial new adventures.

I can see why there’s a temptation to submit longer games to the competition. For one thing, there seems to be ongoing debate about the meaning of the “two-hour” rule: is it that your game can be any size but will simply be judged after two hours of play, or does it mean that your game should be winnable in two hours? And if it’s the latter, what do we mean with an imprecise term like “winnable?” Hell, with a walkthrough and a good headwind even Curses is winnable in two hours — that doesn’t make it a two hour game! Then also there’s the fact that historically, the games that have won or placed high in the competition (Weather, Sherbet, Delusions… the list goes on) have strained or outright flouted the two-hour convention. According to Whizzard, the idea behind the rule is to prevent new authors from having to be intimidated by the prospect of going up against a Jigsaw or Christminster, an epic game with a huge scope, and I think that this rule still has value, despite the beating it’s taken over the years. I tend to be of the opinion that the ideal size for a competition game is something that I (an experienced IF player, but no great shakes as a puzzle solver) can see 90-100% of in a two-hour sitting. I designed Wearing the Claw this way, and I appreciate competition games that do the same. However, the way it’s worked out in practice is that the large-scope games still slip in — perhaps not epics, but much more than vignettes, and they often succeed. And perhaps that’s for the best; after all, in a competition like this one (where the works are labors of love and the financial stakes are rather low) it’s better to have fewer rules and more flexibility, thus to encourage more entrants.

Still, what Erden demonstrates is that there is another advantage of keeping your competition entry small: focus. I don’t have an accurate idea of how big Erden is (since I didn’t see the whole thing, probably not even half of it, in my two hours), but it seems to me that if the author had concentrated her energies on a game perhaps a quarter of the size of this one, she would have had time for much more extensive proofing and beta-testing, and the result might have been a tight, polished gem rather than the rough and gangly work she submitted. In addition, she’d have had the opportunity to implement a taut and crystalline design structure, which is beneficial to any game writer. I think that after serious and detailed revision, Erden could be a fantasy odyssey on a par with Path To Fortune; at the moment, however, it is neither that nor a particularly thrilling competition entry.

Prose: The prose in Erden is often awkward, and can be difficult to read. Misplaced modifiers, unmarked appositives, and endless strings of prepositional phrases abound. The author also seems to have a particular dislike for commas, stringing clause after clause breathlessly together. I often reached the end of a sentence and found myself wondering how it had started. There are times in which this turgid prose style makes for some nice effects, as it gives a baroque feel to some of the game’s ornate artifacts. Other times, it’s just confusing. Overall, Erden could be made a much more evocative game with the help of some serious editing.

Plot: One interesting aspect of Erden‘s plot is that it feels much more “in medias res” than most interactive fiction. You enter the mysterious fantasy land after the dragon has already been vanquished. Of course, there are other quests to be undertaken, but the absence of the dragon helps to give the milieu a satisfying sense of history. That being said, I’m not sure that I gleaned much more about the plot. Certainly the retrieval of a mystical ruby is your main goal, and several subquests pop up along the way, some of which I didn’t even begin before my two hours ran out. However, what the meaning of the ruby is, or whether the plot offers any twists, turns, or even character development of any kind is still opaque to me.

Puzzles: I spent enough time traversing the land that I’m not sure I even encountered any puzzles. There’s apparently a lantern to be obtained, but the parameters of doing so were so broad that I have no idea how long it would have taken to succeed. I collected several objects whose use was not immediately apparent, but I’m not sure if they ever come in handy or not. There was one area of the game that seemed pretty clearly to hide a gateway to underground caverns, but once I thought I had found the answer to opening the gate, the parser was stubbornly unresponsive to my ideas. So I have no idea whether what I was seeing was an unsolved puzzle or a red herring. What’s more, the game lacked a scoring system so I wasn’t ever sure when I had done something important, but let me put it this way: I didn’t feel like I had done anything clever. Because of all this, I can’t venture much of an opinion about the puzzles in the game.

Technical (writing): There were dozens of writing errors in the game. Beyond the awkward, overloaded prose there were any number of misspellings and misplaced modifiers.

Technical (coding): Erden suffered from many niggling coding errors, especially missing or added new_lines. Some important scenery objects are missing (for example, the game describes huge hieroglyphics carved into a cliffside, the examination of which returns “You can’t see any such thing.”). Like the writing, the coding would benefit from an attentive overhaul.


The Town Dragon by David A. Cornelson [Comp97]

IFDB page: Town Dragon
Final placement: 24th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Town Dragon is a game with a lot of problems. The fact that the game is confusing was evident from the very start: after a few turns, I was told “Peter is following, looking at you strangely.” I thought, “Following? But I haven’t gone anywhere!” Turns out that when somebody is following you, the game tells you so every turn. This type of sloppiness occurs throughout. There are numerous grammar and spelling errors, so many that I stopped keeping track of them. The game’s prose is often terse and uninformative, reducing room descriptions to simple lists of exits and object descriptions to brief lines like “They’re copper and few would trade on them” for a handful of coins. In addition, the game suffers from a number of technical bugs, including failure to properly define a short name for objects and failure to respond to player commands at certain points during the game.

In fact, the game reminded me of nothing so much as an early piece of homemade interactive fiction, perhaps vintage 1982 or so. What’s amazing about this is that it was made with Inform, a very sophisticated tool. I found myself marveling that something with such a primitive feel could be constructed with materials so obviously intended to allow a programmer to avoid this kind of aura. I suppose that the experience once again brought home the knowledge that even the highest quality tools do not automatically confer high quality upon their product. From time to time the argument comes up that games with “from scratch” parsers are somehow more pure or have more integrity than games made from prefab libraries, on the grounds that the prefab games can’t help but be good. I think that what The Town Dragon shows us is that sophisticated parsers and libraries are of no use unless they are put to a sophisticated purpose.

Still, with all these problems, I enjoyed the game for what I felt were its merits: sincerity and consistency. The Town Dragon impressed me as a game written by someone who cared about his story but didn’t have much skill with prose or with Inform. This doesn’t make for a great product by any means, but I enjoyed it a tiny bit more than the last game I played (Zero Sum Game) a piece with good writing and coding but a very cold heart. With an improvement in prose quality and code, this game could be enhanced into a fair example of standard fantasy IF. I could see that potential, and it helped to mitigate the game’s other disappointments.

Prose: Even aside from the grammar and spelling problems, the game’s prose leaves a lot to be desired. Several important locations were described in 20 words or less — not much on which to hang a mental picture. The milieu was not well or thoroughly imagined, and some descriptions actually left out crucial pieces of information. People and objects also were not well-described, with many descriptions turning on some variation of “looks ordinary.”

Plot: The plot worked to drop a few clues and build to a climactic revelation at the end, with mixed results. Certainly there was some degree of building the mystery, and there was a revelation at the end. However, some pieces of the game (especially the daughter’s responses) gave the secret away rather too easily, and the crippled prose was unable to create tension or emotional investment effectively.

Puzzles: Puzzles suffered from the same afflictions as the rest of the game. The prose was sometimes too ineffective to convey sufficient information to solve the puzzle logically. The buggy programming hampered my confidence as a player that I would be able to tell the difference between puzzles and bugs. In addition, the game broke several commonly held “players’ rights”: An arbitrary time limit was imposed, a couple of gratuitous mazes created frustration (especially since there were too few inventory items handy for the ‘drop and map’ method), and information from “past lives” was often necessary to avoid disaster.

Technical (writing): The game was littered with grammar and spelling errors. These errors ranged from the simple (“vegatation”) to the subtle (a room description read “To the southeast you see a supply store and roads in all major directions,” implying that all the major roads were to the southeast.)

Technical (coding): There were several coding errors as well. Again, some of these were simple errors like missing new_lines. Others were more difficult to deal with, like the lack of a short name for the volunteers who follow the player.


The Lost Spellmaker by Neil James Brown [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Lost Spellmaker
Final placement: 8th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

It’s not often that you see a thread from one of the newsgroups translate so directly into an actual piece of IF, but that’s what’s happened with The Lost Spellmaker. This summer, the discussion raged (and I do think that’s a fair characterization) in rgif about “Gay characters in IF.” Some people held that if a piece of IF were to feature a gay character, that piece would need to have homosexuality as its primary concern. Others, including Neil James Brown, contended that a character’s sexual orientation can function simply as a vector to deepen characterization, of no more central concern to the game’s theme than her gender, her height, or what food she likes to eat. The Lost Spellmaker proves Brown’s point quite handily.

The game’s protagonist is Mattie, a dwarf Secret Service agent dispatched to discover the whereabouts of Drew Tungshinach, last in a long line of local spellmakers who have disappeared mysteriously. The fact that Mattie is both a dwarf and a Secret Service agent is an indication of the clever world that Brown has created, which consists of equal parts Ian Fleming and Brothers Grimm. The fact that Mattie loves candy comes in handy in a couple of puzzles, and helps explain why she lives in the town Sweet Shop. And finally, the fact that Mattie is a lesbian has a bearing on the love-interest subplot with the local librarian. Yet none of these incidental facts impinge on the game’s central concern, the rescue of its eponymous Lost Spellmaker. Instead, they enrich our understanding of the characters, for which purpose Mattie’s status as a lesbian is no more or less important than, for example, her status as a dwarf.

I don’t know whether Brown wrote this game to prove his point, but it certainly does. It’s also a fun piece of IF apart from any political or identity considerations. The quest for Drew brings Mattie in contact with a number of amusing characters, and the milieu is small enough to make most of the puzzles fairly easy. Of course, I can’t deny that I personally find it quite refreshing to play a game where heterosexuality isn’t the implied norm, but The Lost Spellmaker has more than that to recommend it. It’s a snappy quest in a creatively conceived world, a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

Prose: The prose in The Lost Spellmaker never jarred me out of the story, and I often quite enjoyed reading it. The village wasn’t particularly vividly rendered, but the characters often were, and some of the game’s lighter touches were hilarious. Dialogue was, as a rule, quite well-written, especially the Reverend’s constant malapropisms, which made me laugh out loud over and over, even when seeing them for the second and third times.

Plot: Considering the weird, mutant setting Brown has achieved by breeding traditional fantasy elements (magic, dwarves, talking animals) with James Bond derivations (the Secret Service, a one-letter superior, his secretary “Mr. Cashpound”), the plot walks a fine line, and does it well. The plot is not simply a fantasy, though it does involve using magic to halt the decline of magic, and manipulating fantasy characters to solve puzzles. Nor was it simply espionage, though it did involve a heroic spy facing off against the obligatory Femme Fatale. Instead, it swerved back and forth between the two, making for a merry ride.

Puzzles: I only had to consult the walkthrough one time, for a puzzle which was logical, but could have used an alternate solution. The puzzles weren’t the focus of the story, so they served the basic purpose of small goals to help advance the plot. In this role, they worked admirably well. There were no particularly witty or clever puzzles, but by the same token there were no unfair or “guess-the-verb” puzzles either.

Technical (writing): I only noticed one proofing error in the game. The vast majority of the prose was competently and correctly written.

Technical (coding): There were a few bugs in the game, one of which may be more of a library issue than a lack of attention on the part of the author. Also, there were a few places where a response beyond the default would have been appreciated. Overall, the code was relatively bug free. Kudos must go here to the title page, which employed a really nifty z-machine special effect.