Splashdown by Paul J. Furio [Comp04]

IFDB page: Splashdown
Final placement: 8th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Apparently, malfunctioning slower-than-light starships with passengers in cryogenic sleep have replaced isolated scientific complexes as the go-to comp game setting this year. Of course, in fairness, we did have a scientific complex in All Things Devours, though it wasn’t underground or in Antarctica or anything. Oh, and I guess my own entry could be considered an “isolated scientific complex” game, sort of. Still, the malfunctioning starships are making a strong showing this year. Happily, Splashdown is leagues ahead of its competitor, Getting Back To Sleep, though they both feel rather too much like Planetfall knockoffs.

One refreshing difference is that at least Splashdown acknowledges its debt to Steve Meretzky, not to mention the fact that its implementation is (pardon the pun) light-years ahead of GBTS‘s creaky homebrew. The game even provides a nifty PDF feelie that rivals Infocom in quality. Nevertheless, there are times when Splashdown feels just too derivative, especially when it introduces a cute little robot companion who follows the PC around, spouting random funny dialogue and helping out with the occasional puzzle. Sound familiar?

Besides that, there’s the fact that the crux of the story really doesn’t make much sense. Apparently, the ship is heading off to colonize a distant planet, but something goes wrong, so its computer picks a random colonist to reanimate, in hopes that this person can address the problem. This random colonist is the PC, natch, and if it were me, the colonists would be doomed, because I certainly didn’t win the game my first time through. Isn’t this an unbelievably dumb disaster plan? Why in the world wouldn’t there be a designated person to reanimate in situations like this? Putting the fate of 500 (or maybe 300, depending on whether you believe the game or the hint files) people in the hands of some randomly selected dude isn’t a strategy I can see even the most dunderheaded government or corporation assaying.

That complaint aside, Splashdown presents an entertaining story and a believable setting. I particularly enjoyed figuring out the reason why the ship malfunctioned, a comic situation worthy of Meretzky. There are a nice variety of puzzles, and they’re blended pretty seamlessly into the story, which I greatly appreciate. Somehow, though, many of these puzzles felt rather counterintuitive to me. Looking back at my transcripts, I see a few different root causes for this problem. One issue is that the game’s description of certain objects doesn’t really jibe with my understanding of how those objects ought to work in real life. In particular, I don’t expect a spigot to do anything useful unless I turn a faucet or turn on a pump or something, and if I do so, I expect that spigot to start spouting whether or not it has anything attached to it. These assumptions played me false as I was flailing around Splashdown‘s ship, trying to figure out anything to do that would make any sense at all.

Another issue is that I had the sense that I was missing just a little bit of documentation. In one or two of the final puzzles, I only knew what I needed to do because the hints told me so, not because of anything in the game that gave me the clue. This may be down to a case of me being slow on the uptake, or it may be that the game makes a few too many assumptions about how familiar players are likely to be with its setting. Finally, in some situations, too few verb forms are implemented. Particularly on one of the initial puzzles, I grasped the concept of what needed to be done, and tried a few different ways of expressing it, only to be rebuffed each time. Consequently, when I saw the solution in the hints, I felt annoyed rather than relieved.

Actually, the lack of synonyms and alternate verbs plagued me outside of the puzzles as well. For instance, there are cryotubes in the game that can’t be called “tubes.” There is no good reason not to provide those sorts of synonyms. In addition, one section of the game requires a lot of talking to the computer, using syntax along the lines of COMPUTER, DISPLAY HELP SCREEN. You can’t call the computer COMP or anything like that, and you can’t just say, for example, DISPLAY HELP, or better yet, HELP. Given the number of times I had to type out commands like this, I was mighty annoyed at the lack of abbreviations after a while.

On the other hand, the implementation is almost comically rich in a couple of areas, particularly the cryotubes themselves. There are 125 of these implemented, each with its own personalized nameplate. I was so gobsmacked at this that I had to examine each one, and was rewarded with occasional jokes and geeky insider references. And so the ship’s systems gradually failed as I went around autistically reading nameplates, but I loved it. Despite the occasional moment of breathtaking implementation, though, Splashdown feels like it’s not quite out of beta yet. There are a considerable number of typos, and sloppy formatting is rampant, especially when it comes to the robot companion’s random dialogue. In addition, I encountered a few minor bugs and glitches here and there. I hope very much that the author takes reviews and feedback to heart and releases a post-comp edition of this game. With some polish, I think it could be a really fun Infocom-style ride.

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

The Best Man by Rob Menke [Comp00]

IFDB page: The Best Man
Final placement: 15th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Marc Blank knew it. A train, with its constraints on movement, its many mechanisms, and the inherent drama of its speed, makes an excellent setting for suspenseful thriller IF. That’s why the first chapter of Border Zone takes place on a train. As good as that chapter was, though, this game outdoes it by far.

One of the most successful attempts to bring to IF the edge-of-seat thrills packed into films like Die Hard and Speed, The Best Man puts the PC on a train that has recently become a very dangerous place. Through cleverness, skill, and courage, he must find a way to neutralize the danger, rescue the passengers, and stop the train without disaster. The train itself is implemented wonderfully, with details that reveal themselves only upon close inspection, but are perfectly logical once they are clear. In fact, inspection of those details is crucial to winning the game, so be sure to look at things quite closely. Most of the time, the game will reward you, if not with a discovery then at least with one of its many concise, well-written descriptions.

The train isn’t the only area that receives a great deal of care in implementation. For one thing, The Best Man comes with the best “feelies” I’ve seen so far in this year’s competition. In PDF format is a copy of “All Aboard!: The Magazine For Kids”, which not only gives some info that becomes quite useful in the game, but also provides background for the political situation, adds detail to the game world, and also throws in some stuff just for fun. Within the game, I found lots of areas that demonstrated the same sort of thorough attention.

For instance, the game offers the option of navigation by what it calls “technical” directions — in other words, you can type “fore”, “aft”, etc. to move about on the train, since of course north, south, and such don’t really have much meaning inside a moving vehicle. If you elect to use these directions, the game will describe all exits in those terms. Myself, I’m much more comfortable with the old familiar direction set, so I stuck with it, but I was quite impressed that the game offered the other option and implemented it so thoroughly. The Best Man‘s context-sensitive hints, its tight, error-free prose, and its skillful building of character via a chilling opening sequence all displayed the same careful craft, and the end result is very worthy indeed.

Perhaps most impressive of all is the number of alternate solutions that the game offers. As the judging period went on, it became more and more clear to me that not only were an array of choices available for most problems, but that the game had painstakingly implemented the consequences of each of those choices, whether they be heroic, fatal, or somewhere in between. But although this plethora of alternatives is one of The Best Man‘s greatest strengths, for me it also became a significant frustration as well. With so many deadly or successful routes available, I found that I wanted to try lots of things, to play the game through to its conclusion using a variety of methods for achieving the PC’s various goals. However, because the game is so rich, there was no way I was able to do this in two hours. In fact, I didn’t even finish at all — by the time I realized that I wanted to turn to the hints to see more of the game, most of my time was already up.

I’m frustrated that I ended up turning to the hints at all, because although some of the puzzles were quite tough, I thought they were all fair, and I really would have enjoyed the intellectual challenge of trying all the various possible routes to the endgame. The Best Man is a game to be savored — it’s the kind of IF that’s a pleasure to draw out over a period of days or weeks, trying lots of different things and steadfastly avoiding the hints, since the game shows that it’s worthy of such trust. Instead, I felt the comp time limit harried me as much as the game’s own internal time limit — I wanted to enjoy the ride, but found myself instead desperately poking into crannies looking for the next clue. This sense of urgency may have brought me closer to the PC, but it left me feeling that I didn’t enjoy the game as much as I could have had it not been entered in the comp.

Rating: 9.3

Enlightenment: A One-Room Absurdity by Taro Ogawa [Comp98]

IFDB page: Enlightenment
Final placement: 5th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

What is it with all the one-room games this year? There must be some kind of movement happening in the collective IF unconscious which says “Plot? Who needs it? Give me one room, and as long as it’s got one or more puzzles in it, I’m happy.” Well, sometimes I’m happy too. And, more or less, this is one of those times. Despite its title, Enlightenment has very little to do with gaining awareness or understanding Zen koans. To say what it does have to do with would probably be a bit too much of a spoiler, but it involves deliberately placing yourself in a situation that most text adventurers would avoid at all costs. Because of this, it took me a little while to actually catch on to how the game is supposed to work — I just couldn’t believe that deliberately placing myself in danger was the right path. It is, though, and getting there is all the fun. Like last year’s Zero Sum Game, Enlightenment puts the PC at the end of an adventure of dizzying proportions. Unlike Zero Sum Game, Enlightenment isn’t really an unwinding of the PC’s accomplishments — you get to keep your score, and even increase it. You’ve already overcome dozens of obstacles, collected lots of treasures, and scored 240 points out of 250; now there’s just the little matter of getting past a canonical troll bridge and scurrying out of the caverns with your loot. But how? In the game’s words:

If only you hadn't used your Frobozz Magic Napalm on that ice wall...
If only you hadn't used your TrolKil (*Tm) to map that maze...
If only you hadn't sold your Frobozz Magic Tinning Kit.
If only you hadn't cooked and eaten those three Billy Goats Gruff...
... or that bear ...

If ONLY you'd checked the bloody bridge on your way in.

This brief excerpt is representative of the writing in the game: it is both a very funny parody of the Zork tradition as well as an enthusiastic participation in that tradition. In fact, as you can see from the above quote, the game actually features some familiar parts of the Zork universe, such as Frobozz Magic products, rat-ants, and even certain slavering lurkers in dark corners. Activision apparently granted permission for this usage, as they did for David Ledgard in his adaptation of the Planetfall sample transcript for his game Space Station. Activision’s willingness to grant permissions for such usage, as well as their donation of prizes to the competition and their sometime inclusion of hobbyist IF on commercial products, is great news for a fan community like ours — their support of IF means that more people will devote their time to it, resulting (hopefully) in more and more good games. Enlightenment is one of the good ones, and one of its best features is its writing. Another way in which it is unlike Zero Sum Game is that it doesn’t take an extreme or harsh tone. Instead, the writing is almost always quite funny in both its comments on text adventure cliches (the FULL score listing is a scream) and its usage of them. The game is littered with footnotes, which themselves are often littered with footnotes. Sly allusions and in-jokes abound, but they’re never what the game depends on, so if you don’t catch them, you’re not missing anything important. Of all the one-room games I’ve seen this year, Enlightenment is definitely the best-written.

It even includes some fun outside documentation in the form of the HTML edition of the latest issue of Spelunker Today: “The magazine for explorers and adventurers.” This kind of mood-building file has been included with a few competition games this year, and Enlightenment‘s extras are definitely the best of the bunch. The writing in the faux magazine is just as good as the writing in the game, and the graphics look sharp and professional. I like these little extras — they really do help set the mood of a game — and they definitely add to the fun of Enlightenment. The one problem I had with this game was that, although the writing is funny and clever, it is sometimes not precise enough to convey the exact nature of a puzzle or its solution. In a heavily puzzle-oriented game like Enlightenment, this can be a major setback. For example, at one point in the game you’re called upon to cut something, but it won’t work to use your sword on it. You must find something else to cut with. Well, there is something else, but that object is never described as having a sharp edge. This is one of those puzzles that made me glad I looked at the hints — the only way I would have ever gotten it is by brute force, and that’s no fun anyway. In another instance, a part of the setting is described in such a confusing way that I still don’t quite understand what it is supposed to look like. Part of the difficulty, I think, is that the game features a gate, with metal spikes at its bottom set into the stone floor. Now, this made me think of bars, like you might see on a portcullis. However, as far as I can determine the game actually means a solid wall, with spikes at the bottom, which I wouldn’t describe as a gate. This kind of imprecision is a real problem when the objects so imprecisely described have to be acted upon in precise ways in order to solve puzzles. So I used the hints for a number of the puzzles, and I don’t mind that I did, because I wouldn’t have solved them on my own anyway. But imprecision aside, I’m still glad I used them, because it enabled me to play all the way through Enlightenment, and the trip out of that one room was well worth taking.

Rating: 8.6