Temple of Kaos by Peter Gambles [Comp03]

IFDB page: Temple of Kaos
Final placement: 15th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Much to my dismay, Temple Of Kaos has nothing to do with Maxwell Smart or Agent 99. I mean, sure, getting permission from whoever owns the rights to the show would probably be an insurmountable hurdle, but legal problems aside, wouldn’t Get Smart make a fantastic IF milieu? The Shoe Phone, the Cone Of Silence… I can just picture it. This Temple of KAOS, however, isn’t the stronghold of a nefarious organization of evil spies whose efforts must be thwarted by the agents of CONTROL, but rather a bizarre otherworld, where rules of time, space, and spelling (it’s called KAOS for no discernible reason) don’t apply.

Basically, the two salient features of this game are its disregard for making sense, and its propensity to express itself in verse, sometimes free, sometimes blank, and usually with end rhymes. As such, it’s a highly experimental game, and while I think both of the experiments fail in this instance, they illuminate some remarkable territory along the way.

Let’s tackle the nonsensical part first. In the ABOUT text, the author states that part of his intention with the game is to “interfere, out of sheer mischief, with some of the normal perceptions / causal relationships of IF space-time.” Mission accomplished, and in some parts of the game, the technique works well. The first section in particular contains a puzzle which utterly confounds standard expectations of how the world ought to work, but it’s possible to figure out the alternate system of reality at work in the puzzle, and thereby defeat it. The process of doing so is really fun, reminiscent of the flavor of The Gostak or For A Change. More specifically, the reason the puzzle works is that even though the PC’s actions don’t produce the expected results, they do produce some results, and from these results it’s possible to deduce what’s really going on. The same can’t be said of most of the other puzzles in the game.

Even for IF set in a much more mundane universe, feedback design is one of the toughest parts of puzzle creation — you don’t want to be so obvious that the puzzle becomes a non-puzzle, but your feedback also mustn’t be so obscure (or nonexistent) as to leave the player shaking her head in confusion even when the solution is revealed. Most of the puzzles in TOK err on the latter side of this line. I think that for every puzzle after the first one, I looked at the hints, and for most of them even the hints were insufficient. (Thankfully, the author provided a walkthrough.)

For some puzzles, the solution made a tortured kind of sense once I’d looked it up, but for many, I found myself just following the walkthrough’s instructions with a shrug. Sufficient feedback is very important in any IF puzzle, but in a world where the normal rules don’t apply, feedback becomes utterly crucial — how are we supposed to figure out the rules without the ability to gather any evidence about them? TOK usually (though not always) fails to provide enough feedback to make its puzzles solvable, which takes a lot of the fun out of playing.

What does provide some fun is the game’s tendency to present its room and object descriptions in a shaky kind of poetry. For instance, the first room description:

In the North Chamber

Chamber of the north, so empty, still, all noise grates
Black as night the chest your thought awaits.
The other chamber southward lies
Cloaked in mystery's disguise.

Most, but not all, of the game’s verse rhymes like this — sometimes the lines lack rhyme or even consistent meter. Moreover, there’s a fair bit of prose mixed in, as conversation, library responses, or descriptions of action, and the presence of these rather ordinary bits of writing juxtaposed with the more elevated verses tends to drain the effectiveness of each. The other problem with the poetry is reminiscent of what happened in Graham Nelson‘s final game, The Tempest. That is, it’s tough enough to craft IF prose that communicates clearly and concisely, and that also provides enough information to the player, but to do so in verse is much, much harder. TOK‘s poetry isn’t at as great a disadvantage as The Tempest, which forced itself to use prewritten lines as room and object descriptions, but it can still be rather opaque.

Usually the lines aren’t pure gibberish, and they sometimes even manage to pack a few clues in, but nevertheless it does take some time to translate, for instance, “Black as night the chest your thought awaits” into “There’s a black chest here.” The poetry technique is ill-chosen in combination with the game’s nonsensical laws of time, space, and causality, since either one by itself is confusing enough but together they can be utterly impenetrable. However, TOK does give some glimpses of how compelling an IF game in pure verse could be, and of how fascinating it might be to play in a universe with a completely different set of basic rules. Play it for these glimpses, but don’t be afraid to reach for the walkthrough.

Rating: 6.5

The Granite Book by James Mitchelhill [Comp02]

IFDB page: The Granite Book
Final placement: 16th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Sometimes, rarely, I’ll read something, or see something, or hear something that is so foreign to me, so alien, that it’s hard to say whether I like it or not. It’s almost as if the question doesn’t pertain; the piece seems to come from another dimension altogether, and I’m hard-pressed to apply human rules of quality to it. However, if I have to form an opinion, that opinion will be a negative one — when I can’t relate to something in the slightest, that thing fails to appeal to me.

Case in point: The Granite Book. At no time during this game did I have any clear conception of what was supposed to be going on. At various points, I thought that the PC might be a king, a transient, a guy on a date, a psychopath, a spirit, or a troll. Perhaps he’s the itinerant ghost of an insane troll king, looking for love. I really have no idea.

Some of this confusion and dislocation comes from the game’s choice of voice: the entire thing is written in the first person plural, like so:

We weren’t sure, but jagged rocks emerging, staring into our face,
alone as we were in that obscure and emptied world, looked familiar,
greeted us again with laughter and the scrape of gravel inside
fissure.

I’ve only seen this verb tense used successfully in one place: the “royal we”, where kings and queens speak of themselves in the plural, because they are the living embodiments of their countries — hence my guess that perhaps the PC of this game is a king. It was the royal we that was used (although not in any simple way) in last year’s game The Isolato Incident, and in my review of that game I mentioned how I found it similar to Comp99’s For A Change, because both took ordinary descriptions and substituted out words, requiring the player to filter through strange language in order to make sense of the action.

The Granite Book, though, takes things one step further: not only are strange words in place of ordinary ones, but even the concepts those words represent seem to have no analogue in the real world, or even any fantasy world I’ve ever encountered. It’s not the royal we that’s at work in this game, but rather something much stranger.

For me, this was one remove too far. If nothing ever makes any sense, than I really don’t care about any of it — it just seems like a bunch of gibberish to me. As is probably apparent from the passage I quote above, verb tense is only the beginning of what makes this game opaque. From its tangled sentence structure to its nonsensical landscape and its thoroughly baffling end, the game’s perfect impenetrability never seems to crack. This sort of thing is bad enough in other kinds of art, but in IF the frustration it triggers is even more intense, because we’re supposed to take these frictionless descriptions and actually grasp them, put them to use.

I found I could make a little progress by examining second and third level nouns, but even then it was just a parroting trick, spitting back the words used by the game whenever they seemed important, not because I understood what they meant. I can imagine solving the game without the hints, if I was lucky enough to guess at the right interpretation of its descriptions, but I can’t imagine understanding it. I can’t exactly say that’s a defect in the game — who knows, maybe I’m just not bright enough to get it? But I can authoritatively say that I didn’t enjoy it.

Rating: 4.8

Lovesong by Mihalis “DarkAng3l” Georgostathis [Comp01]

IFDB page: Lovesong
Final placement: 48th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

This game was my first introduction to the Quest development system, and I wish I could say I was impressed. I mean that. I’m all for people using their skills to create IF stuff that’s new, cool, and functional. What I can’t get very enthusiastic about, though, is people using their skills to create IF stuff that isn’t as good as stuff that already exists. Sure, Quest looks nice and everything. But unless the author of Lovesong broke or disabled something, its parser is less sophisticated than, say, that of the first Monkey Island game. Based on the help text, the parser seems to understand 19 verbs. Counting synonyms. And 9 of those are directional commands. And another one was (I think) added by the game’s author.

Such simplicity allows the game to be almost completely mouse-driven (or it would if the mouse support didn’t break halfway through), but really… what’s the point of that? It’s one thing to present a mouse interface in a graphic adventure, but a text adventure? Why? Legend tried it, but I can’t imagine that many people actually played all (or even most) of any Legend text game using the mouse alone. I guess it cuts down on guess-the-verb, but really, is the gain worth the price?

It seems to me that what Quest allows people to do is to create text games with the interface of a graphical game. To my mind, that’s a pointless endeavor — it deprives text games of one of their major strengths, and adopts a “hands-off-the-keyboard” aesthetic from graphical games that has a stultifying effect on game design. The worst of both worlds. No doubt Quest has some features unused by Lovesong, and those may go some distance toward making it useful. But ultimately, I don’t think that any nifty features are going to make a big difference. You know why? Sure you do: THE PARSER IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE NIFTY FEATURES. Same old song.

Of course, no matter what development system had been used to write this game, Lovesong would still be deeply troubled. The big problem here is English. Apparently, English is not the author’s first language. As the game’s author bio asserts, “Please forgive me, but me English are not fluent enough. I pray that some mistakes won’t ruin your gaming experience.” Well… sorry, but it’s really hard to enjoy a text game written in broken English. (Unless the English is broken on purpose, a la Gostak or For A Change, but that’s a different matter entirely.)

In fact, I have to wonder: if someone isn’t fluent in English, but wants to create a game, should that game really be a text adventure in English? I’ll probably get flamed for that, and really, I don’t mean to be some kind of Guardian of IF Purity, but a text adventure is a piece of prose, just like a novel, short story, or poem. If you’re not fluent in a language, how can you possibly craft a good piece of prose in that language?

Maybe it can be done, but Lovesong isn’t it. Its plot is sorta sweet, but the whole thing is so hampered by the twin burdens of its straitjacketed development system and its badly mangled writing that there’s not much opportunity to enjoy anything else about the game. In addition, it has its own implementation problems, though it’s always hard to tell what’s the game’s fault and what’s the system’s fault. Several times, the game just had no response at all to a command. About halfway through, the mouse buttons stopped working. Towards the end, the “save” command stopped working. Oh well — at least I can now say I’ve tried a Quest game.

Rating: 2.1

The Gostak by Carl Muckenhoupt [Comp01]

IFDB page: The Gostak
Final placement: 21st place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

In the proud tradition of Bad Machine, this game broke my brain. If you’ve played it, you’ll know why. If not, maybe this will give you an idea:

Finally, here you are. At the delcot of tondam, where doshes deave.
But the doshery lutt is crenned with glauds.

Glauds! How rorm it would be to pell back to the bewl and distunk
them, distunk the whole delcot, let the drokes discren them.

But you are the gostak. The gostak distims the doshes. And no glaud
will vorl them from you.

That’s the game’s introductory text, and it pretty much goes on like that the whole time. At first I thought it would be kind of a fun, Lewis Carroll-ish diversion, full of nonsense words but still easily understandable. I was wrong — the game is much more insidious than that. The linguistic displacement is deep, and it infects the game on every level, up to and including its help text and hints. In fact, I paid closer attention to this game’s help text than I probably have to any other piece of IF’s instructions, ever, since it used so many unfamiliar words, and since these words were absolutely necessary as levers to begin cracking the game’s code.

Not that I ever completely succeeded in figuring out every aspect of the game’s environment. I ended up with three pages of words, each of which held a column of nouns and a column of verbs. I didn’t even attempt the adjectives. At the end of two hours, I was pretty impressed by the amount I’d been able to grok of the game’s language, and in fact I had wrenched my head far enough into this new linguistic space that I’m having to be careful to make sure I’m writing English as I type out this review, so as to avoid louking “rask” instead of “take”. Oh, sorry. [Don’t worry, this is no more a spoiler than the little starter hints telling you that Z=E in today’s Cryptoquip.]

Putting my head into the game’s space was critical to getting anywhere at all in it — I found that to play The Gostak successfully, some significant immersion is required. The game upends IF convention so thoroughly that all the directions have different names (and abbreviations), as does almost every verb. Consequently, once I had figured out many of the fundamentals, I was able to navigate through the game with relative ease, but only during that game session. After I saved my game, ate dinner, and returned to it, my old IF habits were obstructing me again, resulting in the game rejecting or disastrously misunderstanding much of my input. Since I only had about 15 minutes left on my two hours at that point, I was unable to fully recapture all those tenuous understandings I was holding in my head during the first session, and consequently couldn’t quite finish.

I get the feeling that this game wanted to be a comp-length exercise in the kind of mental mechanisms that made The Edifice‘s celebrated language puzzle so much fun. To some degree, it succeeds. I was able to enter this game’s foreign world much more easily than that of, say, Schroedinger’s Cat, and I found the process much more enjoyable. I was shocked at how quickly and easily I found myself typing commands like “doatch at droke about calbice”.

However, the whole experience was completely cerebral, with little of the emotional catharsis I associate with successful storytelling. I felt this effect when I played Dan Schmidt’s For A Change, but it’s ten times stronger in this game, where words aren’t simply rearranged but actually replaced wholesale. Consequently, while playing The Gostak was a strange and memorable experience, one which will surely elevate the game to the rarefied level of For A Change, Bad Machine, and Lighan ses Lion, I found it a somewhat strained sort of fun. Great for a puzzle-solving mood, and certainly worth trying if you’re a cryptography buff, but not terribly involving as a story. If it sounds like your cup of tea, make sure you set aside a few hours — it’s not something you want to leave and come back to.

Rating: 8.1

The Isolato Incident by Anya Johanna DeNiro as Alan DeNiro [Comp01]

IFDB page: The Isolato Incident
Final placement: 22nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, first: When I say “Alan” in this review, I’m referring to the programming language, not the author. Second: it’s always bugged me that Alan provides no scripting capability, but it’s never annoyed me more than it did for this game. That’s because this is the first Alan game I’ve encountered that’s been more about language than interactivity, and I desperately wanted to keep a copy of my interaction with the game so that I could refer back to its language when I wrote this review. I finally ended up hacking together a solution by periodically opening the scrollback buffer (thank you Joe Mason for porting Arun to Glk!) and copy-and-pasting the contents into a text file. Now that I’ve got that text file to peruse, I’m becoming even more aware of the strangenesses in the game’s use of words.

The main gimmick is obvious from the start: the entire game is written in the first person plural voice — as in, “Wait, we must stop.” Sometimes an approach just makes me sit back and say “wow, never seen that in IF before” and this was one of those times. The game is apparently from the point-of-view of a monarch, and therefore it’s fairly easy to assume that all this plurality is due to the use of that kingly favorite, the “royal we.” However, there are hints here and there that the “we” doesn’t just refer to the monarch and his subjects, but to some sort of actual multitude. For example, the narrator offhandedly mentions that “We like to coif our hair into shape, exactly like each other.” Each other? Granted, this could refer to the hairs themselves, but that’s not the only reference to multiplicity. For instance, in the first room description, we (that would be the “reviewer’s we”, dontcha know) see this:

Cozy Throne Room.
This is where we rest, tarry, and make our fears vanish. There is
enough room for all of us here.

Is this monarch of such tremendous girth that most rooms fail to hold him? Well, probably not, given the reference to “razorthin hips” in the response to “X US” (the game cleverly replies to “X ME” with “‘me’? We’re not aware of that word.”, thereby deftly employing a parser default response to further delineate the main character.)

All this would be quite enough to take in, but the game has other plans up its sleeve, too. To confusion of voice, The Isolato Incident adds a pile of words whose meaning has simply been displaced. Take this sentence: “We watch our bees, smear their history on our arms and legs.” That’s not some sort of metaphor about honey; instead, it’s a recontextualizing of the idea of bees and the idea of history into an entirely new grid. All this, and we haven’t even left the first location yet! After spending some time with the game, I started to figure out why my response felt familiar: it resembled my reaction to Dan Schmidt‘s 1999 entry For A Change. I’d look at a passage like this:

The Crux Of Our Landscape.
Still, there is much to be admired here. The green slopes are
flatter; thus, the cleft of the wind is much stronger. There are also
choices etched in the road. South leads to the nearly endless royal
road, and to the east of us is the bonegrass field and (further east)
the treasury. We can also pitter-patter back to our hut to the north.

and run it through my hastily-constructed mental filter. “Okay, ‘cleft of the wind’ probably just means a breeze. ‘Choices etched in the road’ is probably indicating that this is a crossroads.” This filter felt more natural as the game progressed, but I never stopped feeling at a distance from the PC, and therefore unable to invest any particular emotional commitment into his struggles.

The game’s not-terribly-surprising twist ending might have removed this barrier, but as it happens, I still felt just as distanced from the game even after it revealed another layer of itself to me. I think this occurred because even after the twist, the game didn’t do much to connect with any particular reality to which I could relate. In the interest of not giving away the surprise, I’ll refrain from going into detail, except to say that the ending happened suddenly enough, left enough context unexplained, and raised enough further questions that it didn’t give me much of that feeling of satisfaction that we tend to expect from the ends of stories. For me, a narrative layer a little more grounded in reality would have done wonders for my emotional connection to the game. As it was, I could admire the prettiness of the words, but only from a remove.

Rating: 7.5

[Postscript from 2020: In the context of 2001, The Isolato Incident wasn’t submitted pseudonymously. However, as of 2020, the author has transitioned to using the name Anya Johanna DeNiro. I wrote Anya, asking whether I should credit her as Alan or Anya. At her request, I’m crediting the game to her as Anya, but noting that she wrote as Alan at the time.]

The End Means Escape by Steve Kodat as D.O. [Comp00]

IFDB page: The End Means Escape
Final placement: 21st place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

There have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve felt that inanimate objects are out to get me. Wait, I guess that sounds a little paranoid. Let me rephrase: oftentimes, when I trip over an object lying on the floor, or hit my head on something, or bump into a piece of furniture in a dark room, I curse that object, as if it willfully placed itself in the worst possible spot just to spite me. On some bizarre level of my brain (possibly my out-of-control ego), I feel that the pain I’m in at that moment is the object’s fault, not mine.

In my reality, I’m wrong. In the reality which begins The End Means Escape, I might very well be right. The game appears at first to be an “escape the one room” adventure, with a twist: all the objects are NPCs. I don’t mean that you’re floating in a void with a bunch of other people. I mean that in this room, everything reacts to you, often quite vocally. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, the table, the lamp, the door, the various objects strewn around — they can all be addressed and conversed with. It was rather disconcerting to be thrown into this environment without even a halfhearted explanation about what was happening, but once I adjusted, I found it quite absorbing. There’s a startling level of depth to the implementation — I kept being surprised by how many of the things I tried were accounted for in the game. I even had a fragile sense of making progress, though the whole thing was so unusual that I couldn’t rely on my typical IF cues for narrative progression.

Then, something else happened. I escaped the one room, fully expecting to have won the game, but instead moved into a realm that was even more bizarre than the one I had left, by several orders of magnitude in fact. I thought, because the “talking object” room was so well-done, that it was the whole of the game. Not so. To discuss further specifics about what proceeds from that first scene would, I think, be to move into the realm of spoilers, so I’ll just say this: the game turns out to be a string of scenarios, none of which conform to IF conventions of plot, setting, or character. Of these, the first scene is probably the most successful, but each has interesting merits. Certainly the first scene’s thoroughness of implementation is not lost on the others. Consider, for example, this startling disambiguation question:

>X YOUNG
Which young do you mean, the young man, the marking, the young man's
head, the young man's hands, the young man's skin, the young man's
feet, the young man's head of hair, the young man's forehead, the
young man's eyebrows, the young man's eyes, the young man's
eyelashes, the young man's ears, the young man's nose, the young
man's mouth, the young man's chin, the young man's neck, the young
man's fingers, the young man's thumbs, the young man's torso, the
young man's arms, the young man's legs, or the young man's hips?

The game displays an almost overwhelming capacity for describing scenery objects and making them available to various verbs. Strangely, though, where this strategy would normally heighten immersion quite a bit, it somehow fails to do so here, at least for me. I think this is because most all the game’s scenes are quite abstract and surreal, and thus I had a difficult time relating to them. Part of this is just my personal taste — I’m not overfond of highly stylized IF, and even last year’s outstanding For A Change left me feeling rather cold and distanced. The other part of it, I would contend, is that the kind of disconcerting scenes presented in TEME actively work against immersion rather than for it.

There are other things working against the game as well, such as the number of bugs in the implementation. To choose a small example, there is one point when you need to use one object to pry another object, but using the verb “pry” doesn’t work. Using the verb “cut” does, even though the response indicates that you’re prying. To choose a large example, about midway through, the whole game crashed so hard that it brought down my entire system. Now granted, I’m running Windows, so crashing the system is not all that impressive a feat. Still, I don’t expect an IF game to do it. I’ll certainly grant the possibility that the crash had to do with the combination of apps I was running at that time, but the whole experience left me feeling rather wary of TEME.

In other sections, the solution to the puzzle seemed pretty much entirely arbitrary. Of course, because the game operates on such a rarefied level, it’s quite possible that the solution made perfect sense but just went way over my head. Either way, it’s not a lot of fun trying to solve a puzzle whose eventual solution (when you extract it from help messages on Deja) just makes you say, “I was supposed to come up with that?” So yes, the game is flawed, and it’s also rather inaccessible, but it’s still a stimulating experiment in avant-garde IF. It was nothing like any piece of IF I’d ever seen, and that’s what I liked about it.

Rating: 7.5

Return To Zork: Another Story by Stefano Canelli [Comp00]

IFDB page: Return To Zork: Another Story
Final placement: 26th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

The IF competition sure puts me in some weird situations. I never thought I’d play through an actual game based on an Infocom sample transcript, but I did it in 1998, when I played David Ledgard’s Space Station. I never thought I’d read a mocked-up transcript of a fake game, then play a game actually implemented from that gag transcript, but J. Robinson Wheeler’s Four In One proved me wrong that same year. Now I’ve encountered what may be the weirdest situation yet: I just played a text remake of Return To Zork.

For those of you who didn’t play RTZ, it was Activision’s first graphical adventure to use the Zork license they had inherited from their purchase of Infocom. It was, in my opinion, pretty weak. It had a fairly cool interface, as graphic adventures go, and some nice features (like the various bits that took notes for you or recorded people’s speeches), but it was cursed with an incomprehensible plot, highly annoying puzzles, and absolutely execrable voice acting. Most of all, it just didn’t feel very Zorky, at least not to me. The cleverness was missing, and the splendor was, too.

For me, it’s completely baffling that somebody would want to actually remake this game. In fact, RTZAS isn’t just a remake — call it a “remake-plus”. It takes much of the original structure from RTZ, alters some things, and adds a bunch more. It’s kind of like if somebody was such a fan of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier that they wrote an entirely new novelization of it, changing a few bits around and adding whole new scenes and subplots. Well, of course the other difference is that RTZAS was produced with permission of the license holder, yet another example of Activision’s openness to the fan community. You can bet you wouldn’t see Paramount behaving so freely with the Star Trek license.

When I played RTZAS, I couldn’t help but be haunted by sounds and images from the original RTZ, bad voice-acting and all. This mental baggage already biased me against the game, sorry to say, and RTZAS‘s many, many problems did nothing to redeem it. First of all, as far as I could tell, the game makes no effort to clarify RTZ‘s tangled plot, and in fact snarls it further with the addition of new locations, characters, and subplots. Moreover, there are a number of bugs, though none very catastrophic.

The biggest problem of all, however, is the language. The English in this game is very deeply warped — almost every sentence features at least one bizarre error in spelling, grammar, or diction, sometimes so much so that it’s hard to tell what the hell the game is talking about. For example, here’s a sentence from the first room description: “The rocky underfoot descends ruggedly towards east in direction of a building that appears to be a lighthouse.” Sometimes RTZAS feels like the offspring of an unholy union between Return to Zork and For A Change, just because the game’s writing is so far from standard English. Much of it feels like it’s been run through a translator program like Babelfish, with typically hilarious results. For instance, at one point you find an old mill that the game refers to as “delicious.” Delicious? All I can guess is that some word like “adorable” was intended, but something got very, very lost in the translation.

Still, all that aside, I have to hand it to RTZAS: this game is obviously a labor of love. A great deal of care has been put into describing lots of objects, creating alternate solutions to puzzles, and lovingly recreating many of the scenes from RTZ. It also mercifully leaves out some of the very worst scenes from that game (“Want some rye? ‘Course you do!”), which I certainly appreciated. It seems like a very odd thing to want to bring into the world, but RTZAS could be a fairly worthwhile game after its writing has undergone a major overhaul and it’s been debugged more thoroughly. Nonetheless, even if it was at this point, it wouldn’t really be an appropriate competition game. This thing is huge! I played for 2 hours and didn’t even get halfway through, I don’t think. As it stands, it’s not only huge but very badly executed. And I just finished 2 hours with it. Maybe I will have that rye, after all.

Rating: 3.4

For A Change by Dan Schmidt [Comp99]

IFDB page: For A Change
Final placement: 2nd place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

I had to take a long break and read some regular English before I could start to write this review. If I hadn’t, no doubt my sentences would have sounded something like this: “The game approaches jigsaw, laying out words and concepts end to end, but skew. It moves whirling, lifting gazes into a rarefied and unknown sphere.” Even now, my language feels highly self-conscious, like a drunk trying to walk a straight line. I’m in this discomfiting circumstance because For A Change put my head into a very weird space through its use of words. The entire game uses an English that, while it makes sense, is just a few degrees off-center. For example, one location is described thus:

In the Shade
The land increases towards your head to the south, and decreases away
from your feet to the north. Mobiles lead accordingly in both
directions. The High Wall may also be approached to the east. A long
walk to the west is a tower, dwarfing your form, and dwarfed in turn by
the wall.

Out of context, it seems almost incomprehensible, but once you’ve been playing the game for a while, you realize that all it means is that you’re standing on sloping ground which rises to the south, alongside a north-south road. At first, I found this linguistic displacement affected and annoying, but as it became more transparent to me, it acquired an intoxicatingly immersive effect. It was like watching a foreign film with subtitles — by about halfway through, the mechanical nature of the device was submerged and I felt fully involved in the milieu.

For me though, there was a downside to this approach. After I had finished the game, I marveled at the cleverness of its linguistic contrivance, and the consistency with which it was implemented, but the pleasure was solely on a cerebral level. Even though the experience of playing the game was interesting, I never cared very much about the story, I think because I found it too difficult to make an emotional commitment to a setting and character that were so completely alien. Consequently, I ended up observing myself a lot, which is a very distanced, passive way to go through something like interactive fiction. Then again, I’m not a person who gets passionate about abstract painting or experimental fiction like that of William Burroughs, so my lack of reaction to the game may be due more to my own idiosyncrasies than any particular flaw in the work.

The other thing I found interesting about For A Change is that it is the product of Dan Schmidt, who, though he doesn’t tend to shout about it, was a member of the team that produced Ultima Underworld I and II. To the best of my knowledge, this marks the first time that a competition entry has been authored by someone from the professional computer game designing community. Well, actually I suppose that’s not quite true — I know Andrew Plotkin contributed to at least one professional game for the Mac. Still, I found it fascinating, and very encouraging, that a writer of such high-profile games entered the competition, and that he did it with a game that is so thoroughly uncommercial. What’s more, the things that make For A Change special are only possible because it is a text game; even if by some bizarre circumstance a software company wanted to put out a graphical version of the game, that version simply could not capture the very specific flavor that For A Change achieved with its distinctive use of words. How fascinating it might be, then, to see the IF competition become a place where game-writing pros came to fulfill their most unrestrained artistic ambitions, creating pieces of text which would never see the light of their day jobs.

Rating: 8.0