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

Four In One by J. Robinson Wheeler [Comp98]

IFDB page: Four In One
Final placement: 16th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Playing Four In One, I was in an unusual, unprecedented (for me) situation: I was playing a game of which I had already read a complete, winning transcript. Not a walkthrough, but a transcript of commands and game responses. It seems that the author submitted this transcript to Stephen Granade’s IF Fan Fest, an informal quasi-competition held at Granade’s Mining Company web page. If I had known this transcript was also going to be a competition game, I wouldn’t have read it, because I hate spoilers. But I didn’t know that, so I read it, and it made playing the game a very strange experience — the whole thing gave me a very strong sense of déjà vu. Now, granted, the transcript isn’t an exact one. You can’t follow that transcript and hope to win the game, because the commands are not all perfectly duplicated, and there are some other differences between the two as well. However, they have a lot in common. Now, the funny thing about this is that when I initially read the Four In One transcript, my thought was “It’s a funny idea, but it would be far too difficult to actually turn into a game.” Well, I have been proved wrong.

The idea behind the game is that you’re a film director in the heyday of the Marx Brothers, and you’re directing them in their first picture for MGM. Or at least, you’re trying to direct them. Apparently, keeping all the Marxes in one room, getting along, and working productively is somewhat akin to herding cats. Consequently, you’re forced into the position of chasing after them, collecting them one by one, and forcing them to follow you around to their (and your) considerable annoyance. Even once you’ve got them all on the set and rehearsed, there’s no guarantee that one or more of them won’t go bolting off to make a phone call, hang out at the catering table, or read a book. What’s worse, you have only two hours to get a good take on a crucial scene, or you and the picture will both be canned. The transcript makes this into a hilarious situation, showing the Marx Brothers at their zaniest even when the cameras aren’t rolling. In fact, all the comedy takes place when the cameras aren’t rolling. This is the kind of thing that I didn’t think an IF game would be able to pull off, but Four In One is the living proof. It’s not as funny as the transcript, but it works, especially in places like Chico’s dressing room, where more and more people keep entering, pushing you inexorably to the back wall like the first entrant in a phone-booth-stuffing competition. Scenes like this can be irritating as well, and the game sometimes steps across the fine line between funny aggravation and just plain aggravating aggravation. However, with the exception of one internal TADS error that I found, the technical details of the writing and coding are executed superbly, and this goes a long way towards smoothing out any annoyances.

The place where the game’s technical proficiency shines the most is in its characters. Four In One is a the most character-intensive piece of IF I’ve ever played. Almost every location has one or more characters in it at all times, and these characters are as fully implemented as they need to be. The gaffer, for example, is not terribly talkative — ask him about the movie and he’ll say “A job’s a job,” but ask him about the lights and he has an opinion, as he should. Every character has responses about the things they should know about, though if you spend much time in conversations with them you will run afoul of the game’s time limit. The Marx Brothers can tell you about each other, the movie, MGM (Groucho says, “MGM stands for ‘more godless movies.'”), and anything else they ought to know about. Four In One does an outstanding job juggling all these characters, giving them just the appropriate depth of implementation so that the game really rewards replay. After I had solved the game, I went back and just chatted with the various characters, and was delighted with the extent to which they are implemented. The author’s research is quite apparent in these moments, and it makes a big difference. Four In One taught me things about the Marx Brothers that I had never known before, and made me want to go out and rent A Night at the Opera again. That’s entertainment.

Rating: 8.7