Zork Zero [Infocom >RESTART]

IFDB page: Zork Zero
[This review contains lots of spoilers for Zork Zero, as well as at least one for Zork I. Also, I wrote an introduction to these Infocom >RESTART reviews, for those who want some context.]

The earliest game in the Zork chronology was one of the latest games in the Infocom chronology. Zork Zero emerged in 1988, two years after the company was bought by Activision, and one year before it would be shut down. Zork was Infocom’s most famous franchise by far, and this prequel was the company’s last attempt to milk that cash cow, or rather its last attempt with original Implementors on board. Activision-produced graphical adventures like Return to Zork, Zork: Nemesis, and Zork: Grand Inquisitor were still to come, but those were fundamentally different animals than their namesake. Zork Zero, written by veteran Implementor Steve Meretzky, was still a text adventure game.

However, there was a little augmentation to the text this time. Along with a few other games of this era, Zork Zero saw Infocom dipping its toe into the world of graphics. The text window is presented inside a pretty proscenium arch, one which changes its theme depending on your location in the game, and also provides a handy compass rose showing available exits. Some locations come with a thumbnail icon, many of which are pretty crudely pixelated, but some of which (like the Great Underground Highway) are rather memorable. Most crucially, several important puzzles and story moments rely upon graphics in a way that hadn’t been seen before in a Zork game, or any Infocom game for that matter. In order to make these nifty effects work in Windows Frotz, our interpreter of choice, Dante and I had to do a bit of hunting around in the IF Archive — thus it was that we solved our first puzzle before we even began the game.


Once we did start, we found that graphics weren’t the only way Meretzky found to expand on the Zork legacy. He also expanded on it by… expanding it! Over and over again, we were knocked out by the scope of this game. It’s enormous! Our Trizbort map had 208 rooms, and that’s not even counting ridiculous location “stacks” like the 400-story FrobozzCo building or the 64-square life-sized chessboard. By contrast, our map for Zork I had 110 rooms, and Zork III had a meager 59. So many locations. So many puzzles. So many objects. So many points! You’ll score a thousand hard-won points in a successful playthrough of Zork Zero. Dimwit Flathead’s excessiveness is a frequent butt of Meretzky’s jokes in this game (e.g. a huge kitchen that “must’ve still been crowded when all 600 of Dimwit’s chefs were working at the same time”), but if Dimwit were to design an IF game, it would definitely be this one.

The largesse still doesn’t apply to writing noun descriptions, though. For example:

There's nothing special about the cannonball.

There's nothing unusual about the herd of unicorns.

It looks just like the Flathead Fjord.

Even this late in Infocom’s development, they still hadn’t adopted the ethos that the most skilled hobbyists would take up later, of enhancing immersion by describing everything that could be seen.

Similarly, inventory limits are still around to vex us, and they hit especially hard in a game like this, which is absolutely overflowing with objects. Because of those limits, we followed our tried-and-true tactic of piling up all our spare inventory in a single room. In the case of Zork Zero, we knew we’d be throwing a bunch of those objects into a magic trophy case cauldron, so we stacked them in the cauldron room. By the time we were ready for the endgame, that room’s description was pretty hilarious:

Banquet Hall
Many royal feasts have been held in this hall, which could easily hold ten thousand guests. Legends say that Dimwit's more excessive banquets would require the combined farm outputs of three provinces. The primary exits are to the west and south; smaller openings lead east and northeast.
A stoppered glass flask with a skull-and-crossbones marking is here. The flask is filled with some clear liquid.
A 100-ugh dumbbell is sitting here, looking heavy.
Sitting in the corner is a wooden shipping crate with some writing stencilled across the top.
A calendar for 883 GUE is lying here.
You can see a poster of Ursula Flathead, a four-gloop vial, a shovel, a box, a spyglass, a red clown nose, a zorkmid bill, a saucepan, a ring of ineptitude, a rusty key, a notebook, a harmonica, a toboggan, a landscape, a sapphire, a glittery orb, a smoky orb, a fiery orb, a cloak, a ceramic perch, a quill pen, a wand, a hammer, a lance, an easel, a wooden club, a bag, a silk tie, a diploma, a brass lantern, a notice, a broom, a funny paper, a stock certificate, a screwdriver, a gaudy crown, a ticket, a dusty slate, a treasure chest, a blueprint, a saddle, a fan, a steel key, a walnut shell, a manuscript, an iron key, a package, a T-square, a fancy violin, a metronome, a scrap of parchment, a proclamation, a cannonball, a sceptre and a cauldron here.

That certainly wasn’t everything, but you get the idea.

In fact, this game was so big that its very size ended up turning into a puzzle, or at least a frustration enhancer. Dante and I flailed at a locked door for quite a while before realizing that we’d had the key almost since the beginning of the game. We forgot we’d obtained an iron key by solving a small puzzle in one of our earliest playthroughs, and the key itself was lost in the voluminous piles of stuff we had acquired. When we finally realized we’d had the key all along, it was nice to open up the door and everything, but it also felt a bit like we should be appearing on the GUE’s version of Hoarders.

Not only did the scope of Zork Zero obscure the answers to puzzles like that, it also functioned as a near-endless source of red herrings. It’s possible to waste immense amounts of time just checking locations to see if you’ve missed anything, because there are just so many locations. The FrobozzCo building was of course an example of this, but even more so was the chessboard, which soaked up tons of our time and attention trying to figure out what sort of chess puzzle we were solving. Not only was exploring the whole thing a red herring, but so was making moves and doing anything chess-related!

The cover of Zork Zero

On the other hand, the game’s sprawling vistas can also evoke a genuine sense of awe, somewhat akin to seeing the Grand Canyon from multiple viewpoints. There was a moment in the midgame where we’d been traversing a very large map to collect various objects, and then the proper application of those objects opened up a dimensional gateway to an entirely new very large map. Shortly afterward, we realized that in fact, the puzzle we’d just solved had in fact opened up five different dimensional gateways, some of which eventually connected to our main map but many of which did not! Moments like that were breathtaking, not just because of all the authorial work they implied, but also because of the gameplay riches that kept getting laid before us.

Sometimes, to make things even sillier, the effects of the giant inventory would combine with the effects of the giant map. One of those offshoot maps mentioned above contained a special mirror location, which would show you if there was anything supernatural about an object by suggesting that object’s magical properties in its reflection. Super cool, right? Well yeah, except that inventory limits, combined with incredible object profusion, required us to haul a sliver of our possessions during each trip to the mirror, and each trip to the mirror required a whole bunch of steps to accomplish. (Well, there was a shortcut through a different magical item, but we didn’t realize that at the time, and in fact only caught onto that very late in the game, so didn’t get much of a chance at optimization.)

So yes, the mirror location was a wonderful discovery. Less wonderful: hauling the game’s bazillion objects to the mirror in numerous trips to see if it could tell us something special. But then when we found something cool that helped us solve a puzzle: wonderful! This is quintessential Zork Zero design — an inelegant but good-natured mix of cleverness, brute force, and sheer volume. The capper to this story is that there’s one puzzle in particular that this mirror helps to solve, but we fell prey to Iron Key Syndrome once again and somehow failed to bring that puzzle’s particular objects (the various orbs) to the mirror, obliging us to just try every single one orb in the puzzle until we found the right one.


Those orbs felt pretty familiar to us, having just recently palavered with Zork II‘s palantirs. (Well, the game calls them crystal spheres, but c’mon, they’re palantirs. Or, as Wikipedia and hardcore Lord of the Rings people would prefer, palantíri.) However, familiar-looking crystal balls were far from the only Zork reference on hand. As I said, Zork Zero appeared late in Infocom’s history, and with the speed at which the videogame industry was moving, Zork I had for many already acquired the reflected shine of a bygone golden age. Thus, nostalgia was part of the package Infocom intended to sell with this game, which meant Zork tropes aplenty.

One of the best Zorky parts of the game concerns those dwellers in darkness, the lurking grues. In the world of Zork Zero, grues are a bygone menace. As the in-game Encyclopedia Frobozzica puts it:

Grues were eradicated from the face of the world during the time of Entharion, many by his own hand and his legendary blade Grueslayer. Although it has now been many a century since the last grue sighting, old hags still delight in scaring children by telling them that grues still lurk in the bottomless pits of the Empire, and will one day lurk forth again.

Oh, did I fail to mention that this huge game also contains an interactive Encyclopedia Frobozzica, with dozens of entries? Yeah, this huge game also has that. In any case, “the bottomless pits of the Empire” might sound familiar to longtime Zork players, or to readers of Infocom’s newsletter, which was for several years called The New Zork Times, until a certain Gray Lady‘s lawyers got involved. As NZT readers would know, there was a time before Zork was on home computers, before it was even called Zork at all. It was called Dungeon, at least until a certain gaming company‘s lawyers got involved.

In Dungeon, there were no grues in the dark places of the game, but rather bottomless pits — a rather fitting fate for someone stumbling around in a dark cave, but the game was more than just a cave. As the NZT tells it:

In those days, if one wandered around in the dark area of the dungeon, one fell into a bottomless pit. Many users pointed out that a bottomless pit in an attic should be noticeable from the ground floor of the house. Dave [Lebling] came up with the notion of grues, and he wrote their description. From the beginning (or almost the beginning, anyway), the living room had a copy of “US News & Dungeon Report,” describing recent changes in the game. All changes were credited to some group of implementers, but not necessarily to those actually responsible: one of the issues describes Bruce [Daniels] working for weeks to fill in all the bottomless pits in the dungeon, thus forcing packs of grues to roam around.

Sure enough, in Zork Zero prequel-ville, when you wander into a dark place, you’ll get the message, “You have moved into a dark place. You are likely to fall into a bottomless pit.” In fact, at one of the lower levels of the enormous map, we found a location called “Pits”, which was “spotted with an incredible quantity of pits. Judging from the closest of them, the pits are bottomless.” Across the cavern, blocked by those pits, was “an ancient battery-powered brass lantern”, another major Zork nostalgia-carrier. Fittingly, to get to the traditional light object, we had to somehow deal with the even-more-traditional darkness hazard.

Lucky for us, yet another puzzle yielded an “anti-pit bomb”, which when thrown in the Pits location causes this to happen:

The bomb silently explodes into a growing cloud of bottomless-pit-filling agents. As the pits fill in, from the bottom up, dark and sinister forms well up and lurk quickly into the shadows. Uncountable hordes of the creatures emerge, and your light glints momentarily off slavering fangs. Gurgling noises come from every dark corner as the last of the pits becomes filled in.

Thereafter, when the PC moves into a dark place, the game responds with a very familiar message: “You have moved into a dark place. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.” Luckily, the game provides an inexhaustible source of light in the form of a magic candle, so there are no terrible light timers to deal with. Some things, nobody is nostalgic for.

A screenshot from Zork Zero showing the message "You have moved into a dark place. You are likely to fall into a bottomless pit."

Lack of a light timer made it easier to appreciate this game’s Wizard of Frobozz analogue, the jester. Like the Wizard, this guy pops up all over the place at random times, creating humorous magical effects which generally block or delay the PC. Sometimes those effects are themselves Zork references, such as when he sends a large deranged bat swooping down, depositing the PC elsewhere as it shrieks, “Fweep! Fweep!” Also like the Wizard, his effects get less funny the more they’re repeated. And also also like the Wizard, he figures prominently into the game’s plot.

However, unlike the Wizard, he functions in a whole bunch of other capacities as well. He’s the game’s primary NPC, appearing to deliver jokes, adjudicate puzzles (especially riddles), occasionally help out, congratulate solutions, and hang around watching the player struggle. He’s not quite an antagonist but certainly not an ally, and you get the sense he’s controlling far more than he lets on. In other words, he’s an avatar for the game itself, and in particular the twinkling eyes of Steve Meretzky.

>LAUGH. G. G. G. G.

Meretzky’s writing is witty and enjoyable throughout — it’s one of the best aspects of the game. He clearly revels in tweaking Zork history, as well as in reeling off line after line about the excessive Dimwit, e.g. “This is the huge central chamber of Dimwit’s castle. The ceiling was lowered at some point in the past, which helped reduce the frequency of storm clouds forming in the upper regions of the hall.” Probably my favorite Zork reference was also one of my favorite jokes in the game:

[The proper way to talk to characters in the story is PERSON, HELLO. Besides, nothing happens here.]

Meretzky is also not above retconning previous bits of Zork lore that he disagrees with, such as his Encyclopedia Frobozzica correction of a detail in Beyond Zork‘s feelies: “The misconception that spenseweed is a common roadside weed has been perpetuated by grossly inaccurate entries in the last several editions of THE LORE AND LEGENDS OF QUENDOR.”

Speaking of feelies, this game had great ones, absolutely overflowing with Meretzky charm. Infocom was still heavily into copy-protecting its games via their documentation, and in typically excessive fashion, this game did that many times over, providing a map on one document, a magic word on another, and truckloads of hints (or outright necessary information) in its major feelie, The Flathead Calendar. This calendar called out to yet another aspect of Zork history, the wide-ranging Flathead family, with members such as Frank Lloyd Flathead, Thomas Alva Flathead, Lucrezia Flathead, Ralph Waldo Flathead, Stonewall Flathead, and J. Pierpont Flathead. The game’s treasures are themed around these figures, which was not only a lot of fun but also allowed me to do a bit of historical education with Dante, who still references Flatheads from time to time when mentioning things he’s learning in school.

The feelies establish a playful tone that continues through to the objects, the room descriptions, and the game’s general landscape. There are also great meta moments, such as the “hello sailor” response above, or what happens when you dig a hole with the shovel you find: “You dig a sizable hole but, finding nothing of interest, you fill it in again out of consideration to future passersby and current gamewriters.” Also enjoyable: the response to DIAGNOSE after having polymorphed yourself, e.g. “You are a little fungus. Other details of health pale in comparison.”

Meretzky even brings in a trope from Infocom’s mystery games, in probably the most ridiculous joke in the entire thing. There’s a location containing both a cannonball and a number of “murder holes”, “for dropping heavy cannonballs onto unwanted visitors”. This is obviously an irresistible situation, and the results are worth quoting in full:

As you drop the cannonball through the murder hole, you hear a sickening "splat," followed by a woman's scream!
"Emily, what is it!"
"It's Victor -- he's been murdered!"
"I'll summon the Inspector! Ah, here he is now!" You hear whispered questions and answers from the room below, followed by footsteps on the stairs. The jester enters, wearing a trenchcoat and smoking a large pipe.
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to order Sgt. Duffy to place you under arrest, sir." You grow dizzy with confusion, and your surroundings swirl wildly about you...
A century's worth of prisoners have languished in this dismal prison. In addition to a hole in the floor, passages lead north, southeast, and southwest.

None of these characters (except the jester) occur anywhere in the game outside this response. Sergeant Duffy, as Infocom fans would know, is who you’d always summon in an Infocom mystery game when you were ready at last to accuse the killer. By the way, the Dungeon isn’t locked or anything — it’s a gentle joke, not a cruel one. The only real punishment is having to traverse the huge map to get back to wherever you want to be. I’ll stop quoting Meretzky jokes in a second, but I have to throw in just one more, because of the surprising fact that it establishes:

1) It's not cooked. 2) It would probably bite your nose off if you tried. 3) You don't have any tableware. 4) You don't have any melted butter. 5) It isn't kosher.

Turns out the Zork adventurer (or at least the pre-Zork adventurer) is not only Jewish, but kosher as well! Who knew? Though, given that the kosher objection comes last, after lack of cooking, tableware, and butter, their commitment may be a bit halfhearted after all.

The cover of Zork Zero's Flathead Calendar feelie

Amidst all the humor, Meretzky hasn’t lost his touch for pathos either, with a design that themes several puzzles around the sense of ruin and decay. For example, we found an instruction to follow a series of steps, starting from “the mightiest elm around.” In Zork Zero, this is an enormous tree stump. Meretzky has learned some lessons from Planetfall and A Mind Forever Voyaging about how to make a landscape that inherently implies its bygone better days. Even in the Zork prequel, the adventurer is traversing a fallen empire.


Zork Zero isn’t just a prequel in narrative terms. As we kept finding old-timey puzzles like the rebus or the jester’s Rumpelstiltskin-esque “guess my name” challenge, Dante had the great insight that as a prequel, this game was casting back not just to an earlier point in fictional universe history, but to puzzle flavors of the pre-text-adventure past as well. Relatedly, as we ran across one of those vintage puzzles — The Tower of Hanoi Bozbar — he intoned, “Graham Nelson warned us about you, Tower of Bozbar.”

He was referencing a bit in Graham’s Bill of Player’s Rights, about not needing to do boring things for the sake of it: “[F]or example, a four-discs tower of Hanoi puzzle might entertain. But not an eight-discs one.” Zork Zero‘s tower split the difference by having six discs, and indeed tiptoed the line between fun and irritating.

However, if we’d been trying to do it without the graphical interface, the puzzle would have vaulted over that line. The game’s graphics are never more valuable than when they’re helping to present puzzles rooted in physical objects, like the Tower or the triangle peg solitaire game. Clicking through these made them, if not a blast, at least bearable. Those interactions do make for an amusing transcript, though — hilarious amounts of our game log files are filled with sentences like “You move the 1-ugh weight to the center peg” or “You remove 1 pebble from Pile #3” or “You are moving the peg at letter D.”

Just as some concepts are much easier to express with a diagram than with words, so are some types of puzzles much easier to express with graphics. Infocom had long been on the record as disdaining graphics, and indeed, I still think text has a scene-setting power that visuals can’t match. Meretzky’s descriptions of Dimwit’s excessive castle have more pith and punch than a visual representation of them could possibly muster. However, a picture is so much better than a thousand words when it comes to conveying a complex set of spatial relations. Even as early as Zork III‘s Royal Puzzle, Infocom leaned on ASCII graphics to illustrate those spatial relationships, because that just works so much better. Once they had more sophisticated graphics available, the range of Infocom’s puzzles could expand. It’s ironic that the first thing they did was to expand backwards into older puzzle styles, but then again it’s probably a natural first step into exploring new capabilities.

Going along with the overall verve of the game, those old chestnut puzzles revel in their old chestnut-ness. Zork Zero is a veritable toy chest of object games, logic challenges (e.g. the fox, the rooster, and the worm crossing the river), riddles, and other such throwbacks. Of course, there are plenty of IF-style puzzles as well. (There’s plenty of everything, except noun descriptions.) Sometimes these could be red herrings too — all the Zorky references kept leading us to believe we might see an echo of a previous Zork’s puzzle. Hence, for example, we kept attempting to climb every tree we saw, fruitlessly.

The IF parts of the game don’t hesitate to be cruel, either. I’ve mentioned that every single Zork game made us restart at some point — well Zork Zero was no exception. In this case, it wasn’t a light timer running out or a random event closing off victory, but simply using up an item too soon. We found a bit of flamingo food early in the game, and fed it to a flamingo… which was a mistake. Turns out we needed to wait for a very specific flamingo circumstance, but by the time we found that out, it was far too late. This flavor of forced-restart felt most like the experience we had with Zork I, where we killed the thief before he’d been able to open the jewel-encrusted egg. The difference is that restarting Zork Zero was a much bigger deal, because we had to re-do a whole bunch of the game’s zillion tasks.

A screenshot from Zork Zero showing Peggleboz, its version of the triangle peg solitaire game

On the other hand, while this game does have a maze, it is far, far less annoying than the Zork I maze. In general, the design of Zork Zero does a reasonably good job of retaining the fun aspects of its heritage and jettisoning the frustrating ones. Except for that inventory limit — interactive fiction wouldn’t outgrow that one for a while longer. And while there are a couple of clunkers among the puzzles (I’m thinking of the elixir, which is a real guess-the-verb, and throwing things on the ice, which is a real head-scratcher), for the most part they’re entertaining and fun.

Before I close, since I’ve been talking about old-fashioned puzzles, I’ll pay tribute to a moment in Zork Zero which beautifully brought together old and new styles. As one of several riddles in the game, the jester challenges the PC to “Show me an object which no one has ever seen before and which no one will ever see again!” Now, we tried lots of solutions to this — air, flame, music, etc. — but none of them worked, and none of them would have been very satisfying if they had worked. Then, at some point, we realized we had a walnut with us, and if we could open it, the meat inside would certainly qualify as nothing anyone had seen before.

Then, after much travail, we were able to find a magic immobilizing wand, then connect that wand with a lobster, which turned into a nutcracker. After that it was a matter of showing the walnut to the jester to solve the riddle. That was a satisfying moment, made up of connecting one dot to the next, to the next, to the next. But it wasn’t quite over:

"True, no one has seen this 'ere me -- but thousands may see it in years to be!"

"I'm very impressed; you passed my test!

That final capper turned a good puzzle into a great one — a solution that felt smart and obvious at the same time. Unfortunately, eating that walnut wasn’t enough to defeat Zork Zero‘s hunger puzzle. (Not a hunger timer, mind you — a reasonable and contained hunger puzzle.)

For that, we needed to become a flamingo, and eat the flamingo food. RESTART!

Sting of the Wasp by Jason Devlin [Comp04]

IFDB page: Sting of the Wasp
Final placement: 4th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

Assuming that “Jason Devlin” isn’t a pseudonym for an experienced author, we have a very satisfactory debut on our hands. Sting Of The Wasp brings one of the year’s nastier PCs in the person of wealthy socialite Julia Hawthorne. In the grand tradition of Primo Varicella, Julia is a vain, preening snob who looks with utter disdain at almost everything around her, including the country club in which the game is set. However, unlike Primo, her schemes don’t run to power grabs — instead, she just wants to find out who took a photo of her in a compromising position with the local golf pro.

It seems that Julia’s wealth comes by virtue (a term probably misapplied here) of her marriage, and because wealth is the most important thing to her, she must guard that marriage zealously. Such guardianship doesn’t appear to include the actual avoidance of adultery, but it certainly encompasses heroic efforts to destroy any evidence of those indiscretions. SOTW is one of those games that let you gleefully and maliciously wreak havoc on a wide variety of places and characters, all in the service of advancing a thoroughly rotten character. As I said, the most prominent example of this sort of game is Varicella, but this game is Varicella played purely for laughs — very few darker undertones burden the spree of unrestrained villainy.

There are a few things that SOTW does particularly well. One is dialogue; the country club is populated with a wide variety of rivals who come in various shades of shrewish and desperate, and Julia’s exchanges with these characters often made me laugh out loud. Many of their remarks come at Julia’s expense — her affairs are an open secret at the club, and they provide the perfect fodder for nasty remarks, such as when Julia happens upon an NPC in the garden:

As she sees you enter, she looks up and grins impishly. “Oh, Julia,” she says, closing her book for a moment. “I’m surprised to see you here. I thought you preferred to do your hoeing in the basement.”

In addition, the NPCs have some great incidental business, and provide the game lots of opportunities to replace standard library responses with something more fun. One of my favorites was this replacement for “You can’t go that way.”:

“Oh dear,” Cissy says as you bump into a low wall. “Julia, you really should try some Ginkgo biloba. I’ve been taken it for months now and I hardly ever crash into walls anymore.”

Okay, so it has a pretty egregious grammar error. I still laughed. The parser, too, gets off plenty of zingers:

>search beverly
You're not a lady cop, and this isn't Cinemax After Dark.

Okay, enough quoting. My point is that SOTW is a funny game, and it’s worth playing just for the humor. Moreover, many of its puzzles are logical and seamlessly blended with the game-world, and its story moves smoothly and sensibly to a dynamic climax. The game makes especially good use of triggers to move the action along. Unfortunately, there are some flaws to contend with as well. For one thing, while the humor is marvelous, there are a number of places where the prose stumbles due to awkwardness or simple mechanical errors. For example:

>read board
Although seemingly impossible, somehow this cork bulletin board, with its oak border and brass inlay, manages to appear elegant. I guess all it takes to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear is money. A fact illustrated by many of Pine Meadows's patrons. On the bulletin board is an announcement.

First there’s a misplaced modifier, attaching impossibility to the cork bulletin board itself rather than its elegance. Next, there’s a voice mixup, as the parser suddenly takes on an identity and asserts itself with “I guess.” If Julia is “you”, who is the “I” speaking in this scenario? Finally, a sentence fragment brings up the rear. A significant number of these problems mark Sting Of The Wasp as the work of a beginning writer.

In addition, while the game is clearly tested and for the most part bug-free, there are still some glitches in implementation. A waiter hands you a glass that never appears. A description mentions exits southeast and south, when in fact they’re south and southwest, respectively. The game would benefit vastly from the attention of a skilled editor and from one more round of testing. These things aren’t too hard to do, and once they’re done, SOTW‘s nasty pleasures will be even sharper than they are now.

Rating: 8.5

Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me! by Mike Sousa and Jon Ingold [Comp02]

IFDB page: Till Death Makes a Monk-Fish Out of Me
Final placement: 2nd place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oh, hallelujah. All through last year’s comp, I kept waiting for a game to come along that I loved enough, and found few enough flaws in, that I could rate it 9.5 or above. It never happened. While there were some excellent games last year, none of them felt to me like they’d entered that rarefied air occupied by past games like Shade, Babel, or Delusions. This year, after going through 25 games, the same thing was happening. Until now.

Despite its somewhat unpromising title, TDMAMOOM is a fantastic game through and through. How do I love this game? Let me count the ways. Okay, first, there’s the writing. Frankly, I could spend the entire review talking just about the writing, it’s so great, so I’ll restrict myself to just a few examples picked more or less arbitrarily. There are numerous instances of excellent foreshadowing, whether of themes or puzzles — in the former case, they add great pleasure on re-reading, and in the latter case they operate as a delightfully subtle but effective hint system. The room descriptions are masterfully done, drawing from an endless well of cleverness to make the typical exit listing sound fresh and interesting. Best of all, the writing in this game is just flat-out funny, sometimes howlingly so. Just one example of many — looking at a palm scanner after you’ve switched bodies with an NPC:

>x panel
Flat black glass, a panel that uses all manner of fancy beams to read
over your palm-print and check you are who you think you are.
Unfortunately, it's not clever enough to realise you now think you
are someone that you actually aren't. Or you think you are someone
who you're not, but really are. Or something like that. Anyway, it's
a pig-ignorant machine.

I love it when an IF game makes me laugh out loud, and that happened frequently in this game.

Then there’s the coding. This coding is good. Really good. A raft of nonstandard verbs get recognized and handled. There are a variety of special commands provided, such as “R” or “REVIEW”, which repeats the room description without using any game time. Descriptions of rooms, objects and events alter themselves in various subtle and blatant ways, depending on what’s come before. Timed events, even events where a huge amount is happening at once, run smoothly along their tracks with nary a glitch. There’s a very fine adaptive hint system, quite sensitive to situation and even possessing a self-destruct capability that removes the blatant walkthrough answers after the comp period has ended. Library messages adapt seamlessly to the PC’s situation and point-of-view.

Oh, and how could I forget the special effects? TDMAMOOM takes control of the interpreter to create a beautiful Infocom/Inform-style look-and-feel; people who don’t care for the general appearance of TADS games should definitely try this one. The game even features a little bit of sound, throwing in a system beep at an appropriate time.

Working with the coding and the writing to propel this game to greatness, the story is killer, a wild thrill ride through surprises small and large. Like its predecessors Delusions and Babel, TDMAMOOM takes place in that most favored of IF locales, an isolated scientific research station. I won’t even get into the plot here, because players should experience it for themselves with as few spoilers as possible up front, except to say that it all fits together very nicely, and every time I had doubts, the game anticipated them and tied up the loose ends.

Along with all this, just a quick word about the puzzles: many of them are not only inventive but pitched at just the right level of difficulty, providing several of those wonderful “aha!” moments for me. Some of them are rather complicated, but they’re always scrupulously fair. I ended up turning to the hints so that I could see more of the game before time ran out, but I think if I’d had the time available, this game’s puzzles would have rewarded me for spending it.

So we’re talking about a pretty phenomenal game, here. In fact, almost depressingly so, given that I’m an entrant this year and TDMAMOOM is miles better than my game. It’s not perfect, mind. I found a few spelling and grammar errors, and there were times I wished for clearer descriptions of events and objects. But those flaws are minor and cosmetic, and they do nothing to change the fact that this is a damn good game. Bravo.

Rating: 9.8

When Help Collides by J.D. Berry [Comp02]

IFDB page: When Help Collides
Final placement: 18th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

I already knew that J.D. Berry is funny. Even setting aside his sardonic posts to the IF newsgroups, who could forget The IF Chive? For those of you who have, in fact, forgotten (or never knew), the Chive was an IF-themed version of satirical newspaper The Onion, full of wacky features like an editorial by an impassable steel door, and headlines like “IF-Comp author feels own work should have finished several places higher.” (It’s currently archived at http://www.igs.net/~tril/if/humor/chive/, and is worth checking out.) I also knew, from games like The Djinni Chronicles and Sparrow’s Song, that Berry is a skilled game author, too.

What I hadn’t yet seen was a really funny Berry game. Oh sure, there are some humorous bits in all his games, and no, I’m not forgetting Chico And I Ran — it’s just that the humor in that game was specifically targeted to song and TV show parodies, and much of it fell rather flat for me. So I hadn’t yet seen the game where I felt Berry unleashed his full comic powers… until now. When Help Collides is a strange, exuberant, wildly funny piece of work that hits the ground running and then sprints into some places that are very weird indeed. Actually, that’s not quite accurate — it’s pretty weird from the beginning.

It seems you’re the consciousness of a hint system, or something like that. People come to you for hints with various games, and you use some very simple technology at your disposal (like pressing a button labeled (H)ELP, which broadcasts the hint) to aid them. However, your easy job has recently been made less easy by the fact that your Help Ship (yeah, I’m not sure I understand either) has recently collided with a Self-Help Ship, resulting in exchanges like this:

A beautiful woman looks up and asks, "Is there a better ending that
the one I achieved?"

"Another idiotic thing women do is questioning if they could have
done better. Hello? Where were you before you got married? Did you
not ask yourself such questions? You've made your ending, and now you
have to lie in it."

or this:

A man in a 19th century suit looks up and asks, "How do I get past
the prospector?"

"Early in my career, I spent much of my time getting past people who
want to talk your ear off and waste your time. I call such people
prospectors. They have tunnel vision. They have an axe to grind. They
know exactly what they want, but they don't know exactly where to
find it, so they'll dig wherever's closest.

It was a tiring game, going out of my way to avoid these people.
Usually, my ten-mile bypass left me worse off than if I had just
talked with them.

I complained about this to my mentor.

He said, "there are going to be prospectors in everyone's life. The
trick is to make them realize early that there's no gold inside you.
Once they realize you have nothing to offer, they'll ignore you."

And then it hit me. My mentor was mocking me."

Each terrible hint is followed by the asker reacting in disgust, and leaving negative feedback for the hint system. Too much of this negative feedback can result in the hint system’s immediate demise, which lends a strong sense of urgency to the sequence. I cannot express how much I loved these bad hints. Some of them parody adventure game hints. Some of them parody self-help books, and self-help culture. Taken together, they deliciously skewer not only those two things, but IF conventions as well. Even facing the destruction of the PC, I had a difficult time actually getting motivated to fix the problem, because I found the results so extremely funny.

I’m glad I did fix it, though, because after this sequence the game becomes something entirely else. It’s rather difficult to talk about, because When Help Collides turns out to be several games in one, of which I only played one-and-a-half (in addition to the starting game puzzles). Those separate games are worthy of their own reviews, and I can’t help wondering how they would have done had they been released separately. Still, from what I saw they were thematically tied, if rather loosely so.

There is a problem, though, with the structure that presents these interconnected games. They’re quite sealed off from the initial game, so much so that in fact it isn’t obvious at all that other games even exist until the initial game ends. The feelies suggest the presence of multiple scenarios, but the method for accessing these is obscure enough that I ended up having to go to the walkthrough for it. I find it easy to imagine someone missing the boat entirely, and therefore missing out on a great deal of the fun. Something a bit more straightforward to introduce these other scenarios would have been welcome. The subgame that I finished, a parody of a Dungeons And Dragons tournament, was also very funny, and an interesting game in its own right. Like the initial game, it has some problems here and there, but is overall a lot of fun.

I seem to have written quite a bit already, and I need to wrap it up, so: lest I forget, I do have some complaints about When Help Collides. First, as I mentioned above, the method for accessing the subgames is too obscure. Second, it does that thing where it pauses waiting for a keystroke, but doesn’t tell you it’s doing so, and consequently I ended up missing a bunch of text several times because I was already typing my next command. I don’t like when games do that. Finally, it’s too big for the comp. Sort of. It’s like three or four smallish comp-sized games in one. I got a little more than halfway through in two hours. Individually, the games are an appropriate size, but together, they’re far too much for the judging time. Those quibbles aside, When Help Collides is a clever, innovative, and fiercely funny joyride.

Rating: 9.4

Guess The Verb! by Leonard Richardson [Comp00]

IFDB page: Guess The Verb!
Final placement: 11th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Here’s a sentence I never thought I’d write: Guess the Verb is fun. In fact, I’ll go even better than that: Guess the Verb is great! I was quite worried when I saw the game’s title, fearing that I faced another Annoyotron, or at best a riff on the Textfire game Verb!. What I got instead was a highly enjoyable comp game that I’m eagerly looking forward to revisiting after the judging period is over. What a bargain! For one thing, the game is just screamingly funny. In fact, even the meta-game materials are hilarious. Not two minutes after loading up GTV I was giggling like a loon. My wife walked past and asked, “Good game?” “I haven’t even started the game yet!” I replied. “I’m just reading the instructions!” Those instructions are not to be missed, and they set the tone wonderfully for the rest of the game, a riotous spoof on IF that skewers everything from pretentious authors and critics (like myself) to overly literal parsers to shopworn genre conventions.

Here’s what’s even better: even though GTV is a spoof, it is simultaneously a really fun game. The first puzzle, for example, makes terrific mockery of IF parsers, but it is also at the same time a clever, original, and completely fair puzzle, one which gave me that invaluable “Aha!” feeling once I had figured it out. Examples of this kind of dual excellence abound throughout the game, and there are so many examples I loved that it’s hard to pick one, so I’ll just select this room description from early on in the game:

The Midway
The lights and noise of the midway seem hollow and dull compared to
the aura of excitement you felt at the verb guessing booth. You
survey the sights around you as though through different eyes: the
merry-go-round, the concession stand--they seem so pedestrian now.
You feel a strange attraction pulling you back towards the southwest,
as though a ham-handed author were trying to place hints into the
room description that the game would progress a lot faster if you
went back to the verb guessing booth already.

This is a lovely parody on the tendency of IF authors to give rather clumsy hints in the midst of otherwise banal descriptions of objects and rooms, in hopes of giving the player a friendly shove in the right direction. But even as GTV lampoons the silliness of that technique, at the same time it enacts that very technique and achieves the hoped-for effect. Stuff like that makes me smile very, very widely.

Another great feature of this game is its impressive replayability. The plot branches randomly into five small scenarios, and I don’t think that all five scenarios are reachable in a single play session, at least not without very copious amounts of UNDOing, and perhaps not even then. Each scenario is well worth visiting, even the briefer ones, so there’s a reason for replay right there. Not only that, the game is just stuffed full of Easter eggs. I played for two hours, got to the end, and was rewarded with a long list of amusing things to do, things that I’m just itching to go back and try, especially knowing how many of the game’s jokes truly were amusing. In fact, even when some of the scenarios get cut off, GTV sometimes compensates you with additional items that can be used in a bunch of entertaining ways.

This game wasn’t perfect — mercifully, I found no coding errors, but there were there were a few typos here and there, and the very beginning of the game is lumbered with a misfeature that forces you to enter some very specific information before you can get to a standard prompt that allows you to restore, script, restart, etc. Those quibbles aside, however, I can say without reservation that this is by far the best game of Guess the Verb I have ever played or could ever hope to play.

Rating: 9.7

The Arrival by Stephen Granade as Samantha Clark [Comp98]

IFDB page: Arrival, or Attack of the B-Movie Clichés
Final placement: 4th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Arrival is the first HTML-TADS game I’ve ever played, certainly the first competition game ever to include pictures and sound. I was quite curious as to how these elements would be handled, and maybe even a little apprehensive. I wasn’t sure that a lone hobbyist could create visual and musical elements that wouldn’t detract from a game more than they added to it. But Arrival dispelled those fears, handling both pictures and sound brilliantly. The game’s ingenious strategy is to cast an 8-year-old as its main character, which makes the fact that most of the graphics are really just crayon drawings not only acceptable, but completely appropriate. Just for good measure, the game chooses “Attack of the B-Movie Clichés” as its theme and subtitle, thereby making the cheese factor of the special effects (which is pretty high) actually enhance the game rather than embarrass it. The pictures are delightful — the crayon drawings evoke a great sense of childhood and wonder while continuing the humorous feel of the whole game. The spaceship (two pie plates taped together) and the aliens (in the author’s words “the finest crayons and modelling clay $2.83 could buy”) are a scream — I laughed out loud every time I saw them. The game also includes a couple of very well-done non-crayon graphics, one an excellent faux movie poster and the other a dead-on parody of a web page, both of which I found very funny. The sounds, though sparse, are equally good — the sound of the alien spaceship crash-landing startled the heck out of me. I’m not used to my text adventures making noise! But a moment later I was laughing, because the noise was just so fittingly silly.

However, all the funny pictures and sounds in the world couldn’t make Arrival a good game if it wasn’t, at its core, a well-written text adventure. Luckily for us, it is. The game is full of cleverly written, funny moments, and has layers of detail I didn’t even recognize until I read the postscript of amusing things to do. The aliens, who bicker like a couple of married retirees touring the U.S. in their motor home, are great characters. Each is given a distinct personality, and in fact a distinct typeface, the green alien speaking in green text while the purple alien has text to match as well. If you hang around the aliens you will hear quite a bit of funny dialogue, and if you manage to switch their universal translator from archaic into modern mode, you can hear all the same dialogue, just as funny, rewritten into valley-speak. The game has lots of detail which doesn’t figure in the main plot but creates a wonderfully silly atmosphere and provides lots of jokes. For example, on board the ship is an examination room, where by flipping switches, pulling levers, or turning knobs you can cause all sorts of machinery to pop from the walls and perform its function on the gleaming metal table, everything from laser beams to buzz saws to Saran Wrap. In addition, Arrival is one of the better games I’ve seen this year at unexpectedly understanding input and giving snarky responses to strange commands, which has been one of my favorite things about text adventures ever since I first played Zork. Even if you can’t (or don’t want to) run the HTML part of HTML TADS, it would still be well worth your time to seek out The Arrival.

However, don’t be afraid to rely on hints. I had played for an hour and hadn’t scored a single point when I took my first look at them. Now, once I got some hints I determined that the puzzles did in fact make perfect sense — they weren’t of the “read the author’s mind” variety and I would probably have come to solve them on my own. Perhaps the presence of pictures, sound, and hyperlinks threw me out of my IF mindset enough that I was struggling more than I should have with the puzzles. That’s probably a part of it, but I think another factor was that all the details in the game ended up becoming a big pile of red herrings for me. There are quite a few items and places which have no real use beyond being jokes, and I found it quite easy to get sidetracked into trying to solve puzzles that didn’t exist. It’s not that I don’t think those pieces should be in the game; I actually find it refreshing to play a game where not every item is part of a key or a lock, and even as it caused me to spin my wheels in terms of game progress, it helped me ferret out a lot of the little jokes hidden under the surface of various game items. However, if you’re the kind of player who gets easily frustrated when your score doesn’t steadily increase, don’t be afraid to rely on a hint here and there. Just remember to replay the game after you’re done so that you can see what you missed. Besides, that pie-plate spaceship is worth a second look.

Rating: 9.6

The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm Und Drang by Neil DeMause as Anonymous [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Frenetic Five vs. Sturm und Drang
Final placement: 13th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Here’s my confession: I love superheroes. Ever since my first Marvel comic at age six, I’ve always been a fan. Even now, well into my twenties and possessing a Master’s degree in English Lit, I still make sure I get my monthly superhero fix. Yes, I know that violent revenge power-fantasies do not great works of literature make. Yes, I love comics and I know that the comics market is overcrowded, to the exclusion of other quality works, with bulging musclemen in tight spandex. Yes, I know that the constant deaths and resurrections of the superhero set strain plausibility to the breaking point. (Though really, who cares about plausibility? We’re talking superheroes, here!) And yes, I’m disturbed by the almost grotesquely idealized bodies (especially women’s bodies) relentlessly depicted in superhero comics. But what can I say? No matter how guilty it gets, it’s still a pleasure.

Consequently, I was anxious to start playing The Frenetic Five, and gave a small cheer when Comp97’s magic shuffler put it towards the front of the line. I’ve always thought that the whole superhero genre would make a great one for IF — if it’s a great power fantasy to watch some comicbook character shoot fire out of his hands, how much greater to actually play the character that does it! I quickly learned that FF is in fact a superhero spoof (seems that very few people who think of themselves as sophisticated can enter the superhero genre without wearing the bulletproof bracelets of satire and ridicule), and a very funny one too, in the tradition of Superguy. You play Improv, whose power is the ingenious use of household objects, and other members of your team include a boy who can see tomorrow’s headlines, and a woman who can find lost objects by clapping her hands (named, of course, The Clapper). The prose maintains a consistently high quality, from the characters’ dialogue with one another to the snappy responses provided for some unlikely actions (“>GET HOUSE” brings “You can count the number of superheroes you know who can lift an entire house on one finger: Forklift Man. (Come to think of it, Forklift Man could lift an entire house with one finger.)”) It’s hilarious.

Sadly, there are some problems as well. For lack of a walkthrough, I was unable to complete the game, and this frustrating experience revealed most of the game’s shortcomings. First of all, I was disappointed that my supposed super-power was not implemented, as it would have been one of the most natural (and coolest) hint systems ever devised. Anytime I needed help with a puzzle, I could have just drawn on my “super Improv power” to help me make the intuitive connections between those ordinary household objects. Instead, the game left me to hope that I (as a player) developed those MacGyver talents on my own. Not likely, I’m afraid. In addition, the game did not meet the challenge of allowing me to use even this setup, because it did not allow alternate solutions to puzzles by using objects in unconventional ways. Very few alternate solutions were implemented, and few are even anticipated with a snarky response. For example, when tied up, I tried many unconventional ways to escape my bonds (cut them with my shard of glass, put eyeglasses into sunlight to focus the light into enough heat to burn the ropes, blow on the eyeglasses to put them in the right place, bite the ropes, wrap duct tape on my fingers to get more than one object at a time, etc.) Each attempt was met with one of two (equally lame) responses: either very clumsy non-recognition of the verb (“You can’t see any bite here.”) or “That’s not really possible in your current state.” I got the impression that the author hadn’t really thought about all the clever things that could be done with the inventory objects provided, just the one clever thing that would solve each puzzle. Finally, there were a number of just plain bugs in the game, which always decreases the fun factor. The Frenetic Five has an excellent premise and, on the level of prose, an excellent execution. However, interface design and implementation are too important to be treated the way this game treats them, and it suffers for it. I’m still waiting for the game that does superheroes just right.

Prose: As mentioned above, the prose was excellent throughout all of the game that I saw. The dialogue and characterization for each member of the team was sharp and funny, and room descriptions (which adapted somewhat to the character’s mental state) were both concise and vivid. Even some of the most everyday IF responses were considerably enlivened by the superhero treatment — for example, saying “Down” in a locale where that direction is not available evokes the response “Sadly, you’re not equipped with the ability to tunnel through solid ground.”

Plot: Since I wasn’t able to complete the game, I can only report on as much of the plot as I saw, which was basically pretty middle-of-the-road superhero cliché. Since this was a spoof, of course, clichés were a good thing, and many of the touches (like having to take the bus to the supervillains’ hideout) were quite funny. The landscape, the premise (SuperTemps, whose logo is a muscled forearm holding a timesheet), and the spoofing of venerable superhero tropes (a mission interrupts relaxation, the villains explain their nefarious scheme to the bound heroes, etc.) were all very cleverly done. There were some coincidences which strained even the generous boundaries of satire, but I’ll discuss those below.

Puzzles: In fact, I’ll just discuss them right here. The puzzles were a weaker part of this game. I found basically two types of puzzles in the game. One group was the puzzle based on extremely contrived circumstances — for example, the door to the villains’ hideout uses a “guess-the-big-word” lock, and what do you know, I happen to have someone on my team whose superpower is guessing big words! Lucky me! The other type of puzzle was supposed to have drawn on my character’s superpower, the ingenious use of household objects. However, since this power wasn’t implemented (as a hint system) within the game, I was left to think of these ingenious uses by myself, the problems of which have already been discussed above.

Technical (writing): I found no errors in grammar or spelling in this game.

Technical (coding): I think the main failure of the coding was the one I’ve already discussed: the lack of depth in coding alternative uses for inventory items. When a game’s main character is someone whose primary trait is the ingenious use of objects, it is incumbent on that game to provide specific code for as many of those ingenious uses as possible. Frenetic Five fell well short in this regard. The game also had a few regular bugs, including the most egregious occurrence of the typical TADS disambiguation bug I’ve ever seen — when I and my team members were tied up, and I tried to do something with the ropes, I was asked “Which ropes do you mean, the ropes, the ropes, the ropes, the ropes, or the ropes?”


Phlegm by Jason Dyer as Adjacent Drooler [Comp96]

IFDB page: Phlegm
Final placement: 17th place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

A thoroughly whacked-out romp through realms of surrealism only barely touched on by Nord and Bert, Phlegm is pretty low on logic, but quite high on goofy gags. Perhaps its funniest moment comes in its opening screen, where it bills itself as “An Interactive Interactive”; it’s the kind of joke that’s only funny the first time, but since it is the first time, it worked for me. Also, in spite of the author’s assurance that it is impossible to make a mistake that renders the game unwinnable, I managed to do it, and I wasn’t even trying! (For the record, it’s because I put the toy elephant in the cart and then torched it with the flame-thrower.) Phlegm wasn’t really hilarious, but it provided a number of smiles, and even its puzzles were logical in an illogical kind of way. In many ways, the game is like its opening joke — lots of fun at the moment, but not anything you’d ever want to repeat.

Prose: Lots of cleverly funny little touches, from Leo the lemming whispering “Rosebud…” to the “Lil’ Terrorist brand Flame-thrower.” The prose was generally lots of fun to read, even if at times the silliness became a wee bit more irritating than amusing.

Difficulty: Well, I found myself looking at the hints quite a lot, but I’m not sure whether that’s because the puzzles were simply difficult, or difficult to take seriously. For some reason, I found myself unwilling to agonize about how to handle the guitar-playing lunatic, and wanted to look at the hints in order to see more of the jokes, since a game like Phlegm suffers quite drastically from a reduction in pace. So I suppose you could say it was a difficult game, but then again I’m glad I approached it the way I did — a plotless work like this one begs to be finished rather than battered.

Technical (coding): The coding was on the whole quite strong. I only found one weak spot, which was the fact that I discovered that I could carry the powder as long as I was holding the grail — it didn’t need to actually be inside the grail. Somehow I don’t think this is what the author intended.

Technical (writing): The writing was pleasantly error-free, which made the humor much more accessible and easy to digest.

Plot: Well, I couldn’t really say there was much of a plot, but on the plus side I don’t think much of an attempt was made at one either. So the game was plotless (aside from the very most basic “get-the-treasure” motivation), but it didn’t suffer all that much from being so.

Puzzles: Some of the puzzles were quite funny, and extremely reminiscent of Nord and Bert, especially those involving the needle. Then again, some others (the flame-thrower, for example), failed to be a lot of fun in their irrationality. In general, though, I’d call the puzzles successful in what I deduce to be their aim — parodying typical IF problem (the references to Balances were especially funny) and providing nutty goals in an off-kilter universe.