City Of Secrets by Emily Short [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2004.]

IFDB page: City Of Secrets

Life In The Big City

Here’s a quote from the ABOUT text of Emily Short’s City Of Secrets:

This game is meant to be playable even by someone who has never encountered interactive fiction before, and be a gentle introduction to the genre. It is not terribly difficult, nor is it possible to die until the very end. One playthrough is estimated to take about three hours.

After playing through the game once, I feel I can say with confidence: “Three hours? HA!” I will happily grant that Short has undertaken a considerable effort to make CoS newbie-friendly, but for someone who is at all interested in exploring the game’s world, three hours is a very conservative estimate indeed. It took me almost three hours just to reread the transcripts of my traversal through the story.

But that’s the thing with interactive fiction, isn’t it? I suppose it’s quite possible that an experienced player on a serious mission, who declines to examine the scenery, who asks only the most pointed questions of NPCs, and who treats the entire thing as a series of puzzles to be solved, could conceivably complete CoS in three hours, but such a player would be missing out on a great deal of the richness that this game has to offer. In fact, I’d make the case that the game’s openness to newcomers and (what for lack of a better word I’ll call) its size are of a piece — they both contribute to one of CoS‘s best qualities: its deep, robust interactivity.

Examples of player-friendliness are everywhere in this game, but here’s one of my favorites:

> attendant, show me the book please
[While your good manners are appreciated, it's unnecessary to append terms like "please" to your commands.]

To talk to a character: Type >GREET to begin a conversation. You will get a list of options of things to say. If you want to change the topic of conversation, type >T and (assuming that's a valid topic) you'll get a new menu of conversation choices.

Now that is just pure class, since 99% of IF games would have just spat out “I don’t know the word ‘please'” or (only slightly better) had the attendant give a blank look or some other “don’t know” response. CoS, on the other hand, anticipates a word that’s likely to confuse the parser, targets it, and responds to it (and to the inappropriate conversation syntax) with a set of instructions to help players communicate more effectively with the game. Besides little touches like this, CoS provides copious documentation, particularly an excellent sample transcript. I especially admired this transcript for using a clever technique that I don’t remember seeing before — it shows the events just leading up to the beginning of the game, and thus not only teaches the rhythm of IF but also serves as story prologue and provides further character depth to the PC.

Once I was through the prologue and wandering the streets of the game’s titular City, I was frankly astonished at the depth it offers. Yes, the vast majority of scenery objects are described, frequently down to second and third levels. This sort of thing is becoming more de rigueur in modern IF, though it’s rarely pulled off with the thoroughness that Short achieves here. In addition, room and object descriptions change to reflect the past experiences of the PC, demonstrating knowledge of other parts of the game once it’s been acquired. Beyond that, random scene-setting messages serve not only to make the City actually feel populated, but to play some of the subtle, sinister notes that hint at plot and theme.

Beyond these are the characters, of whom there are many and most of whom are able to act and converse on a very large variety of topics. I’ll discuss NPCs and conversation further below, but suffice it to say for now that CoS‘s 2003 XYZZY award for Best NPCs was very well-deserved. Beyond the NPCs, and perhaps most impressive of all, is the avalanche of ancillary material available in the game. My mouth was literally hanging open as I perused a bookstore and found volume after volume that I could actually read — pieces of fiction, historical background on the setting, gentle jokes set within the game’s milieu, and on and on and on. Now I don’t mean to suggest that entire novels or histories are actually embedded within the game — that kind of detail would move from dedication into insanity — but more effort went into the book objects in CoS than goes into the entirety of some other games.

Oh, and lest I give the impression that City Of Secrets merely overwhelms with quantity, let me hasten to point out that its quality also remains very high throughout. Short’s typically elliptical and evocative prose falls in layers that pile up to create vivid, intense images — this woman can get more mileage out of sentence fragments than any author I’ve ever read. She’s found a way to deploy them that seems perfectly suited to IF, especially object and room descriptions. The dialogue, too, was top-notch, and plot-advancing moments happened with satisfying smoothness. The milieu, also, was a great deal of fun — magic and science side-by-side, computers and spells combined. Of course, this idea isn’t exactly new, but it felt fresh in Short’s hands.

All of these sterling qualities — the great writing, the remarkable implementation, the incredible depth — make me ache all the more when I think of the game’s actual history. City Of Secrets was originally commissioned by a San Francisco synth-pop outfit called Secret-Secret, who devised the story and some basic marks for the game to hit. At that time, it was intended to serve as a bonus feature for one of their upcoming CDs. Short has never revealed many details about how this deal fell apart, but fall apart it did. Thus ensued the next stage of the game’s life, in which the band agreed to let Short release CoS as freeware IF, and she decided to try ramping up the fun by creating feelies and offering them through As an additional incentive, the game would be available to feelies orderers a little earlier than to everyone else. Then Real Life and the game’s design complexity intervened, causing delays, which in turn engendered a host of vaguely hostile demands and complaints on the IF newsgroups, along with more of the particularly vicious trolling for which Short was already a target.

Finally, City Of Secrets was released publicly on May 1, 2003… and sank. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me. Googling on the past year of Usenet discussion, I can see that the game has gotten a couple of reviews, some hint requests, has been used as an example in various discussions, and has even gotten a little recognition in mainstream press outlets like Maximum PC and Games magazines. Still, this is the most major work by one of the best and most important IF authors of the last decade, and a landmark game by many different measures — it seems to me that it is vastly underrated and under-discussed. This is the kind of thing that makes authors disillusioned, makes them feel that their hard work is without purpose, and prompts them to turn away from writing IF. The fact that Short has not done so is a true testament to her dedication to this medium. Of course, I’m one of the guilty parties here, writing this review more than a year after the game’s public release. I hope that if you’re reading this and you’ve never played City Of Secrets, you’ll be moved to check it out, and to post your reaction to SPAG,, or some other appropriate outlet.

Now that I’ve expended considerable fervor on building the game up, let me discuss a few of its flaws. One difficulty I occasionally encountered in the game is that the demands of its story or its implementation occasionally worked at cross purposes to the role playing I wanted to do as the PC. For me, the primary example of this dissonance occurred at the very beginning of the game, as I am whisked away from my ordinary journey to a friend’s wedding and into the City’s hotel. When this happens, a bellhop takes my suitcase, but fails to bring it to my room. Now, if this were to happen to me in real life, recovery of that suitcase would become my primary goal. The game, however, treats the disappearance as barely worth noticing, and insists that I go to sleep before allowing me to do any searching for my missing possessions. Even when I can question the concierge about my luggage’s whereabouts, the conversational menu options never allow me to be particularly assertive in my efforts to recover it. As a designer, I can understand perfectly why City Of Secrets wants to remove an item whose realistic implementation would add several layers of complexity to the game situation, but in this instance and a few others, the game could have done a better job at providing in-character reasons for such abstraction.

Speaking of conversational menu options, City Of Secrets further explores the conversation system that Short innovated for Pytho’s Mask and Best Of Three. As explained above, it requires GREETing an NPC and then setting a topic, which may or may not bring up a menu of conversation options. I like this system, but I can only imagine how much of a bear it must be to implement. Managing conversation topics to the extent that CoS does, especially with its abundance of characters, requires meticulous knowledge modeling in order to ensure that particular topics and phrasings are available to the player neither too early (before she’s had a chance to learn about them) nor too late (when she’d want to ask something appropriate but isn’t offered the option.) For the most part, CoS does a fine job of this modeling, but it does fall down on occasion, offering inexplicable conversation threads or failing to provide dialogue on an obvious topic. Moreover, the game makes a tactical error in requiring that a conversation be restarted before it evaluates whether or not any menu options are available for the chosen topic, leading to exchanges like this:

>ask bookseller about documents
You approach the bookseller's desk.

"Hello again," he says.

You can think of nothing to say about that.

Such responses give the impression of a mildly autistic PC, who routinely starts conversations, only to stand slack-jawed moments after they begin. Also, as some others have noted, it’s a bit annoying not to be able to return to certain unused options when they would still be valid.

Still, when the conversation engine works, it works well, and that’s the case for most of this game. There are a great many NPCs, quite a few of whom are implemented with responses on a dizzying array of topics. The game’s characters not only respond to questions, but start conversations of their own, introducing new topics with their own associated option menus. Moreover, they define themselves not only through dialogue, but through action — the spice seller who twists his ring nervously, or the City nurse who looks at you sharply enough to stop you from blurting out something stupid. Some NPCs will even accompany you for parts of your journey, then wander off to pursue their own agendas. With Galatea, Short established herself as someone with a particular flair for deeply implemented NPCs, and her work in City Of Secrets reinforces and enriches that reputation.

A more unexpected achievement is the game’s storytelling ability. Many of Short’s games have had sketchy or absent plots, but City Of Secrets unfolds a layered story, replete with intrigue and thematic unity. As the game progresses, new bits of information reveal more about who can and cannot be trusted, and several fun reversals and surprises lay in wait throughout. The pieces drop satisfyingly into place as the end approaches, just as they should in a good mystery story. Moreover, a replay or reread of the game illuminates lots of juicy foreshadowing and judicious ties that thread through its beginning, middle, and end. True to form, Short’s design provides several paths through the story, and multiple solutions to many important problems. I haven’t yet replayed the game as a more self-interested or evil PC, but I could see that such opportunities were available. I’d love to see a more thorough description of which parts of the story were provided by Secret-Secret and which ones came from Short herself, because the unified whole works very well indeed. There were apparently such making-of notes on the original game CD, so perhaps Short or someone else could be persuaded to upload a scan of these to the IF Archive.

I think my favorite thing about City Of Secrets is that it gave me several pieces of writing to treasure, things that I wanted to enshrine and remember. A quote from the denouement now appears in my collection of randomly rotating email signatures. Queen Rine’s Meditation Upon Passion now hangs on my office wall. More than any other IF game I can think of, City Of Secrets offered me ideas that feel like they apply directly to my life — that’s the mark not just of a great game, but of a great work of art.

Colours by J. Robinson Wheeler as Anonymous [Comp01]

IFDB page: Colours
Final placement: 32nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Colours comes out of an IF impulse I’m starting to recognize. The game has no interest whatsoever in story or characters, and instead uses the tools of IF to build a large, complicated, inhabitable puzzle. If Games Magazine had an interactive edition, this game might be included. I think it shares a kinship with games like Ad Verbum, or the less satisfying Schroedinger’s Cat, but I’m not sure what to call games like these — perhaps “plotless IF”, since they’re so unconcerned with telling a story.

I don’t think that quite covers it, though. Even the venerable Zork series could be considered plotless IF, given that its PC is a complete cipher, and that the game’s skeleton mainly exists to support a variety of clever puzzles, but I don’t think it’s in quite the same species as something like Colours. For one thing, one of the pleasures of Zork (and its imitators) is the wonderful landscape descriptions provided throughout. That’s in stark contrast to this game, where most of the rooms (at one point or another), are described along these lines:

Clear Room
The walls of this room are made of a sheer, shiny substance that is
neither wood nor metal nor plaster nor plastic. They have become
completely transparent. Exits lead north, east, south and west.

There’s a kind of purity to this aesthetic that Zork doesn’t even approach. It’s as if the game wants to provide the barest possible structure on which to hang its puzzles, and the puzzles themselves tend to be rather abstract exercises in pattern-matching. There’s another difference too: Colours (and games of its ilk) offers a cohesiveness that’s absent from more freewheeling games like Zork. The entire gameworld hews to a unified set of rules, and the puzzles tend to be variations on a theme — in the case of this game, that theme is (you guessed it) colors. (Well, there’s also a word theme, but that’s subservient.) This is the sort of genre to which Colours belongs, but I really need to come up with a name for it so that I don’t have to spend a paragraph each time I find one. Suggestions welcome.

Because I come to IF looking to be immersed in a story and a setting, These Sorts Of Games aren’t exactly my cup of tea, but I can still enjoy them when they’re done well. Once I recognize that the crossword has utterly defeated the narrative (in Graham Nelson’s terms) and adjust my expectations accordingly, I’m ready to indulge in the pleasure of pure puzzle-solving. Of course, what that means is that an entirely different set of expectations falls into place. Games whose sole purpose is their puzzles had better provide interesting challenges, problem-free implementation, and clear solutions in case I get badly stuck.

On many counts, Colours doesn’t disappoint. I found its puzzles entertaining for the most part, and found no errors in its prose. On the other hand, I also encountered one serious flaw that drastically reduced my enjoyment of the game. Without giving too much away, the problem is that there are some game states where crucial items appear to have vanished, when in fact they are present but totally undescribed. This sort of environment manipulation is a big no-no in IF — I’m relying on the text to present an accurate picture of the world, especially in pure puzzle games (hmmm, “pure puzzle games”… might work.) When it doesn’t, an element critical to pleasure in puzzling has disappeared.

I went through Colours twice, because due to the apparent absence of vital items, I thought the game had closed itself off without warning. When I encountered the same problem a second time, I trundled desperately over to ifMUD, where someone kindly told me that the items really are there, contrary to what the descriptions might have me believe. As a result of these travails, my experience in playing the game went from being a fun cerebral exercise to being an exercise in frustration.

The other area in which Colours didn’t quite come up to snuff was in the solutions it provided. Two bits of help accompanied the game: some vague hints appear when the player types HELP, and then a complete walkthrough exists as a separate text file. The problem is that the HELP text gives suggestions that are just flat wrong. In fact, for those who haven’t yet played the game, here’s my advice: ignore what the help text tells you to start with. You don’t yet have to tools to deal with that. Instead, start with exploration, and with a close look at the text on the game’s accompanying jpg image.

Then there’s the walkthrough, which is very helpful on some points, and not at all helpful on others. The walkthrough’s approach is to explicate the concepts behind the game, and to tell how to accomplish the puzzle goals, but not to provide a step- by-step solution. Consequently, due to the “hidden items” problem described above, I found myself staring at the walkthrough and thinking, “but how am I supposed to do that?” I certainly understand the impulse not to just lay everything flat in the walkthrough — I didn’t even provide a walkthrough with my own comp entry, a decision I’m beginning to fret about now — but the danger in not laying out a stepwise answer is that if there are problems in the game itself, the walkthrough becomes pretty useless. Luckily, this problem probably won’t be very hard to fix, and if Colours sees a post-comp release, it will probably end up as an enjoyable puzzle-box for those who like that kind of thing. In its present incarnation, however, I found that its charm faded quickly into confusion.

Rating: 6.5