In The Spotlight by John Byrd [Comp98]

IFDB page: In The Spotlight
Final placement: 21st place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Well, this one certainly didn’t break the two-hour rule. In fact, I finished it in around eight minutes. The game consists of one puzzle, and that’s all. The puzzle is clever, and relatively well-clued, and maybe I just got lucky in figuring it out as quickly as I did. Still, I can’t imagine spending more than a half hour at this game — there just aren’t that many objects, so the number of combinations is similarly small. The author tells us that the puzzle is one he read about in Science magazine in the early 80’s. That makes sense, since the answer relies on some intuitive physics knowledge, and the puzzle is fairly satisfying to solve. I’m not sure if the red herrings were included in the magazine version, but even if they were they didn’t distract me too much from doing the right thing.

In The Spotlight is sort of the opposite of the famous (or infamous) “puzzleless IF” — it’s nothing but a puzzle. “Storyless IF.” Actually, I could see a game like this being pretty entertaining, even educational, if it strung several of these sort of situations together. Gareth Rees’ The Magic Toyshop from the 1995 competition was a bit like this, though it was more oriented towards games than puzzles, and its solutions often involved “thinking outside the box” of the game (also known as cheating in some circles.) What I’m envisioning is somewhat different. I know that there’s a tradition of “thought puzzles” like the one in Spotlight, a tradition that’s been around since before the advent of IF. I remember reading them as a kid, or working through them in various classes as mental exercises. Perhaps IF authors would do well to look to this tradition for innovative puzzles which break the usual “lock-and-key” mold. Of course, a great many of those puzzle situations (including the one in this game) are somewhat contrived, but the same thing could be said about a large percentage of IF puzzles, including many of the best. I think I’d really enjoy a game like that — sort of an interactive version of the “Fun and Games” column in the old print version of Omni magazine (I think that was the column’s name. Someone will correct me if I’m wrong, no doubt.)

In The Spotlight isn’t that game, though. It’s one lone puzzle, and thus a little difficult to rate. On the one hand, the writing and coding are both quite good; I found neither bugs nor English errors anywhere in the game. Then again, this level of excellence was sustained for a remarkably short time. Consequently, I can’t rate the game very highly — there’s just not enough there. (On the plus side, if all the rest of the competition games are this length, I just might finish them all before the deadline!)

Rating: 5.1

She’s Got A Thing For A Spring by Brent VanFossen [Comp97]

IFDB page: She’s Got a Thing for a Spring
Final placement: 4th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

She’s Got a Thing For a Spring (hereafter called “Spring”) is one of the most delightful and well-written games I’ve played in a long, long time. Its author is one of the few professional writers who has created interactive fiction, and his expertise shines throughout the game. Spring is set in a mountain wilderness with no magic spells, no high-tech devices, in fact no fantastical elements of any kind. Yet this game imparts a sense of wonder that is matched by only the very best interactive fiction. I found some of the scenes absolutely breathtaking in their beauty. Living in Colorado, I’ve spent a fair amount of time is settings similar to those described by the author, and I felt that the prose perfectly conveyed the both the tiny joys and the majestic grandeur of the mountains. In addition, the game’s code usually dovetailed neatly with its prose, creating at its best a seamless experience of walking in nature.

Spring also introduces an interface innovation for conversing with NPCs. The game keeps track of the last NPC with whom the player has interacted and what type of verb (e.g. “give”, “ask”, etc.) was used in that interaction. Then whenever the player is around that NPC and types in a word not recognized as a verb by the parser, the game tries to use that word to interact with the NPC, using the current verb type. It creates interaction like this:

>ask bob about woods
"Lots of aspen around here. I just love the forest."

"Aspens are my favorite trees."

This is a very smart move, and it works superbly in the game. What enhances the NPC experience even more is that the game’s primary NPC (Bob, a friendly old gent who lives alone in the woods) is coded very well. He goes about his business with or without the player’s presence, and it is possible to have a long conversation with him without breaking mimesis. The author has clearly gone to great lengths (including, I think, some close scrutiny of Gareth Rees‘ source code for Christminster) to make sure that his NPC is one of the most realistic and satisfying in IF. The depth of this NPC works along with the game’s outstanding prose to create an extremely realistic gameplay experience.

However, the intensity and power of this realism brings with it a certain burden, and it’s a burden that the game is not always prepared to handle. One problem was that some of the puzzles required me to act in a way that I felt was out of character. [SPOILERS FOLLOW (highlight to read)] For example, one puzzle required me to take the roll of toilet paper out of Bob’s outhouse and burn it. Now, a typical IF character would have no compunction whatsoever about this. But in Spring, the protagonist is supposedly a regular, kind person — for her to steal and burn the only toilet paper from a man who shows her nothing but kindness and hospitality is a significant break from character, especially since Bob does not grant permission to do so. [SPOILERS END] Other puzzles required a bit more verb-guessing than I care for, especially the walking stick puzzle. In addition, Bob is missing a few important responses, and the game also has some basic bugs. Still, the fact that these flaws are so jarring is a strong indication of what a high standard the game sets, and minor problems do not greatly detract from the fact that Spring is a wonderful piece of IF, as refreshing as a pine-scented mountain breeze after an invigorating hike.

Prose: The prose in Spring is simply first-rate. The author’s professional writing experience is clear throughout the game. In fact, the prose is of such a quality that it’s hard to talk about it without wanting to simply quote long passages and allow the writing to speak for itself. I’ll save those surprises for the game, but I have to comment on one or two favorite scenes. I remember coming upon the fireflies and gasping in awe. The author creates a mesmerizing, magical picture of these fantastic creatures. I had similar reactions to all the wildlife in the game. In fact, though I said above that the game has no fantastical elements, that’s not precisely true: the element of fantasy in the game is that it presents a nature trip as one wishes it could always be. Sighting elk clashing antlers with each other, encountering someone as nice as Bob, walking into a cloud of fireflies: these are magical moments. When they happen on a real camping trip, they are foremost among the memories you bring back home with you. In Spring, all that happens and more. Its magic is in bringing rare moments together to be experienced all in one sitting, yet never taking away the sense of preciousness carried within each moment.

Plot: Spring wasn’t really a plot-driven game. It has a relatively simple goal, and the pleasure of the game comes from exploring the milieu rather than stepping through a more complicated story. Still, there were some interesting aspects to the plot pieces that were there. One thing that sets Spring apart is that its character is set within a warm, happy marriage. The context of that relationship bubbles under all the events in Spring, and even brings a degree of sexuality in the game’s ending. Presenting sex in the context of a positive, healthy relationship is a rare thing to do in IF, especially since Spring is nature writing rather than romance. The one drawback to the plot, as I mentioned above, is that it sometimes required actions that were out-of-character. Perhaps with some fine-tuning to Bob, this problem could be remedied.

Puzzles: I thought the puzzles were a weaker part of Spring. While it was wonderful to wander around the lovingly described wilderness, it was hard to get anywhere without doing some things that I wouldn’t expect the character to do. Perhaps the answer to some of these problems is to give Bob a little different attitude. [SPOILERS AGAIN] Perhaps have him offer to give the player a hint as to how to get rid of the wasps, then offer to let her use the toilet paper. Otherwise, she’s doing something morally wrong by burning it. Again, this would not normally be a problem in most genre IF, but Spring is a different sort of beast, or it feels that way to me. [SPOILERS END] Other puzzles were rather non-intuitive, like the egg/foam connection. I used the hints for almost every puzzle in Spring, and I’m a good enough player that I think that means there’s something wrong.

Technical (writing): The writing was, predictably, flawless.

Technical (coding): I’m a lot more inclined to be forgiving when an author takes on a significant coding project such as the NPC interaction innovation in Spring. Consequently, the fact that there were quite a few bugs in the game did impact its final rating, but not as significantly as it might have.