The Obscene Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf by Gary Roggin [Comp97]

IFDB page: The Obscene Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf
Final placement: 22nd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Oddly enough, due to the vagaries of Comp97 I played The Obscene Quest of Dr. Aardvarkbarf (hereafter called OQDA) immediately after playing its direct competitor in the silly name wars, Phred Phontious and the Quest for Pizza. Consequently, my expectations of OQDA were probably distinctly affected by that recent experience. I was expecting another lackluster game where goofy names and so-so jokes were supposed to make up for careless writing, buggy programming, and weak design. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised. OQDA is a fairly enjoyable college game (with a minor time travel motif) which kept me pretty entertained for the two hours I played it. Of course, this is not to say that the game doesn’t have its problems. It certainly does: there are many spelling and grammar errors (though not as many as in Phred) and some bugs are definitely still in the game (again, my recent experience with Phred made these seem relatively few as well.) Also, there are several elements about OQDA‘s narrative strategies that I found rather grating — more on this later. Still, with some polishing this game could be an enjoyable vignette.

One interesting thing about OQDA is that not every object in its world serves a purpose within the game. There are locked doors that never need (or even can) be opened. There are many objects that serve no specific purpose. In fact, as far as I can tell, there are a number of puzzles that never need to be solved in order to complete the game. This strategy has its weaknesses: the danger of the red herring count exceeding the tolerable limit is quite high, and solving puzzles is less satisfying when you realize that your brainwork has achieved no appreciable results. Still, on balance, I liked the feeling of openness and mystique that resulted from all these frills in the game universe. That, along with the author’s willingness to implement multiple puzzle solutions and the fact that OQDA is apparently the first chapter of an ongoing work, gave me a similar feeling to that which I had when I first played Zork: the experience of being in a mysterious world which is simultaneously a fun game.

However, there were several elements of the game world which I could have done without. One of these is the way that OQDA constructs its player character. You are told from the beginning that you work in your present job because you were expelled from school during your senior year, due to an “incident involving a freshman (of the opposite gender), a stolen time machine and a bottle of cheap champagne.” The opening text makes clear that you mourn your lost career hopes. Fine. After that, though, almost every single room in the campus Physics building has some kind of remark about how you spend your days weeping and crying. Example: upon examining a couch, “You have spent many an afternoon lying on this couch and weeping into the pillows, wondering what happened to your life. It’s very cozy.” After a while of this, I started to wonder why I cared about this miserable loser who seemed physically incapable of getting on with life. I stopped wanting to play the character, because my sympathy and identification were eroded by a stream of self-pitying text. Infidel plays a similar trick with an unsympathetic player character, but while Infidel at least gives you the pleasure of playing an outright villain, OQDA just provides the less thrilling experience of playing a pathetic whiner.

Prose: As I just mentioned, the prose sometimes goes much too far in repeating the same thematic point in object after object. Another example of this is the game’s treatment of the Anthropology building. There are eight locations around the perimeter of the building; six of these use the word “massive”, “looms”, or “towers”, or some combination of these three. We get the point. On the plus side, the humor in the writing often works well, and some of the silly points within the game were really quite funny. I especially enjoyed some of the professors’ names, like French professor Dr. Eaubooboo, or Philosophy teacher Dr. Jobless — “pronounced (zhahb- LAY).”

Plot: Well, it’s hard to say too much about the plot at this point, since the game makes clear that it is only the first chapter of an ongoing saga (the second chapter is apparently scheduled to be delivered for the ’98 competition). So far as it goes, OQDA‘s plot rests on a very realistic device exaggerated to the point of hilarity. Your boss, Temporal Physics professor Dr. Bignose, has asked you to deliver an envelope to a box on his colleague’s desk. He even gives you a key to the appropriate building. However, in typical absent-minded professorial fashion, he isn’t quite sure where he left the envelope, nor can he verify that his colleague’s office is where he thinks it is, or even if that key really unlocks the building it’s supposed to (predictably, it doesn’t). Unsurprisingly, this apparently simple errand turns into a wide-ranging exploration of a very strange campus. It seems to be only a prelude, but it works well.

Puzzles: One great thing about the puzzles in OQDA is that a number of them are solvable with more than one method. Such a capability always takes extra effort on an author’s part, and it does not go unappreciated. The game has its fair complement of locked doors and their corresponding keys, and there are a number of more inventive puzzles as well. The only problem I really found with the puzzles is that a few of them seemed to be based on wanton destruction for no satisfying reason. There’s nothing anywhere in the prose to indicate that the character is evil (only pathetic and possessed of rather bad judgment), so puzzles which require highly destructive actions went against the grain for me.

Technical (writing): There are a goodly number of technical problems in the game’s writing, including misspellings, typos, awkward sentences, and mangled grammar.

Technical (coding): A number of bugs also exist within the game. The majority of these are puzzles which can be solved over and over, and objects which do not behave consistently when their state is changed.


Temple of the Orc Mage by Gary Roggin [Comp97]

IFDB page: Temple of the Orc Mage
Final placement: 26th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Temple of the Orc Mage does not bring new meaning to the term “dungeon crawl”. It’s a generic, Dungeons & Dragons style quest for a magical gem. Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and Temple doesn’t do it exceptionally badly. However, it doesn’t do it exceptionally well, either. The game occupies a sort of limbo between a bland interactive story, with little plot (besides “find the treasure”) and character development, and a bland RPG, with arbitrary magic items and valuables strewn around a dungeon setting so conventional that anyone who’s read a few D&D prefab modules could recite its elements before ever seeing the game (an underground river, a ruined bedchamber, deep pits, tapestries).

This is not to suggest that the game is altogether bad. In fact, it often succeeds at some of the things that an RPG is best at: creating a sense of atmosphere, providing the thrill of vicariously handling fabulous wealth and magic, and giving the feeling that each obstacle overcome simply draws one’s character deeper and deeper into the difficulties. However, there are many important things missing as well, not least of which is any sense of logic to the dungeon and the items found within. For example, how is it that you find fresh meat in a kitchen strewn with cobwebs? How is it that you are the first one to seek after this treasure? Or if you’re not, what happened to everyone else? The game starts with a strong sense of story, and several nice narrative touches, then rapidly devolves into a sort of “just because” logic that poisons any sense that the eponymous Temple is anything more than an arbitrary collection of rooms and magic items. It’s as if the game wants to be a hybrid of IF and RPG, but adopts the least interesting conventions of each category while ignoring the best, making itself a rather dull concoction.

I think that there’s a place for such a hybrid. I’ve always liked Rogue and Rogue-like games, and I think that there’s something to be said for the idea that it’s much easier to find a computer game to provide an immersive RPG experience than it is to find a lot of like-minded peers to provide it. I can envision an IF/RPG game which combines the best elements of IF, including strong story, interesting puzzles, and the feeling of “being there”, with the joys of Rogue — abundant magic and mystery, a strong sense of score, ever-increasing risk and reward, and the feeling that there’s always a possibility of finding some ultra-rare artifact, hidden away in the code for discovery by the lucky and the strong. Recent discussions about RPG-style combat in IF have even tempted me to believe that such a system could exist without being boring or pointless. Now, I admit that I’m much more of an IFer than an RPGer, so there may be such a product out on the market right now which I’m missing simply because I never sought it out. However, one thing is quite clear to me: Temple of the Orc Mage is not it.

Prose: I thought that the prose was actually one of the best features of Temple. More often than not it succeeded in drawing vivid portraits of places and items. The intro is captivating (though it could stand to be broken up a bit), and some of the room descriptions have nice atmospheric touches, bringing in temperature or quality of light to engage the senses. Sometimes the style can become a bit overly utilitarian (listings of exits) or terse (“The ceiling is low and wet. Light filters in from cracks in the wall and ceiling. Water drips slowly from stalactites above. The air is cold.”), but overall I didn’t find it too jarring.

Plot: There was only the most rudimentary of plots: you have decided to brave the scary dungeon to find big money and become a hero! This is a tried-and-true IF convention, so much so that it has become a bit of a cliche. Sometimes cliches can work to an author’s advantage. Not this time.

Puzzles: Too often, the puzzles were either simple (try all your keys until you find the one that opens the locked chest/door) or required just examining the right object. OK, well, maybe those two are the same thing. Still, I generally felt that the puzzles had no rhyme, reason, or thought behind them. They felt generally tacked-on, and on the few times I got stuck, I discovered that the solution to the puzzle is something I would never have guessed, because there were no hints to suggest it. Example: [SPOILERS AHEAD (highlight to read)] There’s a twenty-foot wide pit blocking your way. The solution? Jump over it, and the game tells you “Propelled by the boots, which you now believe to be magical…”[SPOILERS END]

Technical (writing): There were a number of technical errors in the writing, but many (though not all) of these are attributable to typos rather than actual ignorance.

Technical (coding) I found no serious bugs in the game, but there was a distinct lack of implementation for nouns and synonyms. For example, the game describes water in at least a third of its rooms (in fact, there’s a room called the Dry Room, notable simply for its absence of water), but doesn’t know the word “water.” Also, a number of times in the game “examine” will turn up a hidden artifact while “search” returns “You find nothing of interest.”