A Paper Moon by Andrew Krywaniuk [Comp03]

IFDB page: A Paper Moon
Final placement: 12th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

A Paper Moon isn’t a very good game, but it provides some interesting talking points nonetheless. Before I get to those points, though, let me elaborate a bit on the “not very good” part. For one thing, it’s one of those games that goes out of its way to insult and belittle the PC. I don’t have a problem playing a flawed character, but games like this (other prominent examples are Zero Sum Game and Got ID?, not to mention the extreme case of this year’s The Fat Lardo And The Rubber Ducky) don’t have anything interesting to say about the character’s problems, turning instead to insults as a form of faux cleverness. It doesn’t work. For instance, when you come upon an altar in this game:

>x altar
Like your heart, it is made of stone.

Huh? There isn’t anything in particular in the game that shows the character as cruel or heartless — instead, it’s apparently an attempt to be funny. The attempt fails. Another problem in this game is that both the writing and the coding, while not outright bad, are unpardonably sloppy. Things are coded to a reasonable depth, which is great, but bugs are all over the place, including some that seem to make puzzles unintentionally easy. Similarly, the writing does a basically acceptable job of describing everything important, and even pulls off a couple of good jokes, but punctuation is haphazard, especially when it comes to quotation marks, and there’s the occasional utter howler:

Your thinking is attrocious.

Yeah, well, so is your spelling. These problems are aspects of a larger issue, probably the biggest flaw in the game, which is that the whole thing — story, puzzles, prose, and everything — feels fairly half-assed. Disparate elements and genres are thrown together (like, say, a cave with a McDonald’s play area inside) with no attention whatsoever to consistency of plot or tone. Right down to the end, it feels like a story that’s being made up as it goes along.

Problems aside, one worthwhile thing that Paper Moon attempts is to tie most of its puzzles together with the theme of origami — most solutions require some sort of folded paper creation at one point or another. This connection provides a nice unifying thread for the game, but what’s more interesting to me is the fact that although the game provides an endless supply of folding paper, what it does not provide is any sort of list of the shapes into which it can be folded. Instead, it relies on “common knowledge” (which gets the scare quotes because, as various culturally specific puzzles have shown us, whether knowledge is common depends entirely on where and when you come from.)

I’ve never been an origami buff, and consequently have only the most basic information about it in my brain, but surprisingly enough, I didn’t have to turn to the hints for a single origami puzzle. Sure, a lot of the things I tried didn’t work, but enough of my ideas were implemented that I was able to feel quite clever about my solutions. This is a risky game design decision, because it’s almost inevitably destined to fail miserably for some considerable number of people, but when it does succeed, it provides great satisfaction, much better than the average IF inventory or mechanical puzzle. It’s a different level of accomplishment to craft a solution from your own knowledge rather than putting one together by combining or manipulating the obviously implemented elements in the game. Paper Moon employs that strategy multiple times, and for me each one paid off.

The other noteworthy, albeit less effective, feature of the game is its occasional use of unmentioned but implied scenery items as important puzzle components. The first time I can remember seeing this technique used is in Adam Cadre‘s I-0, where a car is a major game object, and even though things like the tires, trunk, seatbelts, and glovebox aren’t explicitly mentioned in the car’s description, they’re implemented and often important. Similarly, Paper Moon sometimes relies on our mental picture of things for some crucial items that need to be examined, even though those items may not be mentioned in the room or item description.

I think the reason that this method didn’t work very well in Paper Moon is that it was done only inconsistently. I-0 was reasonably careful to implement implied items throughout the game, but Paper Moon expects us to look for implied things when it’s chosen to include them, but doesn’t provide the solid coding and consistency of depth that would lead us to expect those implied items always to be there. Consequently, when I first looked at the walkthrough to figure out what I was missing, I was fairly indignant that the item hadn’t been mentioned, and only later on changed my mind and decided that the game was playing fair after all. A Paper Moon isn’t a game I’d really recommend to anyone, but for its brighter moments it makes an excellent example of some underexplored aspects of interactive fiction.

Rating: 6.2

Got ID? by Marc Valhara [Comp00]

IFDB page: Got ID?
Final placement: 29th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Note: There are a couple of obscenities in this review.

I am being tested. That has to be it. How else to explain the fact that immediately after playing 1-2-3…, a game that practically dares you to stop playing and pummels you mercilessly with ghastly, brutal descriptions if you don’t, I end up with this game? This game comes across like a schoolyard bully, one who not only wants your lunch money but who wants to make sure you know that you’re weak and ugly, too. It misses no chance to sneer at and belittle both the player and the PC.

Get this: you play a high school kid, and your goal in the game is to buy beer with a fake ID so that you can bring it to the party at the house of the most popular girl in school, so that maybe she’ll let you sit at the lunch table with her cool clique for the rest of the year. Talk about a concept that I could not relate to — when I was in high school, sitting with the so-called “popular” kids would have been my idea of a punishment, not a reward. Combine this with the fact that from the first sentence, the game makes clear that the PC is less a character than a laundry list of faults: fat, ugly, stupid, deceitful, shallow, etc. etc. Take, for example, this description of the shirt you’re wearing:

Glittery, sparkly, metallic-looking fabrics are all the rage this
season. Unfortunately, they're also extremely expensive. To
compromise, you've glued tinfoil to the front of your tee shirt.

So the game sticks you in this role, and wastes no opportunity to remind you that the character you’re playing is pretty much a waste of oxygen. Then, on top of all that, the game is designed to fling taunts at the player as well. For example, if you do the most obvious thing at the beginning of the game, in fact the thing that is necessary to continue the story, a little sign appears. The game won’t let you alone till you read the sign, reminding you of its presence every turn. What does the sign say? The sign says YOU SUCK. See what I mean about bullying? I half-expected it to print “An asshole says what?”

Now, let me back off a step or two. It’s true that the game is an insult machine, and that I did not enjoy the abuse it heaped on me. However, it may have chosen this approach as a part of its overall tone, which attempts to be a kind of gonzo, over-the-top parody. A parody of what, I’m not sure, since the game seems to hold pretty much everything and everyone in contempt. Perhaps it wants to be a kind of dark, cutting satire — certainly the reference to Jonathan Swift embedded in one of the locations would suggest that it aspires to that kind of humor, but the difference is that “A Modest Proposal” had a point to make, and this game does not, or if it does, the point gets buried under an avalanche of condescension.

However, it wasn’t unremittingly awful. I laughed at a few points. I can envision somebody who might even enjoy this kind of tone, and for that person, the insults would probably fit right in, and might even be funny rather than annoying. I have a small suspicion that this game was written by the same person who wrote Stupid Kittens — they share a few things, like their in-your-face tone and their fascination with dead cats and with refuting cutesiness (oooh, real tough target.) This game feels like what Stupid Kittens might be like if it was more interested in being like a traditional IF game than in being a dadaist excursion. It didn’t appeal to me at all, but perhaps it might appeal to somebody.

After all, it’s not as if the game is badly implemented. All the words seem to be spelled correctly. Its grammar betrays no glaring errors. It’ll insult you, but at least it will do so correctly. Similarly, with the exception of one major bug, its implementation is tested and clean. The puzzles, while rather arcane, all make some kind of sense within the extremely exaggerated world of the game. Of course, that doesn’t make their content any more appealing. In fact, one major portion of the game is unpleasantly reminiscent of I Didn’t Know You Could Yodel — will IF authors never cease to be fascinated with flushing toilets?

Excremental obsessions aside, I found I had a more difficult time than usual with the puzzles in the game, and I think it was because I found the insults so offputting that my travels through the game became more and more desultory. In addition, the hints weren’t as much help as they might have been because, like the rest of the game, they’re working hard to make you feel like an idiot. They mix in fictional and factual hints pretty much indiscriminately, and they don’t give you any hints as to which is which. Between these two factors, I hadn’t solved the game when, after about 110 minutes of play, something happened that forced me to go back to a very early restore. Faced with the prospect of playing through the whole tedious thing again, I declined. I had been itching for a reason to quit anyway, and relished the fact that it was finally my turn to tell the game to go fuck itself.

Rating: 3.9