Sardoria by Anssi Raisanen [Comp03]

IFDB page: Sardoria
Final placement: 13th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

Okay, I know it’s bad form to start out a game review with a screed about the system it’s written in, but Alan is on my last nerve. First of all, I think I’ve mentioned before that I really dislike its lack of scripting capability. I keep having to remember to call up the scrollback and copy my latest moves into a text editor, and this is irritating in two big ways. First, having to constantly keep an eye on this really breaks immersion for me — I can’t get fully into the game when I’m having to manually monitor this administrative task. Second, if I do happen to become immersed, then I invariably end up forgetting to bring up the scrollback until too late, when the buffer only has half the moves I’ve made since my last copy-paste operation. Bad enough to have to copy from the buffer at all, but the fact that it only seems to hold a minimal amount of the scrollback makes the whole thing extremely aggravating.

The other problem that I just discovered with Alan is the apparent lack of portability in its save files. The way I play comp games often involves a lot of switching machines — laptop on the bus in the morning, work machine at lunch hour, home machine at night. Usually, this is no problem; I just drop my saved game onto a floppy and start up from it at the next machine. However, I discovered that whenever I try to restore a saved Alan game from another machine I get this infuriating message: “Sorry, the save file did not contain a save for this adventure.” It’s very, very annoying to restore “sardoria.sav” and be told that it’s not a save for Sardoria. I don’t know whether these flaws are in the language or the interpreter, but they just drove me crazy with this game, maybe because it’s a little larger or more ambitious than most other Alan games. (Certainly more so than The Adventures Of The President Of The United States, the other Alan game in Comp03.)

Whew, thanks for letting me get that off my chest. On to Sardoria. Well, I’m sorry to say that Sardoria also drove me crazy in its own ways, beginning with the very first room. It’s one of those games that starts with the PC imprisoned — thrown into a locked cellar, in this case — so the first puzzle is getting free. I must have spent 20 minutes trying out different commands in that room, none of which seemed to do anything for me. Finally, I turned to the hints and was told that I “need to find another object hidden in the cellar.” Well thanks, but that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the last 20 minutes, without success. Any more hints? Nope, “[t]here are no more hints for this location.”

Finally, I turned to the walkthrough, and found that the command the game was looking for was something that I would never have thought of doing, because it doesn’t really make much sense. The result is that as I’m doing the nonsensical action, I happen across the hidden item. “No fair!” I cry. It was especially galling because I had specifically checked the area where the item was hidden, and was told in clear terms that there wasn’t anything there. This sort of frustration happened to me over and over in the game; I tried on all of them, but I think I ended up looking at the walkthrough for every puzzle but one or two. Often I’d come close to the solution but failed to find the exact route desired by the game (shades of Gourmet), and sometimes the solutions just flat-out made no sense to me. There were also occasions when the actions required made a sort of sense, but were far too vague or arbitrary.

Many of these problems could have been overcome, or at least alleviated, if Sardoria had provided better feedback. More and more, I’m convinced that this is a crucial element of successful interactive fiction, at least IF with puzzles in it. When a player gets close to the solution, the game should indicate that rather than giving a flat “nothing happens” sort of response until it gets the exact right set of commands. Moreover, if players think of an alternative solution, the game should be able to either let them utilize that solution or provide a convincing reason why they can’t. How can an author provide this level of feedback? It’s all about the testing. Get at least three testers for your game, with a sufficient variety of approaches between them. Then, watch for the things they try. If they get close to the answer, your game should provide some appropriately encouraging feedback.

This is especially important in a game like Sardoria, where many of the puzzles are one kind of combination lock or another, most of whose combinations verge on the totally arbitrary. This is a subject that deserves a more detailed treatment, but I’m unable to do that in a spoiler-free review, so all I can say is that designers must anticipate the majority of player responses and handle them appropriately. It’s a lot of work, yeah, but it can be the difference between exciting and exasperating for puzzly IF.

Rating: 5.3

[Postscript from 2021: In a subsequent discussion on, someone pointed out that in fact, it is possible to create a game transcript in Alan if you start the interpreter with a “-L” switch at the command prompt. Fair enough, but I stand by my response from that discussion:

“You know, somebody probably told me that last year, too. Unfortunately, I immediately forgot because this is such an amazingly clunky and unintuitive way to provide a game transcript. I want to type SCRIPT and have the game start logging a transcript to a file. I do not want to have to open up a DOS window and start the game with a special switch from the command prompt, especially since I will almost inevitably have the interpreter and the gamefile in different directories (something the Arun interpreter barely knows how to handle as it is) and will thus be forced to type out an entire path for one or the other of them.

Anyway, I amend my complaint from ‘Alan provides no scripting capability’ to ‘Alan’s scripting capability is far too hidden and inconvenient.'”]

Gourmet by Aaron A. Reed [Comp03]

IFDB page: Gourmet
Final placement: 5th place (of 30) in the 2003 Interactive Fiction Competition

A few years ago, I was searching around for a way to describe Liza Daly’s Dinner With Andre, and came up with “sitcom IF.” That moniker seems apt enough to describe Gourmet, a game that aims for screwball humor but too often is just screwed up. Not that the problems are obvious at first — indeed, the premise and opening scenes are delightful — you’re the harried chef and owner of a brand new restaurant on the night that a famous dining critic is to visit. Of course, everything goes wrong: your entire staff flakes out, your food supplies are woefully minimal due to late distributors, and all your fancy new equipment seems primed to malfunction. I was having a ball picturing the PC as a Kelsey Grammer type, a model of urbane sophistication whose cultured veneer gets slowly dissolved by an avalanche of calamitous and kooky circumstances.

Much of the writing is witty enough to pull it off, too — objects both animate and inanimate acquire an air of implacable comic malice, and the setting is packed with fun little details, such as the range-top knobs that the PC had custom made to go up to eleven. Characters, though one-dimensional, are nicely evoked, and the game has a neat little structure too, divided up into hors d’oeuvres, first course, and main course, just as you serve the finicky critic.

Sadly, Gourmet quickly falls victim to the same problem Dinner With Andre had, which is this: having decided that wacky problems deserve wacky solutions, the game fails to anticipate enough of the sensible (or even alternately wacky) solutions that might spring to the mind of a desperate player. It’s difficult to talk about these without getting too spoilery, but here goes. Take one instance where an uncontrollable mess is happening in the kitchen. The game anticipates the first obvious recourse and stymies it. Fair enough. The next recourse might be something like blocking and cleaning the mess with a towel — surely any kitchen has towels, right? Wrong. Not only are they not implemented, neither is the reason for their absence. Certainly I’ll grant that this level of realism is a lofty and difficult goal, but much of the game turns on the tension between the realistic demands of the setting and the ridiculous circumstances created by the plot. Players who are pushed and prodded about in the name of realism have the right to expect a satisfyingly thorough implementation thereof.

A more blatant example: you need to prepare a particular drink, which requires the proper vessel. Stunningly, however, your kitchen is so unequipped as to completely lack the necessary piece of tableware. In fact, there seems to be only one such item in the entire restaurant. It would be one thing if this bizarre situation was excused with some appropriately goofy explanation, but as it is we’re left to feel that the game is unreasonably shepherding us into wackiness (or even just into puzzle-solving) by virtue of shoddy implementation. Part of what makes these logic gaps so intensely frustrating is that the game really does a great job of ladling on the tension — I restarted several times because I was a nervous wreck with the feeling that too much time was elapsing while I flailed around. I don’t know that there actually are any timers in the game, but it certainly feels like there are, and under that sort of pressure my patience was quite short with what felt to me like halfhearted implementation.

The bugs get worse as the game progresses, soon moving into responses that are absent or outright wrong. I turned to the hints almost right away, and every time I tried to forego them in order to increase the pleasure of the game, I felt that pleasure turning to frustration as I struggled in vain against one buggy or unimplemented section after another. It doesn’t help at all that the game makes such basic errors as making your finger a key plot point, then failing to properly parse “finger”, or parsing “climb” differently from “get on.”

In another pinnacle of frustration, the game presents you at one point with a small animal on the loose that you must find, yet greets any attempt to LOOK UNDER anything with “You expect you would find nothing of interest.” Say WHAT? That is the exact opposite of what the PC would expect (and hope for) in the circumstance. Additionally, some key NPCs are much too thinly implemented, and it’s perhaps a sign of my frustration that even on puzzles that offer multiple solutions, I still found myself unable to even try the ideas that seemed most obvious to me, and ended up turning to the hints in exasperation.

When I got to the point where even one of the solutions offered in the hints utterly failed to work, I knew that Gourmet was a huge disappointment. The game credits no testers (in fact, I couldn’t find anybody besides the author credited at all), and the lack of outside input is all too apparent. There’s at least one in every comp: a game with great potential, clever writing, and fun portions that dissolves into a mind-numbing bugfest at its end, apparently the product of a rush to deadline and a lack of patience. In Comp03, Gourmet is the first game of that type I’ve played, and the letdown is as stinging as ever. If interactive fiction ever got reviews in People magazine, the write-up for this game would probably end with, “BOTTOM LINE: Good ingredients, but undercooked.”

Rating: 6.2