To Otherwhere And Back by Greg Ewing [Comp01]

IFDB page: To Otherwhere And Back
Final placement: 28th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

For the past several years, the IF community has created a variety of “mini-comps” in the Spring of each year, competitions where the games are instructed to stick to a particular concept. These concepts can range from a required image like “a chicken crossing a road”, to the inclusion of a particular element (romance, dinosaurs, the supernatural), to a stipulation about the game structure itself (include the verb “use”, disallow the player from having any inventory.) Furthermore, for as long as there have been Spring mini-comps, they have had an effect on the Fall “maxi-comp,” because inevitably some author has a great idea that fits with the mini-comp, but doesn’t manage to finish by the Spring deadline, so instead polishes the game further and enters it in the Fall comp.

This spillover effect has given us such past treats as Downtown Tokyo. Present Day., and Yes, Another Game With A Dragon!, and now To Otherwhere and Back, a game originally intended for Emily Short’s Walkthrough-comp. The concept behind this particular mini-comp was that entrants had to produce games (or transcripts) that conformed to a particular walkthrough; as a further twist, this walkthrough was in the form of an unpunctuated telegram, containing strings of commands like “TAKE NEXT TURN SMOOTH DUCK DOWN” and “LOOK UP DRESS BOOK SHIP PACKAGE PRESENT BOWL”, which could be broken up in any number of clever ways.

To Otherwhere and Back meets the challenge ably, and in doing so, emphasizes an underrated IF technique: cueing. What we learn from games like this is that IF can prompt even quite unusual input from the player, as long as the setup has been executed with skill and the cue delivered fairly clearly. For example, in order to get me to type the first command from the walkthrough, the game presented me with this situation:

The screen of the debugging terminal is covered with code and
variable dumps. You stare at it with bleary eyes, trying to find the
last, elusive bug that you've been chasing for the last 37 hours
straight. You're so tired, you're having to make a conscious effort
to think.

That first command was, of course, “THINK.” That’s not something I’d usually type in at an IF prompt, because most games just give a canned answer to it, if they give any answer at all. This piece of text, though, was enough to cue me that in this situation, that command might produce something useful, and indeed it does. It’s not that good cueing leads the player by the nose — in fact, the first thing I typed after reading the text above was “DEBUG”, which actually put me into the game’s debugging mode, hilariously enough. But after that didn’t work, I looked at the text again, and was able to discern the right move without looking at the walkthrough. This sort of dynamic is the essence of good cueing, and TOAB does it over and over again. Of course, what’s also true is that Alan‘s heavily restricted parser and the shallowly implemented game world had me looking to cues quite a lot, but in this game that paucity of options was quite appropriate.

What TOAB doesn’t quite manage, though, is to construct a coherent plot. Granted, hewing to a deliberately challenging premise while telling a story that makes sense is quite a tall order — most of the entrants into the walkthrough-comp either came up with some arbitrary reason why those words would be strung together (as in Adam Cadre‘s hilarious Jigsaw 2), or relied heavily on the dream/surrealism/hallucination device to justify the necessary contortions. TOAB pursues the latter option, and its story ends up feeling more than a little arbitrary as a result.

Still, the game applies itself to the walkthrough’s odder moments in some very clever ways, and provides some good laughs, such as the Polish phrasebook that “contains translations of many phrases useful to a traveller in Poland, such as ‘Please develop this film’, ‘How much is the sausage?’, and ‘Am I under arrest?'”. Overall, I enjoyed TOAB, and while the fiction element of it wasn’t so great, its interactivity techniques got me thinking. That’s not a bad track record for a comp game, no matter what comp it might belong to.

Rating: 7.1

The City by Sam Barlow [Comp98]

IFDB page: The City
Final placement: 13th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

The City gave me a very strong sense of deja vu. So many parts are hauntingly familiar. Here’s the story: You wake up, not knowing who you are, where you are, or why you are wherever you are. Sound familiar yet? If not, here’s more: You seem to be trapped in a surreal and inescapable institution. (This institution is called “The City”, hence the name of the game. Yes, that’s right. It’s not about an actual city.). Does this ring any bells? OK, here’s more: your situation is iterative, bringing you back to the same point over and over again. No? Well, how about this: at one point during the game, when you give a command that goes against the narrative’s wishes, the parser replies, in bold letters: “That’s not how you remember it.” This should definitely sound familiar to anyone who’s played the latest Zarf offering. Plotwise, it’s as if somebody chopped up Mikko Vuorinen’s Leaves (another escape-from-the-institution game whose name had only tenuous relation to its contents), added two tablespoons of Andrew Plotkin’s Spider and Web, garnished with a sauce of Greg Ewing’s Don’t Be Late, threw in a pinch of Ian Finley’s Babel, put the mixture into a crust made from tiny pieces of various other text adventures, stirred, baked for 45 minutes at 350 degrees, and served it up for this year’s competition. Now, I’m not entirely convinced this is a bad thing. I think that lots of great works of art, interactive fiction and otherwise, are really just inspired melanges of things that had come before, so I’m not particularly opposed to such derivation on principle. For me, though, some of the derivative aspects of The City didn’t work particularly well. This was especially true for the Spider and Web stuff — I felt that the game crossed the line between homage and rip-off, heading the wrong direction. In addition, the convention of waking up with no idea of who you are or where you are, despite how well suited it is to IF, is starting to feel very tired to me. Perhaps I’m just jaded, or burnt-out, but when I saw the beginning I said “Oh, not another one of these!”.

Now, this is not to say that the entire game was derivative. The plot certainly didn’t break any new ground, but certain aspects of the interface were imaginative and innovative. The City does away with status line and score, not to mention save and restore. Abandoning the first two precepts did lend the game a greater sense of rawness, of the interactive experience being immediate and unmediated by any artificial tracking devices. The absence of save and restore, on the other hand, was a pain in the neck. See, as much as IF might want to emulate real life, it’s never really going to be real life. Consequently, there will be times when I only have 15 minutes to play a game and want to at least get a start into it. Or when a fire alarm goes off and I have to shut things down. Or when my wife wants to go to sleep, and I need to turn off my computer (which is in our bedroom.) You get the idea. At those times, I want to preserve the progress I’ve made. I don’t want to have to start from scratch, and I don’t care how short the game is, I don’t want to waste my time typing in a rapid series of commands to get to where I was when I had to leave the game last time. Especially since with my memory, I’m likely to forget one or two crucial actions which will then oblige me to start over again. Here is the lesson for game authors: please do not disable interface conveniences in the name of realism. It will not win admiration from your players, at least not from this one.

One innovation I did like in The City was its expansion of the typical IF question format. The game allowed not only the typical ASK and SHOW constructions, but also questions (both to the parser and to other players) like “Why am I here?”, “Where am I?”, or “Who are you?” Now, it didn’t allow question marks, which made the whole thing look a bit strange syntactically, but I found it did have a pretty good record of responding realistically to reasonable questions. I can imagine how much work must have gone into this feature, and I think it really made a difference — I felt much freer to question NPCs in a much more lifelike way. Even when I bumped into the limits of this realism (with questions like “what is going on here?”) I still felt outside of the bounds of traditional IF. Unfortunately, the energy that went into this innovative question system must have been leached out of other technical parts of the game. There were a number of bugs in the game, including one that rendered the game completely unwinnable, forcing me to, you guessed it: restart. Since I couldn’t save, and since the bug happened about 2/3 of the way through the game, I had to completely restart and type in all the commands that had brought me to that point — you can be certain I was grinding my teeth the whole time. In a non-competition game I almost certainly would not have bothered, choosing not to finish rather than to waste my time in such a manner. If anybody needs another reason not to disable save and restore, it’s this: when bugs in your code force the player to go backwards, that player will not appreciate having to back all the way up to the beginning. In addition to the bugs in the game’s coding, there were also a number of mechanical errors with its writing as well. These were not egregious, but they were there, and wore on what little patience remained after the bugs, the disabled conveniences, and the ultimately frustrating nature of the plot itself. I think the question system from The City is a valuable tool that could be well-used elsewhere (though I’d appreciate the ability to punctuate my questions with question marks). I would be very happy to see that system integrated into a game with an original plot, working code, and error-free English.

Rating: 5.5

Leaves by Mikko Vuorinen [Comp97]

IFDB page: Leaves
Final placement: 29th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

You might think that a game called Leaves would have something to do with leaves. You’d be wrong. The game’s actual theme is escape: you, as the main character, must escape from a heavily guarded complex. Who are you? It’s not clear. Where are you? It’s not clear. Why are you there? It’s not clear. Why do you want to escape? It’s not clear. What is clear is that Leaves isn’t much concerned with having a story, but rather with setting up a sequence of linear, one-solution puzzles, the completion of which leads to a full score but not much narrative satisfaction.

Now, by the author’s own admission, he came up with most of this stuff when he was fourteen, so the immaturity of the work is fairly understandable. In addition, Leaves is better than the only other ALAN game I’ve played, Greg Ewing’s Don’t Be Late from last year’s competition (though this may be due more to improvements in ALAN rather than any particular ingenuity on the part of the author of Leaves). Finally, since the author is Finnish, it may be that English isn’t his first language, which would help to explain the middling quality of the writing. However, all these considerations aside, the fact remains that this is an immature piece. There’s no story, the writing is mediocre, and several of the puzzles are based on a crude, adolescent fascination with sexuality.

On the positive side, ALAN was coded well. I found no bugs in the code, and although many synonyms were unusable (including an inability to substitute an adjective for a noun, though that may be the language’s design rather than the author’s failing) many surprising responses actually were anticipated. I’m hopeful that, since ten years have passed since Vuorinen came up with the design for Leaves, his abilities have grown. It would be wonderful to see him create the first really high-quality adventure in ALAN, since he clearly knows the language well enough to create a bug-free game.

Prose: There’s nothing particularly wrong with the prose in Leaves. Overall, it’s really quite serviceable. Of course, there’s nothing particularly wonderful about it either. Really, the main thing that the prose fails to do is to give a stronger sense of story. Room and object descriptions in IF can be used to create a marvelously vivid narrative which slowly accretes as the story is explored. The prose in Leaves doesn’t do this. Rather, it provides brief, functional descriptions which never transcend their basic, practical level.

Plot: Well, there isn’t much of a plot to speak of in Leaves. You are imprisoned for some reason, and must escape. Outside of your prison is a forest, inhabited by one poorly drawn character, a cow, and a big rock. Past this, there’s the obligatory underground maze, strewn with a couple of artifacts which the game does not bother to attempt explaining. This is less a plot than a string of dimly conceived settings, each serving as nothing more than a stepping-stone to the next.

Puzzles: The puzzles in Leaves range from the nonsensical (directions which can’t be taken, no explanation given) to the simple (cut wires with a wire-cutter.) For the nonsensical ones, there’s nothing to do but try the limited number of options at hand; pretty soon you’ll hit on the right one. For the simple ones, the answer is pretty much the same, except fewer alternatives need be tried.

Technical (writing): Impressively, I found no grammatical or spelling errors in this game. The same can’t be said for many competition games penned by native English speakers.

Technical (coding): The game was also bug-free. It would be wonderful to see a well-designed game coded with this much care.


Don’t Be Late by Greg Ewing [Comp96]

IFDB page: Don’t Be Late
Final placement: 22nd place (of 26) in the 1996 Interactive Fiction Competition

Very simple game — the first I’ve ever played in ALAN, so I’m not sure how much technical stuff to attribute to the language and how much to the author. Consequently, I’ll attribute all of it to the author. Starting in “your house” with “your computer” on the table strongly reminiscent of Bureaucracy, but not as interesting. Some really grievous parser omissions (I don’t know the word “get”?) Circular structure a fun gimmick, but only for a few minutes. No real puzzles to speak of, nor much of an atmosphere. In fact, there’s really not too much to do besides wrestle with the parser.

Prose: Serviceable, but nothing more. There was so little of it, it’s really hard to judge. Very little description, very few objects. A pretty sparse world. The prose that was there did its job, but nothing more.

Difficulty: Apart from parser struggles, extremely easy. The only thing resembling a “puzzle” would be incredibly easy if it wasn’t for trying to figure out the correct syntax.

Technical (coding): As mentioned, the parser was quite weak. Some extremely standard IF words not implemented. I just about quit when I realized it didn’t know the word “get.”

Technical (writing): What little prose there was showed no significant grammar or spelling errors.

Plot: This was probably the most interesting feature of the game, and it wasn’t really all that interesting. It involves an Escherian reflection — the object of the game is to play the game, and you can apparently play the “game-within-a-game” until you get really tired of it. This will probably happen pretty quickly.

Puzzles: None to speak of. With a quality parser, this game would probably have taken a good 10 minutes to solve.

OVERALL — a 4.8