Cracking The Code by Gunther Schmidl as Anonymous [Comp00]

IFDB page: Breaking The Code
Final placement: 53rd place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Thank god for Stephen Granade. Without him, not only would I think that Cracking the Code is completely pointless, I’d also be totally confused as to what it’s even about. However, thanks to a handy post he wrote on his IF site, I’ve been educated on the controversy surrounding the DeCSS code for decrypting DVD output.

For those of you not in the know, apparently eight big movie studios won a lawsuit against a hacker newsletter for posting code known as DeCSS, code that allows you to decrypt the data on a DVD. This code allows you to write your own DVD player without paying royalties, and to copy the information on a DVD. The law that supported the suit is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which forbids dissemination of information about how to bypass copyright security. According to the judge, you can’t post the code or even link to the code.

Lots of people are up in arms about this perceived restriction of free speech. Somebody even wrote a very funny song about it, with the code in the lyrics — the argument goes like this: if the US First Amendment protects freedom of expression, doesn’t that take precedence over the courts’ suggestion that the code is illegal under the DMCA? And if so, isn’t it legal to spread the decryption code via a legally protected form, such as songwriting?

I suppose the argument goes the same way for this “game”. Really, though, this piece of work does virtually nothing to wrap any kind of creative content around the DeCSS code. It’s more or less an unadorned room with a stub description, containing two pieces of paper that have the code written on them. That’s it. Other than what I just mentioned, it’s an Inform shell game. Minimalist, yes. Entertaining, no.

It’s hard to even call CTC subversive, as it is so clearly uninterested in IF and therefore fails to subvert IF in any interesting way. In my opinion, it also doesn’t do much for making the First Amendment case. I mean, at least the song had a tune, and some lyrics outside the code, and whatnot. CTC, on the other hand, offers nothing at all in the way of IF. It’ll come in handy, though, when I decide to write my own DVD player. That’s on my list right behind sewing my own clothes and authoring an IF game with a homebrew parser.

Rating: 1.2

And The Waves Choke The Wind by Gunther Schmidl [Comp00]

IFDB page: And the Waves Choke the Wind
Final placement: 16th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

ATWCTW is, as far as I can remember, the first competition game that shares its fictional “universe” with a previous competition game. Last year’s Only After Dark featured the same protagonist, namely one Ranil Kuami, dreadlocked seventeenth-century sailor and ex-slave, a man who has the misfortune to run into one horrific situation after another. When I reviewed OAD I said, in the course of lamenting what I saw as the game’s excessive linearity, “I would really like to play a game set in the Only After Dark universe, written and coded as well as the competition entry but offering the player an actual choice once in a while.” This year, I got my wish.

Well, sort of. Apparently, the version of ATWCTW that was entered in the comp this year, despite the fact that it’s 173K and in .z8 format (a combination I confess I don’t quite understand), is actually only a preview of the real ATWCTW, which I assume is forthcoming sometime. Still, even though it ends rather abruptly, as many adventure game demos do, this version is a substantial chunk of adventuring all on its own.

For one thing, it has clearly been coded with a great deal of care. ATWCTW feels almost like a commercial graphic adventure game in terms of the number of features it offers for players. In fact, I rather got the feeling that in some spots it wished it was a commercial graphic adventure game. For instance, the game features cutscenes in several spots, all of which are nicely formatted and can be replayed at any point. It calls these cutscenes “movies”, which of course they aren’t — they’re all text. The choice of words made me wonder if ATWCTW wished it had the resources to become a graphical adventure game.

I’m glad it isn’t. Although the game might gain something from a transition into graphical mode, I think it would lose some things as well, such as the excellent options it offers at the text prompt. ATWCTW gathers nifty features from lots of previous IF games and offers them all. NOTE displays the game’s occasional footnotes. HINT offers context- sensitive hints. (Well actually, it doesn’t, apparently because this is just a preview. The game promises that this command will be available in the full version.) MOVIES brings up a list of cutscenes shown already, any of which can be replayed on command. WHAT IS and WHO IS are available, though they generally don’t offer much (with some important exceptions.) EXITS prints a list of exits from the current location.

Sure, all of these could be worked into a graphical game, but even beyond this, there’s that great sense of openness that a text parser offers. Granted, there are plenty of verbs the game doesn’t recognize, but there are lots that it does recognize, and I found, especially in the first puzzle, that most of the things I thought of doing, the game was equipped to handle.

That first scene is right out of a pulp adventure, and I had a great time solving the puzzle just the same way as any swashbuckling hero would have. Moreover, because of the particular genre of the game (the ever-popular Lovecraftian horror), text has some important advantages over graphics. A good description of horrific sights that defy the laws of nature will always be more powerful than a good movie of the same thing, both because good descriptions can involve all the senses, and because the imagination can encapsulate the idea of a sanity-shattering thing without having to constrain it to any specific visual image.

With all this going for it, I’m sorry to say that ATWCTW doesn’t quite reach its full potential. My experience may have been worse than many others’, because I played the game on my creaky old 386 laptop using DOS Frotz in monochrome mode (the machine doesn’t have a color screen.) About two-thirds of the way through the game, the entire thing apparently broke — I could see the bold header for the room description, but all other text was invisible. Experimentation demonstrated that the prompt was still there, so I restored and tried a different route into the scene, with the same result. Finally, I quit the game and looked at the transcript I had made, learning that text had in fact printed, but I couldn’t see it.

Playing a hunch, I started up the game in color mode, and discovered that not only was I now able to see the broken scene (albeit faintly), there were lots of other things I had missed in monochrome mode as well, because the game presents them in color. However, unlike other color games (such as Varicella), ATWCTW failed to test for color usage or even to warn me that it planned to use color. This failure was disappointing, especially given the level of quality attained by the rest of the game.

There were a few other flaws, such as the occasional awkwardness of the game’s prose: “And suddenly, as if a fog lifted from your eyes, you are totally clear.” The word “clear” here might be trying to convey alertness, wakefulness, visibility, invisibility, sobriety, comprehension, or a number of other things. As it is, however, the meaning is (pardon the pun) unclear. In addition, the plot up to this point still doesn’t offer that many options, its geography quite linear and many of its events quite unavoidable. Still, the preview of ATWCTW is an enticing peek at a game that shows every indication of being a major work. If its main objective was to get me interested in the full version, mission accomplished.

Rating: 8.5

Only After Dark by Gunther Schmidl as Anonymous [Comp99]

IFDB page: Only After Dark
Final placement: 17th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Seems like just a few reviews ago I was positing that the trend of the 1999 competition is non-interactive games, those games which give you only one choice of how to proceed, whether subtly or overtly. And now, as if only to vindicate my trendspotting ability, here comes Only After Dark. This game moves along like a teenager learning to drive a stick shift — lurching forward, then halting, then lurching forward again. The lurches are at points where the game shoves you into the plot without giving you much choice in the matter, and the halts are when it waits for you to find the one and only way out of the situation it just forced you into. Now, to be fair, I should say that the game is a little more interactive than, say, Life on Beal Street or A Moment of Hope. It does have a parser. There are no moments (at least, not as far as I could tell, anyway) when it just flat-out ignores what you type. However, there are several scenes where the game absolutely will not let you do anything but what the rigidly linear plot calls for.

Actually, this description fits almost every moment in the game — the advancement of the plot is enforced by meeting any deviation with either an abrupt ending to the game (usually via the death of the PC) or with some variant of “You can’t do that.” For example, there is one scene where the PC is in jail. The plot calls for him to go to sleep. Therefore, there is absolutely nothing you can do but go to sleep. Every other attempt at action is blocked, and the game gives intermittent hints along the lines of “There’s nothing else to do but go to sleep.” Mess around long enough, and the game puts the PC to sleep by force. Now, my question is this: if all I was going to be allowed to do is sleep, why even give me a prompt at all? Why not just say “You’re hustled into a jail cell, and although you attempt to escape, your attempts are thwarted. Deciding there’s nothing to do but sleep, you settle down into the uncomfortable bed, awakening the next day to a very strange scene…” Sometimes there’s a perfectly reasonable answer to this question, something along the lines of wanting the player to identify with the PC’s sense of imprisonment. But when every scene plays like this, and the game forces the player into really stupid decisions because it has made no provision for alternatives, the whole story starts to feel like a prison.

The other way in which the game enforces its plot is to present the player with situations in which there is one correct move, and any other action leads to death. Again, this sort of thing has its place as a technique, and can often be effective when used wisely. However, its vulnerability is that it tempts the designer toward guess-the-verb situations and save-and-restore puzzles — sometimes even both at once. Just as vexing is the fact that dying over and over again fails to be entertaining rather quickly. Only After Dark, sadly, neither resists the temptation nor finds a way around the boredom. Take the initial puzzle, for example. I won’t give away the situation or the solution, but the structure is this: the PC’s life is in danger. There’s only one thing he can do to save himself. If he doesn’t do that one thing he will die. You have one move to make the correct choice. The action is vaguely clued before the choice must be made, but I still ended up with a dozen death messages before I hit on the solution, simply because there is so little time to solve the puzzle. Reading the same death message ten times is pretty dull. Later on, there’s a puzzle in which a certain verb must be used, and the only way I could determine to figure out what that verb ought to be was to closely scrutinize the death message that comes from using the wrong verb. This is the worst of both worlds in IF puzzles.

All this bitching probably does very little to explain why I gave Only After Dark a higher rating than some of the other non-interactive entries in this year’s comp, so let me try to clear that up. First of all, the writing and coding were error-free, which I am really appreciating recently. Yes, the game may railroad you through the plot, but at least it does so correctly. Also, the subject of the game is lycanthropy, which is a fascination of mine. I really enjoyed the malleable aspect of the PC, and while this isn’t the ideal werewolf game, it’s a much better werewolf game than, say, Strangers In The Night was a vampire game. I thought the milieu was interesting, if a little confusing, and there were some nice little touches, like the game’s occasional use of color. Perhaps the only reason it was so linear was to fit the short format of the competition. If that’s so, I dearly hope that an expanded version is forthcoming. I would really like to play a game set in the Only After Dark universe, written and coded as well as the competition entry but offering the player an actual choice once in a while.

Rating: 6.3