The Temple by Johan Berntsson [Comp02]

IFDB page: The Temple
Final placement: 9th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

There are some scenes that are so iconic, so familiar, that they almost transcend cliché, gaining the power to singlehandedly drag a game into the realm of the tired and hackneyed no matter what other scenes surround it. Such a scene is the sacrificial altar. You know the one — bloodstained altar, hooded priest, big scary dagger, chanting cultists. IF authors have been thinking about it as far back as Zork III, no doubt in tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, who in turn more or less stole the riff from the Aztecs, I think.

The Temple prominently features a sacrificial altar scene, and I wish I could say it throws in some fresh new twist that reinvigorates the whole thing, but… it doesn’t, really. The game is a Lovecraft pastiche, which itself has become a bit of an IF cliché, what with Lurking Horror, Theatre, Anchorhead, HeBGB Horror, Awakening, and lots of others. I think it may be time to declare a moratorium on the genre unless you’ve really got a new and interesting take on it. The Temple has no such take, and consequently the entire experience felt a bit overfamiliar to me.

The lackluster, error-ridden writing didn’t help matters either. One significant danger in creating a work that pays homage to a skillful author is that your own writing may suffer badly in the comparison, and that’s exactly what happens here:

Before A Dark Tower
This area in front of an old tower offers a nightmarish view over a
monstrous tangle of dark stone buildings. Most buildings are
elliptical, built of irregular-sized basalt blocks of irregular size.
None of them seem to have any doors or windows. There is a square
further down to the southwest. The sole passage to the tower is
through the door to the north.

“Irregular-sized basalt blocks of irregular size?” “Elliptical” buildings? (They’re oval-shaped, I guess? I’m assuming the ovals are lying on their sides, though even then it’s hard to picture something so curved being made out of “blocks”, no matter how irregularly sized.) Where Lovecraft’s vistas were (at their best) ineffable, this is just inept.

The coding is better, but still rather spotty, because there’s a distinct split in the implementation. NPCs and objects are coded pretty well, with the main NPC able to understand a respectable range of queries and capable of interesting independent action. Most first-level nouns are implemented, and outright bugs are fairly few. On the other hand, there is a severe dearth of synonyms for both actions and objects, and the game made me struggle with some of the worst verb-guessing problems I’ve encountered in a while. In particular, there’s a rather critical action that I was totally unable to make the game understand without resorting to hints. I knew exactly what I needed to do, but the half-dozen ways I came up with of expressing it were summarily rebuffed — only the game’s approved syntax won the day. Problems like this should have been caught in testing.

So now that I’ve railed on the game for being unoriginal and unpolished, let me take a moment to point out something I really liked about it. Early on in the action, you acquire a sort of “sidekick” NPC, who follows you through most of the story, and who himself becomes the crux of an optional puzzle. There were several things I liked about this NPC. First, as I mentioned above, he was well-implemented, responding to lots of sensible queries, including many of the things mentioned in his responses to the PC’s initial questions (second-level conversation topics, I suppose.) Also, he serves an interesting purpose in the story’s structure, functioning as a sort of nominal hint system in his sporadic knowledge of the environment.

Best of all, he and the PC really function as a team in several instances. I’m writing a series of games that ostensibly feature a PC/NPC team, but thus far I’ve copped into having the PC do most of the work while the NPC has some excuse for being out of the action. I thought The Temple was an excellent example of how to really create interdependent action between a PC and an NPC, and it got me excited about the challenge of doing so in my next game. For that alone, it repaid the time I gave to it.

Rating: 6.8

The Ritual Of Purification by Jarek Sobolewski as Sable [Comp98]

IFDB page: Ritual Of Purification
Final placement: 12th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

The feeling I got while playing Ritual reminded me of nothing so much as those old Dr. Strange comics from the 60’s, back when the master of mysticism was drawn by Steve Ditko, himself a master of the bizarre. The game is full of strange, hallucinatory images: a road that melts into nothing, an arch with marble carvings on one side and black decay on the other side, exploding and melting universes. The whole thing made me feel like I was immersed in a Ditko landscape, and the fact that the main character is a spellcaster on an astral voyage didn’t hurt either. Of course, some of the scenes in Ritual could never have taken place in a 60’s comic — at least, not one that adhered to the Comics Code Authority. There’s nothing really outrageous, but there are scenes of sexuality, drug use, and gore that you’d never see Dr. Strange experiencing. I’m not suggesting that the game is some sort of Dr. Strange rip-off, or that Ditko was an inspiration for Ritual — that’s just what it reminded me of. However, one source of inspiration for the game was clearly some of the more obscure poetry of Edgar Allan Poe. At the completion of almost every puzzle, the game throws a box quote from Poe, usually one which has some relation to the obstacle just overcome. These quotes are well-chosen, digging deep into the Poe archives and highlighting how much he inherited from William Blake, as well as how much he prefigured H.P. Lovecraft. At its best, most deranged or sublime moments, the game evokes the weird, dark mysticism shared by all these creators. On the whole, the effect is very trippy, and a fair amount of fun.

Unfortunately, there are some false notes as well. From time to time a character will say or do something fairly anachronistic, which tends to break the spell pretty thoroughly. In fact, at one point you can get a character to whip out a bong and start taking hits from it, which brings the whole elevated plane of symbolism and wonder dive-bombing back to earth. The effect is not so much of Alice in Wonderland‘s “hookah-smoking caterpillar”, but more of Jeff Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. It just doesn’t fit. There are also a few times when the game seems to slip into clichés or “AD&Disms” — one beast is described as “biting easily through a set of plate mail”, and some of the spells feel suspiciously close to ones I remember from 7th grade basement role-playing sessions. In addition, the game has a number of grammar and spelling errors, usually minor problems like missing punctuation or vowel mistakes, but again they break the spell. Finally, and worst of all, there’s a bug in the game which causes it to not respond at all if a certain action is taken sooner than the game expects it. There’s nothing that ruins immersion quite so much as when a game just doesn’t respond to a command in any way. Well, maybe not nothing — crashing the interpreter would probably ruin immersion more, but because of the lack of response problem I ended up turning to the hints, only to find that I had in fact given the right command to solve the puzzle — I just gave it a little too soon.

The game suffers a bit from the “unconnected symbols” syndrome — sometimes it feels like all of these dreamlike images are just images, with no meaning or substance attached to them. However, the game manages to pull them together somewhat through its title, intro, and ending — the bizarre symbols with which the game is littered are all loosely connected through a theme of purification, of facing inner demons and the pain & joy of life in order to become a better person. It didn’t entirely work for me — some of the symbolism seemed arbitrary or clichéd to my mind — but I think it was a good beginning. I would really like to play a game with this kind of tone which had freed itself from shopworn images and RPG leftovers. Something with imagery like the more arresting parts of Ritual, but which really cohered to make a powerful statement on some aspect of the human condition, could really take advantage of IF’s immersive capability to create a remarkable work of art. Ritual isn’t it, but I hope it becomes the jumping-off point for someone (the author perhaps?) to create something like it but better: no writing errors, no clichés, no anachronisms, no bugs — just the Ditko universes exploding and melting all around us, with meaning.

Rating: 6.9