A Moment of Hope by Simmon Keith [Comp99]

IFDB page: A Moment Of Hope
Final placement: 18th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Remember how one-room puzzlefests were the big trend of the 1998 competition? Well, I think I’m getting a handle on what it is for ’99: non-interactive fiction. It’s the legacy of Photopia, I suppose. But how little we knew, when we played that one short, brilliant Red Planet section of Photopia where every chosen direction advances the plot, that in a year we’d be playing entire games that operate like that. So far I’ve seen Halothane, which enforces its plot fairly rigidly; Remembrance, which limits the player’s options severely by restricting them to a very short menu; and Life on Beal Street, which is no more interactive than a book. Perhaps the worst offender yet, though, is A Moment of Hope. At least Beal and Remembrance didn’t pretend to be anything but linear roads with no detours available. At least Halothane allowed some freedom of action. Because A Moment of Hope is a TADS game with the appearance of an unrestricted parser, it gives a very believable facade of interactivity, when in fact it’s anything but. Here’s a sample from towards the end of the game:

You flip your pillow upside down, and hope you can go to sleep.

Turning to your other side, you give it another try.

You kick at the tangled blanket, convinced it's what is preventing your

In a valiant attempt to block out the sun, you vainly cover your head
with your pillow and try to relax. ...It doesn't work.

You finally decide to give in. It's time to get up.

This is the most drastically non-interactive section of the game, but every section of it crowds that side of the continuum. There is only one exit from each location — even if others are described, the game forbids travel in all but one direction. When the game wants you to, for example, read an email, any other command is met with something along the lines of “Not right now, you’re busy.” Adding to the aggravation, sometimes commands have to be repeated multiple times in order to get the parser to accept them. At one point you have to repeat a command eight times in order for it to actually work.

Let’s take a moment to think about this. It seems clear that what the game wants to do is to tell me a specific story. It seems equally clear that the game isn’t much interested in what I want to do. Why, then, was this written as interactive fiction and entered into the IF competition? To really delve into the reasons would be an essay in itself, but one that comes to mind is, as I said earlier, Photopia. After all, the big winner from last year was a game that heavily emphasized the “fiction” side of the IF equation, so that must be the way to win competitions, right? Well, not necessarily. Even setting aside the fact that the three previous competitions were won by games with prominent and interesting puzzles (Edifice, Meteor, Weather/Zebulon), there’s also the fact that Photopia restricted interactivity strategically rather than just doing it indiscriminately. To take one small example, think about the Red Planet section of Photopia compared to the section of A Moment of Hope I’ve quoted above. [PHOTOPIA SPOILERS AHEAD] The Red Planet section of Photopia is part of a story being told to a small child. Even though the player may not know it at the time, the responses of the parser are really Alley’s responses, and the player’s input really Wendy’s participation in the story. This fact constitutes a sensible, cogent reason why every direction taken advances that section’s plot: Alley is telling a story to a small child, and using a clever technique to move the story along so that Wendy won’t find herself pointlessly wandering around the landscape. No such fictional level is present in A Moment of Hope. The game’s responses and player’s input are no more or less than they seem, and as such, when the game uses Alley’s trick on the player it seems rather condescending. After all, we’re not small children with five-minute attention spans. A range of choices and a landscape to traverse won’t lose us.

The game doesn’t take that risk, though, perhaps because its main character is so unsympathetic that it can’t afford to allow any player input that might make him less pathetic. The basic plot here is that an incredibly insecure guy has gotten an email from a matchmaking website. The site has matched him up with somebody he really likes, but how serious is she about him? The game is unrelenting with the constant reminders of just how strung out this guy is. Especially in the first section, almost every single turn yields multiple messages about the PC’s deep, deep depression. No wonder, then, that the game wants to restrict player action. What if a player came along who wanted to make the choice to just forget about this girl and call a friend instead? What if a player wanted to just turn off the computer (the computer in the game, I mean) and read a good book? Hell, what if a player wanted to at least make the damn bed? Nope, wouldn’t fit the story. Wouldn’t fit the character. So it’s not allowed. But a player can’t help wondering: what am I doing in this short story? It’s written well, with no mechanical errors (or coding errors), but if A Moment of Hope were straight fiction, I wouldn’t much want to read it. But I did read this game. Come to think of it, because it was a competition entry, the whole group of judges was a bit of a captive audience, wasn’t it? Hmmm, maybe the choice to write the story as IF rather than straight fiction isn’t so mysterious after all…

Rating: 3.8

Halothane by Ravi P. Rajkumar, as Quentin.D.Thompson [Comp99]

IFDB page: Halothane
Final placement: 6th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Halothane is an intriguing, ambitious mess. First of all, it’s way too big for the competition. I spent two hours with the game and didn’t even score half the points. This review is based on those two hours. Maybe the game pulls everything together at the end — I’ll never know, because what I saw in the first two hours didn’t interest me enough to make me keep playing. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good things about the game. It reveals glimpses of an interesting premise: when an author abandons a work in progress, the characters live on. They must try to continue their lives without the structure of a planned story to support them; they sometimes even drift into works by other authors, still carrying the burden of their former backstory. Some of the settings are interesting, and there are some devices here and there that are fun to play with. The problem is that all these interesting snippets are just fragments, floating free in search of a consistent plot. The game moves you from location to location as if you were on rails — in fact at one point the PC is literally bound and gagged to have the plot shouted at him. Unfortunately, the rails don’t seem to go in any particular direction, and Halothane starts to feel like a story that can’t make up its mind what it wants to be about. Adding to the disarray are an unedifying prologue and a few “interpositions” which seem altogether orthogonal to the main story, such as it is. Oh yes, there are also a few in-jokey text adventure allusions, though they seem to have little impact on the plot. Then again, most things seem to have little impact on the plot — it just rolls along, whisking you to the next chapter when you simply move a certain direction, or sometimes even when you just sit around doing nothing.

Player freedom of action is unreasonably constricted in Halothane. The game is constantly giving available directions in room descriptions, then preventing travel in those directions with one of a hundred variations on “You don’t really want to go that way.” Moreover, the game logic is inconsistent. For example, I got in the habit of looking under every single stick of furniture, because about 15% of the time I’d find something and score points for having done it. But some of the other times the parser sniped at me. We actually had this exchange at one point:

Suspicious bloke, aren't you?

That was a rhetorical question.
That's not a verb I recognise.

As Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons might say, “Ach! Good comeback!” Anyway, the writing is similarly uneven. One significant flaw is that every character seems to talk as if they have an M.D. A portion of a letter that you find reads thus:

The doctor came and gave me three hundred minims of pyrazinamide,
and I was sick the whole day. Beastly, unfeeling physician! The
haemoptysis seems to have cleared up, but the laboratory pathology
report says that my sputum smear is still ++++, which I assume is
good. They're considering a repeat biopsy, because they didn't find
any Langhans giant cells the first time.

I found the “which I assume is good” particularly funny. First of all, it’s set in opposition to saying that something “cleared up”, despite the fact that (I would think) the “clearing up” is good too. That’s just bad sentence structure, but also I found it very difficult to believe that somebody who casually refers to “minims of pyrazinamide” and “Langhans giant cells” would be in the dark about the meaning of test results. For all I know, that may happen in real life, but it certainly didn’t feel real to me, which after all is what fiction aims for. In addition, one character thinking or speaking this way is fine, but even the PC does it! At one point, the parser tells you, “If this heat continues any longer, you’ll soon have first-person knowledge of what the proteins in a boiled egg actually undergo.” Really, doctor? Even the game’s title and opening screen are guilty of this fault. On the other hand, when the plot pauses a moment to take a breath, the writing can manage to set an effective scene. One good sequence occurs when the PC (after a POV shift… don’t ask) comes upon her house, dark and empty. The game creates an effective atmosphere of mystery, so that when surprises jump out they’re good for a little thrill.

Oh, hell. This review probably makes it sound like I thought Halothane was just abysmal, and I didn’t, really. The overall impression that I got was that the game is just sort of… half-baked. I don’t mean this in an offhand sense, nor is it intended to be derogatory. I just felt like I was playing a game that was not suited for the competition, nor fully realized by the time the deadline arrived, but was entered in the competition anyway, for who knows what reason. Lord knows I’ve played a lot of games that are worse, even in this year’s comp entries. But it’s a pity to see the potential in a game like Halothane squandered so. Put that sucker back in the oven and wait for it to rise.

Rating: 4.6