Snatches by Gregory Weir [Comp05]

IFDB page: Snatches
Final placement: 8th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Snatches is a very ambitious game whose reach ultimately exceeds its grasp. It’s got some great things going for it: a compelling structure, vivid writing, and powerful drama. Unfortunately, it also has an uneven and railroady design, and it’s generally underimplemented, lacking the commitment to fully execute on its premise. Consequently, I kept wanting to be engaged by the game, but generally ended up frustrated instead.

The game starts off immediately arresting, with a distinctly IF version if in medias res — the parser prints out the response to the command it was just given, albeit not by the player: “Taken. The scotch inside the glass glows golden.” I thought this was quite cool, and only later did I realize that it also sets the stage for the lack of choice to come. Turns out the game does not want to let you leave the room until you drink that scotch. I tried to avoid it, because I’m contrary like that. I spent lots of time examining things, including some curtains which seem to just be hanging on a blank wall, because when I tried to examine the window I was told I couldn’t see any such thing. I tried to smash the glass, but was stymied. I tried pouring out the scotch but the game didn’t know the word “pour.” I tried another tack:

>empty drink
You toss the scotch back, and it burns as it goes down. Now you're ready to head to town.

Ha! If only Inform had printed “[into yourself]” that response would have been perfect. Anyway, having alcoholically unlocked my prison, I moved into quite a large landscape — a manor house with lots of rooms and hallways. I explored all over, but most things seemed pretty locked and deserted. Still, I wandered around examining and moving things for about 30 minutes before concluding that the game was patiently waiting for me to do the one thing that would results in my character’s demise, and that there was nothing else I could do.

So I did that thing, the character died, and things got wilder – suddenly I was another character, seeing the aftermath of another just-completed command. The same pattern played out again, but with much less exploration this time — I stumbled into death pretty quickly. Then it happened again, and again, and again many times over, a different character each time. The game’s writing really shone in these sequences — it very deftly employed the multi-POV IF trick of describing the same set of locations in completely different ways to illustrate a character’s viewpoint. Brief as my encounter with each character was, I frequently found myself caring about them, and that’s down to the strength of the writing.

Sadly, that was also what made the game frustrating, because there seems to be no way to save any of these characters from their fate. So the game continues repeating the pattern of thrusting you into a PC’s shoes, making you care about that PC, then disposing of the PC. Well after it’s clear what’s going on, it’s also clear that there’s no fighting it, even though the game also jumps around in time, giving you (what would logically be) opportunities to prevent the whole thing from happening, if not for the fact that the parser curtly shoves back at any attempt to do so. In this process, I kept trying things that made sense from a world-modeling point of view, but just weren’t implemented, much like that absent window in the first room. I couldn’t even SCREAM. (Really, a horror game that doesn’t implement SCREAM?)

So the experience of the game is of failing over and over, until you finally get incarnated into the one character who has any real agency. By that time, with the various frustrations of the game having piled up, it’s pretty hard to care anymore. I somehow found myself able to kill off the scary menace that had picked off all my earlier selves, but it felt like a pretty pyrrhic victory. I then followed the walkthrough to a different ending, which was also pretty unsatisfying. Maybe there’s an ending out there that lets you revive the victims and see the sunrise on a hopeful new day, but after struggling against the game’s tight restrictions for a couple of hours, I really didn’t feel like seeking it.

Rating: 7.6

Scary House Amulet! by Ricardo Dague as Shrimpenstein [Comp02]

IFDB page: Scary House Amulet!
Final placement: 31st place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

This game’s title captures its tone, right down to the exclamation point. The only way it could be better is if it incorporated some bold text and called itself Scary House Amulet! or some such, because about every seventh word in this game is bolded. At first, I thought this emphasis was serving an interface purpose, highlighting those nouns and verbs that the game implements. I thought that this was a very cool idea — one quickly gets used to the bold text, and the emphasis could help to avoid lots of those annoying “You can’t see any such thing” messages that pop up for unimplemented nouns.

As it turned out, however, the game wasn’t doing any such thing, and was instead sprinkling bold text throughout itself like salt onto french fries, as well as ending nearly every single sentence in at least one exclamation point. In addition, SHA occasionally gets extremely adjective-happy, as in this sentence: “It leads into an evil, scary, putrid dark stillness which makes the hair on your neck prickle!” As a satire of horror, this mock-gothic tone ended up working for me, and I laughed out loud several times during the game. Probably my favorite response, after finding a hole in the ground:

>look in hole
You find nothing... but evil!

The humor of the writing went some way towards compensating for the game’s many irritating design choices, most of which were lifted directly from the Zork playbook. There’s a light source puzzle. There’s a sequence where something comes swooping in and transports the PC to another location. And there are not one but two mazes.

Granted, none of these obstacles are made particularly diabolical, but they give the game’s design a fairly tired feel. It doesn’t help matters that pretty much all the other puzzles are of the “use x on y” variety, with x and y more or less unrelated to each other, prompting the player to just go through every object in her inventory until finding the one that happens to be right for the obstacle she faces. Even the puzzles that don’t fit this pattern don’t appear to have any particular logic behind them.

Still, this is not a shoddily crafted game. I found no bugs, and hardly any spelling or grammar errors. It’s got a clean, functional adaptive hint system, a thorough implementation of first-level nouns, and although the game credits no beta testers, it has a polished feel. It’s even got some great verbs added for fun:

The bat shrieks, "You must fear me! Fear me!"

>fear bat
You do fear the horrible bat!

There were a couple of areas where the writing felt a bit adolescent (particularly in its excoriation of Pepsi), but generally the over-the-top horror bit was pulled off with cleverness and panache. So at the end I was left scratching my head, and not just because the ending doesn’t really make any sense. Why would such a skilled implementor create this game, with its aggressively clich├ęd setting and puzzles, and no particular virtue except its entertaining writing? I don’t know. I laughed many times while I played SHA, but now that it’s over, I still feel like I didn’t get the joke.

Rating: 6.4

Cattus Atrox by David A. Cornelson [Comp98]

IFDB page: Cattus Atrox
Final placement: 20th place (of 27) in the 1998 Interactive Fiction Competition

Cattus Atrox begins with a warning. The warning says this: “This work of IF contains strong language, violence, and sexual descriptions. It is not intended for children or anyone with a distaste for such things.” In my opinion, this warning does not tell the whole truth. I’d like to replace it with this warning: “This work of IF contains strong language, violence, and sexual descriptions. It also contains no plot, no characterization, and no puzzles to speak of. It consists of horrifying situations with no apparent logic behind them, graphic descriptions of gratuitous violence, and incident after incident that is unsolvable without prior knowledge (i.e. save-and-restore “puzzles”.) Its world is only fully implemented enough to serve these goals. In a winning session, you will beat an animal to death, watch 3 people be literally torn apart, and strangle a friendly housecat. If you like slasher movies, this is the IF game for you. It is not intended for children or anyone with a distaste for such things.” See, here’s the thing: I really don’t mind strong language, violence, or sexual descriptions when they’re in the service of a story that makes sense. The “strong language, violence, and sexual descriptions” tag could be equally attached to Bride of Chucky and The Color Purple. As you might have guessed from what I’ve written so far, this game is on the Chucky end of that continuum.

Now, it may well be that there are people with a taste for such things. I don’t really know who these people are, but I’ve been on the Internet long enough to know that it’s a big, wide, crazy world out there. But I’m not one of those people. I really hated the experience of playing Cattus Atrox, which, by the way, is another game whose title makes no sense even after you’ve completed a winning session. I’m not saying that means it shouldn’t have been written, but I am saying that when I rate a game on how much I enjoyed playing it, this game will not score highly. Here’s the situation: you play a regular person who, for no apparent reason, is suddenly pursued by a psycho. Then you find out your friends are all in league with the psycho, and also want to kill you. If this feels like a spoiler, don’t worry — you won’t solve the game without knowing this fact in advance. Now, this is a scary situation, right? One of the game’s goals had to be to create a feeling of suspense, dread, and horror, and it succeeds on all counts. While being chased by the psycho, I felt suspense. While running around a maze (yes, maze) of fog-shrouded streets, never knowing when the psycho would loom from the mists, I felt dread. When I was injured by the psycho, I felt horror. All this lasted for about 15 minutes. Then I began to feel annoyance. The questions in my mind were: “What is the point of all this?” and “Is this all happening for no reason?” The answers are: I don’t think there is one, and yes. That’s all the story there is to the game. It’s like one of those nightmares where everyone is out to get you and your actions don’t make much difference. If you’ve had a nightmare like this, you know how this feels. Maybe it’s a feeling you’d like to have while you’re awake as well. Not me.

Now, don’t get me wrong. It is possible to win the game, though not without doing and experiencing some really awful things, including one that is a part of the winning message. I don’t know how this game could be won on the first time through, since several situations require knowledge you can only get after you’ve lost, but it can be won. It is also, as far as I could determine, fairly free of writing and coding errors. But there are a number of problems with the game that don’t have anything to do with mechanics, or with violence, sex, and cursing. I think I’ve already mentioned that the plot doesn’t make much sense. Also, there’s this: lots of things aren’t implemented, simply because there is only ever one solution available to any given problem. The street is covered with cars, but you can’t set off any alarms on them because the game doesn’t recognize the word “car”. The streets are full of houses, but you can’t go into any of them, because the game tells you that you can’t see any such thing. There’s one particular location in which you need to examine the street, but in all the other locations the street is “not something you need to refer to in the course of this game.” The story is so bare that the player character doesn’t know basic things, like where his house is or how to find a store, police station, or any sort of help. The PC has no other friends to call for help besides the psychos. There is no explanation as to who the PC’s psycho friends are, why he trusted them, or why he’s in the situation in the first place. There is no explanation as to why the psychos choose the PC to kill. The game is good at one thing, and that is producing fear and disgust. Unfortunately, unrelieved fear and disgust, without any reason behind them, aren’t my idea of fun.

Rating: 3.2

[Postscript from 2020: This game spawned a lasting IF community in-joke, based on the fact that at some point a character runs up to you and screams “LIONS!” Outside the game, this became a favorite non sequitur. Try it, it’s fun. “LIONS!”]

Zombie! by Scott W. Starkey [Comp97]

IFDB page: Zombie!
Final placement: 12th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

I love the beginning of Zombie!. [SPOILERS FOR THE PROLOGUE AHEAD] In it, you play Valerie, a junior at the local college who is enjoying a relaxing camping trip after having finally dumped her loser boyfriend Scott. The atmosphere of the camping trip is very well-done, from the CD player spinning 80s hits to the various characters squabbling over how to build a campfire. Equally well-done is the terror of learning that there is something awful lurking in those woods, and it’s coming to get you. You run, but to no avail: you are overtaken and killed… and then the prologue is over and you find yourself in your actual role: that of Scott, the unlucky guy who has just been dumped by his heartless girlfriend Valerie, ridden his motorcycle out into the country to get his mind off the breakup, and (wouldn’t you know it?) run out of gas in the remote woods. The viewpoint shift caught me off-guard, and it worked marvelously. I felt like I had a better insight into my character after having seen him through the eyes of another, and vice versa for the character I played in the prologue. Viewpoint shifts in traditional fiction can make for a dramatic effect; interactive fiction, with its customary second person form of address, made the shift all the more dramatic, at least this time. It also serves perfectly to crank up the tension: one of the first things you hear with Scott’s ears is a scream — it sounds like Valerie, but what would she be doing out here in the woods? [SPOILERS END]

Unfortunately, after this promising beginning Zombie! stumbles badly. [MORE SPOILERS HERE] For one thing, after taking so much time to develop the relationship between Valerie and Scott, the game never returns to it! I fully expected to see Valerie show up again as a zombie, to see Scott’s emotional reaction to encountering her in that state, and to find out what happens after he rescues her from zombification. A reunion, perhaps? Well, no. In fact, the prologue is the last we see of Valerie. Now, I usually like it when a game proves itself less predictable than I thought it would be, but this time I felt cheated. I wouldn’t have paid so much attention to Valerie or put so much time into learning about the relationship had I realized that she was just a throwaway character. [SPOILERS END] Doubly unfortunate is the fact this is far from Zombie!‘s only problem. There are numerous bugs in the code, hand-in-hand (as they so often are) with an unpleasantly high count of mechanical errors in the writing.

I kept finding myself feeling frustrated, because every time I really got into the game, allowed myself to get interested in its tensions, a bug or a spelling error would come along that would shatter mimesis and deflate the emotional effect. The thing is, the game does a great job of building that tension. It’s a b-movie all the way, no deep or serious issues here, but it’s definitely got that suspenseful, creepy feeling that the best b-movies have. (Yes, I’m aware of the irony in that phrase, so as Sideshow Bob says, you needn’t bother pointing it out.) The sound of heavy footsteps approaching, or the feeling of driving rain beating against a worn, gothic mansion, or the sight of horrific creatures staring dead ahead (literally!), and similar gothic pleasures were all very well-executed in this game, until you hit the inevitable technical error. Still, better to have a good game with lots of bugs than a mediocre game executed flawlessly. Bugs are easy to fix. When Starkey fixes them, Zombie! will definitely be one to recommend.

Prose: The prose isn’t beautiful by any means, and it often shows signs of awkward construction or phrasing. On the other hand, it does achieve many suspenseful moments, and quite often has some very nice pieces of description or atmosphere. I found the rain very convincing, and the eerie outside of the mansion was also well-portrayed. In addition, the prologue had some well-done dialogue and atmosphere, and built the tension just right for entry into the game proper.

Plot: The plot was a good combination of the spooky and the silly, with the emphasis on the silly. I found it reminiscent of some of the early LucasArts games, especially the moments with Ed the Head. The kitschy charm of the mad scientist, his lumbering assistant, the haunted mansion, the unholy army of the dead, etc. was great. The main disappointment I had with the plot was the ending. It felt tacked on, as if there were more story to tell but because the game is a competition entry the author didn’t have time to explore it. [SPOILERS AHEAD] Also, as I mentioned above, the emphasis placed on Valerie was rather odd considering that she never again showed up in the game. Finally, I know this is just a personal preference, but I felt a little annoyed that in the end of the game, I couldn’t foil Dr. Maxim’s nefarious scheme. I understand there’s a long tradition of apocalyptic endings in this kind of story, but this ending didn’t manage the triumphant feeling of destroying evil or the spooky feeling of inevitable defeat. [SPOILERS END]

Puzzles: I actually liked the puzzles in Zombie! quite a bit. Some of them were a little tacked on (the measuring cups), and the overall puzzle framework (collect the elements of a recipe) is quite shopworn by now. However, all the puzzles, cliched as they may have been, fit very well into the overall story, and that seamless fit makes a lot of things pretty forgivable. If the game hadn’t been plagued by bugs, its puzzles would have come very close to achieving the goal of aiding the narrative rather than obstructing it.

Technical (writing): There were a significant number of mechanical errors in Zombie!‘s writing.

Technical (coding): The game also had quite a number of bugs. It needs at least one round of intense playtesting before it’s really ready for the world at large.

OVERALL: A 7.5