Greyscale by Daniel Freas [Comp01]

IFDB page: Grayscale
Final placement: 13th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

There are some strange anomalies about Greyscale. Take this, for instance: the game is centrally concerned with words, to the point of scattering literary quotations all around, spending nine locations on a library stocked with classic works, offering generous doses of original poetry (apparently by the author), and throwing in for good measure another room whose puzzle revolves around novel titles. Yet for all this concern with literature, Greyscale is shockingly careless with its own prose.

This is a game profusely littered with grammar errors of every stripe. Run-on sentences are everywhere. In fact, punctuation in general is a serious problem. Compound words lack hyphens. Commas are conspicuously absent, except at the end of independent clauses, where they stand in for periods. We’re even treated to the ever-popular it’s/its error. Given all these major weaknesses in the game’s writing, I struggled to give much credit to its literary pretensions — if you want me to think that you take language seriously, start with your own.

This contradiction isn’t the only one in Greyscale. There are also some instances of what I suppose I’d call “false advertising.” For instance, the game’s credits text claims this:

Finally, throughout the game you will undoubtedly come across various
writings. They have all been attributed to their authors in a fairly
straight-forward manner...

Actually, not so much. There are some textual passages whose authors are clearly marked, but then there are others that are only labeled with “S.C.” or some similar set of initials. If you’re fairly well-read (or bored enough to do a web search) you can probably determine what the initials stand for, but in no way does that make them “fairly straight-forward” attributions. Okay, so that’s a minor quibble. For a more important example of such contradictions, observe this suggestion in the game’s info text:

You may notice that when you start the game you are given no obvious
goal, but as you examine your surroundings and interact with the game
the goals and the story behind the game will become clear.

Once again, not so. I spent a good two hours with this game, and pretty much felt the entire time like there was no particular plot, no real backstory, and that the only goals I could discern were the typical goals of plotless IF: wander around, pick up what’s not nailed down, identify puzzles and try to solve them. There were hints throughout of another narrative layer, and the ending confirms these hints, but that’s a far cry from what I’d call an actual story.

In point of fact, the majority of the game consists of wandering around the author’s fantasy house. How do I know it’s the author’s fantasy house? Simple: he embroidered his name on the handtowels. All throughout the place are rich-dude features like marble, seashell-shaped sinks, mahogany furniture, deep pile carpet, massive gardens, statuary, and so on. The kitchen has a freaking stainless steel floor, for heaven’s sake.

This idea is a few degrees off of the well-known and deeply-dreaded “here’s an implementation of my house” genre, but only a few. There are some puzzles, at least, but they’re not really original enough puzzles to compensate for the poor writing, misleading claims, and the general vacuousness of the setting. It’s not that the game was particularly offensive, but it felt sloppy, empty, and lacking in imagination. What I hope is that this practice run will enable the author’s next game to achieve a level of polished prose and compelling story that this one just didn’t quite reach.

Rating: 4.3

Aunt Nancy’s House by Nate Schwartzman [Comp97]

IFDB page: Aunt Nancy’s House
Final placement: 33rd place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

When I began learning Inform, one of the first things I did was to put together a little simulation of the cottage I was living in at the time. It was great fun making a text adventure out of my current environment, adding both magic and realism as I saw fit. That Inform program would have easily been finished in time for submission to the 1995 IF competition, but I didn’t submit it. My reasoning at the time was that even though it was fun for me to walk around my virtual cottage, it would be really boring for other people. Now that I’ve played Aunt Nancy’s House (hereafter called ANH), I know I made the right decision.

According to its author, “Aunt Nancy’s House is actually based on my aunt’s (soon-to-be-former) house, and was created as a way of teaching myself Inform. There are no puzzles, the idea is mainly to wander about in an interactive environment and have fun.” Well, “wander” was certainly there, but “fun” wasn’t, at least not for me. Basically ANH simulates an empty house. That’s it. I have no doubt that creating this simulation was pretty exciting for the author, but without that connection to the subject material, other players are going to be bored.

ANH taught its author how to use Inform — I look forward to when he applies that knowledge to the creation of a game.

Prose: The game’s prose wasn’t outstanding, but it served its purpose.

Plot: ANH has no plot.

Puzzles: ANH has no puzzles. (Hey, puzzleless IF!)

Technical (writing): I spotted a few grammatical errors in the game, which I’ve passed along to the author.

Technical (coding): ANH has a number of bugs, which I’ve also forwarded to the author, but for a first exercise in learning Inform, it was put together pretty well.


[Postscript from 2020 — This game inspired one of my favorite reviews ever from Andrew Plotkin, one I still recall to this day. Relevant excerpt: “…somehow I get the impression that the author has spent a lot of time being bored in this house. I mean — I wandered around, I turned on the tv and the video game machine, I turned them back off, I poured myself a soda. Then I went back upstairs. Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time at relatives’ houses that way.”]