The Masque Of The Last Faeries by Ian R. Ball [Comp00]

IFDB page: Masque Of the Last Faeries
Final placement: 31st place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Yet another entry in the category of “cool idea with lame execution” comp games, The Masque Of The Last Fairies is all the more frustrating for the glimpses of quality visible beneath its very rough exterior. At first, the problems appear to be rather superficial: formatting weirdness, grammar blunders, and such. Now don’t get me wrong — these things matter, a lot. It’s a source of constant puzzlement to me that games get released to the public while they’re still swimming with mechanical errors in their writing. You know, in some kinds of games, English errors wouldn’t matter very much, if at all. If you’re writing a new version of Quake or Space Invaders, who cares if your code comments are littered with its/it’s errors? But these are text adventures. In order for a text adventure to be good, the text has to be good.

To me, this seems blatantly self-evident. Apparently, though, it isn’t, not when I still end up playing games with sentences like this: “A grand staircase leads up although a row of potted shrubs act as a barrier at it’s base.” Quick lesson: “it’s” is a contraction of “it is,” as in “It’s alive!” “Its” is the possessive form of “it”, as in “a barrier at its base”. Like “his”, “hers”, and “ours”, “its” has no apostrophe, and it never will. If it’s possessive, don’t give it an apostrophe, lest you mangle its meaning. See how easy that is? Similarly, please print a newline before a prompt. Please don’t put more than one blank line between pieces of text unless you’ve got a damn good reason. A mediocre game with correct grammar and correct formatting is still much more immersive than an imaginative, interesting game with really broken grammar and formatting, because every time I have to stop and figure out what a sentence means, or readjust my eyes to figure out what text printed after the prompt because there’s no newline between the previous text and the new text, I get thrown out of the story for a moment. Those moments add up.

Still, if cosmetic problems were the extent of this game’s flaws, I’d probably still be able to have a fairly good time playing it. And indeed, up through the first three acts, this appears to be the case. However, after that I learned that it’s apparently impossible to score all the points, due to the fact that one of the things the hints suggest seems to evoke no response from the game at any point. Moreover, as the game goes on, Masque succumbs to what I’ll call “Harvey Syndrome”, after Elwood P. Dowd’s lapine companion who was inexplicably invisible to the rest of the world. A game suffering from Harvey Syndrome talks about objects which are strangely unavailable for examining, taking, or in fact any kind of interaction at all. I’m not talking about scenery in room descriptions here — I mean major NPCs and objects ostensibly in your inventory. When somebody hands you something, you ought to be able to examine it rather than being told “You can’t see any such thing.” If there’s a character speechifying next to you, you ought to be able to examine that character. In Masque, these people and objects show up in action descriptions but, Harvey-like, are unavailable in any other way.

It’s so sad, too, because there is so much to like in Masque. The plot is composed of a number of intriguing layers — you’re a guest at a masquerade party where you’ve been asked to take on a specific character and participate in the drama that will be part of the evening’s entertainment. However, just as there are community members behind the party masks, there is community turmoil behind the masque itself, and you may find yourself inexorably drawn into that turmoil. The structure and pacing of the game work well, introducing puzzles one at a time (some oriented to the PC’s masque character, some to the PC itself), and ushering in a new “Act” when a puzzle is solved. Moreover, the game makes the ambitious choice to have all the masque action (which is considerable) take place in verse. Some of this verse has grave weaknesses in meter and rhyme, but I still salute the game for setting its sights so high. What Masque ends up showing us, though, is that it doesn’t matter how high you aim — if your basic mechanics fail, you’ll never hit what you’re aiming at.

Rating: 5.9

Madame L’Estrange and the Troubled Spirit by Ian Ball and Marcus Young [Comp97]

IFDB page: Madame L’Estrange and the Troubled Spirit
Final placement: 17th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Madame L’Estrange and the Troubled Spirit (hereafter called MmeLTS) is a frustrating game, because it builds such a slipshod house upon a very promising foundation. The game is riddled with what I would guess are at least a hundred grammar and spelling errors. It flipflops seemingly at random between past and present tense. It can’t seem to decide whether to address the player in the second or third person. It consistently causes a fatal crash in at least one interpreter (WinFrotz). All this would be easy to evaluate as simply the product of incompetent authors if it didn’t take place in a game that starts with an interesting premise, executes a number of great interface decisions, and manages to unroll a complicated mystery plot along the way. As it is, MmeLTS is a great mess that could’ve been a contender if only it had been written with more care.

One area in which the game does succeed is that of the innovations introduced by its authors, especially in the area of navigation: MmeLTS combines the direction-based locomotion of traditional IF with the more intuitive “go to location x” type of travel used in games like Joe Mason’s In The End. The title character (a “spiritualist detective” who is also the player character) can travel to various locations around Sydney with the use of the “travel to” or “go to” verb. However, once she has arrived at a particular location she uses direction-based navigation to walk from place to place (or room to room, as the case may be.) Moreover, the authors often write direction responses as a simple set of actions performed by the title character rather than implementing entire rooms which serve no purpose. These methods of navigation combine the best of both worlds, providing a broad brush for cross-city or cross-country travel but not taking away the finer granularity available to the direction-based system. A related innovation concerns Madame L’Estrange’s notebook, in which the game automagically tallies the names of important people and places which come up in her investigations. This notebook (similar to the “concept inventory” used in some graphical IF) provides a handy template for travel and inquiry, and would be welcome inside any game, especially those involving a detective.

One other point: MmeLTS takes the character all over Sydney, and in doing so provides an element of education and travel narrative along with its detective story. The medium’s investigations take her from Centennial Park to the Sydney Harbour Bridge to Taronga Zoo to the University of New South Wales. Locations are often well-described, and after playing the game for two hours I felt more knowledgeable about Sydney than when I started (I hope the game’s locations weren’t fictional!) As an American whose knowledge of Australia is mostly limited to Mad Max movies, I can attest that the travel aspect of the game is a lot of fun.

Prose: It’s not that the game’s prose was terrible of itself. The game is quite verbose, outputting screensful of text as a matter of course, and much of this text is effective and worthwhile. As I mentioned, many of the descriptions worked quite well, and the game does manage to clearly elucidate its plot as events happen. It’s just that the mechanics of the prose are so bad (see Technical/writing). When technical problems are so pervasive, they can’t help but have a tremendous negative impact on the quality of the prose.

Plot: The game’s plot is actually quite interesting. Mme. L’Estrange is presented with two apparently unrelated mysteries: strange wildlife deaths ascribed to a mysterious beast loose in Centennial Park, and the apparent suicide of a marine biology worker. As one might expect, these two situations eventually turn out to be linked. I wasn’t able to finish the game in two hours (in fact, I only scored five points out of 65 in that time, which makes me wonder just how much of the game I haven’t yet seen), but what I saw makes it clear that the game is well-plotted. I was interested in seeing its mysteries unfold.

Puzzles: I didn’t really find many puzzles as such — the game is mainly focused on exploration. Those puzzles which I did find were quite soluble as long as enough exploring had been done. What took up most of my time was visiting locations, talking to characters, and “tuning in” to the spirit world to commune with the spirits of the dead or learn more about a place’s spiritual aura. This kept me busy enough that I didn’t really miss the lack of puzzles.

Technical (writing): The mechanics of the writing are just horrible. Sentences constantly lack periods or initial capital letters. Words are constantly misspelled. Typos are everywhere. The tense shifts back and forth at random between past and present; either one would have been workable and interesting, but the game seems unable to make up its mind. A similar phenomenon occurs with the voice, which vacillates between second and third person address. This avalanche of mechanical problems cripples what could have been an excellent game.

Technical (coding): The jury is still out on how well the game is coded. When I was using WinFrotz to play the game, I encountered Fatal errors repeatedly, but I’m not sure whether they were the fault of the designer or of the interpreter. JZIP presented the game with no problem, but again that could be because the interpreter was ignoring an illegal condition. Several aspects of the coding, such as Madame L’s notebook, were quite nifty (unless that’s what was causing the problem with WinFrotz crashing), and the implementation was solid overall.