Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies by Øyvind Thorsby [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2007.]

IFDB Page: Attack of the Yeti Robot Zombies

Attack Of The Yeti Robot Zombies announces two facts right upfront. First, it is a “try-to-win-on-the-first-attempt game”, which means that while SAVE, RESTORE, and UNDO have not been disabled, players are honor-bound not to use them. Secondly, the game tells us that “Examine, look at, look inside, look under, look behind, look and search have not been implemented.” I was surprised to discover that the latter aspect threw me off much more than the former one did. It turns out that examining things is so ingrained into my IF approach that having that feature disabled made me feel like an amputee. Frequently, I would try to examine an item before being reminded: no, that limb is missing. Taken together, what these features present us with a game in which the crossword has decisively defeated the narrative, to use Graham Nelson’s terms.

AOTYRZ presents a world, but it’s only scraps of clothing over otherwise bare puzzles. The title monsters are a perfect example of this. What on earth could a “Yeti Robot Zombie” be? A cybernetic duplicate of an Abominable Snowman who was killed and then revived to be even more mindless than it was before? Is there any universe in which that makes sense? Aren’t “robot” and “zombie” mutually exclusive categories, since something that was never alive can’t be killed and brought back to life? The game doesn’t know, and it doesn’t care. It might as well be called “Attack Of The Generic Monster Placeholders,” because that’s all that the YRZs are. If you don’t believe me, just try examining one.

So, given that this is a puzzle game whose story is sputtering and gasping for breath, how are the puzzles? Mixed, I’m afraid. I took the “win-on-the-first-attempt” rule rather seriously, and ended up feeling quite disappointed at the number of times I had to learn the game’s mechanics by dying. Now, in its defense, AOTYRZ does go some reasonable distance towards making the game winnable on the first try. Similar to Wishbringer (though quite a bit cruder), it gives the player a resource which can be used as an alternative solution for all the puzzles. This resource can only be used a limited number of times — fewer than the number of puzzles — which means that some of the puzzles must be solved in order to win on the first attempt. That’s not too bad though, because some of the puzzles are pretty easy.

However, unlike Wishbringer, it is impossible to win the game (near as I can tell, anyway) without using that resource a couple of times. There’s no way to know this fact in advance without some outside information, which throws a serious obstacle into the path of anybody trying to win on the first attempt. The game chided me every time I used the resource rather than finding the cleverer solution, and after a couple of rounds of this, I felt the message was clear: there will always be a better solution available, so I should always figure it out and use it. Then, a few puzzles later, the game hit me with a situation for which there was no better solution. Even worse, this situation was so thinly implemented that it almost seemed to be a bug rather than a change-up. It was there that my first attempt at AOTYRZ ended in ignominious death.

From that point forward, since I had to restore, I tried some alternative solutions, and found that while some were rather nifty and scrupulously fair, others were impossible to use without either knowledge from a prior life or some pretty lucky guesses. Also, a note to game designers: if something is chasing me, and you block my path with something I can move, please allow me to use that something to block the door behind me. Thank you.

Once it wasn’t my first attempt anymore, I started having a lot more fun with AOTYRZ. Yeah, it’s a bare puzzle game, but some of the puzzles are pretty snappy, and the plot (such as it is) moves along at an enjoyable clip. In addition, while the game world’s implementation is necessarily sparse due to the absence of EXAMINE, what’s there is competently constructed — I didn’t find a single bug. The writing isn’t quite as flawless. There are a number of typos, some of which serve up some unintentional (but very funny) comedy. My favorite comes in a cutscene where the PC is receiving remote instructions from a guide:

“The teleporter worked.” you say in the phone.
“It did? Really? That’s great! Now walk up the stairs and you will find two doors. It doesn’t matter which one you take, both will lead to a roof.”
“Then what?”
“On each roof there will be a helicopter. I assume you know how to fly one?”
“Off course.”

Oh, well is there anybody there who can fly a helicopter without going off course? Anyway, those moments aside, the writing serves its purpose well enough. I can’t muster a huge amount of enthusiasm for AOTYRZ — it takes a pretty audacious approach and then fails to provide a sufficient follow-through. However, if you don’t mind an IF world with no depth and you don’t worry too much about really winning on the first attempt, the game can provide a pleasant diversion for an hour or two.

Eragon by Unknown [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2006.]

IFDB Page: Eragon

Eragon Vs. Bygone Era

IF aficionados have often made the argument that the medium could have a commercial comeback if marketed in the right way. Forget gamers, the line of reasoning goes. Instead, interactive fiction should be sold in bookstores, right alongside the books, appealing to an educated, literary audience that sees “all words no pictures” as an advantage rather than a drawback. After all, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was one of Infocom’s biggest hits, and it seems reasonable to conclude that that game drew much of its audience from people who loved the books. (Leave aside for a moment the tremendous overlap between fans of those books and computer nerds.) Perhaps the beginning of this IF resurgence might be text games appearing on author websites, inviting fans of that author to experience their favorite fictional world interactively, possibly re-enacting some key scenes, or filling in some narrative gaps from the paper stories.

I’m not sure I believe that IF will ever experience a commercial comeback on any significant scale, but I love the idea of skilled authors with large fanbases creating text adventures. Consequently, I was excited to learn that Christopher Paolini, author of the “Inheritance Trilogy” of young adult fantasy novels, had placed a text adventure on his site, set in those books’ universe. I’ve never read Paolini’s work, but his books seem to be popular with the kids, what with the first one spending months on the New York Times’ bestseller list and having over a million copies in print. The fact that such a popular author was offering interactive fiction based on his books seemed quite promising to me, and I was eager to check it out. A web browser is a lousy place to play a text adventure of any size, given that Zplet doesn’t provide for SAVE and RESTORE, so once I found the game I dug the zcode file out of my browser cache and played it locally. It would be nice if the author’s web site had provided an easier option for downloading the game file, but that’s a forgivable lapse. I fired up the game, all energized about the bright possibilities.

Unfortunately, that energy evaporated almost immediately. The first thing I did was turn transcripting on, and saw this:

Start of a transcript of
Eragon
Eragon.
Release 1 / Serial number 050712 / Inform v6.30 Library 6/11 SD
Standard interpreter 1.1 (4F) / Library serial number 040227

Uh-oh. Debugging verbs left on: not a good sign. Also, what’s with the subtitle being just the title with a period added in? Finally, where’s the author credit? Did Paolini actually write this game, or did he leave his name off because some employee or fan of his is the real author?

Having played the game, I’d put my money on the latter. Both in terms of design and prose style, Eragon feels like the product of a member of its intended audience: readers in their early teens. At the very least, given the number of comma splices and grammatical missteps in the game, I think it’s safe to say that this prose has never seen the services of a professional editor. The milieu of the game itself feels like Tolkien with just a few of the serial numbers rubbed off — apparently you’re a dwarf in the tunnels under “Farthen Dûr”. Your quest is to warn the “Varden” (i.e. the good guys) that an “army of Urgals” (i.e. orcs) is approaching. In the process, you’ll come across some magic dust that makes people fall asleep, mysterious runes concealing hidden rooms, huge underground chambers, and so forth. It’s bog-standard stuff.

As for the game itself, well, I wish the news was better. It’s not that this game is out-and-out terrible. Worse games get submitted to every single IF competition. However, it suffers from some very serious flaws. The worst of these is the way it deploys a kind of “selective parsing” that makes it feel like a product of 1983, despite having been produced with Inform 6. Several times throughout Eragon, I found that the parser would claim not to understand a particular formulation, only to specifically require that formulation at a later point. This kind of thing is simply unacceptable in a text adventure — if you tell me a command is not understood, don’t expect me to try it again. A variation on this is the way that at certain junctures I found myself wrestling with the parser, trying to communicate a specific idea, only to learn that the game would only accept the most generic command possible, doing all the rest of the heavy lifting itself. Here’s an example, altered to remove spoilers:

>X TRAP DOOR
The stone trap door is covered with finely carved runes and etchings
of intertwined dragons. There is an empty space in the center, just
about the size of the marble orb.

>PUT ORB ON DOOR
Putting things on the Trap Door would achieve nothing.

>PUT ORB IN CENTER
I do not understand your command. Doublecheck your spelling or refer
to the commands list for help.

>OPEN TRAP DOOR
The door is locked, and simply impassable.

>PUT ORB IN STONE
You can't put something inside itself.

>X CENTER
I do not understand your command. Doublecheck your spelling or refer
to the commands list for help.

>USE ORB
The orb slips perfectly back into place, becoming one with the door.
The door, now unlocked, automatically begins to slide open, dragging
heavily along the floor.

The puzzles themselves are pitched at a good level for kids, but any kid would be driven crazy by how frequently this game fails to parse.

Alongside the technical failures is some highly irritating design, the centerpiece of which is a large maze. This maze isn’t terribly challenging — the game is kind enough to give each location a distinctive name, like “Maze M18”, “Hallway H6”, and so forth — but it is so, so dull. Wandering through one empty location after another, following the left hand wall, is not my idea of a good time. Hilariously, the game helps orient you by telling you that you hear singing, loudly or faintly, from a particular direction, but when you get to the source of the sound it seems to forget that it ever mentioned singing. There’s a person there, but I never saw her sing. In addition, there are several spots where I flummoxed the game by doing things in a different order than it expected. For instance, there’s a library section where I thumbed through the books and was told, “Upon realizing that this is not the book you are looking for, you return the book to its place on the shelf.” Unfortunately, I hadn’t yet met the character who told me what book to look for, which made that message rather nonsensical. I’d venture to guess that the game was written to a walkthrough and not playtested thoroughly enough to uncover its hidden assumptions. Tons of formatting errors, capricious capitalization, and logical lapses add to the unpolished feeling.

I realize that all this criticism is negative, and I don’t mean to be too discouraging, especially if Eragon was written by some young Paolini fan as a labor of love. I think the lesson that emerges from this game is that although it would be great for popular writers to offer interactive fiction based on their works, they should probably do so in collaboration with experienced IF authors if they’re unfamiliar with modern IF themselves. After all, even Douglas Adams didn’t try to write the Hitchhiker’s game himself — the participation of Steve Meretzky helped ensure that the game would not be a hash of bugs and mainframe-era game design cliches. Similarly, modern authors would do well to avail themselves of the knowledge contained within the modern text adventure community. Combining a popular writer’s skill and imagination with the technical expertise and experience of an established IF creator would be most likely to result in a game that puts both the author’s works and interactive fiction itself in the best light. Without that creator’s insight, you run the risk of games like Eragon, which makes IF fans want to avoid more Paolini and Paolini fans want to avoid more IF.

Bronze by Emily Short [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2006.]

IFDB Page: Bronze

Alloys and Allies

The unveiling of Inform 7 is hugely exciting for many reasons, not the least of which is a sudden bounty of new games by Graham Nelson and Emily Short. These example games are meant to show off various capabilities of the development system, but the designers being who they are, the games are likely to be eminently playworthy in their own right. This review begins what I hope will be a series [Welp, that didn’t happen. — 2021 PO] that illuminates the value of these example games to players, quite aside from what they demonstrate to authors.

First on the list is Bronze, an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast and an old-fashioned puzzlefest, though only old-fashioned in the good ways. There are no mazes, no hunger puzzles, no expiring light sources; for such favors I thank the author sincerely. What we have instead is a large landscape (in this case the Beast’s castle), a well-paced plot punctuated by clever puzzles, and a variety of endings that allow for varying interpretations of the main character. The PC herself goes unnamed, but she is clearly the Beauty of the story, known as Belle in many versions, including both the Disney and Cocteau films. The tone of this game is much closer to the latter, pleasantly. In fact, Bronze reminded me often of Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête — its gloomy, echoing chambers, its magical aura, and of course the wounded, romantic figure at its center.

Bronze‘s castle is less wildly inventive and evocative than Cocteau’s, though of course this is a rather rarefied standard to apply. What it does have over any other adaptation I’ve seen, however, is dimensionality. This game cannily exploits the strengths of IF to use its landscape for multiple ends. At the most basic level, it arranges the map in three dimensions, and at several points forces us to think not only of what is around us but what is above and below. A further (and more interesting) depth accretes as the PC’s memories surface in connection with certain rooms and objects. This is not a new trick in IF, but it’s very well-wrought here. Later in the game, we are shown yet another dimension via a magical item that allows us to hear the memories that other characters attach to various places. In addition, the game lays in a great deal of history to the castle, the Beast, the Beast’s family, and so forth — indeed, learning this history is essential for completing the game. The historical information is nicely woven, mostly avoiding infodumps and cutscenes in favor of memory-freighted objects and consultable items.

On the down side, though, the need to CONSULT X ABOUT Y so often was perhaps Bronze‘s greatest weakness for me. I got rather impatient with having to plumb so many sources about so many topics, especially when only one of the sources was portable. No doubt I’m rather spoiled by small competition games. Perhaps more to the point, I squeeze IF into the corners of my life and thus am not only unable to remember many details from one play session to the next but also reluctant to take notes while playing. I’d imagine that someone in a different mindset would find all the research opportunities quite rewarding. I did not.

Another choice that stymied me was the structure of the endings. My first attempt at Bronze terminated rather abruptly, at a less-than-optimal ending, and it was not immediately apparent why I couldn’t keep proceeding to complete the other goals that would have led to a more satisfying conclusion. The answer had to do with my failure to consult a particular item about a particular topic before that item disappeared, but I did not put this together until after I had turned to the walkthrough. Even after I understood the problem, it still felt a little unfair to me — I wish there were a bit more space in the design to prevent such accidental losses. Finally, there were one or two aspects of the magic system that took me a long time to figure out. Some of this may have been due to haste on my part, but I think they were also a little underdescribed.

Enough whinging. An area where Bronze really shines (uh, no pun intended) is in its technical prowess. Its blurb text promises “a number of features to make navigating a large space more pleasant,” and those features are lovely. GO TO <location> navigates the best path from the player’s present location to the target room, a godsend for the many, many occasions when one has to trudge from one end of the castle to the other. Similarly, FIND <object> takes the PC directly to the target object’s location via the same pathfinding method. Bronze also implements LOOK <direction> to let the PC investigate adjacent rooms without traveling to them. Other great features include an adaptive hint system accessed via the THINK ABOUT verb, and a status bar that shows not only what exits are available but also color-codes those directions according to whether they have been explored or not. Finally, I must mention the very newbie-friendly, context-sensitive “novice mode” that gently injects instructions for how to deal with the IF interface throughout the game. In fact, Bronze is a game I’d recommend for newcomers to the form, since its story is a familiar one, its help system is extensive, and its writing is rich and enjoyable.

A few more words about that writing. Short’s style is a familiar one by now: elliptical but densely packed, full of arresting images and subtle wit. At times, devoting so few words of description to so large a map can make the game feel a bit sparse, but more often it achieves a lovely mystique, showing us just enough to intrigue and enchant. Many sentences are striking in both their economy and power, such as this description of a door:

The work of the hinges and handle, the color of the wood, the point of the arch: all malevolent.

In addition, the imagery of the castle’s fixtures is pure Short, such as the giant hourglass whose sands never stop pouring, or the cherry-wood floor in which is carved an expansive map of the Beast’s kingdom. Another authorial trademark that will be familiar to fans of Savoir-Faire is the game’s detailed working-out of a magic system and its implications not only for puzzles but for character and story as well. Bronze is no masterpiece, but it is a well-crafted, fun, and satisfying game. I recommend it not only to people wishing to learn Inform 7 but to all fans of quality puzzle-laden text adventures.

1893: A World’s Fair Mystery by Peter Nepstad [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2009.]

IFDB Page: 1893: A World’s Fair Mystery

World Class

Peter Nepstad has performed a minor miracle. He has made money, significant money, as an IF author. According to a recent SPAG interview, he’s sold about 3700 copies, at a retail price of $15-$20, mostly $20. The majority of these sales came from brick-and-mortar stores where his game is for sale. Let me say that again. Peter Nepstad wrote a game himself, made deals to get it sold in stores as well as online, and has sold several thousand copies, netting thousands of dollars.

And all he had to do was work ridiculously hard, over a period of many years. The subject of Nepstad’s game is the 1893 World’s Fair that was held in Chicago, Illinois. Nepstad researched the fair thoroughly, collecting hundreds of photographs (over 500 of which are scanned into the game), and recreating historical artifacts from the era. Once the game was completed, he arranged for publication on CDs and got his product onto the shelves at gift stores in various Windy City attractions, such as the Chicago Architecture Foundation, the Museum of Science and Industry, and of course the gift shop at the World’s Fair site. He sought out press attention, garnering favorable reviews from (among other places) the Associated Press, the Chicago Sun-Times, and Games magazine.

Then there’s the game itself. People, this game is enormous, and has to be the product of an absolutely Herculean effort. Every time I thought I had a handle on how big it is, I’d discover some new aspect and have to revise my estimate upward. Here’s an example: there are some places in the game in which it is necessary to bring a light source. Guess how many rooms I searched before finding a light source? 273. Two hundred and seventy-three rooms. These weren’t crummy carbon-copy rooms either, not randomly generated locations from some teeth-grinding maze, but full-fledged parts of the game’s faithful historical simulacrum. Why do I know the exact number? Because after my first several hours exploring the game, I had to start keeping a spreadsheet just to track which places I’d visited, which puzzles they contained, which exits I’d tried, and so forth. Not only that, but the 4th dimension is implemented and important — some areas are only open at certain times of day, certain events only happen on a particular day, and missing an appointment can mean losing the game.

The experience of exploring this game is satisfying in itself. Between the epic scope, the detailed room descriptions, and the well-chosen photographs, I often got a frisson of time-travel sensation, a level of immersion that made me feel transported back across the centuries. The theme of the fair was a celebration of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas (the 21st-century political thorniness of which the author addresses in an afterword), and exploration is the order of the day both in the fair and in the game. In fact, once we reach the climactic endgame, the PC is literally tied to a chair to have the plot shouted at him, and while this would drive me crazy in most games, I didn’t mind at all in 1893 — it was almost a relief from having to maintain a gargantuan mental map and keep track of a variety of temporally spaced events. Dealing with the game’s size (330 rooms!) actually constitutes one of the most challenging aspects of 1893. There is a definite sense of overwhelm that lasts for a long time, until you finally get the game’s geography straight in your head.

There’s a pleasant sense of artistic unity to the interface, which consists of a text window, a graphics window, and a compass rose, garnished with just a bit of fancy Victorian filigree. Occasionally, the pictures and compass disappear for effect, but for the most part, we can always see exits at a glance, beneath a visual representation of the location. These photographs are a great touch, and some of the images Nepstad has chosen are absolutely wonderful, compelling images that would be interesting in any context, but are all the more arresting for accompanying such a thorough simulation of their original setting. The combination can create a potent sense of place.

The game presents a serviceable plot to motivate exploration: you play a detective called to investigate the disappearance of eight large and precious diamonds from one of the fair’s exhibits. The thief has hidden the diamonds all around the fair, ensconced within various puzzly contraptions, and scattered clues to their locations a la The Riddler. It must be said that this plot does not make a great deal of sense, and contains some serious holes — at least one of the diamonds is hidden in a way that seems logically impossible to me. Still, it marries traditional text adventure concerns to this large simulation, transforming 1893 from a model into a game. The simulation is huge enough to entertain a history buff without ever having to get involved in the puzzles, while the game aspects are engaging enough to gratify text adventure enthusiasts.

Nepstad has a keen sense of spectacle, and effectively conveys how breathtaking some of the fair’s wonders must have been to its visitors. In addition, he throws some fun twists and turns into the plot, generating moments of real excitement to punctuate the player’s long journey through his game. He demonstrates a real flair for action sequences — there are a couple of terrific set-pieces worthy of any period thriller. The whole thing winds up in an ending that I found absolutely spectacular, an enthralling finale that provides a fitting close to the game’s very slowly rising action. I finished 1893 feeling, overall, happy and satisfied.

Given all that, it feels a bit churlish to complain about the game, but it must be said that there were some aspects of 1893 that I found disappointing. Foremost among these is, believe it or not, its widespread underimplementation. I know I’ve just extolled the game’s largesse and emphasized how much work it must have taken, but while its scope is immensely broad, its implementation is often frustratingly shallow. Often the wonders of the fair seemed more like a background painting, because so many of them lacked descriptions. Worse, some of the basic functionality around them was all too thinly provided. For instance, when the PC finds a full pack of Cairo cigarettes:

>look in pack
There's nothing in the pack of cigarettes.

>get all from pack
I don't see what you're referring to.

>get cigarette
You pull a cigarette out and close the pack.

>smoke it
You'll have to open the pack of cigarettes first.

>open pack
Opened.

>smoke it
I don't know how to smoke the pack of cigarettes.

>smoke cigarette
I don't know how to smoke the cigarette.

>smoke cairo
You'll have to light it first.

This, this is the kind of thing that earns IF its reputation as perverse and obfuscatory. Who but the masochists among us (and I include myself) wouldn’t type QUIT after a sequence like this? It makes me wince to think about newcomers to IF (some of whom this game surely found) encountering such obtuse implementation. There were some serious parsing problems throughout the game — for instance, SEARCH means something different from LOOK IN, so you could search something and still not find a crucial item that “look in” would have found. Synonyms were lacking in numerous instances, and some very basic verbs were missing, such as WAVE, CUT, ARREST, and WASH. When I’d attempt one of these commands, the game would respond, “There’s no verb in that sentence!”, which is of course patently false. Poor parsing and thin implementation are a deadly combination, especially as the suspense ratchets up. As I said, Nepstad has a flair for action sequences, but the game’s failure to understand or meaningfully respond to reasonable commands could be a serious tension-deflater in crucial moments.

NPCs in 1893 suffered from the same sparseness, most lacking responses to all but a very few topics and actions. The details that are included with them are often well-chosen, so some (such as a small boy and a Japanese woman) manage to be evocative despite their flimsiness, but very rarely do any of them ever feel like real characters rather than code constructs. The biggest sin here is when characters fail to respond to actions that absolutely should compel them — for instance, as a suspect very very slowly escapes, the PC can go straight to the headquarters of the fair’s security staff, but inexplicably can’t get their attention: “They are all hustling about so quickly you find it impossible to interrupt any of them,” says the game. Really? I’d rather have seen the office empty than have the game so willfully deflect a logical action. It isn’t a virtue to turn underimplementation into a puzzle, and that’s what happens at several junctures in 1893. Sensible alternate solutions aren’t accounted for, and actions that deserve a response go begging.

In addition, there are some persistent problems with the game’s writing, led by my personal nemesis, the its/it’s error. I must have found at least 20 instances of this, a circumstance tailor-made to drive me crazy. In addition to mechanics, there are just some really weird, illogical pieces of description, such as the Mysterious Case Of The Androgynous Seamster(ess?):

A small loom of antique design, made entirely of wood, is being used by an old woman, moving the treadle by foot, and the shuttles by hand, while all around him, the new mechanical looms weave several pieces at once and in a fraction of the time.

>ask man about loom
I don't see any man here.

>ask woman about loom
The old woman doesn't seem to hear you.

>x antique
The loom looks almost as old as the man who is working at it.

(My emphasis.) Finally, there are a number of flat-out bugs in the game — freaky TADS errors, strange scoping problems, or moments when it simply does not respond at all to player input. And of course, there’s always the classic “Which buildings do you mean, the grand buildings, or the grand buildings?”

For the most part, this stuff boils down to “needs further testing,” but then again I can certainly see how there’s plenty of room for mistakes to remain in a game this huge. Moreover, I’m sympathetic to the fact that with all the nouns included in this game, the prospect of describing a significant number of them might feel too overwhelming to face. I’d posit that perhaps projects of this size, especially if they are intended to be commercial ventures, could use one more person “on staff.” That person could not only serve as first tester and copyeditor, but he or she could also perform the tedious but crucial duty of filling in descriptions for first-level nouns and coding for alternate solutions, providing richness that might be too much to ask of one implementor but which can make the difference between immersion and infuriation for the player.

I should mention that a number of details are well-attended — for instance, the “can’t go” messages in each room usually help the player out by naming the exits. The puzzles, for the most part, are also logical and well-cued. A few times, I found myself wishing that the game had given me a clearer indication towards some important aspect necessary for solving a puzzle — in particular, there’s a crucial demonstration that only happens once a day but is not announced anywhere I could find. Still, this was the exception. Most of the game’s puzzles (and there are many) are solvable and fun, and while there were a few instances where I turned to the hints, they turned out to be mostly due to my own boneheadedness. There were a few times when a puzzle stretched plausibility, such as the time I was handed a baby and treated it as just another inventory item.

Then again, I’m willing to believe that the business with the baby could have been a subtle joke on the game’s part. One of the more enjoyable aspects of 1893 is its light tone and affable wit. A few parts of the game are outright comedy, and hilarious comedy at that. An outstandingly pompous tour guide can lead you through the fair, speaking in the prose of the most overwrought Victorian novel, to humorous effect. There’s a wonderfully funny scene with a mouse, and some excellent parser responses, including one I can’t help quoting, from a room with a huge pillar of anthracite coal:

>kiss pillar
Too bad you missed Dr. Freud's visit to the fair, he would have loved to meet you.

Okay, it’s a comma splice, but still damn funny. Other nice touches include the occasional cameo by historical figures, such as when you spy Frank Lloyd Wright and Louis Sullivan discussing the design of the Japanese temple.

Alongside this clearly intentional comedy were some instances of a murkier sort. Sometimes I wasn’t sure whether the game intended a wink to accompany its message, such as this statement from the tour guide: “The French have often been called the most polite nation in the world, but France must surrender the palm to America.” I dunno, maybe cultural perceptions have shifted radically, but from my 2008 perspective, I thought, “Oh yeah, America is the capital of politeness. Trailed only by France.” Or take another instance, a pomological exhibit featuring a Liberty Bell replica made of oranges:

>x liberty
You pause for a moment, wondering what kind of person would spend his time making a replica of the Liberty Bell made entirely out of oranges.

Or, for that matter, what kind of person would spend his time making a replica of the 1893 World’s Fair made entirely out of TADS code? Is it dry self-deprecation or straight-ahead ingenuousness? Oh, and then there’s the mysterious matter of the “homacoustic commutator”, an object defined (as far as I’m concerned) with two nonsense words, and described thus: “The homacoustic commutator is equipped with an electric signalling device.” Say what? I had to conclude that the game was joking with me here. Either that or it decided to edge for a moment into a steampunk version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy.

Actually, that’s not as outlandish a prospect as it might sound. There were a couple of cases where the game suddenly, jarringly threw in a dose of science fiction or magic, for no easily discernible reason. These moments are certainly exciting (and shocking) when they happen, but I think they weaken the game overall. In such a realistic simulation, these easter eggs deal a killing blow to mimesis, throwing me right out of any period immersion I might be feeling.

Speaking of easter eggs, I am ready to declare that 1893 has, hands down, the best easter egg I have ever found in any IF game. I don’t want to spoil it here, except to recommend that those who finish the game definitely try all the amusing actions laid out in the game’s afterword. There’s an easter egg tucked into this game that could practically serve as an entire comp game all by itself. That mini-game is plagued by much of the same underimplementation that appears throughout the rest of the game, but it also has the same great witty responses, the same sense of excitement, and the same clever puzzles as the rest of the game too. There are even easter eggs within the easter egg, if you can believe that. It’s terrifically impressive, in an “even his muscles have muscles” kind of way.

Other hidden actions might award the player a “bonus point”, and it’s a great feeling to get one of these, because it’s usually for some very satisfying action. 1893 isn’t shy about using the scoring system, and I think it exploits the system quite effectively, with the main score serving as a progress indicator and the bonus points as pure lagniappe. Speaking of bonuses, there are various fascinating historical texts embedded in this game, such as Lincoln’s first inaugural address, as well as some texts by Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells making the case for African-American representation at the Fair (though of course they don’t use that term.) I quite liked the way Nepstad handles race in 1893, presenting the accurate historical simulation but making sure to include the voices that at that time were protesting the exclusion of African-American culture.

There were a few parts where that accurate simulation broke down, anachronistic references to jacuzzis and homeless people, as well as this:

>buy banana
Any more bananas and you'd start to feel like Carmen Miranda.

Not exactly the thought an 1893 detective would be having, given the fact that Miranda was born in 1909. Still, these slip-ups were minor and rare against the huge tide of very well-researched content with which 1893 is overflowing. It’s a game that richly rewards exploration, that provides hours and hours of engrossing entertainment, that charms with its cleverness and awes with its magnitude. It has its flaws, but it’s well worth your twenty dollars.

Once and Future by G. Kevin Wilson [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2002.]

IFDB Page: Once and Future

Swords and Sledgehammers

Note: This review contains minor spoilers.

If we wanted to make a short list of the people who had a major impact on the course of 1990’s interactive fiction, who would we include? Graham Nelson, Mike Roberts, and Kent Tessman would have to be in, for creating the major development systems (and, in Nelson’s case, a couple of major games) of the decade. Adam Cadre and Andrew Plotkin would make the list, for contributing some of the most important games of that period and, in Plotkin’s case, for crucial technical innovations as well. We can’t forget Volker Blasius, Dave Baggett, and David Kinder for founding and maintaining the IF Archive. And there’s one more name we couldn’t leave off: Gerry Kevin “Whizzard” Wilson.

Kevin contributed lots of things, all of which have their roots in his boundless, unstoppable enthusiasm for IF. He founded SPAG, the IF review webzine that I now edit. He organized and ran the first IF competition, and shepherded it through its first few years, as it became one of the most dominant forces in amateur IF, as well as one of the engines powering the IF Renaissance we currently enjoy. He labored to make Activision realize the value of the Infocom properties they own, and as a result brought some fascinating internal Infocom documents into public view, and brought paychecks and publication to the winners of the first IF Comp. He gave us one of our legends, too. I refer, of course, to Avalon. Avalon was the game that Kevin announced in 1993, estimating it’d take a month or two to finish. Two months turned into six, into a year, into many many years. The game seemed to be Kevin’s bête noire, the place where his enthusiasm was an anchor instead of a sail. That enthusiasm led him to keep expanding the game, perfecting it, adding more and more, while at the same time hyping it relentlessly in his every Usenet post, of which there were quite a few indeed. “Avalon” became synonymous with “overhyped vaporware.”

Then, in 1998, it happened. Avalon was released, albeit retitled Once And Future (OAF), since the name “Avalon” was already trademarked by another game. The trademark mattered, because the game was released commercially, the first pure text adventure to claim that distinction since the Infocom era. The company behind this venture was Cascade Mountain Publishing (CMP), run by Mike Berlyn, former Infocom Implementor. OAF was CMP’s flagship product, a thirty-dollar game touted as the return of “quality interactive fiction.” The story from here gets short and sad, for CMP founders rather quickly and tanks quietly, in the process apparently torpedoing the release of the Inform Designer’s Manual (4th ed.) for a good long time. While sales figures for OAF have never been released, it clearly never took off. Finally, on April 1st of 2001 (with no apparent irony), OAF is released as freeware.

I was one of the people who bought the original, thirty-dollar package. In fact, due to a CMP blunder, I actually received two copies, the second of which I gave away as a prize in last year’s comp. But for whatever reason, I never quite got around to playing it until now. When I finally did play the game, the weight of its history and its hype couldn’t help but burden the experience. It’s impossible to say how I would have viewed OAF had it been released humbly, for free, by an unknown author, but I think my reaction would have been quite a bit different. As it is, I find it difficult not to make this review a laundry list of faults. This game, upon which so much hope was riding, about which we heard so much and for which we waited so long, is far from perfect. In addition, as a commercial product it begs comparison not only to its contemporaries, the graphical adventures of the late Nineties, but also to its Infocom predecessors. Whether these are fair comparisons I don’t know, but OAF suffers by them. In the light of these considerations, I hope to make my criticisms as constructive as possible, and to remember the invaluable contributions of its author, the obstacles that stood in the way of its creation, and the gaming era from which it originated.

In that spirit, I want to focus on some of the things I loved about Once And Future. First of all, that’s a great title, far better than “Avalon.” OAF, for those of you new enough not to already know, is the story of Frank Leandro. Frank is a young soldier in Vietnam who, after sacrificing his life to save his friends, finds himself entrusted by King Arthur to journey through the fairy-tale realm of Avalon, collecting mythically resonant items like Excalibur and the Holy Grail and, finally, traveling through time to prevent a Great American Tragedy. In other words, he travels to the land of Once Upon a Time, at the behest of the man T.H. White dubbed the Once And Future King, in order to obtain One chance to save the Future. Where “Avalon” was a flat description of the landscape, “Once And Future” evokes the game’s genre, its themes, and its literary ambitions.

Those ambitions are important too. Kevin started this game in 1993, a time when serious themes and literary content were the exception rather than the rule in text adventures. He used a heavily characterized PC in the face of rather overwhelming IF tradition to the contrary, and injected that PC’s own distinctive voice into NPC interactions well before Varicella and its ilk. Come to that, he used a gimmick in the very first few moves of the game that feels fresh to us even now, at least according to Shrapnel and No Time To Squeal. I’m not the first to observe that this game would have been considered quite revolutionary indeed had it been released in 1994 (as originally planned). Still, the point bears attention. I suppose it’s the IF writer’s curse that because we most often work solo and our work is so demanding and detailed, there is a tremendous gap between conceiving an idea and realizing it in its finished form, and during that gap any number of things may come along to steal our thunder. It’s no wonder that some IF authors hate to see concepts blithely discussed; I’m of the mind that execution is just as important as concept, but it’s got to sting to see your game’s ideas called old hat, when in fact they may have been stunningly original at the time you first began work.

The best part about OAF, though, is this: it’s fun. The game is genuinely fun for long stretches at a time. It’s a rollicking text adventure of the old school, offering wonderfully open-ended design and puzzles that challenge the mind and care little for how arbitrary they ultimately are. Once And Future‘s love for the Infocom tradition shines through continuously and, at times, the game’s sheer scope and its cleverness manage to hit the same high notes as its predecessors. As literary as it may aspire to be, OAF is a game first and foremost, and, although plenty of critical attention has been lavished on its story and writing, to me the real star of the show is the puzzles. [I’ll be naming several of these by way of example for those who have already played the game, but I don’t think it’ll spoil anything for those of you who haven’t.] There are lots and lots of them, and most of them quite enjoyable. Of course, many of them are rather easy as well, which for me coincides neatly with enjoyability. Freeing Merlin, obtaining Excalibur, and helping the old man are all examples of that pleasant sort of IF puzzle in which there’s an action that makes sense, I try it, it works, and I am made happy. Even some of the tougher ones provided me with time well-spent, like the diamond puzzle and the earlier parts of the Mountain King puzzle.

When the puzzles did go wrong, it often wasn’t because they were too difficult, but rather because the series of steps necessary to execute the solution was long and tedious. A perfect example here is the braziers — the concept is straightforward enough, and a helpful mnemonic is even provided (a very nice touch), but actually carrying out this concept entails a great deal of tedious tromping back and forth and mucking about with fiddly liquid commands. The problem here is that the fun part of puzzle-solving is the actual figuring out — the rest is just follow-through, and if made sufficiently involved, becomes drudgery. The lesson for designers is to keep the emphasis on the former, and make the latter fairly streamlined, or at the very least entertaining in its own right. The worst offender in this category was the business with the blue paste — there isn’t even any figuring out involved, just a lot of mind-numbing inspection of nearly-identical objects.

Another area where the puzzles run into difficulty is bugginess. I suppose that in the technical sense there aren’t any game-stopping bugs in OAF, but having the game actually fail to respond to a command its documentation specifically recommends (ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS) comes close enough in my book. In addition, the game isn’t free from guess-the-verb problems. In fact, the particular final puzzle I encountered (there are a variety of them, depending on the character’s inventory in the final scene) had me so stumped that I actually went onto ifMUD, found somebody who had a hint book, and determined that I had in fact figured out the right action (an action which was rather nonsensical in itself), but the game hadn’t recognized any of the several commands I’d used to get it across. Once provided with the right verb, I was finally able to reach the game’s ending. It’s just the sort of problem that’s bound to plague a large game, but that doesn’t make it any more excusable.

Okay, clearly I’ve gotten to the part where I discuss OAF‘s flaws, so let me cut straight to its biggest one: the writing. Now, let me be clear about this. It’s not that OAF is poorly written in the way that a Rybread Celsius game is poorly written, or in the way that the games that occupy the bottom third of the comp standings tend to be poorly written. On the contrary, most of OAF‘s prose is clean, error-free and basically serviceable. However, it is punctuated with serious problems nonetheless, not the least of which is its plethora of overwhelmingly maudlin, trite moments. Here’s a sample, from a scene in which Frank sees a Vietnam buddy vegetating in a hospital bed:

>X MARK
"Is this Mark?" you think, as you look into the vacant, staring eyes. His mouth hangs slack, and there are no signs of intelligence. Gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes. He lies there, wasted and immobile, a monument to man's folly.

Lines like “a monument to man’s folly” and “gone is the sparkle from his young brown eyes” are, I’m guessing, supposed to evoke goosebumps and a solemn nod, but all they elicit from me are groans. I don’t think it’s that I’m so jaded and hardbitten — rather, the lines take a redundant, sentimental shortcut around genuine emotion. I’ve already been told that Mark’s eyes are “vacant” and “staring” — does the point that they’re not sparkling really need to be made? Similarly, making stentorian statements like “a monument to man’s folly” short-circuits any possibility of my reaching that sort of conclusion on my own, and inclines me instead to see the narrative voice as irritatingly grandiose. [By the way, I’ve no doubt that this sort of thing has shown up in my own writing from time to time, and I groan when I see it there, too.]

When the writing isn’t being overdramatic, it frequently strays into cutesiness. In fact, one of the very first things a player is likely to see (because it’s in Frank’s initial inventory) is a candy bar object called “Mr. Mediocrebar.” In case you’re not familiar with American candy, this is a jokey reference to a Hershey product called “Mr. Goodbar.” The problem with this isn’t whether the candy bar ever serves a purpose — even useless objects have their place in IF. The problem is with the name. Calling the candy “Mr. Mediocrebar”, a name that no actual candy would ever have, immediately undercuts mimesis. It’s as if the author is playfully nudging us in the ribs and saying, “Hey there, this is all for fun, just a game. None of it’s real, and you certainly don’t need to take it seriously.” This sort of approach might work in a light farce, but it jars horribly against the somber Vietnam setting and the Big Themes to come. Furthermore, because the candy bar may well remain in the player’s inventory for the entirety of the game, its name has this deleterious effect over and over again. Not to mention the fact that it makes players think of the word “mediocre” throughout the game, which is hardly desirable.

Worst of all, though, is what I call the Sledgehammer Writing. Here’s an example: the player is in the throne room of a mysterious ruler called The Straw Man. This ruler sits silently and impassively on his throne. While in the room, Frank hears someone approaching, and hides. It’s a woman who tells the Straw Man her problem; he doesn’t respond, and by talking it out, she solves it on her own, and leaves. Then this happens again. Then it happens yet again, and this time, as she cries on his lap,

out of the corner of your eye, you notice the first sign of movement from the Straw Man that you’ve seen. His arm slips from the armrest of the throne, coming to rest on her shoulder. Reaching up to grasp his arm, she continues to cry for a little while before regaining control of her emotions.

Okay, so we probably know what’s coming, right? Sure we do:

But when the Straw Man’s arm slipped from the armrest, you noticed something. The Straw Man is just a plain old scarecrow.

Dum dum DAAA! But wait, there’s more:

Kind of funny, really, that the best ruler, the wisest person that you’ve ever seen, turns out to be a dummy.

Okay, I get the point. But still more awaits:

But maybe it says something too. People don’t always want or need advice, sometimes they just want someone to listen to them, and hold them.

WHAM WHAM WHAM! HERE IS THE MESSAGE I AM GIVING YOU! It’s as if the game has so little trust in its readers that after making its point subtly, then blatantly, it feels that it still must spell the whole thing out in painfully obvious terms, just to make sure we get it. This sort of thing isn’t just cringeworthy, it’s insulting; OAF would have been so much stronger had a little restraint been shown in scenes like this.

Finally, sometimes the writing just suffers from a simple lack of clarity. For instance, at a point in the game when Frank has been transformed into a mouse, reading a magical scroll gives this response:

Your head begins to spin as you read the scroll. Your hands start to glow red and twist into a more human shape. You briefly ponder what would happen if you were to become a full-sized human inside this mouse hole. It’s not a pretty thought. The scroll quietly dissolves to ash.

When I read this, I thought: Uh-oh, I’m about to die. I’d better UNDO, then get out of this mousehole before I read the scroll. Problem was, I couldn’t leave the mousehole without dying. In frustration, I sought a hint from Google and finally realized that I had been misled — the above message wasn’t presaging that I was about to be crushed, but rather that a several-turns-long growing process was beginning and that I needed to exit the mousehole before the process completed.

Speaking of that mousehole, it’s a good instance of one of OAF‘s primary qualities: its expansiveness. This quality is both a strength and a weakness, in my view. Certainly in terms of the game as a whole, it’s a strength — one of the best things about OAF is how big it is. Unlike the bite-sized IF that dominates current output, this game is a five-course meal. Then again, there are times when the “more is better” approach is a bit more dubious. For instance, hanging on the wall of the initial location is a paper listing “Murphy’s Laws of Combat”, a list that’s twenty-five items long. This little touch adds a bit of authenticity and characterization, but it also presents the player with a large, somewhat jokey wodge of text to read at the beginning of the game (following immediately upon the game’s long and somewhat non-sequitur-ish opening text), slowing down the pace of a scene that otherwise moves very quickly. Then there’s the geographical expansiveness, of which the mousehole is such a perfect example. According to my maps (I made them in GUEMap and have uploaded them to the IF Archive), the underground area of OAF comprises no less than twenty-seven rooms. The only purpose of this area is to provide a couple of puzzles that lead to an item that (along with a different item from another area) lets you solve another puzzle that ultimately yields one of the main necessary items for your final goal. The great majority of these twenty-seven rooms serve no purpose for obtaining that item. They’re just there for… scenery, I guess, or perhaps to make the world feel larger. A couple of them support items that comprise one of the game’s several dangling plot threads, but that’s about it.

I don’t think this approach to IF map design is optimal. A few non-essential rooms here and there can be a good thing, fleshing out the landscape and making the world feel a bit more whole. On the other hand, when the majority of the map seems to be made of non-essential rooms, something is a little out of balance. This happened to me on my first game — I had a puzzle planned out that would require a sandy beach, and it made sense to have several beach locations. In the end I cut the puzzle, but couldn’t quite bear to cut all the locations. Not only had I toiled to produce them, I thought they gave the landscape a greater sense of completeness. Of course, the game was rightly criticized for having a lot of filler rooms, and I learned my first lesson in the importance of pruning. (And judging from the length of this review, I still have quite a few lessons to go in that particular curriculum.) If I were writing that game today, I’d let my descriptions and transitions do a bit more of the space-establishing work, and I’d be less afraid to get rid of things that didn’t really serve the game except as decoration. I can’t help but feel that such an approach would have benefited OAF greatly as well.

Another strangeness about the maps is how gridlike they feel. The game contains several large landscapes, and in most of them, only movement in the cardinal directions is allowed, even though there are no logical barriers to diagonal movement. The locations are apparently evenly spaced from one another, despite the fact that they may represent radical shifts in landscape, so that a beautiful forest might nestle up against a blasted heath, with no apparent transition between the two. The result is that the setting has a very mechanical, unnatural feel, a feel that repeatedly reminds us that we are playing a game rather than traversing a real landscape. Again, whether this works is a matter of context — the grid layout might be great for a science-fiction game where the landscape is supposed to seem rigid and mechanical, but it doesn’t do justice to OAF‘s more natural, outdoorsy setting. There are a few areas in which the map is laid out in a fun, clever way, but these are almost always in the service of a puzzle.

Aside from its maps, OAF has a number of design successes. The game is fairly open-ended, so that a variety of puzzles are usually available at one time. It combines a Zorkish “wide landscape” with lots of Trinity-esque “little areas” by having lots of separate wide landscapes, which gives the game a chaptered feeling without needing formal divisions. The bottlenecks between these areas tend to work pretty smoothly, though I was hugely frustrated at one point — I failed to obtain an item from one area to solve a puzzle in another one, and wasn’t given another chance to do so, forcing me to restore from quite a ways back. Still, that was the only time that the game closed itself off for me, and given the era from which it originated, that’s not too bad.

The design of the story wasn’t quite so elegant. I mentioned dangling plotlines, and there are quite a few of them. I got to the end of the game, and instead of feeling resolution, I said, “That’s it?” For one thing, that ending inserts a sudden romantic subplot that was utterly unbelievable because it hadn’t been developed at all in any of the rest of the game. Moreover, the conclusion left so many questions unanswered about things that happened elsewhere in the game, it felt quite unsatisfying. For example, at one point you have a friendly kitty accompanying you on your travels. Then, in the process of solving a puzzle, that cat becomes lost, and possibly hurt. And you never find out what’s happened to it, or if it’s OK. Designers, don’t DO this! If your story puts an animal or companion in jeopardy, establish its final status before ending the game! The cat is just one example — there’s also stuff down in the mousehole that seems to imply a story, but the story goes nowhere. Instead, that stuff is just sort of there. The line between subplot and background color is a fine one, and OAF crosses it more than once, I think without realizing it’s done so. Subplots need to be resolved by the time the game ends, or else players end up feeling like I did: cheated.

The other problem I had with the story is more philosophical, and I suppose more idiosyncratic. The final quest of the game involves traveling in time to prevent a historical event. It’s an event that actually happened, but according to the game’s version of King Arthur, the world will be doomed if it isn’t changed. To me, this sort of story is wrongheaded. The pieces of our history, both good and bad, are what comprise our current reality, and living in that reality now, I found it hard to swallow King Arthur’s assertion that my world is doomed. In fact, I found it a lot more persuasive to think that Frank was being misled by a demon in holy guise, and was nonplussed [Ed. note: based on the length of this review, I think not!] to see that the game wasn’t going in that direction. The abstract question of whether the world might be better had certain parts of history been changed is an interesting one, to be sure, but I wasn’t at ease getting a protagonist to do something that in all likelihood would have prevented my own birth.

On a technical note, the game hangs together fairly well, especially for a work of such grand scope. It’s only natural that despite the five-year gestation period, this game would have more rough edges than smaller pieces of IF, and indeed it does. There are several times at which OAF gives default responses that don’t make sense. These details probably should have been seen to, but oversights like that are forgivable. Similarly, there were a number of bugs here and there, but nothing overly catastrophic or distracting. I have to admit, though, that I was disappointed by the NPCs. After all, this is the game that won the 1998 XYZZY award for Best NPCs, but they all seemed rather thin to me. Mordred, in particular, in spite of being a crucial part of Arthurian iconography, has almost nothing to say, nothing to do, and spends the majority of the game, in Michael Gentry’s words, “just sort of irritably standing around as though waiting for a bus.” Even some of the supposedly more fleshed-out characters, such as Merlin, suffer from serious lacunae in their knowledge. I’ve already mentioned that ASK MERLIN ABOUT SPIRITS doesn’t work, despite the documentation’s promise to the contrary. There are also exchanges like this one, which took place in Stonehenge after Frank had seen some strange blue stones:

>ask merlin about stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>ask merlin about blue stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>blue
There's no verb in that sentence!

>ask merlin about blue
Merlin says, "Frank, I'm rather busy right now, can't that wait?"

>ask merlin about bluish stones
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

>merlin, the blue ones, like I JUST $^%$ING SAID
I don't know the word "ones".

Or, similarly, when Frank has an unusual carved blue stone in his inventory.

>show stone to merlin
Which stone do you mean, the carved blue stone, or the flat stone?

>carved
Merlin isn't impressed.

>ask merlin about carved blue stone
Merlin says, "There are a lot of stones here. Which one do you mean?"

Thanks a lot Merlin, you’re a big help. There were lots and lots of gaps like that, and to make matters worse, Merlin’s default “I don’t know” message was “Merlin pretends not to hear you.” And you can’t even KILL MERLIN WITH EXCALIBUR.

I spent several weeks playing through Once And Future, and I’m not sorry I did. For one thing, it’s an important part of recent IF history, and for another thing, as I said before, it’s fun. Still, it was a bit of a letdown. I suppose that after the hype, buildup, and fanfare it got, it couldn’t help but be a letdown, at least a little bit. On top of that, it was no doubt to the game’s disadvantage that I played it in 2002. However unfair it might be to judge what’s essentially a 1994 game by 2002 standards, it’s impossible not to, because, well, it is 2002. Styles have changed, and parts of OAF haven’t aged well. The bottom line is that it feels like the work of a beginning writer, one who has promise and may have matured through the process, but whose novice mistakes remain. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth playing — it most certainly is — but don’t believe the hype.

Lock & Key by Adam Cadre [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2003.]

IFDB Page: Lock & Key

Death Becomes You

[NOTE: Lock & Key has a twist right at the beginning, and I’m going to give it away because it’s not practical to discuss the game without doing so. So if you haven’t played it yet and you want to be surprised, go play it before reading this, at least up to the twist anyway.]

I love editing SPAG, but the job does have its down-sides. For instance, I’m frequently obliged to read reviews of games I haven’t played yet. Most of the time, this isn’t much of a problem, since SPAG reviews are required to be spoiler-free. However, there is a small, occasional section of the ‘zine called SPAG Specifics, wherein reviewers are allowed to spoil as much as they like in the interest of promoting specific, detailed discussion about particular games. When I get a review for this section, I need to read it whether I’ve played the game in question or not.

That’s exactly what happened to me with Lock & Key — I’d played the game enough to get beyond the initial twist, see the setup, say “Cool”, and vaguely resolve to play it whenever I found the time. Shortly afterward, Eytan Zweig submitted a thoughtful, fairly critical review of the game for SPAG Specifics, and I decided that I wanted to wait a while to play the game after that, so that the review would fade enough in memory that it wouldn’t color my perceptions. Now it’s been about a year since that issue, Lock & Key has just won a handful of XYZZY Awards, and I have a new laptop I needed to test this past weekend; the stars were aligned, and I finished the game.

I wasn’t disappointed. Cadre’s writing shines as usual, as does his knack for giving every game a fresh angle. In this one, you play a prison designer and security expert in a mildly jokey pseudo-medieval milieu. Your job is to craft the perfect sequence of death-traps for the King’s dungeon, enough to defeat even the hardiest adventurer who might try to escape it. If you succeed, you’ll make a fortune and be able to retire. If you fail, well, you get beheaded. Those medieval managers really knew how to motivate their employees.

The meat of the game is its one and only puzzle, the one for which it earned the XYZZY for Best Individual Puzzle: setting the traps. It’s not that setting the traps themselves is all that difficult, but choosing the right ones… ah, that’s another matter. See, once you’ve finished constructing your ideal dungeon, it is put to the test by Boldo, a thick-thewed adventurer who, in the best IF fashion, seems to have an endless inventory of items that happen to counteract your traps perfectly. Every time he encounters a death-trap, you get to see exactly how he defeats it, and this in turn allows you to begin scheming about how you might deprive him of that method. Like Varicella, the game is highly iterative — the chances you’ll beat it the first time through are virtually nil, and this is by design. Instead, Boldo’s many triumphs allow you to make your own advances towards building the perfect dungeon upon restarting.

It’s a deeply rewarding puzzle of marvelously interlocking elements. Not only does it operate on several levels to begin with, it builds on itself to make lots of little “aha!” moments combine into a greater experience of overall insight. In addition, the game’s use of graphics do it a great service, presenting a clean and attractive game board to help players to see exactly what choices they’ve made.

My favorite part of the puzzle, though, is the hinting. The prose that describes Boldo conquering your traps is funny and enjoyable to read on its own merits, but it also frequently contains wonderfully subtle hints about how the dungeon might be better constructed. For the sake of spoiler-avoidance, I won’t quote any of those hints here, but I will say that they capture the feel that Infocom at its best was able to provide, of prose that is just as good on a game level as it is on a story level.

So Lock & Key wholly deserved its XYZZY for Best Puzzle. The other awards, I’m not so sure about. At the end of the XYZZYs, Lock & Key went away with the prizes for both Best Individual NPC (Boldo) and Best NPCs in general. The fact that it won these accolades for NPCs with whom (for the most part) the player cannot directly interact AT ALL is rather astonishing. I’m not sure what to make of it. Perhaps writing is just much, much more important than coding when it comes to NPCs, at least as far as the XYZZY voters are concerned. Certainly Boldo reacts to the traps placed by the player, and the descriptions of his reactions are all great and funny, but that’s a very limited sort of interaction, nothing at all like the dozens and dozens of responses that make up the typical fully-fleshed IF NPC. I wonder: can great writing alone make a great NPC?

Maybe sometimes it can, but I’ve yet to see it. Certainly this game’s excellent writing didn’t make Boldo an excellent NPC. He’s simply a cipher, an intentionally broad cliche whom the PC never meets, instead only watching cut-scenes of him on a sort of magic TV. He’s entertaining enough for the purpose he serves, but he hardly feels like a deeply implemented NPC, though he’s the deepest of the bunch. The other NPCs — the King, a gladiator named Musculo, and a host of others who appear in brief cameos — are present only in cut-scenes. The only exception to this, the only NPC who even responds to “ASK”, is the guard at the beginning. His response: “No talking in the dungeon!”

I would contend that the really remarkable character in Lock & Key is the player character. What’s remarkable about him? [1] Why, his cleverness, of course — his ability to string together just the right combination of traps to defeat Boldo. More to the point, what’s remarkable is the way in which the game constructs this cleverness. Like Primo Varicella, the PC of Lock & Key is what I’ll call an accretive PC, meaning that he becomes more and more himself with each iteration of the game, as the player’s knowledge accretes.

In most IF games, your character will never live up to you — it will never be able to do most of the things you can think of, nor say most of the things you can say. This is still true of Lock & Key and Varicella, but in an important way, what’s also true of those games is that you must live up to your character. You’re told a salient quality about the PC at the outset of the game — his expertise in dungeon design, or his Machiavellian plan to take over the regency — and then you must take him through one iteration after another until you yourself have attained enough of that quality to guide the PC to a successful conclusion. When you finally do reach that conclusion, it’s as if you’ve finally learned the real story, and all the failed attempts leading up to it exist only in shadowy parallel universes. This is who the character was all along — it just took you a while to catch up with him.

Of course, the case could be made that all IF PCs are like this to some degree. That may be true, but then again it’s de rigueur in most other IF to avoid game designs in which the PC must learn something by dying. Graham Nelson even made it Rule Number Three in his Player’s Bill Of Rights. [2] Of course, when a player must be able to step successfully into the PC’s viewpoint without any previous knowledge whatsoever, it becomes rather hard to give that PC any sort of expertise in the game world, which is why we so frequently see PCs who suffer from amnesia, or are fish-out-of-water, or other such tricks. Lock & Key and Varicella break this rule so brilliantly that it doesn’t even seem like a valid rule anymore. Why shouldn’t the player learn from past lives? After all, unless the PC is placed in some sort of contrived situation to deprive her of all her natural knowledge, she’ll inevitably know more than the player does the first time that player begins the game.

After a while, the requirement to match the PC’s knowledge with the player’s can begin to feel like a bit of a cage, and the most common contortions an IF game goes through to live inside it (such as amnesia) have long since lost their appeal. Even the freshest ones can still feel a bit tired and gimmicky unless done exactly right. The accretive PC is one key to this cage — it’s wonderfully refreshing to play a character who’s really good at something, and even better to become good at it yourself. Of all the jail-breaks that happen in Lock & Key, this one is the most satisfying.

[1] I’m referring to the PC as a male for convenience’s sake — I don’t recall its gender ever being specified in the game.

[2] See his excellent article The Craft Of Adventure, available in the info directory of the IF Archive.

Future Boy! by Kent Tessman [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2005.]

IFDB Page: Future Boy!

Hugo’s Heroes

Kent Tessman is both a filmmaker and a game author, and his latest game, Future Boy!, seems to have started life as a screenplay. I say “seems to” because while there are a lot of references to the “original Future Boy screenplay,” I never found any place in the game or its accompanying documentation that actually explained the story of how it came to be, why it didn’t get produced, and how it morphed from a movie idea into a game idea. Instead, the game just cruises along as if we know what it’s talking about, which we don’t. At least, I don’t.

So the characters and story started out aimed at the silver screen. How do they survive the transition onto the monitor screen? Pretty well, I’m happy to say. There’s plenty of fun to be had in Future Boy!‘s rich and well-implemented world, and the game’s multimedia content is easily the most impressive I’ve ever seen in an independently produced text adventure. If Future Boy! were free, it would be one of the best amateur games ever. However, it isn’t free — Tessman sells it for $25 (or $20 if you’re willing to forego the CD jewel case and booklet), and for me, that price tag demands a higher standard of testing and design, a standard that the game doesn’t always meet. I feel uncharacteristically reluctant to level any aspersions whatsoever at Future Boy!, since it’s so obviously the product of immense craft and dedication by a small cadre of artists. However, the fact remains that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with it, especially its later sections, and despite all the care and attention it obviously received, this game is still a flawed gem.

Still, I come to praise Future Boy! before I bury it (or maybe just toss a few shovelfuls of criticism onto it), so let’s talk about the multimedia, which is just awesome. Future Boy! splits the screen horizontally, with the bottom half dedicated to traditional text output, and the top half occupied by various hand-drawn pictures, some animated and some not. These pictures can be of the current location, as is the case with most multimedia IF, but they also serve to illustrate important objects and NPCs, and they sometimes show animated cut-scenes as well. The art feels enjoyably comic-booky, though amateur — artist Derek Lo is no John Romita, but his drawings do a nice job of evoking both the comedic and the adventuresome elements of the game, effectively strengthening its tone. Moreover, Tessman enhances the comic-book feel by displaying these pictures as independently floating panels rather than trapping them in static frames. The animations are especially cool, combining moving images with sound to marvelous effect, and providing a real reward for the act of puzzle-solving or exploration that triggers them.

Speaking of sound, the game’s sound design is as solid as its visual appeal. There’s zippy original music, written by the multitalented Tessman, who also does voice-acting for one of the characters. All the NPC voice-acting is pretty good in general, and occasionally inspired. Future Boy! reinforces the voice actors’ character-building with color-coded dialogue — red for the red-haired woman and so forth. These multimedia touches lend the NPCs much more distinctiveness and nuance than appears in the typical text game. The one minor quibble I’d make with the game’s sound is its insistence on inserting odd little musical cues and stings at scattered points throughout the interaction, sometimes seemingly at random. These cues make for an interesting experiment in mood-building, but they’re distracting as often as they’re dramatic. Still, they can be turned off, so no real harm done there.

In fact, Future Boy! provides a wealth of options like that, allowing player control over not only traditional things like verbose or brief descriptions, but also over its use of color, images, sounds, conversation menus, footnotes — virtually every special feature it provides. Controls like these are emblematic of the care that went into this game’s implementation, which is quite thorough overall, especially in the earlier sections of the story. One way in which the game wisely supports its location-depicting graphics is to implement all the objects shown in those graphics but not mentioned in the room description, even if only with a “that’s not important” type of message. Loads of other good ideas are put into action here, such as the entertaining plot recap provided after every SCORE and RESTORE command. I also appreciate the friendly “you can’t go that way” messages, which make sure to tell you what exits exist in the current location, and the nifty change in look and feel that occurs during a section of the game that involves hacking into a computer. Perhaps the coolest feature of all is the DVD-style “commentary” option which allows you to play through a version of the game where Tessman and Lo interject various musings and anecdotes on the making of the game at various points in the play session. If any question still remained, Future Boy! should eliminate all doubt that Hugo is absolutely a top-tier system for creating IF, possessing a solid world model and parser, and capable of achieving some really cool effects.

Future Boy!‘s story is pretty cool too. It shouldn’t give away too much to say that you play the roommate of a superhero living in Rocket City, a sort of stylized fictional mixture of New York and L.A. Future Boy (or Frank, as he’s known to you) has powers that are never quite defined but are vaguely Superman-like. However, he acts more like a typical roommate than a typical superhero, sometimes preferring to hang out on the couch watching TV rather than motivate to get the bad guys. So when supervillain Clayton Eno (who seems to have no powers at all besides a host of goofy Get Smart-ish devices and the ability to raise his eyebrows ominously) goes on a rampage, you find yourself drawn like Jimmy Olsen into the plot, and eventually it’s up to you to save the day, with a little help from some NPCs you meet along the way.

These NPCs are an entertaining bunch, with some very funny lines and incidental business for each. I particularly like Gorrd, a giant green — well, play the game and you’ll see. Dialogue occurs via a hybrid conversation system that combines menus with Infocom-style ASK and TELL commands. This system works pretty smoothly for the most part, though I did get seriously tripped up by it once, when a plot trigger was nestled in a menu option; I was forgetting to use the menus due to my old ASK/TELL habits. If the game seems to want to proceed but you can’t figure out how to nudge it along, my advice is to TALK TO everybody. Then TALK TO them again.

Future Boy!‘s heroic (or maybe sidekicky) premise makes for a fun world, and Tessman’s writing helps the fun along. The prose doesn’t particularly call attention to itself, though it’s certainly pretty good adventure game writing — adequate description with a hint or two smuggled in, as well as some good jokes. What makes it such a pleasure is the tone, which stays pretty much perfect throughout the game. Future Boy! is neither high drama nor low comedy, but a pitch-perfect funny adventure in the LucasArts tradition, with aliens who act just like cranky film noir characters, a superhero who spends most of his time slacking, and a villain whose ridiculousness never stops, from his name to his nefarious plans. One of my favorite Eno lines, after he gets knocked to the ground:

Mess with my evil plans, will you? What, did you think I was just going to lie down there on the sidewalk whistling the theme to Three’s Company? Mess with my evil plans, Future Boy. Come and knock on *my* door.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that the spelling and grammar are almost flawless; what errors remain seem like typos rather than genuine mistakes.

The game’s design does an excellent job of gradually opening up new plot and world terrain, and of introducing new complexities as the story goes on. The terrain itself feels convincingly urban — Future Boy! provides the feel of a large city without implementing a thousand locations by setting up several different areas of the city, linked by taxi and subway rides. Also, there’s an optional introductory section, which is very good at establishing the world and giving a sense of how the puzzles will go. In fact, Future Boy! contains a number of newbie-friendly features, such as a GOALS verb to list the PC’s current objectives, and the occasional parenthetical cueing that pops up when the PC seems to have wandered too far afield of those objectives, along the lines of “(Shouldn’t you be getting to work?)” Of course, that cueing can be frustrating if you know what you need to do but not how to do it, but it’s still a nice touch.

Should you find yourself thus stuck, Future Boy! provides an excellent set of in-game hints. These hints are in the classic InvisiClues style, starting with gentle nudges and advancing to outright solutions, depending on how many hints the player chooses to reveal. Also following the InvisiClues style, the hints are liberally strewn with red herrings; in this, they mirror some excesses in the game itself, about which a bit more later. For now, it’s enough to say that the hints are generally well written — with only one exception (when a subject heading wasn’t clear enough, leading me to ignore the hints that I needed) they gave me just enough help to get me unstuck. In any case, I tried to use them as little as possible, so that I could derive maximum enjoyment from the puzzles.

Many of these puzzles are quite enjoyable indeed. Most of the obstacles in Future Boy! offer a reasonable challenge without unreasonable frustration, and a few of them are highly pleasurable and original. Bypassing the security camera and getting the antidote formula are good examples of this, but I think my favorite was obtaining the helicopter key. This was one of those puzzles that I worked on for about a half-hour, set the game aside for a while, then had a flash of inspiration at 2am, fired up the laptop, tried my solution, and it worked. The IF experience doesn’t get better than that.

Other puzzles weren’t so hot, though, and generally the problem was down to a lack of feedback. There’s one puzzle where a critical item for the solution is never mentioned directly in its location’s room description. It’s possible to infer that the item is there, but it was rather too far a logical leap for my tastes. This issue would be solved by just a bit more suggestion in the room description (or possibly an action description) that the item is present. Another puzzle frustrated me by failing to account for some overlaps in its design — there’s an item that demonstrates a particular and significant behavior when taken to certain locations or placed in certain containers. However, placing the item in one of the special containers while standing in one of the special locations should produce another message about that behavior, and it doesn’t. This flaw led me to conclude that the container was ordinary, when in fact it wasn’t. Again, simply providing more sophisticated feedback would eliminate this problem.

Something else that makes Future Boy! more irritating than it should be is its abundance of red herrings. To some degree, these are a side effect of the game’s thorough implementation. Rocket City is a rich environment, with lots of fun jokes and easter eggs, and Future Boy! is designed like an old-style adventure game, meaning that your inventory quickly fills with tons of objects that might or might not be useful. However, there are plenty of purposeful red herrings inserted as well, throughout the game, and because the story is large, by the final scenes it really is too much. The problem becomes especially clear in those final scenes, because the game clearly seems to want a fast-paced climactic conflict, but the overwhelming number of misleading things to try and false trails to follow built up by that point makes it rather unlikely that the endgame will move along quickly.

Similarly, locations can change throughout the game, displaying new properties or objects as the plot moves along, and while this is a fine technique, it later begins to function as another burdensome red herring, when a stuck player travels desperately from one location to the next in hopes of finding something new. I’m not an anti-red-herring guy — I think a few blanks left unfilled at the end of the game lends a pleasing verisimilitude, but as I played through Future Boy! the second time, I was dumbfounded at just how many parts of it ended up having no function in the game’s true solution. In my opinion, scaling back on these would have brought a greater feeling of balance to the game, and made it more fun to play, especially towards the end.

Other weaknesses in the game spring from infelicities in Hugo’s world model and parser. Don’t get me wrong — for the most part, these things are on a par with the best in the genre, and I don’t hesitate to put Hugo on the same level with Inform and TADS for world model and parser quality. However, all systems have their quirks, and one of Hugo’s seems to be a peculiar disregard for scope. I frequently had interactions like this:

>x trash
You don't see him.

or this:

>turn around
You don't see him.

or this:

>ask coop about fire
Coop doesn't seem to have anything to say about van stuff.

What seems to be happening here is that Hugo’s parser is taking the noun it’s given and comparing it to every noun in its dictionary. When it finds a match, the parser gives the response appropriate to the noun matched, even if that noun’s object is nowhere near the player at the time. For instance, “ask coop about fire” is meant to be a question about a concept or event, but the game sees that “fire” is a synonym for “fire extinguisher”, one of the nouns it implements as scenery in the van location, and responds as if I were asking Coop about the fire extinguisher in the van. The problem isn’t quite as clear in the “You don’t see him” responses — all I can surmise is that “trash” and “around” must be synonyms for some NPC. “X traxh”, for instance, gives the response “You don’t need to use the word ‘traxh'”, which is Hugo’s standard response for a word it doesn’t recognize, so it must be that it thinks I’m trying to refer to some character. While I applaud this game’s efforts to provide lots of synonyms for everything, when that technique combines with Hugo’s strangely global scoping rules, the results can be quite disconcerting.

Another parser gripe: the disambiguation could be smarter, though perhaps this problem is just another permutation of the scoping issue. For instance, here’s a response I got while in Frank’s bedroom:

>make bed
Which bed do you mean, Frank's bed or the bunk bed?

>frank's
It's Frank's bed -- you don't have to make it. Frank probably wouldn't recognize it if you did.

>x bunk
You don't see that.

There’s no bunk bed in the room. There’s a bunk bed in the game, but it’s in a totally different location and plot section. Hugo should be smarter than to ask a question disambiguating between one thing that’s present in the current location and another thing that isn’t. If there’s only one object in the area that matches the noun used, the parser should just assume that this is the object intended.

These points are quibbles compared to the game’s most significant problem: it just falls apart towards the end. Well, maybe “falls apart” is too strong, but there’s a noticeable drop in quality in the later parts of the game. For instance, the first two-thirds of the game is roughly broken into chapters, and the appearance of a new chapter title is always cause for excitement, and a feeling of accomplishment. However, in the final sections, the chaptering just stops, with even major accomplishments going unmarked. In addition, the bugginess quotient is considerably higher in the last half of the game than it is in the first half. For that matter, I found it rather too high in the first half, at least for a commercial release. What it feels like to me is that Future Boy! just runs out of steam a while before it ends. As a game author, I can relate to this syndrome (boy, can I ever), but it’s still quite disappointing, especially (again) in a game I’m paying for.

Along with some critical bugs in the final puzzles, at least one of these puzzles has, in my opinion, and extremely implausible solution. Elsewhere, game-logic that has held since the beginning suddenly deteriorates or even reverses itself at the end. These bugs and design flaws, combined with the game’s wide and open geography and its severe propensity for red herrings, created a real flail-a-thon for me as I struggled toward its conclusion. Needless to say, the excitement that should have been racing through me as I reached the story’s climax and conquered the last obstacles was drained and deflated by the time I finished them.

I guess the bottom line is that I expect more when I pay more. If I downloaded a game like this from the archive, I would be both more impressed and more forgiving, because this would be one hell of a game to get to play for free. When I’ve paid, though, I find myself looking through “customer’s eyes,” and I expect to see no bugs or serious design flaws. As good as this game is, it doesn’t reach those standards. It’s probably true that Future Boy! is superior to many games that were commercially released at twice the price, but that doesn’t let it off the hook. (It just means that those other games deserved, and probably got, even sharper criticism.) But because the author of this game belongs to a small, friendly community of which I’m a part, I find myself asking whether it’s fair to apply those standards in this case.

In the end, I’ve decided that it is, but I hope I’ve drawn enough attention to this game’s many strengths to make it clear what an impressive accomplishment it is, despite its problems. Tessman continues to release patched versions of the game, which makes me hopeful that many of its bugs will eventually be squashed. For adventure game fans, Future Boy! may be a little pricey, but it is worth playing.

Dungeon by Tim Anderson, Marc Blank, Bruce Daniels, and Dave Lebling [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2001.]

IFDB page: Zork

Archaeology

Zork I was the first text adventure game I ever played, and I played it a lot. That game occupied many, many hours of my time and, to this day, it remains one of only a few Infocom games I was ever able to solve without hints, due solely to my stubborn and relentless attention to it. Between those marathon childhood sessions and the occasions on which I’ve replayed it since, I have walked those underground caverns many times, and their geography is so fixed in my mind that I think if I should ever find myself transported there, I could navigate with ease. Or, at least, that’s how I used to feel, before I started playing Dungeon and got my internal map thoroughly whacked.

Dungeon is the predecessor to the Zork games; it was MIT’s answer to Crowther and Woods’ Adventure and, much like that game, it lived on a mainframe, since its prodigious size was too great for the personal computers of its day. When the authors decided to make a commercial go of the text adventure business, they chopped Dungeon into three sections, rearranging the geography and adding some new elements to each chapter, especially the second and third. I’ve played the Zork games many times, but I had always wanted to play the mainframe version in order to better understand just what was added and what subtracted. So when I opened the WinGlk version of Andrew Plotkin’s C translation of the game, I was prepared for some shifts in layout compared to my deeply-graven memories of Zork I.

What I wasn’t prepared for, though, was the way in which Dungeon gleefully confounds any sense of actual geography in exchange for making the game map another obstacle to be overcome. In Dungeon, connections that line up properly (for example, leaving one room to the south and entering the adjoining room from the north) are the exception rather than the rule. Instead, you may go west and find that to get back to where you came from, you have to go west again. In a recent article about crafting a good setting for fantasy IF [1], Emily Short addressed this tendency:

[In] the ideal IF setting, the parts of the setting relate to each other in comprehensible ways. Things are located sensibly. I dislike mazes not only because you do have to map them but also because they interfere with and scramble up the intuitive sense of place that I otherwise build up as I play.

In this sense, almost the entirety of Dungeon functions as a maze, and any coherent sense of place that might emerge is bound to get smacked down as soon as the next exit is explored. I have a pretty good knack for mapping in my head, and thus don’t tend to make a map while playing IF but, with this game, there was no way I could pursue that strategy. Thus, grumbling, I hauled out my copy of GUEmap and tried diligently to record the tortured web of interconnections that make up the Dungeon landscape. When I finally finished, I uploaded the results to GMD so that other players like myself won’t have to struggle through the game’s mazes on their own.

And oh, the mazes — in addition to the general illogic of its structure, Dungeon also sports several mazes, all of which carry the “warped connections” tendency to its furthest extreme. Of course, when seen from the historical perspective, these mazes make sense: Adventure had mazes, and since mazes are one of the easiest kinds of puzzles to create, it follows that the game attempting to top Adventure would have mazes of its own. What Dungeon does, though, is to twist the knife: not only does it present the player with mazes, it confounds the typical “drop item and map” strategy by having an NPC come along and remove or rearrange those items, taunting the player with comments like “My, I wonder who left this fine hot pepper sandwich here?”

When viewed with a modern eye, obstacles like this make clear how different is the stance of modern IF from its ancestors. Dungeon set itself up unambiguously as the player’s antagonist, and it wasn’t particularly concerned with telling a story, nor even with describing a world. Plot is nonexistent, and fabulous treasures are described with perfunctory lines like “You see nothing special about the sapphire bracelet.” Instead, Dungeon puts its energies into confusing and confounding the player, and wacky map connections are but the tip of the iceberg. Along with the aforementioned mazes, there’s the light source, which always runs out at the worst possible times. There’s the Round Room, guaranteed to tangle any map. There are the “secret word” puzzles, some of which still perplex me to this day, even though I know how they operate. And of course, there’s the thief, whose annoyances are both numerous and legendary. Dungeon wants nothing more than to see you fail, and it’s not overly concerned with how much fun you might be having. As Robb Sherwin asserted on rec.games.int-fiction recently [2], “Zork hates its player.”

Today’s IF, by contrast, works a bit harder to collaborate with the player, with the aim of creating a shared experience, both in setting and plot. Even the Zork games moved in this direction, at least in comparison to Dungeon, mitigating some of the latter game’s greatest excesses by straightening out many map connections, allowing more flexibility with the permanent light source, and providing a bit more description from time to time. The ways in which Infocom itself engineered the shift from “text-based puzzle games” to actual interactive fiction is a subject for another article, but what’s become clear is that where the emphasis was once on opposition, it has shifted steadily to cooperation.

To my mind, this shift is both appropriate and necessary, and what playing Dungeon illuminated for me is that this movement towards collaborative IF is not the same thing as the concurrent movement towards “literary IF”, though they are often confused for one another. I can envision a game that, like Dungeon, has no particular literary pretensions, but unlike Dungeon, isn’t trying to undermine its player through the use of arbitrary techniques like twisty map connections and unreliable light sources. I would assert that collaborative IF doesn’t need to tell a story, and it certainly doesn’t need to aspire to literary greatness, but it does need to work with the player to create a rich, interactive world, and it does need to be concerned with giving the player a positive, fun experience. Of course collaborative IF can be puzzleless, but it needn’t be — puzzles can be part of the fun, as long as they aren’t geared towards forcing restarts after 800 moves, or making the player do tedious, menial work.

The move away from antagonistic IF is the reason why things like mazes, limited light sources, and starvation puzzles are met with a chorus of jeers these days, but the elimination of these elements doesn’t necessarily dictate anything in particular about how literary or puzzleless a game might be. Instead, the change makes the whole experience of IF more about fun than bloody-minded perseverance; playing Dungeon makes it clear how necessary this change was, and how far we’ve come since those mainframe days.

REFERENCES

[1] Short, Emily. “Developing A Setting For Fantastical Interactive Fiction”, 2001.

[2] Sherwin, Robb. “Re: nevermind”. rec.games.int-fiction, 2001/06/05

City Of Secrets by Emily Short [IF-Review]

[I originally reviewed this game for Mark Musante’s site IF-Review, in 2004.]

IFDB page: City Of Secrets

Life In The Big City

Here’s a quote from the ABOUT text of Emily Short’s City Of Secrets:

This game is meant to be playable even by someone who has never encountered interactive fiction before, and be a gentle introduction to the genre. It is not terribly difficult, nor is it possible to die until the very end. One playthrough is estimated to take about three hours.

After playing through the game once, I feel I can say with confidence: “Three hours? HA!” I will happily grant that Short has undertaken a considerable effort to make CoS newbie-friendly, but for someone who is at all interested in exploring the game’s world, three hours is a very conservative estimate indeed. It took me almost three hours just to reread the transcripts of my traversal through the story.

But that’s the thing with interactive fiction, isn’t it? I suppose it’s quite possible that an experienced player on a serious mission, who declines to examine the scenery, who asks only the most pointed questions of NPCs, and who treats the entire thing as a series of puzzles to be solved, could conceivably complete CoS in three hours, but such a player would be missing out on a great deal of the richness that this game has to offer. In fact, I’d make the case that the game’s openness to newcomers and (what for lack of a better word I’ll call) its size are of a piece — they both contribute to one of CoS‘s best qualities: its deep, robust interactivity.

Examples of player-friendliness are everywhere in this game, but here’s one of my favorites:

> attendant, show me the book please
[While your good manners are appreciated, it's unnecessary to append terms like "please" to your commands.]

To talk to a character: Type >GREET to begin a conversation. You will get a list of options of things to say. If you want to change the topic of conversation, type >T and (assuming that's a valid topic) you'll get a new menu of conversation choices.

Now that is just pure class, since 99% of IF games would have just spat out “I don’t know the word ‘please'” or (only slightly better) had the attendant give a blank look or some other “don’t know” response. CoS, on the other hand, anticipates a word that’s likely to confuse the parser, targets it, and responds to it (and to the inappropriate conversation syntax) with a set of instructions to help players communicate more effectively with the game. Besides little touches like this, CoS provides copious documentation, particularly an excellent sample transcript. I especially admired this transcript for using a clever technique that I don’t remember seeing before — it shows the events just leading up to the beginning of the game, and thus not only teaches the rhythm of IF but also serves as story prologue and provides further character depth to the PC.

Once I was through the prologue and wandering the streets of the game’s titular City, I was frankly astonished at the depth it offers. Yes, the vast majority of scenery objects are described, frequently down to second and third levels. This sort of thing is becoming more de rigueur in modern IF, though it’s rarely pulled off with the thoroughness that Short achieves here. In addition, room and object descriptions change to reflect the past experiences of the PC, demonstrating knowledge of other parts of the game once it’s been acquired. Beyond that, random scene-setting messages serve not only to make the City actually feel populated, but to play some of the subtle, sinister notes that hint at plot and theme.

Beyond these are the characters, of whom there are many and most of whom are able to act and converse on a very large variety of topics. I’ll discuss NPCs and conversation further below, but suffice it to say for now that CoS‘s 2003 XYZZY award for Best NPCs was very well-deserved. Beyond the NPCs, and perhaps most impressive of all, is the avalanche of ancillary material available in the game. My mouth was literally hanging open as I perused a bookstore and found volume after volume that I could actually read — pieces of fiction, historical background on the setting, gentle jokes set within the game’s milieu, and on and on and on. Now I don’t mean to suggest that entire novels or histories are actually embedded within the game — that kind of detail would move from dedication into insanity — but more effort went into the book objects in CoS than goes into the entirety of some other games.

Oh, and lest I give the impression that City Of Secrets merely overwhelms with quantity, let me hasten to point out that its quality also remains very high throughout. Short’s typically elliptical and evocative prose falls in layers that pile up to create vivid, intense images — this woman can get more mileage out of sentence fragments than any author I’ve ever read. She’s found a way to deploy them that seems perfectly suited to IF, especially object and room descriptions. The dialogue, too, was top-notch, and plot-advancing moments happened with satisfying smoothness. The milieu, also, was a great deal of fun — magic and science side-by-side, computers and spells combined. Of course, this idea isn’t exactly new, but it felt fresh in Short’s hands.

All of these sterling qualities — the great writing, the remarkable implementation, the incredible depth — make me ache all the more when I think of the game’s actual history. City Of Secrets was originally commissioned by a San Francisco synth-pop outfit called Secret-Secret, who devised the story and some basic marks for the game to hit. At that time, it was intended to serve as a bonus feature for one of their upcoming CDs. Short has never revealed many details about how this deal fell apart, but fall apart it did. Thus ensued the next stage of the game’s life, in which the band agreed to let Short release CoS as freeware IF, and she decided to try ramping up the fun by creating feelies and offering them through feelies.org. As an additional incentive, the game would be available to feelies orderers a little earlier than to everyone else. Then Real Life and the game’s design complexity intervened, causing delays, which in turn engendered a host of vaguely hostile demands and complaints on the IF newsgroups, along with more of the particularly vicious trolling for which Short was already a target.

Finally, City Of Secrets was released publicly on May 1, 2003… and sank. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to me. Googling on the past year of Usenet discussion, I can see that the game has gotten a couple of reviews, some hint requests, has been used as an example in various discussions, and has even gotten a little recognition in mainstream press outlets like Maximum PC and Games magazines. Still, this is the most major work by one of the best and most important IF authors of the last decade, and a landmark game by many different measures — it seems to me that it is vastly underrated and under-discussed. This is the kind of thing that makes authors disillusioned, makes them feel that their hard work is without purpose, and prompts them to turn away from writing IF. The fact that Short has not done so is a true testament to her dedication to this medium. Of course, I’m one of the guilty parties here, writing this review more than a year after the game’s public release. I hope that if you’re reading this and you’ve never played City Of Secrets, you’ll be moved to check it out, and to post your reaction to SPAG, rec.games.int-fiction, or some other appropriate outlet.

Now that I’ve expended considerable fervor on building the game up, let me discuss a few of its flaws. One difficulty I occasionally encountered in the game is that the demands of its story or its implementation occasionally worked at cross purposes to the role playing I wanted to do as the PC. For me, the primary example of this dissonance occurred at the very beginning of the game, as I am whisked away from my ordinary journey to a friend’s wedding and into the City’s hotel. When this happens, a bellhop takes my suitcase, but fails to bring it to my room. Now, if this were to happen to me in real life, recovery of that suitcase would become my primary goal. The game, however, treats the disappearance as barely worth noticing, and insists that I go to sleep before allowing me to do any searching for my missing possessions. Even when I can question the concierge about my luggage’s whereabouts, the conversational menu options never allow me to be particularly assertive in my efforts to recover it. As a designer, I can understand perfectly why City Of Secrets wants to remove an item whose realistic implementation would add several layers of complexity to the game situation, but in this instance and a few others, the game could have done a better job at providing in-character reasons for such abstraction.

Speaking of conversational menu options, City Of Secrets further explores the conversation system that Short innovated for Pytho’s Mask and Best Of Three. As explained above, it requires GREETing an NPC and then setting a topic, which may or may not bring up a menu of conversation options. I like this system, but I can only imagine how much of a bear it must be to implement. Managing conversation topics to the extent that CoS does, especially with its abundance of characters, requires meticulous knowledge modeling in order to ensure that particular topics and phrasings are available to the player neither too early (before she’s had a chance to learn about them) nor too late (when she’d want to ask something appropriate but isn’t offered the option.) For the most part, CoS does a fine job of this modeling, but it does fall down on occasion, offering inexplicable conversation threads or failing to provide dialogue on an obvious topic. Moreover, the game makes a tactical error in requiring that a conversation be restarted before it evaluates whether or not any menu options are available for the chosen topic, leading to exchanges like this:

>ask bookseller about documents
You approach the bookseller's desk.

"Hello again," he says.

You can think of nothing to say about that.

Such responses give the impression of a mildly autistic PC, who routinely starts conversations, only to stand slack-jawed moments after they begin. Also, as some others have noted, it’s a bit annoying not to be able to return to certain unused options when they would still be valid.

Still, when the conversation engine works, it works well, and that’s the case for most of this game. There are a great many NPCs, quite a few of whom are implemented with responses on a dizzying array of topics. The game’s characters not only respond to questions, but start conversations of their own, introducing new topics with their own associated option menus. Moreover, they define themselves not only through dialogue, but through action — the spice seller who twists his ring nervously, or the City nurse who looks at you sharply enough to stop you from blurting out something stupid. Some NPCs will even accompany you for parts of your journey, then wander off to pursue their own agendas. With Galatea, Short established herself as someone with a particular flair for deeply implemented NPCs, and her work in City Of Secrets reinforces and enriches that reputation.

A more unexpected achievement is the game’s storytelling ability. Many of Short’s games have had sketchy or absent plots, but City Of Secrets unfolds a layered story, replete with intrigue and thematic unity. As the game progresses, new bits of information reveal more about who can and cannot be trusted, and several fun reversals and surprises lay in wait throughout. The pieces drop satisfyingly into place as the end approaches, just as they should in a good mystery story. Moreover, a replay or reread of the game illuminates lots of juicy foreshadowing and judicious ties that thread through its beginning, middle, and end. True to form, Short’s design provides several paths through the story, and multiple solutions to many important problems. I haven’t yet replayed the game as a more self-interested or evil PC, but I could see that such opportunities were available. I’d love to see a more thorough description of which parts of the story were provided by Secret-Secret and which ones came from Short herself, because the unified whole works very well indeed. There were apparently such making-of notes on the original game CD, so perhaps Short or someone else could be persuaded to upload a scan of these to the IF Archive.

I think my favorite thing about City Of Secrets is that it gave me several pieces of writing to treasure, things that I wanted to enshrine and remember. A quote from the denouement now appears in my collection of randomly rotating email signatures. Queen Rine’s Meditation Upon Passion now hangs on my office wall. More than any other IF game I can think of, City Of Secrets offered me ideas that feel like they apply directly to my life — that’s the mark not just of a great game, but of a great work of art.

What’s next for >INVENTORY

With the publication of my Identity review, I’ve now completed the journey of reprinting every IF Competition review I wrote between 1996 and 2004. There are over 300 of them!

As I said in this blog’s first post, I intend it to house not just my comp reviews, but everything else I’ve written about IF. So now that the comp reviews are all here, I’m going to cast around for everything else of mine I can find on the topic (newsgroup posts and SPAG editorials excepted… for the most part) and get it in here.

That means a few different things:

  • Essays I’ve written about IF
  • Interviews I’ve given
  • Solicited reviews I’ve written
  • Reviews I wrote for the onetime paying home of longer works, Mark Musante’s IF-Review
  • Reviews of commercial adventure games
  • Miscellaneous stuff — correspondence, haikus, IF material from my other blog, etc.

I’m also planning to spruce up the site a bit with easier indexing of its material, and better links from IFDB. In addition, along the way I’ve found it in me to write some new stuff too! The Infocom >RESTART reviews are the first piece of that — so far I’ve written up my experience of playing Zork I and Zork II with my teenage son, and there’s more of that to come. (You can probably guess which one is coming next.)

Beyond that, I’ve found myself curious about what lay beyond the horizon after 2004 in comp-world, so I’ve decided to play and review some games from 2005. As you might expect, this will happen in fits and starts — my life has changed considerably since that era — but so far it’s been a lot of fun. So once I’ve collected and deposited all the stuff I listed out above, there will be new comp reviews! Uh, of very old games. But still new to me!

So although the 1996-2004 comp reviews are done at last (after 16 months!), there is a lot more inventory to unpack! I hope someone finds it useful — it’s been tons of fun to revisit it all.