PAX East Part 4: Saturday They’ll All Be Back Again [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the fifth in a series of posts about my visit to PAX East 2010, which was life-altering in a good way. I’ve cleaned up the text ever-so-slightly and the links ever so much more.]
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Compared to Friday, Saturday was pretty low-key. Then again, it’s not fair to compare anything to Friday. I let my exhausted self sleep in, then showered, packed up, etc. I met my friend Ruth Atherton for lunch, along with her partner Yigal and their adorable boy Natan. I’ve known Ruth since our freshman year of college at NYU — over 20 years ago now! — and it was wonderful to spend some time with her again.

Ruth dropped me at the Hilton, and I stopped into the IF Suite, where the PAX SpeedIF efforts were well underway. I opted out, given that 1) I didn’t bring my laptop to the suite, 2) it’s been years since I actually wrote any IF code, and 3) I didn’t want to spend my PAX time heads-down coding anyway. So it was off to the convention center, where I undertook my next mission: a present for Dante! I checked out a Boston souvenir store in the Prudential Center and picked up a cute little Boston ball, to use as a backup if I couldn’t find anything in PAX itself. But I did — his own bag of dice. He’s often wanting to play with my dice, so now he’s got his own. (He was quite delighted with these gifts when I brought them home, and as he often does, he immediately turned it around on me. “Pretend that you are Dante and I am Daddy! Dante, I brought you some presents! A Boston ball, and your very own bag of dice!”)

After a quick trip to Trader Joe’s for some trail mix and water, I took the time to explore the rest of PAX, but between the incredible crowds and my own lack of motivation, I didn’t really hook into anything. I wasn’t up for boardgaming with strangers, nor did I fancy standing in line for a chance at console, PC, or handheld games. And of course the panels were out of the question — you had to arrive at least 30 minutes early to have a crack at getting into any panel, and none of the panels at that time were terribly interesting to me anyway.

So back to the IF suite I went. I hung out and chatted with various people, and even skipped dinner so that I could spend more time in the ambiance. (That’s where the trail mix comes in.) There were a few people I missed — I would have loved to hang out with Stephen and Rob a bit more, for instance — but I really enjoyed the various people I talked to. I think part of the connection-missing may have had to do with the fact that while I have a cell phone, it is a creaky 2005 pay-as-you-go model with no internet access and the clunkiest of texting capabilities. Normally, this does not bother me at all, but sometimes during PAX weekend I felt like an timebound mortal in a Kage Baker Company novel, looking on in blissful ignorance while all around me the immortals communicate telepathically. It probably also wouldn’t hurt to hang out on ifMUD more than once every two years.

All part of the thawing process, I suppose. While I wasn’t musing on that, I also kept an eye out for newbies and visitors. I hooked several people up with IF swag and talked to them about the medium and the community, which felt great. Extended social exertion like that is a bit out of my comfort zone — I’m an introvert by nature — but I liked helping with the IF outreach mission.

That mission was the subject of the informal panel at 7:00. That panel featured Andrew Plotkin, Jason McIntosh (aka jmac), Chris Dahlen (gaming journalist), and John Bardinelli (of JayIsGames). It was moderated, in an endearingly prolix style, by Harry Kaplan. (I should mention here that Harry was quite helpful in getting me connected with the pre-PAX discussion, and was particularly welcoming to me in the suite. Also, he’s apparently the cousin of Paul Fishkin, who founded Stevie Nicks’ record company! Remote brush with fame!) Harry would make a discursive, intentionally provocative statement, and ask the panel to respond, offering the lead to a different panelist for each question. The discussion often expanded beyond the panel and into the room, which was great, because the room was packed (seriously, packed) with very smart people.

I am terrible at reconstructing discussions, so I’m not going to try to do it here. Much. I will say that I was particularly struck by the way Emily framed the problem of IF’s learning curve. The parser, she said, makes a false promise, strongly implying by its openness that it is able to handle anything the player throws at it, which is simply not true. Lots of people would like to see IF respond by expanding the range of actions and phrasings that the parser can understand, but Emily disagrees. She could do a much better job than I of articulating this, and probably does so somewhere, but essentially she argues that expanding the parser is a blind alley, because it never eliminates the false promise issue, and creates a ridiculous implementation headache. Even if the game could legitimately understand a much wider range of commands, coding meaningful responses to that radically expanded command set is a misuse of our energies. Instead, she suggests that we embrace IFese while finding ways to help games gently nudge players in the right direction when it seems that they’re struggling to speak IFese to the parser. She did some work toward this in City Of Secrets, and Aaron Reed apparently does even more in Blue Lacuna. She points to Façade as a cautionary example of what happens when you try to go the other direction.

After the panel, there was a bit more chatter, and then it was time to for SpeedIF contestants to turn in their games. I had no laptop, but Juhana Leinonen very kindly let me use his to play Sarah Morayati’s Queuelty, which I found quite enjoyable.

More chatting, more hanging out, but eventually, sadly, it was time for me to go. There would be more events on Sunday, but my flight left early Sunday morning — I hadn’t wanted to take undue advantage of Laura’s generosity with the childcare, so I kept my trip to two days. I’m sorry to have missed Sunday, though. From what I read [in a livejournal that has since been deleted and purged, even from the Wayback Machine — 2022 PO], it was great.

The rest is uninteresting travel details, except for this revelation, which traveled home with me: it has become painfully, unmistakably clear that working every night and weekend is ruining my life and blocking me from doing the things that actually make me happy. The truth is that nobody ever told me to do that (well, with some exceptions) — it’s just that I’m so overwhelmed all the time, so behind all the time, that I feel like I have to do that in order to have a remote chance of success at work. But keeping my head above water there has come at the cost of drowning the parts of myself I treasure more. So I’m going to stop doing that.

I’m going to try, anyway. It’s rather shockingly hard to draw firm boundaries around work when they’ve been obliterated for so long. I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m on Day 6 now, and even in the last week I’ve been able to produce these blog entries, which would have seemed ridiculously out of reach a few weeks ago. That makes me happier than I’ve been in quite a while.

PAX East Part 2: There’s More At The Door [Misc]

[I originally posted this on my other blog, >SUPERVERBOSE, way back when it was on livejournal. It’s the third in a series of posts about my visit to PAX East 2010, which was life-altering in a good way. I’ve cleaned up the text ever-so-slightly and the links ever so much more.]
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After some suite chat, 2:00 rolled around, which was the time PAX was officially supposed to open. So a large contingent, myself included, headed con-wards. My first and most lasting impression of PAX is: PEOPLE. People, people, and also, more people. Behind them are other people, who block your view of the people already inside, and if you turn around, you can see a long line of people, stretching back farther than you can see. I feel like if I’d missed my plane, I could probably have walked a couple of blocks from my house in Colorado and gotten in line for the PAX keynote with Wil Wheaton. Good lord, there were a lot of people.

Serious luck was on my side, as I had Rob Wheeler along to act as my Virgil through the utterly overwhelming and confusing human ocean that was the PAX entrance. He’d attended the Seattle PAX the previous Fall, and had also scoped out the scene beforehand to pick up his Speaker badge. (More about that later.) He helped me navigate my way into a long entrance queue, along with Sarah Morayati, a very friendly (and talented, I later discovered) woman who came on the scene in the last few years.

Meeting Sarah was my first taste of a feeling that was to get very familiar over the next couple of days. I am, I discovered, Unfrozen Caveman IF Guy. It’s as if I’ve been in suspended animation for the last five years, and I thawed out at PAX, like Captain America looking up at the Avengers and thinking, “Who are you guys?” When Dante was born in 2005 (and really, a little before, as we were preparing for his arrival), I withdrew pretty thoroughly from the IF scene. I handed SPAG over to Jimmy Maher, I pretty much stopped writing reviews, I stopped reading the newsgroups, and I stopped visiting ifMUD. There have been exceptions here and there — my review of 1893, for instance, or my work with Textfyre — but for the most part, I have been absent. It turns out that a lot can happen in five years! I’m excited but a bit overwhelmed at how much there is to catch up on.

Speaking of overwhelming, when the line finally moved into the convention proper, we quickly heard that we wouldn’t make it into the keynote. We connected up with Stephen, and headed into the expo hall. This is about the point when sensory overload started attacking my brain cells, making it impossible for me now to retrieve my memories of who was where when. I know there was a group of us, and we met up with another group, and Mark Musante was there, and Jacqueline Ashwell was there, and Iain Merrick was there, and Dan Shiovitz was there, other people I don’t know very well were there, and probably lots of others I do but everything is blurring together because have I mentioned that good god there were a lot of people?

In the expo hall, there was also a lot of noise and sound. Wait, make that A WHOLE GODDAMNED LOT OF NOISE AND SOUND!!! And people. Of course. We watched Rob play Dante’s Inferno, which apparently involves Dante kicking lots of ass and not, as someone pointed out, fainting a lot, the way he does in the book. We watched Stephen play some game that involves falling and is impossible to Google because its name is something like “AaaaaAAaaaAAAAaaAAAAAa!!!!” We saw lots of booths and bright colors and LOUD SOUNDS and so forth. You get the idea.

After some time, I went with a subgroup of people to attend a 4:00 panel called “Design an RPG in an Hour.” It was crowded! I ended up leaning against the back wall. The panel was more or less like improv comedy, except take out the comedy and put in its place boilerplate RPG elements. What will our setting be? What is the conflict? Who are the protagonists and antagonists? What are their special traits? (i.e. What will their stat categories be?) It was pretty well-done, albeit dominated by what Stephen accurately termed “goofy high-concept stuff” from the audience. For instance, the guy shouting out “talking dinosaurs!” got a round of applause. I was happy to be there in any case, because there was a 5:30 panel on IF that would be in the same room, so I figured we’d stake out the good seats.

Now, this is a very cool thing. Some IF community folks pitched the idea of a PAX panel called “Storytelling in the World of Interactive Fiction,” and to our general delight, the PAX organizers made it part of the official con schedule! Going to this panel was one of the main reasons I wanted to come to Boston. So when it became apparent that PAX enforcers would be doing a full room sweep to prevent the very camping behavior I was counting on, it was time to make a new plan — and apparently, there was quite a line forming. So we snuck out before the panel ended to get in line.

And my goodness, it’s a lucky thing we did. When I first saw the room, I couldn’t imagine how we’d fill it with people wanting to hear about IF. But after we took our seats (which were quite good), people started to flow in. And then more came. And then more. The chairs: filled. The walls: filled. The aisles: filled.

THEY WERE TURNING PEOPLE AWAY.

I get chills again as I write it. I mean, I’m very sorry for the people who got turned away. I met several of them over the course of the weekend, and they were quite disappointed. But holy shit, what hath PAX wrought when we can cram a huge room with people interested in our medium, with tons more hoping to get in? It was stunning, absolutely stunning.

The panel itself was great. It consisted of some of our best: Emily Short, Andrew Plotkin, Robb Sherwin, Aaron A. Reed, and Rob Wheeler moderating. I won’t try and recap the panel, except to say that it was wonderful to hear sustained, intelligent, live discussion of IF. The charming Jenni Polodna, another arrival during my years on ice, wrote some very thorough notes about it, and Jason Scott filmed it, so you’ll probably be able to see it yourself sometime. Which, if you were one of those turned away, might help a bit.

All I know is that at the end, I felt like I had a whole lot of games I needed to play.

Top 10 IF games to play if you’ve been in suspended animation for the last five years

1. Blue Lacuna by Aaron A. Reed

2. Violet by Jeremy Freese

3. The games of the JayIsGames IF Comp

4. Lost Pig by Admiral Jota

5. Make It Good by Jon Ingold

6. De Baron by Victor Gijsbers

7. Alabaster by a Emily Short and also a whole boatload of people.

8. The Shadow In The Cathedral by Ian Finley and Jon Ingold. [Hey, one I’ve played! I was even a tester for it!]

9. Floatpoint by Emily Short

10. Everybody Dies by Jim Munroe

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.

Interview from InsideADRIFT [Misc]

[I was interviewed by Ken Franklin for the May/June 2004 issue of InsideADRIFT, a fanzine for users of the ADRIFT IF development system. I’ve cleaned up the text and added links as appropriate.]

Interview: Paul O’Brian questioned by KF

This issue’s interviewee is the editor of that vital organ of the IF community, SPAG, a newsletter that packs in loads of news and game reviews. Having started on 15 May 1994, today represents the tenth anniversary of that first issue. That first issue was mostly packed with reviews of some of the games included in the Lost Treasures of Infocom package, with many of the reviews from Stephen Granade. Paul O’Brian has been editor since issue 18.

Paul, thank you very much for agreeing to answer a few questions for InsideADRIFT.

My pleasure — thanks for inviting me!

Q1. I always tend to start with this one. What brought you into the world of interactive fiction (and keeps you here)?

Probably the best and most complete answer to this question is the first editorial I wrote for SPAG, in issue #18. The short version is that after my dad introduced me to Zork in the early Eighties, Infocom became one of my teenage obsessions. Then, in the early Nineties, my interest in IF was reawakened by Activision’s release of the Lost Treasures of Infocom collections. I was discovering the Internet right about the same time, so one of the first searches I did was on “interactive fiction”; that led me to the newsgroups and to the discovery that IF is still alive and thriving, with a whole range of tools allowing people to write works just as good as or better than anything Infocom ever produced. Playing and writing new IF games was a dream come true for me.

As for what keeps me around, I think it’s a combination of things. Certainly, I’m still fascinated with the medium of IF, and I love seeing it continue to grow and evolve. In addition, editing SPAG and writing the Earth And Sky series have proved to be rather tangible commitments to participation in the IF community — even at times when I’ve felt like drifting away, I’ve found myself unwilling to leave SPAG rudderless and my game series incomplete. Finally, the IF community contains some of the most interesting people I’ve encountered in any social sphere. Being around such bright and creative people can feel a little intimidating at times, but it’s so rewarding.

Q2. The SPAG newsletter is a valuable resource for finding a wide range of reviews for the whole community. Does it currently meet the targets that you have for it and do you have more aims for the future?

Heh. “Targets.” I’ve never been inclined to set goals for SPAG, because it would drive me crazy to have specific aims for something that is largely out of my control. My only real goal is to hustle up enough reviews every three months to produce a viable issue of the zine.

Thanks to SPAG’s legions of volunteer contributors, I’ve always been able to reach that goal, though sometimes it’s meant stretching the definition of “viable” a little further than I’m comfortable with.

Remarkably, SPAG has survived for 10 years (as of May 15th, 2004), and that’s only because people continue to be interested enough in its project that they still want to submit and read IF reviews. I’m really not sure what the next ten years will hold for it. I’ll probably hand off the mantle of editorship at some point, though I’m not sure when that will be. In the meantime, I don’t plan any major changes to SPAG — I think it’s working pretty well in its current format, so aside from some possible improvements to the web site or any spiffy new features that occur to me, I’m planning to stay the course.

Q3. Editing a publication that survives on input from others can be stressful. Do you find that people are keen to write or do you have to twist arms regularly to get sufficient content?

You know, I think both are true. I believe that people are quite keen to write in theory. That is, the idea of writing a SPAG review appeals to a lot of people, and that’s why I receive work from such a variety of contributors. However, what’s also true is that people approach IF as a hobby, maybe one of many hobbies occupying their free time. So IF already exists as just a little slice of most people’s time, and when writing a review is a little slice of that IF time, it’s very easily delayed or abandoned. This is perfectly understandable, of course, but what it means is that most people need a little nudge to reignite their interest in writing a review for SPAG. I post these nudges a few weeks before each issue comes out, and I try to make them varied and somewhat entertaining, but ultimately, their purpose in life is just to serve as a little reminder and motivator for anybody with the intention of reviewing a game for SPAG. I think I’d get a lot fewer submissions without those little reminders, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t keen on the idea of writing reviews.

Q4. The interactive fiction community is an odd group, so often supportive yet also often aggressive in their arguments. Do you believe that this is all part of the healthy debate of a lively group or unnecessary conflict that detracts from its aim of producing games?

Neither. Both. I’m not sure I accept the premise of the question, actually. Certainly I’ve seen aggressive arguments on the newsgroups, but I’m not sure I’d call that a trait of the interactive fiction community per se. In part, I think it’s a trait of Internet conversations everywhere, though of course the degree of vitriol can and does vary depending on the forum and the topic. I’ve seen my share of people who I think of as IF community members aggressively pursuing a point — sometimes I don’t like it, and sometimes I take some pleasure in it, depending on how much I agree with the point and how much I think the target deserves the aggression. I’ve been guilty of it myself from time to time.

However, I wouldn’t say there’s some monolithic IF community that can be characterized as “aggressive” — what we call the “IF community” is really a very loose agglomeration of people collected around a bunch of different loci, containing personalities that range from enthusiastically friendly to dismissively sarcastic. There are also a couple of downright vicious people who haunt the newsgroups, but I don’t really think of them as members of our community so much as forces interested in wrecking whatever positive energy exists in it.

In any case, I tend to be annoyed or dismayed by most of the aggressive arguments that appear in IF fora, whether they be from established community members or from other people charging in and tossing around accusations of elitism, intellectual stagnation, provincialism, or what have you. However, my experience is that those little flamewars tend to be a rather small fraction of the mainstream of IF discussion, most of which is polite, friendly, and often thought-provoking.

Q5. The ADRIFT community can tend to feel that we are often on the margins, getting a few scraps from the wider group. I suspect this can partly be attributed to the fact that when working with the mainstream languages RAIF is the place you go for discussion, in contrast the ADRIFT forum provides us with a dedicated support group. Do you think this gives an appearance outside ADRIFT of us being different and standoffish?

Hmm. I’m not sure I have an answer for this. Just as I don’t believe there’s one dominant definition of the “IF community”, I’m not sure there’s a dominant perception of ADRIFT forum users. Even if there were, I don’t think that I’d know what it is. For my part, I think of the ADRIFT forum as one of the loci I mentioned above when I was calling the IF community a “loose agglomeration.” Others include raif, rgif, ifMUD, alt.games.xtrek, and the SPAG subscriber list.

Because I tend to follow the int-fiction newsgroups and (to a lesser extent) ifMUD, I’m not terribly aware of what goes on at the ADRIFT forum, but I’ve never thought of that as ADRIFT users’ fault — it’s just divergent interests. I suppose it would be nice if everybody had a common gathering place, but as long as there’s some cross-pollination, I’m not bothered, and certainly it’s never occurred to me to take offense at the ADRIFT forum’s existence separate from the int-fiction newsgroups. After all, what’s on the margins depends solely on what you define as the center.

Q6. I was just looking at the list of back issues, it is an impressive list and makes our 16 issues seem very small. Does it become easier the longer things go on for? (KF asked hopefully)

Easier. Well, the inescapable fact is that coming up with good original content takes work, both for you and for your contributors. That truth never really goes away. However, I do think that the more good issues you produce, the more you gain a reputation as something worth contributing to. So maybe it does get a little easier to elicit submissions as time goes on. I sure hope so, anyway.

Q7. As usual, I will end the interview by asking you what you are currently working on, and what you are looking for in the future for yourself and interactive fiction?

I’m working furiously on Earth And Sky 3 in hopes of having it ready by the fall. Speaking of which, it’s been a lot of fun to spout off and I appreciate the opportunity, but I think I’d better get back to coding now…

Out of the Study by Anssi Raisanen [Comp02]

IFDB page: Out of the Study
Final placement: 24th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

A few years ago, I made up some vocabulary to describe a common aspect of IF. I’m not really sure if anybody else uses it, but I’ve found it immensely handy. The vocabulary is this: I call a noun that appears in a room description a “first-level noun.” These nouns either will or won’t have descriptions implemented, and the more of them that are described, the better, in my opinion. Nouns that appear in the descriptions of first-level nouns I call second-level nouns. Nouns from second-level descriptions are third-level, and so on. The deeper these levels go, the more complete and immersive the interactive environment, as we’ve seen in previous games like Hunter, In Darkness and Worlds Apart. Out Of The Study puts this technique to some of the best use I’ve ever seen, going very deep indeed with its levels of description:

> x family photo
In the photo you see the professor together with his family.

> x family
The professor is standing in the photo with his wife and five
children.

> x children
The photo is really rather old as the children in it are still very
young. You know that none of them lives at home anymore. On the left
there are twin boys, looking to be of the age at which they have just
started going to school. In the middle, the youngest child, just a
baby, is sitting in her mother's lap. It seems to be hardly one year
old: you cannot tell if it's a boy or a girl, even from the clothes.
[...]

> x baby
The baby, whose sex you are not able to tell, is dressed in a pink
overall.

> x overall
It is just an ordinary babies' outfit.

Given that OOTS is a one-room game, this depth of implementation goes a very long way towards making the environment feel real and interactive. Intriguingly, the point of this depth isn’t just to increase immersion; it’s actually an element of the game’s puzzles, and clues are often buried several levels deep. Enlightenment, from Comp98, explored this technique a little, but OOTS takes it much further.

This game’s puzzles are definitely its best feature. Like many one-room games, it has only a modicum of plot — you’re a thief who has been trapped inside the place you’re robbing, and you must investigate the environment to figure out how to escape. To do so, you have to figure out the mindset of the room’s occupant, and all the regular puzzles are subsections of that overriding goal. The design is generally sound, and I appreciated the fact that the environment was so richly implemented, but it would have been a lot more fun were it not so buggy. There’s a bit of an insect theme in this game, but actual game bugs are not welcome no matter how many metalevels of irony they provide.

Some of the problems may have been due to the ALAN parser; for instance, I found I couldn’t refer to objects by their adjectives, as in the following example where both a “torn photograph” and a “family photograph” are in scope:

> x photograph
[It is not clear which photograph you mean.]

> x torn
[You must supply a noun.]

Being able to refer to an object by any of its name words is a behavior I’ve come to love in IF, and I missed it a great deal during this game. Other things were clearly the game’s fault. For instance, “examine” and “read” were implemented as different verbs, but their implementation was not well-tested, resulting in exchanges like this:

> read books
There is nothing written on the books.

Hope you didn’t pay too much for those books, professor — they aren’t worth the paper they aren’t written on.

Between the game’s bugs, its quirks, and its lack of a walkthrough, I came thisclose to just abandoning it altogether. Happily, some folks over at ifMUD helped me get unstuck so I could reach the ending. Unhappily, that ending is a bit of a disappointment. OOTS succumbs to the temptation to tack on a rather cutesy “twist” ending, but my reaction to it was neither “awwwww” nor “whoa!”, but rather “huh?”

In my view, all that ending does is to make hash of everything that came before, as well as to make the player’s labors seem rather fruitless. I don’t even think it can be justified as bringing some sort of justice to the thief, because it’s unclear how much reality has actually shifted, or how much we are to assume about the game as a whole. There are some good puzzles and a very well-crafted setting here, and with a round or two more of testing and a better ending, OOTS could be a pretty good piece of IF.

Rating: 7.0

Colours by J. Robinson Wheeler as Anonymous [Comp01]

IFDB page: Colours
Final placement: 32nd place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

Colours comes out of an IF impulse I’m starting to recognize. The game has no interest whatsoever in story or characters, and instead uses the tools of IF to build a large, complicated, inhabitable puzzle. If Games Magazine had an interactive edition, this game might be included. I think it shares a kinship with games like Ad Verbum, or the less satisfying Schroedinger’s Cat, but I’m not sure what to call games like these — perhaps “plotless IF”, since they’re so unconcerned with telling a story.

I don’t think that quite covers it, though. Even the venerable Zork series could be considered plotless IF, given that its PC is a complete cipher, and that the game’s skeleton mainly exists to support a variety of clever puzzles, but I don’t think it’s in quite the same species as something like Colours. For one thing, one of the pleasures of Zork (and its imitators) is the wonderful landscape descriptions provided throughout. That’s in stark contrast to this game, where most of the rooms (at one point or another), are described along these lines:

Clear Room
The walls of this room are made of a sheer, shiny substance that is
neither wood nor metal nor plaster nor plastic. They have become
completely transparent. Exits lead north, east, south and west.

There’s a kind of purity to this aesthetic that Zork doesn’t even approach. It’s as if the game wants to provide the barest possible structure on which to hang its puzzles, and the puzzles themselves tend to be rather abstract exercises in pattern-matching. There’s another difference too: Colours (and games of its ilk) offers a cohesiveness that’s absent from more freewheeling games like Zork. The entire gameworld hews to a unified set of rules, and the puzzles tend to be variations on a theme — in the case of this game, that theme is (you guessed it) colors. (Well, there’s also a word theme, but that’s subservient.) This is the sort of genre to which Colours belongs, but I really need to come up with a name for it so that I don’t have to spend a paragraph each time I find one. Suggestions welcome.

Because I come to IF looking to be immersed in a story and a setting, These Sorts Of Games aren’t exactly my cup of tea, but I can still enjoy them when they’re done well. Once I recognize that the crossword has utterly defeated the narrative (in Graham Nelson’s terms) and adjust my expectations accordingly, I’m ready to indulge in the pleasure of pure puzzle-solving. Of course, what that means is that an entirely different set of expectations falls into place. Games whose sole purpose is their puzzles had better provide interesting challenges, problem-free implementation, and clear solutions in case I get badly stuck.

On many counts, Colours doesn’t disappoint. I found its puzzles entertaining for the most part, and found no errors in its prose. On the other hand, I also encountered one serious flaw that drastically reduced my enjoyment of the game. Without giving too much away, the problem is that there are some game states where crucial items appear to have vanished, when in fact they are present but totally undescribed. This sort of environment manipulation is a big no-no in IF — I’m relying on the text to present an accurate picture of the world, especially in pure puzzle games (hmmm, “pure puzzle games”… might work.) When it doesn’t, an element critical to pleasure in puzzling has disappeared.

I went through Colours twice, because due to the apparent absence of vital items, I thought the game had closed itself off without warning. When I encountered the same problem a second time, I trundled desperately over to ifMUD, where someone kindly told me that the items really are there, contrary to what the descriptions might have me believe. As a result of these travails, my experience in playing the game went from being a fun cerebral exercise to being an exercise in frustration.

The other area in which Colours didn’t quite come up to snuff was in the solutions it provided. Two bits of help accompanied the game: some vague hints appear when the player types HELP, and then a complete walkthrough exists as a separate text file. The problem is that the HELP text gives suggestions that are just flat wrong. In fact, for those who haven’t yet played the game, here’s my advice: ignore what the help text tells you to start with. You don’t yet have to tools to deal with that. Instead, start with exploration, and with a close look at the text on the game’s accompanying jpg image.

Then there’s the walkthrough, which is very helpful on some points, and not at all helpful on others. The walkthrough’s approach is to explicate the concepts behind the game, and to tell how to accomplish the puzzle goals, but not to provide a step- by-step solution. Consequently, due to the “hidden items” problem described above, I found myself staring at the walkthrough and thinking, “but how am I supposed to do that?” I certainly understand the impulse not to just lay everything flat in the walkthrough — I didn’t even provide a walkthrough with my own comp entry, a decision I’m beginning to fret about now — but the danger in not laying out a stepwise answer is that if there are problems in the game itself, the walkthrough becomes pretty useless. Luckily, this problem probably won’t be very hard to fix, and if Colours sees a post-comp release, it will probably end up as an enjoyable puzzle-box for those who like that kind of thing. In its present incarnation, however, I found that its charm faded quickly into confusion.

Rating: 6.5

You Are Here by Roy Fisher [Comp01]

IFDB page: You Are Here
Final placement: 25th place (of 51) in the 2001 Interactive Fiction Competition

I’m looking over the lists of comp games from past years, and I think I can say that You Are Here is the first comp game I’ve seen whose main purpose is to serve as advertisement. Sure, the “IF as ad” idea isn’t new. We’ve seen jokey endorsements like the wonderful Coke Is It!. We’ve seen bonus releases advertising new commercial games, as Zork: Undiscovered Underground did for Activision’s Zork: Grand Inquisitor. In the comp, we’ve even seen games that supposedly served as demos for their fuller, more epic, and (natch) as yet unreleased versions (e.g. And The Waves Choke The Wind or, in a somewhat different sense, Earth And Sky.)

You Are Here, though, is of a different breed. It’s a real promotion, and it’s not advertising a game, but rather a play — Trina Davies“Multi User Dungeon”. Of course, given that the play is taking place (or rather, “took place”, since I’m writing this review in October but won’t release it until the show has ended its run) in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada in early November makes it highly unlikely that I will be attending it. Hey, if it were showing in Denver, I’d probably buy a ticket. But an international flight for the sole purpose of playgoing isn’t exactly within my means, and I suspect the same is true for the vast majority of comp judges. Consequently, it could be argued that as an advertisement, You Are Here can hardly be anything but a staggering failure, so supremely mis-targeted it is. Thus, I can’t think it was entered in the comp with any particular hope of pumping up the house receipts for “Multi User Dungeon” — it must want to be evaluated on its merits as a game. Fair enough.

So what about it? Well, results are mixed. On the plus side, this game was obviously not just thrown together for the sake of media saturation. It’s a substantial piece of work, just about the exact right size for the comp. It uses a heretofore-unseen setting, simulating the environment of a MUD right down to emotes and the “who” command, and does a darn good job of it. Unlike our beloved ifMUD, this MUD is more in the hack-n-slash mode, a standard cliché-medieval environment in which you select your gender by choosing between wearing a “Barbarian loincloth” and a “Valkyrie breastplate.” It contains several entertaining moments, such as the couple whose hookup is spilling over from their MUD personas into their real lives, or the woman making a vain attempt to become one of the “Wizards” (i.e. coders) of the MUD before having spent a substantial amount of time there. Best of all, there’s an NPC companion who is a thoroughly entertaining replica of a typical MUDizen. I particularly enjoyed the things he’d shout out (like “Whodaman? Whodaman?”) when we’d win a battle. There was also one puzzle I really enjoyed solving — it involved a mix of experimentation, lateral thinking, and object combination that worked for me.

So much for the positives. The game is also burdened by a number of problems. There are typos and grammar errors sprinkled lightly throughout. There are bugs, including a Vile Zero Error From Hell that spits out a screenful of “Programming Error:” messages. Far worse than these is the game’s greatest sin, a sin of two parts. Part the first: the game closes off without warning — performing a completely standard action causes one of the puzzles, one most people won’t encounter until much later, to become unsolvable. This is bad enough, but it’s grievously exacerbated by part the second: You Are Here‘s “about” text claims that “it is impossible to get yourself into a situation where you cannot solve the game.”

Okay, bad enough to actually design a game this way, but to design it that way and claim that it isn’t designed that way? No, no, no — don’t do that! Granted, it’s possible that the problem is with the programming and not the design, but either way, I ended up floundering around for quite a while, sure that the game wasn’t in an unwinnable state because, after all, the game told me it wouldn’t be! Actually, it’s occurring to me at the moment that it’s also possible I just wasn’t clever enough to find out the alternate solution. If that’s the case, all complaints are retracted. But until I find out otherwise (and given that the game provided no walkthrough, it may be a while), my verdict stands: a clever, interesting game (especially for a promotional work), flawed by some minor errors, a serious design weakness, and a false claim.

Rating: 7.2

Ad Verbum by Nick Montfort [Comp00]

IFDB page: Ad Verbum
Final placement: 4th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Among Infocom enthusiasts, the game Nord and Bert Couldn’t Make Head Or Tail Of It doesn’t tend to get singled out for a lot of praise. It has its fans, sure, but rarely receives the hosannas granted to such works as Trinity, A Mind Forever Voyaging, or even Planetfall. Its detractors, on the other hand, can be extremely vocal and emphatic. Ironically, though, the thing its critics decry is in fact the game’s greatest strength: it is a near-total break from IF convention, setting aside adventuring and role-playing to focus instead on wordplay, puns, and cliches. A typical Nord and Bert puzzle asks you to type a spoonerism, cliche, or bad old joke into the command line, which the game will then recognize and advance the story for you.

Naturally, if you despise puns, or if you don’t know a lot of cliches, or if you don’t enjoy wordplay, Nord and Bert isn’t the game for you. Because I love language and have a pretty firm command of English idioms, I loved Nord and Bert, though I certainly found myself relying on the hints at a few points. Still, it’s not surprising that fans of Trinity-style IF find themselves caught short when playing the game — it’s nothing like any other Infocom game, or really any other piece of IF. Until now. Ad Verbum is very much in the spirit of Nord and Bert, but instead of focusing on English idioms, it focuses on the words themselves, having a ball with all manner of challenging restrictions on expression.

For example, there’s a room where every single word starts with “S”. I’m not kidding — every single word. Don’t believe me? Here’s the room description:

Sloppy Salon
Simple social space, sadly spoiled. Some skewed situation's sequel,
surely. Seemingly, slovenly students sojourned -- scraping,
scratching, scuffing surfaces.

Stuff: ... stainless steel stapler... sizable sofa.

Now, I’ve seen some amazing room descriptions in my years of playing IF, but this one just blows my mind. I can’t believe the sheer linguistic bravado of it. Not only that, the author performs a similar feat in four other rooms, one for the letter “E”, one for “N”, one for “W”, and another for “S”. Not only that, each room has customized library responses consisting of only words beginning with the appropriate letter. In these rooms, as you might gather, the game will only accept input beginning with the appropriate words — the challenge is to come up with words that tell the parser what you want to do while staying within the linguistic restriction. Keep a thesaurus handy while playing this game.

Just for these rooms alone, the game is a towering achievement. To come up with not just a room description, but actual library responses that make sense for all commands, in such a restricted form, is incredible. Beyond this, though, is the achievement in parsing — I shudder to think what this game’s code must look like. And those four rooms are just one part of the whole thing. Ad Verbum overflows with linguistic challenges of this nature, and I had a hell of a lot of fun playing it.

At least, I had fun until the time I typed in an answer that should have worked under the game’s rules, but which the game didn’t recognize. And there we have the danger of this kind of game. Its wordplay challenges are so mind-wrenching that when I do come up with an answer that works, the game had better accept that answer, or I’ll get frustrated very quickly. Up until about halfway through Ad Verbum, I found that it was very well prepared to handle anything I threw at it. However, as I moved to other puzzles, it started to reject perfectly valid commands, which caused me to lose faith in the game with distressing speed, despite how impressed I had been with it up until then. After that frustrating period, I turned to the help and didn’t try very hard to solve the rest of the puzzles, which is a shame because some of them were really excellent puzzles.

The problem is that because Ad Verbum requires such specific input, when it isn’t prepared to handle what little input is valid under its rules, it seems much more broken than does a typical IF puzzle when it rejects alternate solutions. I can’t say I blame it — frankly, I’m astonished by how well coded it is already, even despite what it still lacks — but that didn’t make my experience any more fun when the game was rejecting correct answers. Ad Verbum sets itself a highly bizarre challenge, bravely taking up the mantle of Nord and Bert. When it succeeds, it provides immense intellectual pleasure. When it fails, it generates great frustration, and helps me understand just a little bit more of what those Nord and Bert bashers are on about.

Rating: 8.6

[Postscript from 2020: Ad Verbum won the XYZZY Award for Best Puzzles, in a ceremony held on ifMUD. In accepting the award, Montfort gave the most astounding acceptance speech I’ve ever seen. I reproduce it here in full, from its archive on Montfort’s site:

Ahem, awesome! Author accepts an appealing award affably.

As author’s actions affirm, alphabetical arrangements always amused author. Assembling assorted arbitrary ASCII, ad absurdo, as adventure and acquisition, appeared attractive.

And accordingly, author attacked adventure, abandoning ars amatoria, abandoning athletic activity, appearing agonizingly antisocial. After arduous attempts and assays, author actualized adventure.

Accolade and adventurer appreciation authentically affects author.

Acknowledgement appears appropriate: author appreciates all assistance and aid, awfully. An acolyte (“alone,” as acolyte’s appellation asserts) accoutered abundant authentication aid, assuredly above average.

Author asserts again: acclaim’s absolutely appreciated. Adieu!]

Death To My Enemies by Jon Blask as Roody Yogurt [Comp99]

IFDB page: Death To My Enemies
Final placement: 29th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

I guess this is another ifMUD in-joke game. I make this guess partly based on my interpretation of the included readme file, which suggests that the majority of the author’s support came from MUD denizens, and partly on the fact that I recognize a very few references in the game, like “Eeagh!” and “Awwwk, want cork nut!”, as being from the MUD. I already talked about this kind of game in my review of Pass The Banana, so I won’t rehash all that here. I will say that the ifMUD in-joke game is rapidly climbing my list of least favorite competition entry genres. Right now it’s hovering just below the simulated-house and learning-Inform genres. I don’t know, I guess it’s funny if you’re in on the joke (though maybe not — not being in on the joke, I wouldn’t know one way or another), but to me it’s just really boring. There were some jokes that didn’t feel like they required outside knowledge, but I didn’t find them very funny. In addition, I can only believe that the solution to the game is another kind of in-joke, because I can’t see any logical way that players could come up with it on their own. This makes Death a slightly worse offender than Pass The Banana — at least the latter game was solvable for a MUD outsider. For outsiders to solve this one, they’d have to engage in quite a bit of random guessing, and spend a lot of time trying to do things with barely implemented red herrings. Being such an outsider, this is what I did for about 15 minutes before I gave up and looked at the walkthrough. I didn’t have fun.

Add to these flaws the fact that Death has quite a few spelling and grammar errors, and some really ugly formatting (the game seems to have an aversion to blank lines). Also factor in that the readme suggests that the game makes heavy use of “WHO IS ” and “WHAT IS “, but the game almost never seems to recognize such questions, responding instead with another irritating nonsensical reference. Did I mention that the solution doesn’t make sense either? Let’s not forget the fact that the game offers several objects to play with, but most of them don’t offer the slightest trace of interactivity. There’s a bottle that’s “not something you can open.” There’s an eggplant that’s “plainly inedible.” There’s a dustbuster that’s “not something you can switch.” The list goes on. Anyway, put all these things together and you’ve got one pretty tedious interactive experience on your hands.

The author announces that he plans to put out a “hopefully less buggy version of the game” after the competition is over. This is a good idea, of course, but I think that even after such a version emerges, it will only appeal to a limited audience. Basically, if you hang out on ifMUD a lot, you might enjoy it. If, on the other hand, you’re like me… you probably won’t.

Rating: 2.0