Murder at the Aero Club by Penny Wyatt [Comp04]

IFDB page: Murder at the Aero Club
Final placement: 16th place (of 36) in the 2004 Interactive Fiction Competition

My first clue was a line in the banner: “(With apologies to all real-life characters and Government organisations upon which this is based!)” Do I detect a faint scent of “in-joke game”? Of course, the dead giveaway came when I encountered a character with the same name as the author. So assuming that “Penny Wyatt” isn’t a pseudonym, or that it’s the pseudonym of somebody who really does belong to an Australian aero club, I’m going to venture the hypothesis that this is one of those games where the author implements some familiar setting and characters, drapes a little concept around them, and then releases it to the world. It’s a close cousin of the “implement your house” and “implement your job” games: the “implement your hangout” game.

The vast majority of the time, games like this are vastly entertaining to the lucky few who are acquainted with the people and places represented, and irritatingly baffling to the rest of us. Murder At The Aero Club is no exception, though its competent prose and the presence of an actual story (albeit minimal) render it a cut above many. One of the problems with games like this is that they assume too much. Because the setting is so familiar to the author, a kind of unconscious shorthand sets in, a failure to fully describe the world. Perhaps it’s difficult to take an authorial approach to things that are right next to you, especially if you’re trying to fictionalize them just a little.

Certainly, unconscious assumptions would help clarify why so few first-level nouns are implemented. Take, for instance, the first room description:

Car park
You are standing beside your car, parked in a small gravel parking area. Light streams onto the ground in patches, mottled by the shade of the gum trees high above. Surrounding you is an assortment of vehicles. A gravel path leads north to the front door of the clubhouse, while to the west stands a large maintenance workshop.

Here are the things I tried to examine: workshop, clubhouse, path, gravel, vehicles, trees, lot, and car. Here’s what was implemented: vehicles and car. The rest told me “You can’t see any such thing,” which seems awfully contradictory to what’s just been described to me. It’s very difficult to get a great mental picture of my surroundings when they seem so hastily sketched. Still, vehicles and car are at least something. Here’s what the game tells me about the vehicles:

The vehicles appear to belong to the various members of the flying club. Among the ones you can see from your position are a gleaming green Porsche, a dirty ute, a formidable-looking motorbike, and a dust-covered van. Many of the vehicles have “I Love Aircraft Noise” stickers attached to their windows. There’s also your little car, of course. It’s looking a little worse for wear after the gruelling eight-hour drive to get here.

You know what the game told me when I tried to examine the Porsche, the ute, the motorbike, and the van? Yeah, that’s right. I couldn’t see any such thing. The premise of the game is that you play a detective sent to investigate a murder at an amateur aviation club deep in the outback, but it’s hard to feel like a detective when you can’t even see huge objects all around you. Heck, I don’t even know what a “ute” is (aside from an Indian tribe and a joke from My Cousin Vinny), and I would have really appreciated a little description, but it wasn’t to be.

See, for this game’s real audience — the people it depicts and the people who know them — a description of those cars isn’t necessary, because those people already know what the cars look like. The PC is an outsider to the situation, and the game’s inattention to world-building certainly helped me identify with that excluded feeling, but I wasn’t even able to do the basic sorts of examinations a detective would do, which in the end wasn’t much fun, and didn’t really make much sense.

Plenty of things about the game don’t make a lot of sense, actually. The solution requires some pretty non-intuitive actions, though because the game is so sparsely implemented that I was still able to guess what it wanted me to do much of the time. It also introduces random, crazy crap from time to time, like the character who is seemingly able to drink jet fuel. When a game sticks with an otherwise realistic milieu and then throws in something like this, I just roll my eyes and disengage. If the game doesn’t care about its own world’s consistency, why should I?

However, there are things to like about MATAC. The detective PC carries a notebook to which the game automatically appends any relevant information that the PC encounters. This device is both useful and well-implemented. (Shades of Madame L’Estrange And The Troubled Spirit, another game set in Australia with an investigative PC who carries an automagically-growing notebook.) The prose is clean and clear, and the game is free of horrible bugs. Mind you, there are still plenty of run-of-the-mill bugs — discoveries that can be repeated ad infinitum, dialogue that repeats weirdly, and so forth. I’d guess that MATAC is untested or minimally tested. Still, if you’re a member of the club it parodies, you’ll probably have a great time with it. If you aren’t, I’m afraid I can’t recommend it.

Rating: 6.0

Prodly The Puffin by Craig Timpany and Jim Crawford [Comp00]

IFDB page: Prodly The Puffin
Final placement: 35th place (of 53) in the 2000 Interactive Fiction Competition

Prodly The Puffin is, according to the authors, “a second-generation parody of a cartoon that has long faded into obscurity.” That is to say, it’s a parody of a parody of something that no longer exists. Actually, to be precise, it’s an IF adaptation of a parody of a parody of something that no longer exists. What this means, as I learned in the course of playing the game, is that unless you have quite a bit of context, the whole thing is going to seem totally incomprehensible.

To their credit, the authors seem aware of this, having some fun with players’ confusion in the hint system and even quoting the sentiments of a certain Sage of IF about wandering around in somebody’s “ill-conceived, cobbled-together, inside-joke universe.” They also provide a brief explanation of the game’s cast of characters and include a comprehensive menu-based hint system. In addition, the game offers a second, less direct hint system: you can “ASK ME ABOUT” most any subject and receive a response that might be helpful. Of course, Prodly being what it is, the response probably won’t be helpful, since chances are it won’t make any more sense than anything else does.

After the game is over, the authors reveal not only their actual names, but also the URLs for their web comic Prodly The Puffin, and for Pokey The Penguin, the web comic that theirs spoofs. Curious, I visited the Pokey site, and actually thought it was hilarious, in a very bizarre kind of way. The Pokey comic is one of those strange web artifacts that is unbelievably bad that it’s actually really funny. It looks like it was done by a third grader using Microsoft Paint, and is littered with scribbles, crossed out words, and weird unidentifiable things.

Its plots (such as they are) tend to veer in bizarre, arbitrary directions and end quite abruptly. Its dialogue is written in all caps, and sometimes uses point sizes (or strikethrough) for emphasis. Nonetheless, I found its unexpectedness was excellent humor fodder, and some of the dialogue was so random that it actually made me laugh out loud. (Little Girl: “POKEY THESE ARE PLUMS! I WANTED ORANGES!” Pokey: “THAT IS THE PRICE OF LOVE”.)

Prodly The Puffin, the web comic, is the authors’ parody of Pokey, and I found it less interesting, mainly because Pokey itself is so off-the-wall that it’s difficult to parody. Prodly ends up being less funny because it’s more polished and self-aware. However, I feel quite sure that I would have enjoyed the game quite a bit more if I had seen both Pokey and Prodly before I started playing. When I encountered Prodly and the other cast members of the IF game, they just seemed totally baffling and in-jokey to me. Now that I have the context of the web comics… well, ok, they still seem totally baffling and in-jokey, but at least now I have visuals to go along with them.

Consequently, I’d urge anyone who wants to play this game but hasn’t done so yet to check out the web sites I mention above before playing. It’s not that they’ll give you a fighting chance of understanding what’s going on, because understanding what’s going on is not what Prodly (the game) is about. It’s more of an attempt to capture the completely bizarre style of Pokey, its careening plots and desperate lack of quality. How successful it is I’m not sure, because I played the game before I knew anything about the web comic, and therefore experienced it all without being able to understand its point.

Because of this circumstance, I didn’t have much fun. The whole thing just kind of went past me, capital letters, outrageous violence, and all. Since I rate the games based on how much fun I had experiencing them, Prodly unfortunately can’t rate very highly. However, I am grateful to it. It pointed me to Pokey, and Pokey has been cracking me up all day.

Rating: 2.8

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

Erehwon by Rick Litherland as Josiah Pinkfoot [Comp99]

IFDB page: Erehwon
Final placement: 11th place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Erehwon reminded me of a Saturday Night Live skit I saw years ago. I don’t remember the details very well, and no doubt somebody will step in to correct me, but the basic premise was something along the lines of a group of people who wrote a numbered joke catalog, and when they’d get together for their annual convention, they’d just sit around and say things to each other like “Hey, number 534!” and then roar with laughter. Wandering through Erehwon, I felt like an outsider at that convention. There were plenty of inside jokes, some of which seemed to be oriented towards residents of the U.K., though of course, I couldn’t tell. Even the walkthrough would occasionally say things like “If this doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry about it.” OK, whatever. But it wasn’t even so much the inside jokes that made me feel like an alien visitor as much as it was the heavy emphasis on mathematics and geometry. For me, a game that says “the dual of a Platonic solid!” means about as much as a game that says “Hey, number 534!”

Erehwon seems to make a basic assumption that the player will find things like dodecahedrons and Hamiltonian circuits interesting, and that assumption led me to suspect strongly that I’m not part of the target audience for this game. Am I confessing to some sort of failure to reach the proper heights of geekdom here? (And I mean “geek” in the positive sense, let me hasten to add.) I know a lot of IF devotees approach it from the Computer Science side, and could sit endlessly enraptured in discussions of, say, non-Euclidean geometry. I’m not one of them. I come more from the Lit. side, and could sit endlessly enraptured in discussions of, say, feminist theory and postmodernism. There is an appearance by Stanley Fish, the namesake of a prominent literary critic and advocate of a theory of reading which fits in particularly well with IF, but the game never gave much indication that it recognized the allegiance. Or if it did, it sailed over my head along with many of the other references. For these reasons, Erehwon underwhelmed me, not primarily through any specific fault of its own, I think, but just because we’re not a particularly good match.

However, I do have some complaints that stem specifically from my viewpoint as an IF player. Heading the list of these is a huge maze. Again, I recognize that this is probably my own prejudice, but I just don’t like mazes. I don’t care how mathematically cool they are — I still don’t like them. Now, in fairness, I must point out that the game does provide for a couple of solutions which obviate the need to map the maze. However, as a player I had no way of knowing that without reference to the walkthrough, and therefore ended up spending much of my first hour of Erehwon gritting my teeth and trying to map this giant maze. You might contend that I should have understood that mazes without alternate solutions are simply unacceptable in modern IF and looked harder for the alternate solution, taking it on faith that one existed. Maybe so, but I find that I can take very little on faith in comp games — after all, I would think that proper spelling and grammar would be de rigeur as well, but plenty of games lack those basic ingredients (not that Erehwon was one of them.)

Besides, the path to those solutions is blocked by the other problem puzzle in the game, a puzzle which echoes one that appears in Trinity, but enlarges it for no clear reason. The main problem with this puzzle is that it violates one of the basic tenets outlined in Graham Nelson‘s classic Player’s Bill of Rights: not to have to do boring things for the sake of it. Indeed, a winning session will involve several trips through this puzzle, each of which entails ten moves at the very least, and it’s not at all clear that the size of the puzzle adds anything positive to the game. Aggravating the situation, the puzzle also has a rather arbitrary solution, at least so far as I could tell, and following any other track will get you hopelessly lost, making the whole thing into the basic equivalent of yet another maze.

It’s clear that there is a crystalline and beautiful mathematical philosophy behind each of these puzzles, but for me as a player, the translation of those philosophies into interactive fiction was awkward and unsuccessful, an ambitious washout. Much the same could be said for an alternate mode of navigation with which the game experiments. I tried it for a bit, and indeed was forced to use it at a couple of points in order to solve puzzles (puzzles that seemed arbitrarily constructed to require the alternate navigation method), but avoided it much of the rest of the time. I did appreciate the irony, though: in most games, the objection to the compass rose approach to navigation is that you don’t have a compass. In Erehwon you actually do have a compass, but are nonetheless forced to abandon compass-rose navigation at several points. I thought that was pretty funny. Indeed, there are lots of funny moments in Erehwon, one of its main strengths being its humor. Most of the inside jokes were past me, but there were quite a few funny moments that required no special knowledge to enjoy. For instance, this exchange with the parser:

North Boulevard

On both sides of the so-called boulevard (more of a dirt track) is an
impenetrable ferret.

Did I say ferret? I meant forest. It's stoatally impenetrable.

As I laughed, I was reminded of some of the funnier moments in Hitchhiker’s Guide, where the parser momentarily rears up to take on a personality, using its trusted status as the reliable narrator to pull the rug out from under us and make us laugh at the same time. Those of you who’ve played Hitchhiker’s will know what I’m talking about. Those of you who haven’t: Hey, number 534!

Rating: 5.4

Pass The Banana by Admiral Jota [Comp99]

IFDB page: Pass the Banana
Final placement: 33rd place (of 37) in the 1999 Interactive Fiction Competition

Ooooo-kaaaaay. This must be what Sins Against Mimesis felt like to people who hadn’t read the IF newsgroups. Pass the Banana, near as I can tell, is a little collection of in-jokes originating on ifMUD. I’m basing this conclusion on the fact that the one location in the game is an Adventurer’s Lounge. I certainly recognize that from ifMUD. The three characters in the game are a giant flaming head, a monkey, and Melvin the Robot. These ring faint bells for me. I think I’ve seen some of those things on ifMUD once or twice. The nine objects were all, well, bananas. I’ve never seen any bananas on ifMUD, but hey, where there’s a monkey… I’m not a very frequent visitor to the MUD, though, so my associations with these things are very tenuous indeed. You start out the game with nine bananas, and the object seems to be to get rid of them all. As the title suggests, you can’t just drop them or throw them — you have to pass them to the other characters in the room. So I passed all my bananas and won the game with a rank of “Master of All Bananas”. I even managed to get that Last Lousy Point, one of the few things in the game whose joke made sense to me.

The game, for what it is, is well-implemented. There are a number of funny responses which require no inside knowledge to enjoy. For example, the room description mentions that seating is plentiful, but when you try to sit down, the game tells you “It may be plentiful, but it’s also only scenery.” Once the bananas get going, there are a myriad of random responses for each character, including an array of each for passing, receiving, and attempting to eat bananas, as well as whiling away the time. I found no bugs, at least not as far as I could tell, though in a situation like this it’s difficult to tell what a bug is. For example, this sentence kept popping up: “The giant flaming head 712 looks bored.” Now, that looks to me like some garbage numbers in the middle of the sentence, but then again the whole scenario is pretty meaningless to me, so for all I know 712 could be a reference to yet another ifMUD joke. Ho ho ho. I can say for certain that I saw no grammar or spelling errors in the game.

I did my riff on in-jokes when I wrote my review of Sins Against Mimesis in ’97, so I won’t revisit it in depth now. Basically, the good thing about in-jokes is that they strengthen the sense of community that comes from shared reference points. The bad thing is that, to an outsider to that community, the in-jokes feel like closed gates, whose guards snicker, “We know something you don’t know!” It was interesting to experience an in-jokey IF game from the perspective of the outsider, especially since I’m someone who considers myself a member of the IF community. The experience underscored my growing understanding of the effects that the ifMUD has had. The MUD has done a lot to bring the community together, including providing realtime hosting for the XYZZY awards and the Implementor’s Lunches. However, it has also attracted a subgroup of IF devotees, people who apparently hang out on the MUD for great swaths of time and discuss whatever comes to mind. This group has developed its own dynamic, its own references, and in some cases even its own cant. It’s not a group I ever see myself being a part of, since I don’t have a great deal of spare time as it is, and that which I devote to IF goes to SPAG or my own work in progress (or to writing long, boring reviews of tiny little comp games). Plus, the lure of hanging out on the MUD is so seductive that I know I can’t let myself get hooked, lest it become a huge suckhole of my time. So I guess I’m not going to get those in-jokes anytime soon. Perhaps someone could offer translation services, or provide a key with the explanations (such as they are) behind ifMUD in-jokes? If this doesn’t happen, I guess I’m doomed to further confusion, as mysterious missives continue to emanate from the Adventurer’s Lounge.

Rating: 2.5

[Postscript from 2020: Mike Roberts (the creator of TADS) wrote a hilarious review of this game for SPAG, including the memorable line, “Other games in this year’s competition might have more plot, more puzzles, or more elaborate settings, but none have more bananas.”]

Sins Against Mimesis by Adam Thornton as “One of the Bruces” [Comp97]

IFDB page: Sins Against Mimesis
Final placement: 9th place (of 34) in the 1997 Interactive Fiction Competition

Few things are more unfunny than an in-joke that you’re not in on. On the other hand, an in-joke that you are in on can be hysterical, as it provides not just the pleasure of humor but also the feeling of community that comes from shared experience. Sins Against Mimesis is definitely a very in-jokey game, and consequently not for everyone. However, having been a longtime (since 1994) lurker and sometime participant in the rec.*.int-fiction newsgroups, I was part of the audience at which the game was aimed, and I have to admit that I found a lot of the in-jokes really funny. In fact, one of the most fun parts of the game was to play name-that-reference — kind of the IF equivalent of listening to a World Party album or a Dennis Miller routine. Of course, the nature of the game (and the fact that it was written pseudonymously) also invites us to play guess-the-author. I’m casting my vote for Russ Bryan. I’m not sure why — something about the style just struck me as a little familiar and rang that particular bell in my head. Or maybe it’s just a masochistic desire to humiliate myself publicly by venturing an incorrect guess. I’ll find out soon enough, I suppose.

If you haven’t played much IF, and in fact even if you haven’t spent much time on the IF newsgroups, most of this game is going to mean very little to you. Even its title is an allusion: to Crimes Against Mimesis, a well-crafted series of articles posted to the newsgroups by Roger Giner-Sorolla (whatever happened to him, anyway?) a year or so ago. The rest of the game continues in that vein. The opening paragraph alludes to Jigsaw. The score of the initial part of the game is kept in IF disks which magically pop into the player’s inventory every time a correct move is made. In some ways, this familiar, almost conspiratorial approach is a weakness. Certainly in the context of the competition it won’t endear Sins to any judge who stands on the outside of the privileged circle at which the game aims itself. Even for an insider, the constant barrage of “if you’re one of us, you’ll know what I mean” references can start to feel a little cloying. However, the game is cleanly coded and competently written, and on the first time through I found it quite entertaining.

There aren’t many games which I would highly recommend to one group of people and discourage others from playing, but Sins is one of them. If you’re an raif and rgif regular, I think you’ll find Sins quite funny and entertaining. If not, forget it. It’s bound to be more baffling and irritating than anything else.

Prose: The prose is generally somewhere between functionally good and rather well done, with occasional moments of brilliant hilarity. The best one has to be when the game is in “lewd” mode and the player amorously approaches the plant: “Your embrace becomes hot and heavy and you surrender to the delights of floral sex.” An LGOP reference and an extremely bad pun at once! Can it get any better?

Plot: The plot is based around several clever tricks which are quite funny at the time, but aren’t worth repeating. If you’ve already played, you know what they are, and if you haven’t played yet I won’t give away the jokes. Like the rest of Sins, the plot is funny the first time through but won’t wear well.

Puzzles: Actually, this was the weakest part of the game. Many of the puzzles can be solved by performing extremely basic actions, which of course hardly makes them puzzles at all. Others, however, depend either on extremely specific (and not well-clued) actions or on deducing something about the surroundings which is not included in object or room descriptions. For a game so adamantly self-aware, it’s ironic that Sins falls into some of the most basic blunders of puzzle design.

Technical (writing): I found no mechanical errors in Sins‘ writing.

Technical (coding): I found no bugs either.