Snatches by Gregory Weir [Comp05]

IFDB page: Snatches
Final placement: 8th place (of 36) in the 2005 Interactive Fiction Competition

Snatches is a very ambitious game whose reach ultimately exceeds its grasp. It’s got some great things going for it: a compelling structure, vivid writing, and powerful drama. Unfortunately, it also has an uneven and railroady design, and it’s generally underimplemented, lacking the commitment to fully execute on its premise. Consequently, I kept wanting to be engaged by the game, but generally ended up frustrated instead.

The game starts off immediately arresting, with a distinctly IF version if in medias res — the parser prints out the response to the command it was just given, albeit not by the player: “Taken. The scotch inside the glass glows golden.” I thought this was quite cool, and only later did I realize that it also sets the stage for the lack of choice to come. Turns out the game does not want to let you leave the room until you drink that scotch. I tried to avoid it, because I’m contrary like that. I spent lots of time examining things, including some curtains which seem to just be hanging on a blank wall, because when I tried to examine the window I was told I couldn’t see any such thing. I tried to smash the glass, but was stymied. I tried pouring out the scotch but the game didn’t know the word “pour.” I tried another tack:

>empty drink
You toss the scotch back, and it burns as it goes down. Now you're ready to head to town.

Ha! If only Inform had printed “[into yourself]” that response would have been perfect. Anyway, having alcoholically unlocked my prison, I moved into quite a large landscape — a manor house with lots of rooms and hallways. I explored all over, but most things seemed pretty locked and deserted. Still, I wandered around examining and moving things for about 30 minutes before concluding that the game was patiently waiting for me to do the one thing that would results in my character’s demise, and that there was nothing else I could do.

So I did that thing, the character died, and things got wilder – suddenly I was another character, seeing the aftermath of another just-completed command. The same pattern played out again, but with much less exploration this time — I stumbled into death pretty quickly. Then it happened again, and again, and again many times over, a different character each time. The game’s writing really shone in these sequences — it very deftly employed the multi-POV IF trick of describing the same set of locations in completely different ways to illustrate a character’s viewpoint. Brief as my encounter with each character was, I frequently found myself caring about them, and that’s down to the strength of the writing.

Sadly, that was also what made the game frustrating, because there seems to be no way to save any of these characters from their fate. So the game continues repeating the pattern of thrusting you into a PC’s shoes, making you care about that PC, then disposing of the PC. Well after it’s clear what’s going on, it’s also clear that there’s no fighting it, even though the game also jumps around in time, giving you (what would logically be) opportunities to prevent the whole thing from happening, if not for the fact that the parser curtly shoves back at any attempt to do so. In this process, I kept trying things that made sense from a world-modeling point of view, but just weren’t implemented, much like that absent window in the first room. I couldn’t even SCREAM. (Really, a horror game that doesn’t implement SCREAM?)

So the experience of the game is of failing over and over, until you finally get incarnated into the one character who has any real agency. By that time, with the various frustrations of the game having piled up, it’s pretty hard to care anymore. I somehow found myself able to kill off the scary menace that had picked off all my earlier selves, but it felt like a pretty pyrrhic victory. I then followed the walkthrough to a different ending, which was also pretty unsatisfying. Maybe there’s an ending out there that lets you revive the victims and see the sunrise on a hopeful new day, but after struggling against the game’s tight restrictions for a couple of hours, I really didn’t feel like seeking it.

Rating: 7.6

Ramon and Jonathan by Daniele A. Gewurz [Comp02]

IFDB page: Ramon and Jonathan
Final placement: 36th place (of 38) in the 2002 Interactive Fiction Competition

Since classical times, stories have opened “in medias res.” This phrase, Latin for “in the middle of things”, refers to a narrative that begins during some crucial piece of action, filling in the background and the preceding events sometime later. Ramon and Jonathan fulfills the former part of this bargain, but never the latter. The game drops us into some sort of science-fictional scenario where some (maybe) criminals are being exonerated, or extradited, or something, and suggests that we’re not happy with the situation. Then there’s an unintuitive door-opening puzzle, a bit of quick noun-guessing with an NPC, and then it’s over. We never learn the backstory behind who did what to whom and why, who lives on what planet and how they got there, or who any of these characters even are.

Because the first (and really only) puzzle didn’t make any sense to me, I turned to the walkthrough in record time, but even after I had walked through the game, I still didn’t really get it. As I always say in these situations, that may be because I’m dense, but egomaniac that I am, I’m more inclined to believe that the game did an insufficient job of explaining itself.

Not helping matters was the fact that the prose is written in not-quite-fluent English. It’s not terrible, mind you — many of the sentences pass muster without a problem, but those that don’t are really jarring. For instance:

>x people
The audience has been waiting for years this moment, and is mostly
greatly disappointed for the two "hangmen" to have been virtually
cleared. Everybody rumble and yell.

The first sentence is almost up to snuff, if only “years” and “for” exchanged places — it would still sound awkward and clunky after that, but would at least be grammatically correct. The second sentence sounds stereotypically, almost laughably wrong, as if it were written for a Bronson Pinchot character.

You know, I’ve said this before: I don’t care whether English is your first language or not, but I do care about fluency and readability. If you can’t write fluent English, either don’t write a text adventure in English or make sure to have your text adventure thoroughly proofed and corrected before inflicting it on the world. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but if you want to produce something good, you simply must make sure the writing works.

It’s also a good idea to fully implement everything you put in your game. Ramon and Jonathan, short though it is, is poorly equipped to handle any deviation from its plotline. Anything outside the bounds of the walkthrough is handled in one of two ways. The first method is simply to end the game. This happened to me on my first half-dozen playthroughs — either because I walked in a disallowed direction or because I failed to solve the timed puzzle, the game abruptly kicked me to the curb and told me to restore or restart. Restarting wasn’t terrible, because I’d invariably just played a few moves anyway, but the frequency of the situation made it clear that there wasn’t much room to wander.

The other, much worse method that the game uses to handle players that leave the path is to simply do nothing. At one point, I wandered into a room with no less than five NPCs, all of whom may as well have been statues for all that they responded to me. Eventually I figured out I must be doing something wrong because my current situation was so amazingly dull. This does not make for a fun game — utter boredom shouldn’t be the tool that forces players to comply with the plot. So finally, I restarted, hit the walkthrough, made the required twenty moves, and the game ended. Or rather, if an ending implies that everything has been tied up and some sort of dramatic conclusion has been reached, it’s probably more accurate to say the game stopped.

Rating: 4.3